Why universities should care about employee web pages

Earlier this year, I wrote about my 23 tips to improve your web presence. Those tips were meant to encourage academics to care about how their employee web pages look at universities. Such pages look different from university to university. Still, in most places, they contain an image and some standard information on the top, followed by more or less structured information further down. For reference, this is an explanation of how my employee page is built up:

My employee page at UiO contains both standard and customized elements.

Arguments for why universities should care

Academics need to be visible online. If you don’t publish and disseminate your research, it won’t have an impact. So it is in our own interest to have up-to-date personal pages with information about what we do. I would argue that it is also in the interest of universities that their employee’s personal pages are up-to-date and look good. My argument goes like this:

  1. The people are the most important asset of a university
  2. The web is the most important dissemination channel
  3. Hence the employee pages should be the most important part of a university web page

For some reason, this appears to be a radical statement. In my experience, many universities think of the employee pages as a “phonebook.” It is a static page with minimal information about how to get in touch with the employee. There is often a template for the page, including information about educational background. Sometimes there is also information about courses taught and research output. But rarely does it contain much more stuff. There also seems to be little institutional interest in maintaining and improving such web pages.

The employee page is an important research infrastructure

Last year, I wrote in the UiO newspaper about considering the university’s web pages as a research infrastructure. In my experience, the web pages of a university are maintained by a communication department. They have one opinion on the purpose of the web pages: communication with students and the general public. I agree that these are the largest user groups of our web pages. But, in addition, we need to remember that researchers also communicate with other researchers.

Research communication is not the same as researcher communication. The former is dissemination activities targeting the broad public. The latter is based on ongoing intellectual exchange with research colleagues around the world. In my experience, communication departments care mostly about the first category. It is typically the role of university libraries to care about the other. Unfortunately, not many librarians are involved in the making and structuring of web pages. In my opinion, they should be.

Web pages as part of the transition to Open Research

I have previously written about why Open Research is better research and why I prefer Open Research over Open Science. In this context, I would mention that I believe university web pages, particularly employee web pages, are key to making a full transition to Open Research. Yes, we should focus on making publications Open Access and datasets FAIR. That should happen through proper repositories with unique IDs, and so on. However, the ambition of moving towards Science 2.0 goes beyond only opening the research results. We also need to open the various parts of the research process. Then I am thinking about the various building blocks of Open Research, as sketched in this figure:

The building blocks of an Open Research ecosystem.

The various parts in this ecosystem will live in different repositories and be scattered around the web. In my thinking, a person’s employee page is the place to gather all this information. It can serve as the hub of an academic’s activities.

Empowering the academics

It is in the interest of universities to provide their employees with the tools needed to store, share, and link to their research material. Many universities don’t seem to care too much about this. The result is that many employees don’t care either. Those who care will make their own solutions. Many set up private web pages with their own domains. Others use one of the social media sites for academics. These sites have understood how to make it fun to add information. It is a pity that universities don’t do the same.

At UiO, we are fortunate to have the possibility to edit the content of our personal pages. There are still things that could improve our system, and I regularly nag both the IT and communication departments about those issues. Still, I am fortunate to work at a university that empowers its academics with the possibility to update their own information. That is not the case in all universities. Some universities don’t allow employees to modify anything at all. I think that is a bad idea. It is bad for the employees, the university, and the transition to Open Research.

To all university leaders out there: how do you work with your university’s employee pages? To all academics: remember to update your personal page! And if you are not allowed to, ask your leaders to give you the tools and access to do so.

Music Moves on YouTube

We have been running our free online course Music Moves a couple of times on the FutureLearn platform. The course consists of a number of videos, as well as articles, quizzes, etc., all of which help create a great learning experience for the people that take part.

One great thing about the FutureLearn model (similar to Coursera, etc.) is that they focus on creating a complete course. There are many benefits to such a model, not least to create a virtual student group that interact in a somewhat similar way to campus students. The downside to this, of course, is that the material is not accessible to others when the course is not running.

We spent a lot of time and effort on making all the material for Music Moves, and we see that some of it could also be useful in other contexts. This semester, for example, I am teaching a course called Interactive Music, in which some of the videos on motion capture would be very relevant forĀ  the students.

For that reason we have now decided to upload all the Music Moves videos to YouTube, so that everyone can access them. We still encourage interested people to enroll in the complete course, though. The next run on FutureLearn is scheduled to start in September.

Universities as a matrix organization

As Head of the Department of Musicology for the last four years, I have been acquainted with the inner workings of the University of Oslo (UiO). Before, I mainly looked at the university from the perspective of a researcher and educator. Now I have been involved in issues at all three “levels”: department, faculty, and central. I have also collaborated a lot more with all parts of the administration: studies, research, IT, economy, communication, archive, and HR. In general, I am impressed by what is going on “behind the scenes”. But there are also some challenges with the way things are currently organized, which I believe hinders progress. In this blog post, I will elaborate on some of these topics.

A “silo’ed” organization

UiO is a so-called research-intensive university and organized in the same ways as many similar universities. This includes a central level (Level 1), faculties (Level 2), departments (Level 3), and in some faculties, formal research groups (Level 4). We do not have any Level 4 units in the Faculty of Humanities, although we do have more informal research groups scattered around.

The faculties and departments have been more or less the same for quite some time. In the beginning, there was only Theology and Law, but nowadays, we have all the faculties that one would expect: Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Medicine, Social Sciences, and so on. And, of course, the Faculty of Humanities, that I belong to.

Each of the faculties is organized into departments, usually around 5-10. At the Faculty of Humanities, we have 7 departments after merging many smaller departments in the early 2000s. We only have two small departments that consist of only one discipline: Musicology and Media and Communication. That is if you think about Musicology as one discipline. In some ways, that make sense. After all, everyone in the Department of Musicology studies music in one way or another. But except for that, there are huge differences between the various subdisciplines.

This three-level organization (central, faculties, departments) is in many ways effective. A tree-based organization is a classical structure. It allows easy communication lines between the Rector and the Deans, who can talk to the Heads of Departments again. The base funding is flowing similarly. The money is coming in centrally and is being spread to the faculties and departments. It follows “the line”, as we say.

I had experienced some of the challenges with “the line” before I became Head of Department. For example, if you ask for help from IT, you need to follow your line. That is fine if you have a clear line. However, in many cases, you don’t. For example, our fourMs Lab is a collaboration with the Department of Informatics. The lab started physically at the Department of Musicology. Then it moved physically to a building “owned” by the Department of Informatics before it eventually moved back to the Department of Musicology. The researchers and students working in the lab are from both departments. And they have to ask for help from different parts of the IT organization. This is often confusing and not very effective.

All in all, working in “the line” can also be thought of as being “silo’ed”. There is a lot of talking about interdisciplinarity these days. However, working “interdisciplinary” (which in most cases means multidisciplinary in my experience) usually means working between departments and faculties. Our organization effectively works against this idea.

A matrix organization

I have for some time been thinking about whether a university like UiO could turn into a matrix organization instead. That is, instead of being organized into a hierarchical, linear structure that we have today, one could imagine an organization with both “horizontal” and “vertical” elements. The figure below shows an example of how this could be organized.

An example matrix organization (credit: Msilva83, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Apparently, some businesses are organized this way, although there appear to be mixed reports on how well they function. Some argue that the challenge is not to develop a matrix structure but to change the frame of mind. I don’t know much about corporate organizations, so my experience with universities primarily shapes my thinking.

While many universities have a hierarchical structure like UiO, there are also universities with more matrix-like organizations. Cambridge and Oxford come to mind, with their organizations into both colleges and departments/faculties. I only know these institutions from the outside, but as far as I understand, everyone affiliated with these universities belongs to both a college and a department. This appears to be a quite clear university-wide matrix organization. The fact that these two universities are also considered some of the best in the world should attest that this organization may have some qualities.

In the North-American university model, several universities also appear to have a matrix-like organization. From my time at UC Berkeley, I remember how the university is organized into colleges and schools that offer degree programs, while research activities are organized in a traditional structure of departments and faculties.

Making a change?

Changing a university from a silo to a matrix is not done overnight. One could even question whether it is possible at all. Still, I see a tendency that some matrix elements are “sneaking” in. At UiO, we have some university-wide thematic projects: UiO:Energy, UiO:Life Science, and UiO:Nordic. While these are time-limited initiatives, they have elements of a matrix-like organization: uniting researchers across departments. Although it is less clear, they also have some ambitions of uniting students.

On a much smaller scale, one could say that various interdisciplinary research projects that cross the borders of departments and facultys are also part of developing a matrix structure within the university. The challenge, however, is that such initiatives struggle with breaking free from the silo. How to solve that, I don’t know.