Communication engines on college campus

Productivity-boosting technology platforms to adopt and embrace for higher ed team communication and workflow

We hear a lot about communication and collaboration technology in the classroom, but higher ed administrators are using apps and platforms behind the scenes as well—to help create efficiencies, increase productivity, and manage projects and workflow.

Here’s a look at how some institutions are making the most of productivity tools, both within and across departments.

The George Washington University

A+ Tool: Slack, a mobile app with a desktop version that helps save email inboxes for external communication

Cost: Free, with options to upgrade to paid subscription

Sidebar: 3 more team tools colleges can try

Conversations need to happen over the course of a project, but when teams are split between separate floors or different buildings, it can get complicated, says Jon Hussey, managing director of digital marketing strategy.

“You might send an email to three people to get an update on something, but with meetings, it could take all day for the person who has the answer to get back to you.” Slack doesn’t contribute to a cluttered inbox, and the messaging is more instant than email.

Even internal collaboration had been clunky at times. “I have two web editors who manage social media day-to-day and we were constantly in group chats, which were cumbersome and didn’t allow us to share images or files easily,” Hussey says.

Slack, which integrates with other productivity tools such as Dropbox and Google Drive, became the perfect platform for instant feedback, to share files, and to avoid the back and forth of email or unnecessarily time-consuming meetings, says Hussey.

Sidebar: 3 best practices for colleges

Adoption: Hussey created a private Slack group for his digital team two years ago.

Within a month, they were sending 100 to 200 messages per week via the platform, but unlike with email, the messages are kept together for easy reference within a particular project channel and notifications can easily be turned off during intense work times or in the evening.

After a year or so, Hussey and the school’s creative director launched a larger Marketing & Creative Services group, which currently has about 43 conversation channels, ranging from inspiration and idea sharing to discussions on specific projects and “just for fun” topics.

Slack use has expanded in other ways, such as with a 50-plus member group for managers of social accounts for the various schools, colleges and offices across the university.

Users discuss best practices, provide weekly information about events being promoted, and share user-generated content or graphics the various teams have created for social media, says Hussey.

“That, plus the fun injected into our communications with custom emojis and the constant use of gif’s has helped everyone adopt the platform quickly.”

Cool tool use: When Hussey’s team first started using Slack, it happened to coincide with the in-house redesign of the main university website. Hussey says, “We had a channel for the project and I think we would still be trying to get the site finished if we didn’t have the constant communication in Slack.”

Lawrence University

A+ Tool: WorkZone, a project management system mainly used by creative teams

Cost: Fee based on number of primary users, size of organization and number of projects per year

When Craig L. Gagnon, associate vice president of communications, began working at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, he was surprised a project management system wasn’t in use.

With approximately 1,000 projects running through the department per year, he knew (based on his background working at creative agencies) that efficiency could be improved.

“There are so many moving pieces and parts in any given project, and often many people involved,” he says. “A system means there is less opportunity for mistakes and confusion.”

Gagnon suggested implementing WorkZone, a system he had used in previous jobs, and the university gave him the green light. “It allows us to keep track if someone makes a change in copy. It gets documented, time and date stamped,” he says.

The system eliminated the disorganization and paper pileup that results when relying on a stack of project folders. “WorkZone helps the team to prioritize, see what’s due, what’s coming up and what needs to have their attention,” says Gagnon.

What’s more is that the communications team no longer has to be the annoying department that bombards others with gentle reminder emails—the system takes care of all that.

Adoption: Everybody in the Office of Communications, including the design and print production teams, use WorkZone almost daily, says Gagnon. In addition, any departments that request a lot of projects—such as admissions and the alumni office—have become regular users of the system.

Cool tool use: “For people who have many other things to do, and for whom a communications project is not part of their everyday workload, it can be very easy to forget that they have a deadline to either update or approve something,” says Gagnon. WorkZone, which alerts users via email when due dates are approaching, helps ensure that nothing gets lost in limbo.

The University of New Mexico

A+ Tool: Cherwell, an IT service management platform that streamlines campus tech support

Cost: Fee based on number of concurrent IT users

The IT department of The University of New Mexico handles all sorts of troubleshooting questions and update requests from the various departments across the university—from enrollment management and admissions to the registrar and financial aid offices.

Without a strong platform to manage all of that activity, there was often infighting as to which IT team should handle a request, resulting in frustrated customers and longer resolution times.

“When I first came here, teams weren’t necessarily working on the right thing at the right time,” says Tammy Jo Martinez, director of customer support services for university IT.

The Cherwell platform has helped break down siloes within the IT team. “If we have internal debate as to who needs to resolve an issue, the customer doesn’t know,” says Martinez. “We’re presenting one face, one group.”

Adoption: About 25 percent of tickets from throughout the university system (including the flagship campus in Albuquerque, New Mexico, UNM West in Rio Rancho and four branch campuses) now come through Cherwell. That has helped cut down on phone calls, plus resulted in streamlined workflow, says Martinez.

Cool tool use: If connectivity anywhere goes down, Cherwell automatically sets up an “event.” So if networking is out in one building, for instance, Cherwell kicks off a workflow that sends a communication to IT leadership.

“Before people can call and say, €˜I can’t get on the internet,’ the CIO will have a networking team on site,” says Martinez.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

A+ Tool: HipChat, a group chat and screen sharing platform

Cost: Free, with an option to upgrade to a paid subscription

With a department consisting of 40 people spread across three different spaces around campus, communication was tricky, says Tyler Thomas, social media and content manager at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“A lot of us used different ways to connect. We tried Google Chat, but not everyone had Gmail. Then there were different groups who might not check email every minute. We needed a way to get in touch to get quick answers.”

The web team had been using HipChat for quick check-ins that didn’t require an email, so when it merged offices with the communications and marketing teams, use of the platform spread quickly.

“Conversations are threaded,” says Thomas. “We’re able to keep track of conversations and get feedback from multiple people versus trying to dig back through email. It is also mobile-friendly for those who aren’t at their desks.”

Adoption: While Thomas personally interacts with about 10 to 12 people on HipChat daily, he says there are about 140 users campuswide.

Cool tool use: HipChat works seamlessly with other technologies. Thomas says, “If the design team sends a mock up, I can play a video file, and I can see a gif actually animate—unlike email, where you have to open up attachments and wait for programs to load.”

Barry University

A+ Tools: Microsoft Planner, a project management tool, and FindTime, a meeting scheduler

Cost: Free with Microsoft Office 365 subscription

Although the Division of Information Technology at Barry University in Miami had designated project management software, the tool didn’t always accommodate rapid action and quick communication, says Hernan Londono, associate vice president for technology and CTO. This often caused snags in workflow.

Since the school was already paying for a Microsoft Office 365 subscription, in September 2016 Londono’s team began experimenting with two of the included tools, Microsoft Planner and FindTime.

Planner is a scaled down version of project management software, and FindTime schedules meetings. Both tools help communication flow easier in their own ways.

Planner keeps users up-to-date on project status and next steps using charts and checklists, and it allows for real-time comments and questions to keep tasks organized. And FindTime is configured to auto-schedule meetings (and send a calendar invite) once all parties select a time that works.

In other words, it now takes minutes instead of hours for multiple people to find a free block of time.

Adoption: At first, just the Division of Information Technology was incorporating the tools into their workflow on an ad hoc basis, but usage is on the rise even though it isn’t mandated, says Londono. “The increased use is likely the result of very positive feedback by those who use it.”

Of the two tools, FindTime has had the faster rate of adoption (about 75 people across multiple departments use it now), since it allows them to bypass administrative assistants for coordinating meeting times.

“Prior to FindTime, this task took multiple emails and phone calls back and forth before consensus could be reached,” says Londono.

Cool tool use: For the past eight years, Londono has headed up an annual financial audit for his department, using spreadsheets, emails and uploads to SharePoint, among other tools.

That changed this year when he used Planner. “I managed 72 tasks assigned to a team of eight people from multiple units, from multiple divisions,” he says. “The system handled it all—task assignment, progress monitoring, email communication, as well as documents submission.”

Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, New York-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.

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