We’ve taken a shared approach to managing our campus app. Here’s why

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By Education Today

Posted on April 5, 2022


7 min read

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Building and maintaining an app is an IT project, but it’s also a communications project. We’ve solved this dilemma through distributed governance.

By Craig Biles

As the manager of UNCG Mobile, our mobile campus app at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, I have two bosses.

On paper, my supervisor is our university webmaster within the Information Technology Services (ITS) division. But, I also report informally to the senior director of University Communications.

Not only do I have two bosses, but I also divide my time equally between these two business units. My job is a split position, funded 50 percent by ITS and 50 percent by Communications. I literally spend two days a week in one department and three days a week in the other.

Having one foot firmly planted in each department makes perfect sense to me, because managing a mobile campus app requires both technical knowledge and marketing savvy. However, in talking with colleagues at other institutions, I’ve come to realize that my situation isn’t the norm on most campuses, but rather the exception.

Few colleges and universities use a shared governance structure for managing their mobile campus app. Admittedly, this type of arrangement can be challenging to pull off. But here’s why I think it’s a good idea — and why other institutions should consider this approach as well.

Close coordination is key

The idea for shared governance of our mobile campus app came from our vice chancellor of strategic communications, who was an associate vice chancellor at the time.

He understood that the university needed someone to help us get branded mobile content out to our various constituencies in an expeditious way, which would require the communications and ITS teams working closely together. He figured that the person leading these efforts should operate fluidly within both worlds. If the initiative resided within ITS, for instance, then getting support from Communications might be problematic — and vice versa.

Before joining UNC Greensboro, I worked in the health care sector, where I had done something very similar — serving as a liaison between the IT department and non-technical users within the marketing department of a hospital system. Because I had experience in both IT and communications, I was a natural fit for this dual-role position at UNC Greensboro.

Even the executive decisions about our mobile campus app are made jointly. Early on, we developed a Web and Mobile Operating Committee to help guide our work. The committee is co-chaired by the vice chancellor for strategic communications and the associate vice chancellor for learning technology and client services in ITS who oversees all customer-facing technology. All of the major departments on campus have a high-ranking official on the committee, such as Advancement, Student Affairs, and even Athletics.

Often, you’ll see a lot of excitement about the launch of a mobile campus app, and then a “set it and forget it” mindset kicks in. Nobody comes back and updates it, and so the app never grows or takes on additional value. We didn’t want that to happen to UNCG Mobile — and we believe the governance model we have set up is critical to our app’s continued success.

Developing the app

In developing our app, we began by researching what other campuses were doing and establishing our priorities.

One of our requirements was that it couldn’t be a one-trick pony. There are plenty of apps that connect to a campus ERP or course registration system to display academic and financial information, but we wanted our app to do other things as well. For the app to have the most value for students, faculty, and staff, it had to enhance their campus experience in very practical ways — such as by showing the capacity and wait times for dining, laundry, and other services.

We also didn’t want something that required a lot of coding and specialized IT knowledge to build or update. We didn’t want ITS to become a bottleneck in getting new information out to stakeholders. Instead, we wanted what we call a “low-code, no-code” solution.

In addition, we wanted our app to support distributed authorship. In other words, we wanted the ability to grant access and assign roles and permission to other departments easily, knowing that ITS couldn’t be the gatekeeper for all content. We don’t necessarily know what’s going on in the other departments; we need liaisons to help us. If we could empower other departments to push out information through the app, then we could be more timely and accurate with our messaging.

We started a campaign within the organization to explain why we needed a mobile app. We chose Modo Campus as the platform for our mobile campus app, and we used examples of what Modo could do as part of our information campaign. We presented our vision for a mobile campus app to the chancellor, to the chancellor’s council, and to department heads.

As a result of our campaign, we very quickly got buy-in for what we hoped to do. Our next step was to work with each department to designate a liaison who would take ownership of the information we distributed through the app. Then, we came up with a plan for how to roll it out to all constituencies.

Because we had selected a solution that met our “low-code, no-code” criteria, we were able to get the first draft ready for review in a couple months. When we returned to the chancellor’s council to show them where we were with the project, one of the comments was, “well I think I’ve been in higher ed too long. When you proposed this I didn’t expect to see anything for a year or more!”

Bridging the culture gap

Giving ITS and Communications equal ownership of our app has worked out well for our institution. When we tell our story, people will often say things like, “Oh, that’s so smart — I wish we had done that. We can’t ever get the marketing folks to call us back.” Or, “We can’t get ITS to implement the ideas we have.” Because I work for both departments, there is never a problem coordinating tasks between them.

What’s more, it helps to have someone who is well versed in both storytelling and “geek speak” managing the campus app. There’s a difference in culture between ITS and Communications, and things can get lost in translation. Because I understand both perspectives clearly, I can help explain them in terms the other group will understand.

A good example is push notifications. We can send out highly targeted messages to different personas who have downloaded the app, such as students, faculty, alumni, or prospects. However, there is natural tension between the needs of communications staff — who are trying to get messages out to stakeholders quickly — and ITS staff, who are sensitive to spam and don’t want people deleting the app because they’re receiving too many notifications. Because I’m in both departments, I can help ensure a balance between these competing interests.

The mobile app teams I’ve talked with at other institutions are much more effective when they have strong collaboration between the communications and technology departments. I see this time and again — and those who don’t have this type of relationship are envious of those who do.

Although the model we’ve adopted at UNC Greensboro isn’t the only way to achieve this working environment, we have found that shared governance of our mobile campus app makes coordination between IT and communications much easier — and the proof lies in our success.Craig Biles is the Digital Design and Mobile Communications Developer for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.