Communication best practices for today’s challenges
After more than 19 years in a variety of supply chain roles at Procter & Gamble, Sara Harrison made the move to the world of higher education six years ago. Upon starting her new role, one of the first things a colleague at Princeton University shared was the type of wisdom you don’t forget: “You just traded the stress of corporate America for the frustration of higher ed.”
What Harrison, who today is Executive Director for Procurement and Payable Services at the University of Dayton, learned over time was that in many ways, the work is the same, but communication is different.
“I quickly learned that there are several root causes like organization design and temperament, to name a couple,” she says. “Learning how to ecommunicate in a way that drives university decisions and impact will enable universities to adapt to changing times and to meet student and parent expectations.”
Similar to every company, everywhere, the procurement side of the higher education sector has had its share of challenges. With the fallout from a three-plus year (and counting) pandemic still sorting itself out, life on the supply and demand side of the business can be daunting at times. But regardless of the circumstances, Harrison says that communication has always been a critical element to achieving supply chain excellence.
“The way we communicate is evolving due to the variety of ways we receive information and the amount of information we must process,” Harrison says. “Setting priorities and clear expectations is tricky in the midst of change. In a time where focus at work is increasingly important, staff and faculty are distracted with balancing caregiving for others and self-care outside of work. Many employees in institutions of higher ed are actively searching for new jobs and may not be putting their best efforts into their current job. The amount of information is overwhelming and many of us are shutting down.”
In today’s unpredictable landscape, unreliable supply chains mandate better planning, including risk assessment and contingency plans. In addition, staffing shortages and the strain of onboarding new employees is another obstacle supply chain professionals face because it is impossible to be anticipatory without experience.
“The fire drills feel like whack-a-mole for experienced employees across all sectors, leaving less time available for improving processes, building relationships and developing staff,” Harrison says.
Why communications matters
As any higher education professional will admit, standard work processes and visual cues that simplify mental bandwidth take time to develop in changing times. In the absence of formal and informal communication strategies, each conscientious employee must make a judgment call and determine ways to reinforce communication.
Amid the spate of today’s growing administrative responsibilities, employees are recommending different ways to receive information and communicate with each other. With email inboxes growing in numbers and virtual meetings becoming more of the norm, finding the right balance is critical.
The bottom line is that good communication leads to better outcomes. And with headwinds in higher education, it is critical for internal and external communication to be tight.
It is something that Jaime Hunt understands well. During her time as Miami University’s Vice President and Chief Marketing Communications Officer, Hunt provided strong leadership in the transition to a more centralized communications model. Along with successfully overseeing the development and launch of a new brand platform, she provided sound strategy in the development and implementation of a student application generation and yield campaign that attracted the largest first-year class in the institution’s history.
“I think communications has always been critical, but in today’s fast-paced global economy, a spotlight has been shone on its importance,” says Hunt, who became the Vice President for University Communications and Chief Marketing Officer at Old Dominion University in the Fall of 2022. “Communications have played an important role in managing and addressing the challenges that have come with a worldwide pandemic and its social, political and economic impact. Leaders are now seeing the value of communications in not only sharing information but in driving audiences to take desired actions.”
Today, tasks that were once easy now are significantly more complex due to supply chain issues and staffing shortages, which makes effective communications vital. Higher education leaders must be flexible and ready to pivot. Whether facing supply chain issues or staffing shortages, being ready for new challenges that could disrupt a university’s plans is more prevalent than ever before.
“People expect a greater level of transparency from their leaders and from the organizations they follow,” Hunt says. “Better communication should lead to better employee engagement. Better employee engagement should lead to a better sense of belonging. A better sense of belonging should lead to better retention.”
The culture factor
In the end, communications start with culture. Higher education leaders must create work environments that enable their employees to feel in control, safe and needed. To do that, their teams need to know how best to find information and how decisions are made. For example, HR policies must allow managers flexibility to respond and address individual employee needs. Messaging must be consistent and cohesive with the culture.
The key is to be intentional about your communications strategy. Define what should be communicated and how (meetings, systems, email). Consider creating communication job standards that include what information is important to each audience, how best to communicate with those audiences and what outcomes are expected.
“Said another way, stop defaulting to email and copying all,” Harrison says. “The basics around communication have not changed. Focus on facts and focus on outcomes. Good planning at the start helps to reduce confusion and improve engagement. More than ever, I am asking, ‘What is the problem statement?’ or ‘What is the decision that must be made?’ As soon as this is clear, the goal is to understand choices, impacts and recommendations. Ultimately, the quicker and more holistically this information comes together, the more we can accomplish.”
Some of the most important things college and university procurement departments can do is place a higher value on supply chain design and modernize supply chain communications. Whenever possible, visual feedback must be integrated into every task and decision. The amount of information calls for tools that enable quick processing and indicators to compel good choices.
“Imagine being able to influence each individual purchasing decision to incorporate your university’s mission-related priorities like environmental sustainability, supply diversity or buying local,” Harrison says. “For many universities, this data exists today.”
Like other schools, at University of Dayton, suppliers add symbols to items in online catalogs, and university supplier management teams add symbols to each supplier record to assist campus purchasers with more information. Most purchasing decisions are more complex, and purchasers do not fully understand whether they are maximizing value for the university. When provided more information, thoughtful decision-makers want a clear policy to balance all benefits.
“At UD, a cross-functional team exists to determine ways to systemically drive better procurement decisions,” Harrison says.
Along with building more effective supply chain systems and transparency, Harrison says one of the most effective strategies is the easiest of all. “On a personal level, as expectations change, I find myself being more careful of word choice and message tracking, more comfortable to admit I do not have the answers and more open about my own communication missteps.”
In a time of escalating and constant change, honest communications is always the best place to start.