Business as unusual

By Barney Brown, Head of Digital Communications, University of Cambridge

June 4, 2020 

Working for a University since 2008 has taught me that the ebb and flow of Digital Communications is expected to match that of term times rather than calendar years or financial years. In reality there has never been any ebb, perhaps because the University of Cambridge’s digital presence totals at least two thousand websites containing millions of web pages. Collectively these pages serve the needs of students, applicants, researchers, members of staff, the media, interested members of the public and beyond.

Trying to make sense of this digital estate, and how it can be improved to enhance user experience, simplify the maintenance of it and protect and promote the brand is at the heart of a five-year programme of work: The Digital Presence Programme. The focus of the programme, who was going to work on it and the scope of it were agreed and green lit just before the Coronavirus hit. That left the board running it with a dilemma, pause the work or prioritise it? As a co-leader of the programme alongside Kate Livingstone (a leader in User Experience at the University) we strongly advocated pushing forward.

Practically nobody at the University can avoid interacting with digital channels in one shape or another in order to work through their days, and that has meant an explosion of new content, adding to the mountain that already exists. So we’ve agreed to continue and in fact accelerate the work as much as we can. Principles that we had already started establishing around content strategy have been put to practice straight away in areas of our site like the Coronavirus pages, and a push to analyse and prepare for better uses of Intranets and collaboration tools has become a race.

At the core of the five-year programme is the idea that we assess what we have, what our audiences are and where they are, and how we can better use external vs internal channels, public vs private content. Our existing setup at the University has understandably resulted in nearly all content, irrespective of intended audience, appearing on monolithic public facing websites. These are now being audited and assessed. Do people always need new websites for new projects? In nearly all cases, the answer is no. Is a website, or conventional web pages the best solution for a problem? Increasingly not.

We are challenging ourselves to question the need for the over two million web pages that make up What purpose do they all serve? How can we maintain them all? How can they be better designed to work across multiple devices, interact with authoritative sources of data, and bring in new audiences? All of this in an environment which rightly devolves the act of creation and publishing of content across hundreds of departments.

Now could have been the perfect opportunity to pause and take stock of a programme like this and question its relevance in the face of financial and practical pressures, but in reality we need it to start flying now more than ever. The approaches and processes we’re adopting to develop the programme are changing and evolving on a weekly basis which feels positive.

When we finally get back to our physical offices the work will continue in this new normal, and in truth I think the programme and all of us will benefit from it.

 *Barney Brown is one of the speakers lined up for CIPR East Anglia’s postponed 2020 Best PRactice Conference.