University goes “Mad Men” for technology buy-in

By Andrew Barbour
September 8th, 2015

To introduce a cloud-based HR solution to faculty and staff, the University of Chicago developed a branding strategy straight out of “Mad Men” to facilitate change management.

mad-men-changeIn implementing any major tech initiative on campus today, the greatest challenges tend to revolve more around change management than technical issues. So, to help introduce its new cloud-based HR system recently, the University of Chicago borrowed a page from the “Mad Men” playbook, using a sophisticated branding strategy to win over faculty and staff.

The new system is a cloud-based HR solution from Workday that includes a self-service portal. It replaced an antiquated system from the 1980s that used paper personnel-action forms and green-screen technology. While some employees were no doubt delighted to ditch the old setup, its shortcomings didn’t diminish the need to ensure that the new product enjoyed a smooth introduction.

Commanding the attention of the campus community is no easy task, however. “People are inundated with e-mails and information across the university—from their colleagues and from the outside,” said Michael Knitter, interim associate vice president of HR for the University of Chicago, who likened the transition to “going from smoke signals to smartphones.”

Creating a Branded Approach

To cut through the clutter, Knitter devised a three-part branding strategy intended to introduce faculty and staff to the new product. “Branding really helps with this type of transformational change; otherwise, it just gets lost,” said Knitter. “People don’t read—they don’t look at things. Branding helps people hone in and focus.”

For any branding initiative to work, however, it must resonate with its target audience. Knitter worked with the university’s communications team and the director of change management to craft the appropriate messaging and tone. “We wanted to come up with a branding theme that made sense for the university and also fit within our culture,” said Knitter. “We looked at our values and the vision of the university and tried to garner language from that.”

The importance of a branding strategy that reflects the university’s culture cannot be overstated, according to Knitter. “You can come up with a lot of excellent branding concepts, but if the branding is not appropriate for your audience it can actually take a negative spin,” he said. “You have to ask yourself whether someone in the university is going to ridicule or criticize the campaign. You absolutely don’t want that.”

Phase 1: On the Way

The first part of the branding strategy was titled “On the Way to Workday” and focused on the journey of transitioning to the Workday solution. According to Knitter, the concept of a journey dovetailed neatly with the university’s view of itself as a preeminent research university on a journey “to the betterment of the world.”

Every Workday-related communication piece that HR produced from October 2013 until the new system went live in January 2015 shared the same look and feel. “We conducted more than 140 meetings across the campus with stakeholders, and we had branded materials and PowerPoint presentations all saying ‘On the Way to Workday,'” said Knitter. “We brought branded notebooks and pens to all the forums, we sent out branded postcards, and we put posters on easels across the campus with the look and feel, color scheme, and ‘On the Way to Workday.’ People paid attention to it.”

In crafting the messaging, Knitter stressed the need to look at the new service from the perspective of the users. “You’re living and breathing it every day,” he said. “But you cannot expect other people to understand what it is.”

Phase 2: Discover

The second phase of the branding initiative, designed to help constituents use the new HR system, was called “Discover Workday.” Like the first phase, it echoed elements from campus, particularly a new $800 million medical facility known as the Center for Care and Discovery. “We used a lot of language around our values and mantras of discovery,” said Knitter. “It resonated well as far as the culture.”

Phase 3: A Nice WorkDay

The third phase, titled “Have a Nice Workday,” will not kick in until late 2016 after the Workday implementation is complete, including the addition of modules for recruiting, time and attendance, and open-enrollment benefits. “We went with more of a light feel for the third part of the branding campaign,” said Knitter. “While it’s catchy and nice, it also has that nostalgic theme of the ’70s where you have those t-shirts with the smiley face. It’s pretty hard to get mad at that, right?”

By the time it’s fully implemented, the branding strategy will have spanned three years—a long period that may also help explain why the University of Chicago’s initiative has proven successful. Not only did the branding strategy help capture the audience’s attention, but the act of developing the strategy forced the school to plan the rollout in fine detail—and devote the time necessary to its implementation.

“One of the first and easiest things to cut out of a project like this is the change-management aspect, because you’re working so hard on implementing the business process and the technology—that’s a big mistake,” explained Knitter. “To avoid that, don’t underestimate how much time and effort you will need. That is key.”

Knitter saw confirmation of the initiative’s branding success in the success of Workday-focused e-mails. “When we rolled out specific communication pieces, we saw spikes in the number of people going into the Workday system,” he said. “We feel very strongly that our branding played a key role in making the point, ‘This is really important because it impacts you.'”

Equally telling, the launch of the new HR system failed to roil the waters of campus. “Avoiding any kind of criticism and uproar is a major accomplishment in higher education,” concluded Knitter. “It’s a success when there really isn’t a reaction.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.

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