About this Guest Post

Duncan Stephen, web manager at SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College), attended his first IWMW event six years ago. In this guest post Stephen reflects on “What six years of IWMW tells us about developments in digital” and discusses not only some of the technical developments but also the value of the IWMW community. Stephen concludes “We have an incredible community. It still amazes me that as a sector we can be so open with each other about our challenges, and so willing to freely share our knowledge”. 

What Six Years of IWMW Tells Us About Developments in Digital

The pace of change in the web and digital is dizzying. Looking back on my experiences of IWMW has certainly brought that home (not that I needed a reminder).

Six years is a long time in digital

IWMW is celebrating its 20th event this year. But my first experience came just six years ago, in my first year as a web editor at the University of St Andrews. Looking back at what was on the programme for IWMW 2010 in Sheffield underlines how fast moving the web is.

In a blog post I wrote at the time, the two sessions that gave me the most food for thought were both from Patrick Lauke, who at the time worked for Opera Software. The topics he spoke about – HTML5 and the mobile web – felt forward thinking at the time. But they are rather ordinary now.

The way I wrote about them seems dreadfully dated now. “Phones are becoming ‘smarter’” I wrote. And I hear that the Beatles are a popular beat combo.

Gradual shift in focus

Two years later we were in Edinburgh. In some ways this was my favourite IWMW so far. That was partly because it involved the least travel for me. It was partly because of the novelty of the sessions taking place in the same lecture theatre I learnt economics in a few years before. I felt a lot less dread listening to the IWMW speakers than when I was trying to learn economics.

But of course, the real reason IWMW 2012 was so great was the quality of the sessions. Looking back at the programme for IWMW 2012, the session titles haven’t dated quite as much as some of the 2010 sessions. Many of the topics still feel relevant today. One example is Neil Allison’s workshop on experiences in user centred design.

It reflects a gradual shift in focus over the years among those responsible for institutional websites. Our concern has moved more towards topics like user experience. Our obsession with the web’s underlying technologies – a traditional IT-based perspective – is receding.

Neil Allison also presented a useful plenary session at IWMW 2014. His sessions have provided a few lightbulb moments in my thinking about user centred design.

Changing times

Another aspect of our work that has become more prominent is the focus on wider issues surrounding organisational change. We have come to realise the major role digital has to play in making our institutions fit for the future. For digital professionals, making a decent website is no longer enough.

This was a major theme at IWMW 2014 where there was a lot of talk about governance. That was particularly useful for me. The University of St Andrews was about to embark on a major programme of change. As a result, it was encountering some big questions surrounding governance.

I took away a lot from sessions by Ross Ferguson from the University of Bath and Hiten Vaghmaria from the University of Westminster. Both shared their experiences of implementing change at their institutions.

There are plenty of great ideas, and some institutions are finding a model that works for them. But there is no golden bullet. Governance and change management promise to be major talking points for years to come.

Keeping up to speed

Another memorable moment was when the Unistats key information sets were first discussed. For some web managers in the room, it was the first time we had been made aware of these mandatory widgets.

That sort of incident underlines just how vital an event like IWMW is. Higher education websites are tricky puzzles. As time goes on the picture becomes more complex. There is always something round the corner we need to know about.

It could be a technological development, a change in legislation or a regulatory issue. IWMW is an essential way for us to keep up to speed in this fast-changing line of work.

The IWMW community

So many people will tell you this about IWMW that it’s now a cliché. But it’s true: We have an incredible community.

It still amazes me that as a sector we can be so open with each other about our challenges, and so willing to freely share our knowledge. Yet by the same token it makes so much sense. We are, after all, facing the same issues.

We all flock to IWMW to an annual basis because we learn so much just by talking to each other. I don’t know for sure, but I can’t imagine many other industries have such a strong community of digital practitioners.

What’s more, the expertise can come from those outside higher education. Take for instance Paul Boag’s swashbuckling sessions about digital transformation. Or Ranjit Sidhu’s amazingly energetic talks about statistics.

Some of the most important conversations happen during the evening social events. This isn’t your typical stiff networking scenario. Rather, it is an informal and enjoyable way to catch up with familiar faces and discuss common issues. The evenings are every bit a part of the fabric of IWMW as the plenary sessions and workshops.

Tying it all together

It seems to be an IWMW tradition that a theme emerges, often only towards the end of the conference. The session topics may be diverse, and the wide variety of delegates ensures that a range of perspectives are represented. But it’s funny how certain strands seem to pull themselves together over the course of the event. This often informs the formal theme of the following year.

As such, IWMW acts as a sort of annual state of the nation report for institutional digital managers.

The past six years have been fascinating. I look forward to attending IWMW in the next six years and beyond. Who knows what the hot topics will be by then. That’s what makes it all so exciting.


Duncan StephenDuncan Stephen is web manager at SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College). He is a digital designer, strategist and project leader with expertise in content, user experience and front-end development.

Duncan originates, co-ordinates and manages content and the overall strategic presentation of SRUC’s main website and other digital platforms.

Prior to working at SRUC, Duncan was web editor at the University of St Andrews for six years. There he led on a significant redesign of webpages aimed at prospective students, and co-led on a major project to transform the external-facing website.

IWMW events attended (4): IWMW 2010IWMW 2011, IWMW 2012 and IWMW 2014.