10. What we got here is… failure to communicate

Source of title[1]

Faculty development is only as successful as faculty awareness of it and engagement with it; no effective communication, no faculty development.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.  Often attributed to George Bernard Shaw[2]

If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

If a faculty development event or resource is advertised but nobody realizes it or is persuaded to exploit it, are faculty developed?

Krista Hoffmann-Longtin et al.[3] write:

Within this complex environment, it has become increasingly difficult for faculty developers to “cut through the clutter” to reach constituents with timely and pertinent information. As Mundy Bhavsar and Skinner (2008) note, “A constant challenge for faculty development centers is to inform faculty and other instructors on their campuses about their services and resources, and a further problem is to convince instructors to use those services” (p. 145). Brookfield (2007) went so far as to suggest that, for many faculty development offices, getting faculty to participate in our services “is a triumph in itself” (p. 67).

Why are faculty communications so problematic?

Our minds can handle only so much information. Each communication competes against all other information in an attention economy[4]. All else equal, the greater the information load, the lesser the chance that any given message will achieve notice. And, in academia, this situation is especially intractable for at least four reasons:

  • The information load is unusually high, and the institutions themselves complex and loosely-coupled[5].
  • Institutions are administratively balkanized, with multiple departments, sections, divisions, offices, schools, deans, institutes, centers, programs, and committees – each with its own set of communications.
  • Institutions’ finances lead them to rely on easy-to-use and inexpensive communications channels, such that difficulty of use and cost do not oppose overuse.
  • Those doing the communicating are typically inexpert in communicating (or believe that their personal communication preferences are shared by all). When their attempts to communicate fail, their response is more messages or duplicate messages, which in turn fail to communicate, and so on, thus creating a costly[6] death spiral of information overload.

Moreover, we are good at intending to exploit resources and programs but poor at actually following through. Communications that achieve notice but not commitment are little better than none at all. Our institutional characteristics, especially workloads and deadlines, exacerbate this difficulty.

What can be done about communication with faculty?

A first step might be to ask what’s known about communication with faculty, except that hardly anything is known (Krista Hoffmann-Longtin et al.3). Here are some non-evidence-based observations:

Communications analytics are within the grasp of faculty developers. Many electronic communications programs have easily-accessed analytics built in. We can observe directly, for example, how many and when emails are actually opened, how many result in an action being taken, how often and when electronic faculty development resources are accessed, etc. We can modify our communications accordingly. Outside the academy perhaps only 25% of emails are opened, and of those seldom >10% result in action[7]. My own surveys suggest far lower ‘open rates’ in faculty communications, and that emails unopened in the day of receipt are rarely opened thereafter as they are buried beneath more recent emails. On a more positive note, analytics can improve communication. Krista Hoffmann-Longtin et al.3 write:

we are now using Nielsen’s (2004) card sorting techniques to consider alternative ways to organize information. Card sorting is a usability technique to create information architecture, in other words “what goes where” (Nielsen, 2004). Faculty members and other frequent users are given a shuffled stack of index cards. Written on each card is one of the main items from our website. We ask each user to sort the cards in a way that makes sense to them. We complete this process with approximately fifteen different users, with a goal of developing a new site architecture that is more intuitive and easy to use.

If you’ve seen one faculty member, you’ve seen one faculty member.   One colleague is annoyed by an email considered irrelevant, whereas another is incensed by not receiving the exact same email. Faculty interests and communication preferences vary enormously. Companies such as Netflix, Google, and Facebook use analytics, big data, and machine learning to discern the preferences and interests of individuals, and to adjust the form and content of communications instantaneously in response. Hopefully these tools will become available to academic institutions and enable faculty automatically to individualize their communications.

All writings on this topic (and now this post too) point out that communication would be improved were we to eschew un-necessary communications, gratuitous ‘reply to all’s, excessive cross-posting, and routine thank-you and acknowledgement of receipt messages, and use informative SUBJECT: lines. That is, less is sometimes more. Such advice appears to have little impact, however.


…and wait!   THERE’S MORE!!!   By and large, print and electronic advertisements represent communications successes. Much can be learned from them and applied to faculty communications. One such lesson:


Stories engage, where ‘just the facts’ do not[8]. Here an actual study is repurposed; consider the two variants:

(a) Dear Dr. Facultymember:

At noon next Thursday you are invited to the faculty development session that Dr. Jane Smith attended before her recent promotion to associate professor. At this same session last year Jane learned how to parlay her professional connections into promotion. As a result, she reached out to Joe Black and Rita Red, who were residents with her and are now at UCSF and Harvard, respectively. This led to invitations to speak. Jane says: “My chair was really impressed by these talks on my CV, and enthusiastically endorsed my promotion. And the faculty development program helped me do this; it can help you too.”


(b) Dear Dr. Facultymember:

At noon next Thursday you are invited to the faculty development session on the role of networking in academic promotion. The session will explain best practices and review research on the potential value of social connections in generating a strong promotion case. Research shows that 25% of those recently promoted to associate professor used networking to facilitate promotion, and 90% of their chairs reported that the resultant activity was highly influential on the decision to endorse the promotions.

Which drives the greater attendance?


Dr. Elizabeth Travis at MD Anderson Medical Center has the following communications rules

1. Every invitation to a faculty development event is personalized (‘Dear Dr. Smith’, and not ‘Dear colleague’) and from her personally [she is a dean].   This nudges[9] attendance in ways that depersonalized emails from an assistant or an office might not. Mailing list programs to create these invitations are readily available; I use 1st MacMailer.

2. Every invitation claims that seating or attendance is limited to the first to apply. This creates the impression of scarcity and possibility of a lost opportunity, and plays upon loss aversion.

3. Every invitation requires an RSVP – essentially a commitment device.

4. Each RSVP receives a follow-up, again personalized and from a dean, before the event. The follow-up implies that the dean will personally be expecting attendance. Another commitment device.

5. Although not part of her playbook, sharing of the expected attendance list ought to reinforce attendance and recruit other attendees through social facilitation.  Google uses this tactic effectively.[11]

All communications strategies have an expiration date. Behavioral Economics 101 tells us that new things get noticed because they are new. They call it “news” for good reason. With time, even the novel becomes familiar and engagement deteriorates. A prudent communicator would plan for multiple successive campaigns, each selling ‘old wine in new bottles’.


We could achieve much more from existing faculty development resources and programs by improving faculty awareness and use of these resources and programs. Key to this is effective and persuasive communication. Two suggestions:


 Share your innovations, positive deviants[10], discoveries, tricks, what works – things like Liz Travis’s communication rules.   At the end of this post is a REPLY box. Don’t be shy.

  We need randomized clinical trials of faculty communications practices. What can be shown to work? Any takers?

[1] Cool Hand Luke. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, 1967. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061512/quotes?ref_=tt_ql_3

[2] http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/08/31/illusion/

[3] Hoffmann-Longtin, K., Palmer, M. M., Welch, J. L., Walvoord, E. C. and Dankoski, M. E. (2014), Just Ask: Using Faculty Input to Inform Communication Strategies. To Improve the Academy, 33: 37–56. doi:10.1002/tia2.20002   http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1002/tia2.20002/

[4] Davenport, T. H., & Beck, J. C. (2001). The attention economy: Understanding the new currency of business. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

[5] http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_Ed.pdf

and http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_AMC.pdf

[6] http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1812612

[7] http://mailchimp.com/resources/research/email-marketing-benchmarks/ ,


[8] Wortmann, Craig. 2006. What’s Your Story? Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful. Kaplan Publishing, Chicago. See also Craig’s blog: http://www.salesengine.com/blog/

[9] Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2008,

[10] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/atul-gawande-university-of-chicago-medical-school-commencement-address

[11] Page 301 in Bock, Laszlo. 2015. Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Twelve. http://amzn.com/1455554790

©Martin E. Feder 2015

One thought on “10. What we got here is… failure to communicate

  1. I’ll go first…

    We have multiple programs in our institution, each with its own series of research seminars or grand rounds. Each would individually announce every event, and request that every other unit forward it to its faculty. As many faculty belong to multiple programs, the result was a nightmare of repeated emails.

    We formed a focus group of faculty, which asked for something like http://www.cnn.com , in which a single page contained short titles that could be scanned rapidly and each title is hyperlinked to a longer description. With Ruedi Birenheide, a talented web programmer, we implemented these suggestions to create myBSD ( visible at http://birenheide.com/uchicago/events/allevents.php , although it should be noted that postings are fewer in the summer; a more typical academic year version is at https://decannomics.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/22315-event-announcement.pdf). It’s key features:

    •Early on a dean insisted that events be posted in this and no longer forwarded and re-forwarded

    •myBSD soon reached a tipping point when faculty excuses for not attending an event became: “Well, I didn’t know about it because it wasn’t in myBSD”

    •As in cnn.com, each event has a short title that can be scanned rapidly

    •We intentionally suppress the identity of the sponsoring unit (which has a 4-letter code). This suppression plus the emphasis of the title had an unexpected benefit: Before myBSD, faculty would attend or avoid an event according to the unit that sponsored it, regardless of the content. Now faculty focus on the title and content, and attend events in many different programs. This enhances interaction of faculty and programs.

    •Each day an email version is sent to all members of our community (e.g., https://decannomics.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/22315-event-announcement.pdf). The listing is in reverse chronological order, so the viewer can scan forward as desired. Clicking on the title brings up a full description (try it in http://birenheide.com/uchicago/events/allevents.php). Clicking on the calendar icon automatically inserts an entry in the user’s electronic calendar.

    •The cross-forwarding of emails is now increasingly rare.

    •A frustration: myBSD can accommodate communications of every sort, not just seminar/grand rounds announcements. But it is almost entirely used only for the latter.


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