Our Work In Practice
The RHB 3-5 Design Increases Strategic Effectiveness of North Carolina State University’s High-Performing Central MarComm Team
At North Carolina State University, RHB began Future-Ready Organizational Capability Assessment work using The RHB 3-5 Design with University Communications and Marketing (UCOMM). UCOMM leaders were interested in taking a pause to ensure they were well-positioned to support a new University Strategic Plan drafted during the COVID-19 pandemic and slated to run until 2030. The institution saw that moment of social, healthcare, educational and economic disruption as an opportunity to claim a leadership position motivated by their land-grant mission and habits of innovation. The University was fresh off the success of a $2 billion capital campaign that had exceeded its original goal of $1.5 billion. Plans were underway as we met the UCOMM team to develop the next, even-more-ambitious campaign. UCOMM had also earned a major win with the brand campaign, “Think and Do”, which is now so entrenched in the University’s culture that the campaign copy has become part of the general institutional lexicon. Internal audiences felt the campaign encapsulated their experience of a lively research and teaching environment invigorated by a land-grant focus on service. In addition, UCOMM was planning to move into an upcoming brand refresh shortly after the end of this project, so setting UCOMM up to continue to capitalize on their existing institutional credibility was essential. This high-performing UCOMM unit is housed within University Advancement and led by a chief communications and marketing officer. UCOMM is divided into several sub-units: Marketing Communications, University Communications, Development Communications and Stewardship, Office of Strategic Brand Management, and University Special Events. Their work is animated by a “lead and support” model that highlights a dual role they play: as the central institutional unit responsible for marketing and communications and as a helper to others on campus. The lead and support model is embodied in a social media hub they have created, where a UCOMM-based director supervises unit-level social media managers physically housed in her office.
To get started, RHB performed the first of three methods of inquiry we use in the 3-5 Design: a comprehensive current state inventory including a data and document review. We collected organizational charts, current institutional and UCOMM’s own strategic plans, UCOMM annual reports, brand resources and presentations, examples of creative work and budgetary information to perform a data and document review. This review provided useful background on the current state of the five S’s—Strategy, Structure, Staffing, Systems and Spend—that framed our approach in the qualitative research phase. RHB saw clear connections between UCOMM’s work and three of the five institutional strategic goals in particular:
- Goal 4: Champion a culture of equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging and well-being in all we do.
- Goal 5: Improve university effectiveness through transformative technologies, cutting-edge processes and actionable data.
- Goal 7: Elevate the national and global reputation and visibility of NC State.
During a two-day campus visit to kick off our qualitative research, we spoke with several staff across all five UCOMM subunits at the director level and above. We also toured UCOMM’s spaces, seeing where people were placed in relation to each other and how common spaces were used. This helped us understand the details of how work flowed when people were in the office together. We followed our campus visit with Zoom interviews with marketers, communicators and administrators from across campus who are frequent partners of UCOMM. Administrators with whom we spoke included the university’s chancellor and chief diversity officer, both of whomsupport UCOMM’s work and collaborate frequently with the unit on developing messaging. Informed by our conversations with UCOMM management, we also developed an employee engagement survey to learn more about what all members of UCOMM think about their jobs, UCOMM’s mission and strategic goals, and the ambitions UCOMM staff have. The survey, distributed to all UCOMM members, contained a mix of forced-choice questions rating perceptions on a scale of 1-5 and a handful of open-ended questions. Out of a team of 80-plus people, more than three-fourths completed the survey and provided thoughtful and hopeful responses to the open-ended questions about where UCOMM’s opportunities lie. The strong survey response rate aligned with what we observed during our campus visit—that this was a team that makes a strong investment of heart and expertise into work that positively impacts the institution and the state. The survey results also spoke to UCOMM’s desire to grow as experts in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Team members reported being rightfully proud of the work they do to deftly tell the stories of their institutional community and the state in an environment in which that work is politically sensitive. UCOMM staff also reported wanting to know more about what others are doing across subunits so they can harness the power of one another’s great work. In a situation where so much is going well, an external perspective can be tremendously helpful for finding the places where tweaks and transformations built on successful systems stand to gain the most ground for the team. This matters all the more because UCOMM has a clear role to play in moving several of the institution’s current strategic plan goals forward. Finally, we collaborated with UCOMM leadership to create a list of 11 marketing and communications units at other institutions that are doing innovative work and are helping to position their universities in ways that NC State aspires to achieve. Our organizational benchmarking also included a competitive advertising spend analysis, spanning the past three years of total institutional advertising expenditures. We spoke with the senior leaders of six other higher ed marketing and communications functions whose organizations feature innovative structures and habits that empower them to produce strong outcomes in supporting their institutional market position and strategic goals.
In our final report to the client, we recommended several changes to allow UCOMM to take a future-facing stance as a fully strategic partner to both the university’s administration and to campus partners by channeling UCOMM’s momentum into the university’s strategic priorities. We recommended that Goals 4, 5 and 7 should serve as UCOMM’s north star for its work and impact. Each of these goals offers UCOMM an avenue for increasing effectiveness in achieving outcomes (rather than just creating more outputs) through increased collaboration and constituent-centricity.
Our primary recommendations focused on bolstering UCOMM’s work to support Strategic Plan Goals 4 and 7:
- Goal 4 (Champion a culture of equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging and well-being in all we do): To harness UCOMM’s energy for expressing and extending their expertise in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, we recommended that they create cross-functional teams to discuss constituent-centric projects and initiatives that can help make the most of the existing diversity of perspective they already have. This will push members to confront what has been taken for granted and incorporate interdisciplinary learning. As well, we provided a plan, including staffing recommendations, for collaboration between UCOMM and the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity.
- Goal 7 (Elevate the national and global reputation and visibility of NC State): We recommended that UCOMM devise strategies to help colleges and units have more shared ownership of this strategic plan goal. For example, UCOMM could create a model or formula that tracks production and performance of research-based stories to help academic colleges make tangible–and measurable–their important contributions to this strategic plan goal.
Our Structure recommendations centered on Strategic Plan Goal 5: Improve university effectiveness through transformative technologies, cutting-edge processes and actionable data. Recall that there are five subunits, including Marketing Communications, University Communications, Development Communications and Stewardship, Office of Strategic Brand Management and University Special Events. Looking toward a model that will best serve the institution in the years ahead, we recommended thinking beyond the organizational chart and subunit duties to imagine how projects might overlap subunits. This re-imagining of the formal structure of the organization is intended to remind staff that they are part of the same unit with the same goals and to think about how cross-functional teams can create opportunities to innovate by recombining expertise drawn from multiple areas. The figure below provides a way to envision how a UCOMM function could be better positioned to advance strategic priorities through cross-functional teams, rather than being constrained by formal organizational structures. Making cross-functionality a default part of work processes not only creates tactical effectiveness, it also allows UCOMM to recombine teams and ideas for innovation and adaptation as the context in which the institution operates.
We recommended that cross-functional teams should be created to plan and track how UCOMM’s work contributes to the success of institutional strategic plan goals over time.
RHB’s staffing recommendations moved beyond considering the scope of individual positions within an organization toward recommending organizational language and cultural practices that create belonging on teams and empower team members to exercise strategic leadership. We encouraged UCOMM to own the role they play as professionals who normalize the visibility of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at the University, especially as doing so would help move the institution forward in its strategic goals.
We discussed ways of working throughout our report. Overall, UCOMM’s “lead and support” guiding philosophy has been an effective approach to advance UCOMM’s influence as a leader and partner, extend its impact across all areas of its institution and continually evolve and improve a University-wide culture of unified communications, marketing, branding, sponsorship and engagement. In regard to the use of specific systems, we advised UCOMM to work toward establishing a set of recommended and supported tools, both within UCOMM and throughout the university (e.g., project management software), creating further communications and marketing unification.
In our final report, we provided data showing the university’s position within the benchmarking set in advertising expenditures. We also used NC State and RHB data to estimate the university’s total marketing and communications expenditures (including both UCOMM’s and unit- and college-level marketing and communications expenditures) and identify its place relative to the higher education minimum benchmark. UCOMM has an opportunity—and obligation per Strategic Plan Goal 5—to apply its “lead and support” model to marketing and communications planning and budgeting across the university. To that end, we recommended a process for UCOMM, with the trust and credibility it has built, to align strategic and budgetary priorities across the enterprise so that each organization can maximize the outcomes it affects.
Finally, we were pleased to join UCOMM virtually during an all-staff retreat to present selected findings and recommendations from our final report. UCOMM’s leadership adopted our recommendations as a roadmap to the future, and all members of UCOMM will need to travel in the same direction to put that roadmap to use. It was essential that staff members learn how interview and survey data gathered from them played an important role as one of the three inputs in The RHB 3-5 Design. This session also acknowledged the expertise and strategic thinking UCOMM staff already used by providing the opportunity to ask us questions about how we arrived at our recommendations. This transparent journey planning as a team is a best practice. “We contracted with RHB because we were looking for a fresh perspective on how we could continue to evolve to achieve our goal to be one of the top in-house marcom units in higher education,” said Mark Minor, NC State University assistant vice Chancellor for marketing and communications. “RHB provided an in-depth analysis and solid recommendations for everything from strategy to staffing, org structure, systems, and spend. It was a very helpful process.”
“We contracted with RHB because we were looking for a fresh perspective on how we could continue to evolve to achieve our goal to be one of the top in-house marcom units in higher education … RHB provided an in-depth analysis and solid recommendations for everything from strategy to staffing, org structure, systems, and spend. It was a very helpful process.”
—Mark Minor, NC State University assistant vice Chancellor for marketing and communications
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