Harvard Exec on Being Relevant in the Digital World

By Judy Quinn |  January 27, 2015

Perry Hewitt joined Harvard University in 2009 as the institution’s first Chief Digital Officer. The mission, as she describes it, was to help the university “be relevant and relatable in the digital world.” Though Facebook had been founded in a Harvard dorm room five years prior, for example, the school didn’t yet have an official Facebook page when Hewitt took the position.

Under her stewardship, the 378-year old university now boasts a social media dashboard, which keeps track of digital activity in and around the Harvard community; a university Facebook page now closing in on four million “likes”; and rapidly growing social presences on channels like Instagram, Twitter, and Giphy, right, a site that collects animated now rates Harvard as the #1 social media university in its ranking of how “innovative schools use social media to give insight into their culture, their personality, their DNA.” As noted on the site, “The school with one of the most historically prominent offline networks is now dominating the social media world.”

But Hewitt’s role is not without challenges. Harvard is an infamously distributed place, and it can be tough to reach all stakeholders with new initiatives. It can be a job in and of itself to ensure Schools and faculty are informed of a new digital means of aggregating content, like the Online Learning Portal launched this past fall. That said, a movement toward increased collaboration, informally dubbed “One Harvard,” is beginning to ease the process.

Hewitt is a frequent commentator on driving digital change and transformation in established organizations, and her weekly “Friday 5” blog entries are always worth a read, listing what she describes as “five, highly subjective pointers to compelling technologies, emerging trends, and interesting ideas that affect how we live and work digitally.”

In a nod to her organizing principle of curation, here are five key innovation pointers gleaned from our recent conversation with Hewitt. She also shares a slide, her “Checklist for Change Agents,” at the bottom.

1. Embrace “Blurring” of Innovation Teams

Hewitt says that she “is extremely fortunate to have played for so many teams” in her career, at companies like Harcourt, Razorfish, and Lotus Development Corp. She believes that her diversity of experience, from client relations to product management, has allowed her to see beyond single-track thinking that can happen working in only one department or industry, or what she describes as the pitfall of, “Oh no, this is the protocol.”

“Having spanned different departments, I’ve seen the coming of blurrier roles, such as within IT and marketing, and have the ability to embrace it,” Hewitt says.

When tackling the redesign of the Harvard Gazette, for example, Hewitt and her team put staff editors, developers, and other key stakeholders in a room together to brainstorm a new iteration of the university’s longtime news outlet, which had migrated from a print publication to a website that was attracting a rather anemic annual page views in 2009. Thanks to the work of this “blurred” team, and a revamped editorial strategy led by communications, the Gazette has become a dynamic forum of what Hewitt terms “active syndication” of news content, drawing from a wide array of content creators and now attracting millions of page views per year.

2. Fast-Track an Early Win

The Gazette project is also an example of a piece of advice that Hewitt regularly finds herself dispensing: Focus on an early win to accelerate buy-in and engagement. “Never underestimate the momentum of a 90-day plan,” she says. The Gazette revamp was Hewitt’s first project at Harvard in 2009, fast-tracked in her inaugural summer and intentionally chosen over work that might have had bigger potential to get bogged down in bureaucratic process, such as retooling the institution’s entire website. Given her project’s tight time frame, Hewitt switched the Gazette from a less-flexible HTML platform to the blog publishing system WordPress, a critical move to increase the ability to use open source plug-ins. “One of the most important things we did with this project was that we showed what was possible when putting an easy-to-use content management tool into the hands of editors,” she says.

3. Focus on Listening and Linguistics, Not Control

A key element of keeping the Harvard community involved with her initiatives, says Hewitt, is that “we focus on influence, not control.” So Hewitt and team offers tools and assistance to Harvard’s many content creators as they need it, but they don’t try to restrict the community from freely creating and posting on its own.

Harvard’s staff editors, Hewitt says, serve as “listeners ” and “linguists” to find and then most effectively showcase the news and activity of this expansive Harvard community. Content thus ranges from an in-depth feature/showcase gallery about the recently reopened Harvard Art Museums to a tweet (see left) that offers color cues and hashtags to fan the flames of that age-old Harvard-Yale rivalry. “We want to focus on exposing the great ideas of the faculty and students – and share these with the world,” Hewitt says.

4. Aggregation + Syndication = Amplification

While a constant flurry of “unauthorized” postings would make other organizations nervous, Hewitt relishes such activity as a key metric of success. The more Harvard content that’s out there, she says, the more to aggregate into an ever-higher-profile “syndicated” news flow. A similar philosophy is at play in Harvard’s engagement in an ever-increasing array of emerging social media platforms. Hewitt expresses such strategy in a formula: aggregation + syndication = amplification. “It’s effective and it works,” she says.

5. Keep an eye on the horizon

While Hewitt cautions against too quickly adopting what she calls “the next bright, shiny object,” she does recommend keeping an eye on digital innovation trends, even beyond one’s particular industry or sphere. Such practice is apparent in Hewitt’s “Friday 5” run-downs as well as in the advisory work that she does for Xfund, a fund created in 2011 to invest in startups born on college campuses, and Robin, a company focused on connected devices and analytics in the workplace. Hewitt is also looking forward to the launch of HUBWeek, a new week-long celebration of ideas, with Harvard as a founding partner, that will debut in fall 2015. “There is so much talent and curiosity surrounding us in Greater Boston,” she says. “The possibilities are very exciting.”

The Checklist for Change

Here’s a “Checklist for Change Agents” that Hewitt shared with us.

(MVP stands for “minimum viable product.”)