Improving communication in schools and other large, complex organizations.

Published February 5, 2021.

When it comes to Customer and User Experience (CX / UX), I’ve always believed that no experience is more important than the first.

In most cases, that first experience involves communication, content, or marketing. That’s why I love this Ask Dave question I received from a community college administrator:

“How does a large organization create and organize information in a consistent and timely manner for distribution to a broad audience?

“Specifically, as a community college, how do we synchronize communication to new and returning students amongst multiple departments that offer a wide range of programs and services?”

I’ve done a lot of work for schools, colleges, and universities over the years, so I can tell you this friction is very common — and I have plenty of well-informed things to say about it.

First, let’s recognize that this dilemma isn’t unique to community colleges. It’s also common in K–12 schools, universities, governments, and large companies. Basically, any large, complex organization that has multiple departments and offerings, plus a diverse customer base, is likely to struggle with these kinds of communication and CX / UX issues.

Why? In a word, bureaucracy. Large and complex means more people and more silos — and that leads to disconnects, competing interests, inefficiency, and lots of time spent herding cats.

But there’s another B-word that separates schools from businesses, thus adding another point of potential failure:


While a large company can usually afford to hire numerous marketing, design, and software development professionals, schools are lucky to have a handful. Many have zero.

Which leads to an inevitable question:

Is this problem even solvable?

Theoretically, yes, but let’s be honest:

Most schools will never solve it because there are a number of structural issues inherent in academia and government (beyond budget) that are really difficult to overcome.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You just need to understand this problem isn’t really about communication.

It’s about culture change.

That’s a harder issue to address, but it’s important to recognize because, if you’re working on the wrong issue, you’ll solve nothing at all.

To understand why this is really about culture change, let’s start at the ideal solution and work backwards:

In a perfect world, all the academic and administrative departments at a school should collaborate and have a standardized process for creating and submitting information into a centralized communication “hub.” From there, the info should be packaged and distributed in a personalized and relevant way for every student (and parent, if applicable):

A journey map showing 5 departments sending info through the central hub to 5 different students, 1 with a disability.

How do we make this perfect world a reality?

It requires four critical components:

  1. The right software, configured properly
  2. Enough of the right people, empowered to do their jobs
  3. A well-designed strategy and process
  4. Quality leadership across the entire organization

Let’s examine these one at a time so you understand why they go wrong, and how we can change the culture to make them go right:

1) The right software, configured properly.

When I talk about a centralized communication hub, software obviously plays a big role in today’s world.

The good news is, plenty of great software platforms are readily available, including options for text messaging, email marketing, calendars and events, website content management, learning management, and more.

Yet many schools either:

Why does this happen? Let’s start with the “wrong software” issue.

There are some legacy software systems that are a nightmare to implement and use — yet schools and large orgs seem to buy them again and again. As I see it, this is due to a mix of “we’ve always done it this way” thinking and inflexible procurement processes.

The procurement aspect is particularly troublesome. You can’t purchase complex software using the exact same process used to buy simple commodities like copy paper. When you do, important technical details fall through the cracks, and it becomes a race to the bottom (ie: lowest bid).

So, culture change lesson #1:

Think outside the box, both in terms of what software platforms you use, and how you buy them. Work with your procurement teams to create smarter, more flexible processes for procuring the best software platforms, not just those with familiar names or the lowest initial costs. Otherwise, you may miss out on an innovative upstart with a superior solution that’s more cost effective over the long run.

And what about the “right software, wasted potential” issue?

Well, they’re called software platforms for a reason. They’re literally foundations that you have to manually integrate and build upon — and if you don’t do this correctly at the start, they’ll never work properly.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a surprising number of people in both government and academia who don’t seem to understand this. They somehow believe that, once software is purchased, it configures and runs itself, like magic.

Newsflash: It doesn’t. Instead, it takes people, and that brings me to critical component #2…

2) Enough of the right people, empowered to do their jobs.

Software is merely a tool, and just like a hammer, it serves no purpose if nobody picks it up and uses it. Worse, if somebody uses it who doesn’t know what they’re doing, they can do a lot of damage.

That’s why the other, more important aspect of a centralized communication hub is hiring enough of the right people. Specifically:

Yes, this requires a lot of people. Given budget constraints, how can schools possibly do this?

Culture change lesson #2:

If you can’t raise new funds, then you’ll need to creatively reprioritize, reallocate, and reassign some of your dollars and people. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s really the only path forward. Some possibilities:

Also, culture change lesson #3:

Remember that the PIO model is both externally focused and based on the pre-Internet need to “control the message” and route everything through the news media. The problem is:

  1. While external marketing is important, you also need to helpfully communicate to internal students and staff. Otherwise, they won’t have the info they need, and you’ll end up with a situation like the one comically depicted on humor website XKCD.
  2. While media relations is still needed, it’s not the be-all and end-all it used to be due to massive shifts in culture and technology over the last 20 years.

As a result, you need to make sure the people you hire to complement your PIO are modern marketers and communicators: very tech savvy, yet very human centered. Just one example: They should be skilled at creating content for social media and the web. That’s very different than journalistic / media relations writing (or academic writing, for that matter) because it’s far more informal and conversational, plus it requires an understanding of search and social algorithms to achieve greatest reach.

Bottom line: Your communications team will thrive if it consists of both traditional and modern skill sets, and everyone is empowered to do what they do best.

Ultimately though, it’s not enough to have people. They need a plan, which brings me to…

3) A well-designed strategy and process.

Let’s be clear about something:

Earlier, when I talked about customizing your software, I wasn’t referring to superficial things like choosing a color for links and buttons.

Instead, I meant sophisticated customizations — things like workflows and tags, which can enable powerful automation and personalization.

For example, imagine being able to push a targeted message just to freshmen. Or just to chemistry majors. Or just to potential students who attended last week’s open house.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? It can be — but only if you plan for it in advance.

That means, before you even purchase your software, you need to develop a thorough strategy and process for how this new communications system will actually work in the real world.

And by real world, I’m talking about practical organizational and human considerations. For example:

Culture change lesson #4:

A technical workflow inside your software is only useful if it reflects the real-world needs and realities of your school and its people. That’s why you need to start with a human-centered, collaborative, strategic effort that involves key players across the entire campus (both staff and students). You can’t force it on them, and you can’t merely ask for their buy in — they need to be co-creators of the strategy and process.

And you’re probably going to need a bit of outsourced professional help to make this happen. Researchers can determine student preferences via surveys, interviews, and analytics. Also, CX / UX and communications professionals can make valuable contributions through their expertise in content strategy, object modeling, and journey mapping.

But really, everything I’ve talked about so far is dead on arrival without critical component #4…

4) Quality leadership across the entire organization.

No doubt, leadership and management issues are the single greatest threat to the success of any initiative — far greater than budget or anything else. And I’m not just talking about schools because leadership is critical in every type of organization.

For example, there are situations where middle managers and their staff have incredible ideas, but upper management is either very top-down, aloof, or they simply don’t “get it.” As a result, the ideas die because they don’t have the high-level backing needed to succeed.

And in academia specifically, let’s be honest: there are sometimes big egos and major political hurdles to navigate.

There isn’t an easy fix, but culture change lesson #5:

You need to set the tone by being the best leader you can possibly be (even if you don’t technically have a management title). Treat people the way you would want to be treated. Ask questions. Listen. If you’re not strong in specialized topics like technology, marketing, or CX / UX, learn more about them, and know when to defer to the expert who is.

And if you’re in middle management specifically, you may need to manage up and sideways. If your top-level managers and middle-management peers aren’t getting it, reframe the project in a way that resonates with them. Make it crystal clear what’s in it for them, and how it will strengthen the organization.

Need a helping hand with your CX / UX and communication efforts?

I have a lot of experience tackling difficult digital transformation and communication problems for schools and other complex organizations, so I know what it takes to make your efforts successful.

If you’re looking for a leader and strategist to help move your org forward, let’s chat because I’m currently available for hire and seeking my next career opportunity. Please visit for a summary of my skills and qualifications, plus testimonials, case studies, and contact info.