Digital lessons from Harvard

Dr Miao He is Digital Editor for Internationalisation at the University of Bath and has recently published a series of blog posts about a week-long visit to Harvard University. We asked Miao about her role at Bath, how she organised the trip and what she took from it.

UatW: You have ‘Internationalisation’ in your job title. What is the focus of your work at Bath?

This is a brand new role which I took on in late 2014. University of Bath really values the importance of raising its international profile to overseas audiences through building a strong digital presence.

My role is to lead the planning, creation and delivery of digital products and content in order to raise the University’s international profile. I work closely with a team of web developers, designers and content producers to create and deliver products via our digital channels to support the University’s International Strategy.

UatW: What attracted you to Harvard? What made you think of visiting them?

Harvard has always been the best practice in web design and content creation for us. In the meantime, we have put so much effort into building and developing a new Content Management System in order to devolve publishing and improve the quality of content. Therefore, this was perfect timing to share knowledge and experience with our counterparts at Harvard.

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UatW: Visiting another digital team for an extended period of time is a great idea. How did you convince Bath that it was worthwhile?

University of Bath always encourages its members of staff to pursue such opportunities and learn from peers, both in the UK and abroad. I am very lucky to be able to receive support and sponsorship from the International Relations Office.

UatW: How did you identify who you wanted to spend time with during that week?

My role at Bath is very diverse and I work across multiple departments. So I planned to meet colleagues from various sectors at Harvard.

As I mentioned earlier, I often see Harvard’s storytelling as the best practice as an Editor. Hence, visiting the Harvard Gazette team and learning about their approach to storytelling is a very important and inspirational part of the trip.

Also, Harvard is a very decentralised institution. It’s really interesting to learn how the central digital team and the school teams operate on a day-to-day basis, as well as how they collaborate with each other.

UatW: What similarities did you find between the digital work at Bath and at Harvard?

Our Bath Digital team is currently developing a new Content Management System. We just released the Beta in early September. The new CMS aims to devolve the publishing and empower lead publishers in departments and services by making publishing much easier and more fun. Harvard shares the same value in terms of building CMS. They spend more time working on the back-end than the front-end, as they’ve realised how important to make publishing a good experience for users so they can concentrate on producing high quality content.

UatW: What were the differences?

At Bath, we are delivering our content strategy using an agile approach to digital content. Unlike waterfall-led approaches, we deliver incrementally throughout the project, instead of at the end. That means, discovery, design, development and testing are continuous processes.

As a multidisciplinary digital team, our designers, developers and editors truly collaborate and focus on delivering the work with high quality. This management system also allows us to make decisions based on data and iterate often.

UatW: It seemed from your Day 1 report that the central Harvard team take a very hands-off approach to the implementation of their guidelines by the decentralised Schools. Do you think that model is a good one?

I think so. Producing clear guidelines can not only save the time for classroom training, but also help establish a consistent voice across the whole university website, especially for a decentralised institution. Using guidelines to achieve consistent and unique user experience is key to building and maintaining a successful brand. Guidelines are one of the things we’ve put a lot of effort into developing. We believe it’s a great investment!

UatW: The Harvard Gazette team were keen to stress the importance of storytelling. Do you think that an international audience needs a different approach to storytelling? Can the same content address all audiences?

I don’t think it is necessary to amplify or rewrite every piece of content for international users. Telling a good story is the top priority. There are many ways and channels to approach audiences, for instance, social media. The same story can be syndicated through multiple channels to highlight its relevance to different users.

User journey is another very important element to consider when telling stories international users. There are stages where content targeting users from specific regions or cultures can enhance the relevance to them and result in better user experience.

UatW: What do you most admire about Harvard’s digital effort?

What I admire most about Harvard is that digital storytelling is in their DNA. Without an exception, all the sectors I’ve visited understand and implement digitisation into their brand strategy. Having this mindset is crucial to presenting Harvard with a very clear sense of identity. This is particularly important for a decenralised and complex organisation.

UatW: It’s still early days of course, but is there anything that you’ve brought back to the UK already from the trip and implemented into your work here?

There is certainly a lot for me to digest after the trip. One of the things I’ve learnt and I am practicing now is to constantly think about finding the relevance and connecting users on social media, instead of creating new content every time when I try to post something.

Billy

Billy

Web Manager for the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham.

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