I support the centralization of web operations in higher ed. Decentralized website management poses too many problems which centralization can alleviate. But gaining support for it poses problems within a system historically based on a decentralized system. One of those hurdles is the perception that a centralized approach kills the ability to market a school effectively. I say that’s nonsense.
Selling the general ideas about centralization is easy. Most people will see the utility and efficiency that a global site experience promises for both visitors and internal maintenance personnel. The problem comes when the idea is fully explored and all of its implications are brought to light. For some people or groups, the thought of sharing a single visitor experience with the rest of the university is a deal breaker. The art department doesn’t want to look like the business school, for instance. That’s a perfectly fine and logical way to feel, but it’s beside the point. Let’s explore why.
I argue that within a centralized system you must align the site’s organization and navigation based on audience type: prospective students, current students, employees, etc. This approach will force you to ask certain questions. For prospective students, one such question is “does an 18-year-old think in terms of department, school, college, and division names or in terms of subject matter?” Based on my research, the answer is subject matter (after all, high schools work this way). This suggests that the best method of navigation is therefore by subject matter, not individual unit names. And again, research shows this approach does indeed work well when tested. Given this exercise, the issue is not that the art department looks like the business school. That’s irrelevant because we’re not offering a navigation system that compares one department against another. Instead, we’re offering a navigation system based on subject matter and I think we’d all agree that individual degree programs shouldn’t have individualized brands. So, we can now conclude that a single visitor experience does not pigeon hole or force any internal group to act or be represented like any other group because we’ve abstracted that perspective away for a better one.