Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Communication in reform

Do not let a good idea founder on the rocks of criticism that there has been inadequate communication. A communications plan will not guarantee success, but the lack of one will certainly make failure much more likely. Be inclusive, be open to the views of others, and be strategic.
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"They don't communicate."

This is doubtless the most common complaint about administrators and heard from faculty and staff at all sorts of institutions from coast to coast. It is certainly true that this complaint sometimes means something quite different. Not infrequently, it is used as a substitute for, "I do not like what I heard from them." In such cases, the complaint really assumes that "to communicate" means "to communicate a message I approve." Most often, however, the criticism is valid, and the circumstances that led to it were avoidable by carefully considering the variety of constituencies who will believe they should not only have been told what was to happen, but should have been actively consulted about it.

All too often, an administrator about to make a change fails to think through and put in motion a communications plan as an integral prelude to and part of the change. Developing and carrying out such a thoughtful communications plan is important, in particular, if a significant change in pedagogy or curriculum is contemplated. In the process of making such a transformation, there is a lot of communication needed at all stages, with different levels of intensity, and of varying breadth and scope as the process proceeds. I am assuming here that there has been enough preliminary involvement with faculty and other administrators to have led to the formulation of a fairly specific but not yet detailed final proposal. At such a point, a rather formal communications plan becomes essential. And the plan should be in place prior to an actual decision to proceed with change, because once a decision is announced, communications can spin out of control if there is no thoughtful plan for those communications.

Such a plan needs to reflect the particular campus culture and tradition. What the institutional history has been will influence the way people receive the idea being proposed, and the traditions of communication and consultation will play an important role in how messages are heard. Following are some suggestions regarding such a plan, assuming that a well-conceived idea for change has been at least tentatively formulated in a way that will have credibility in the campus community.

1. Think of communication as a two-way process, not a one-way street. In beginning to develop a communications plan, remember that communicating involves not only speaking and writing but also listening. Major institutional change is threatening, dislocating, and stressful. Listening to concerns (some of which are actually valid), hearing objections (some of which are substantive), and being willing to shape the final proposal to take these into consideration are important parts of communicating and need to occur sooner rather than later.

2. Gather data relevant to a final shaping of and making a decision to implement the change. Part of any successful communications plan is preparing a knowledge base that anticipates any questions or criticisms by assembling the data or other information in advance. It is hard to be too specific about the data and information needs without knowing the nature of the particular change contemplated. As examples, information should have been collected about the experiences (both processes and outcomes) of similar institutions that have instituted a similar change. There should be plenty of information about student patterns of enrollment, persistence, achievement, and interest. There should be accurate data about faculty workloads, perceptions, and positions now open and anticipated to be open. There should be careful projections of financial needs and implications.

3. Carefully consider all the people who will be - or who will think they will be - affected by such a change. Some of these constituencies are crucial to the decision about and successful implementation of a major educational change. Certainly, faculty in affected departments are key. Among the others are faculty, chairs, and deans in user departments; curriculum committees; teaching assistants and lab assistants who may have changed responsibilities; financial officers (including development staff) who will have responsibility for funding the change; and admissions staff who recruit students and provide liaison with high school teachers and faculty. There are others who will certainly feel they should know and perhaps have been consulted: the board of trustees, public relations staff, employers of graduates, student advisory committees, career counseling centers, alumni of affected departments, and donors who have given to the areas affected or have an interest in these departments. Make a comprehensive list, and categorize the groups by the urgency of communication and nature of consultation desirable.

4. Pay particular attention to faculty in affected departments. Some may be hostile because they feel their contributions are not being appreciated or that their teaching style or philosophy is being rejected. The various strengths of faculty need to be honored where possible, improved in a nonjudgmental way if necessary. It may seem too large an investment of time, but there is no substitute for personal conversations with faculty in their offices and laboratories.

5. Develop a communications plan by making a time line of needs and opportunities for consultation and communication with each of the constituencies who will be affected by the change. In each case, anticipate questions and objections, and review the data gathered to be reasonably sure there are no potentially embarrassing gaps. Decide who should do the communicating, recognize that this will probably vary by the audience and the topic. In general, as long as the messages are consistent, it is probably better to have more people rather than fewer involved in the communicating.

6. Test your tentative plan in three ways. First, look at an organization chart or telephone directory of offices for your campus. Be sure no important unit has been omitted from the plan; if in doubt, include it. Second, review the plan with all those directly involved in making a decision about whether to proceed. Has anything been left out? Finally, contact a trusted colleague at another institution, preferably one who has undergone a somewhat similar change. Ask that person to critique your plan with you.

These suggestions should help avoid a number of potential pitfalls. But if an unexpected obstacle arises, as it often does, try not to be defensive, admit any mistakes you have made, apologize when necessary, and keep a sense of humor, especially about yourself. Finally, be willing to modify the communications plan itself if you discover a gap or a problem. Just as with the proposed change itself, a modification is not usually a sign of failure but an indication of healthy flexibility and willingness not only to listen but to accept suggestions.

Do not let a good idea founder on the rocks of criticism that there has been inadequate communication. A communications plan will not guarantee success, but the lack of one will certainly make failure much more likely. Be inclusive, be open to the views of others, and be strategic.

Melvin D. George is president emeritus and professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Missouri, Columbia and president emeritus of St. Olaf College.

Reprinted with permission from Building Robust Learning Environments in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: New Directions for Higher Education #119. Jossey-Bass. September 2002. Click here to order a paperback copy of this book.