I became an “accidental academic” six years ago when the University of Washington hired me to direct its graduate degree program in digital media (MCDM). I may have been a journalist and filmmaker who had been pushing the envelope with nascent digital and social media platforms, but did not know much about the academy, and had never aspired for a life in education.

So I knew there were only two things I could do to survive this next chapter, and maybe even succeed at helping to take the MCDM to the next level:

(1) Llisten to those who were willing to commit time and money and determine what their key value proposition was in registering in the program.

(2) Connect to industry leaders and visionaries and learn from them about where the subject matter was going, even as I educated them about the program (thereby raising its profile, and hopefully the appeal of its graduates to prospective employers).

It worked. Combining my own professional experience as a storyteller with the feedback we were getting from students and our advisors, we shaped the focus of the program by asking key questions: How do we influence and persuade in the digital age? What would we consider successful engagement in today’s communication ecosystem? What strategic competencies must we media professionals master, to lead the way within our organizations?

As a collective, the MCDM responded: successful communication requires the design of intelligent relationship-building strategies anchored by compelling stories and insightful analytics. This approach, our collaborative, community-facing learning environment, and our superlative faculty drove and sustained our success.

Our timing was good too. From 2007 onwards, the MCDM grew considerably as social networks, mobile technology, and the Internet generally went mainstream. And now in 2013, we’re pivoting to embrace an emerging reality: in this time of exponential change, professionals who can master how to lead through the discipline of communication can turn chaos into opportunity (all part of the “uprising”). So we’re creating a sister degree emphasis to sit alongside the MCDM: the MCCN — the Master of Communication in Communities and Networks. And both will reside under the programmatic “roof” of Communication Leadership.

Bear with me, here’s the official blurb:

The Communication Leadership program, with its unique degree emphases in digital media and creative engagement, guides professionals into those transformative roles through the design of networking strategies, anchored in compelling storytelling and insightful analytics. In this way, professionals build the necessary communication knowledge, strategies, and skills to manage content, information, systems, people and change.

Such a program is especially well suited to the Pacific Northwest and its reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship, enhanced by robust social and civic connectivity.

My colleagues and I built this structure and program over the last six months for our community, in collaboration with our community. Early in the process, some of our constituents asked that we proceed with adequate respect for the foundation we had collectively built with the MCDM, even as they urged us to think strategically about the framing of the new program. So we listened. And we slowed down. Embedded in this post is a brief that outlines the genesis of the new program, our motivation for pursuing it, and the rigorous process we’ve undertaken up to now.

In the report, you’ll see that we consulted with industry advisors about this prospective shift. They were the ones who told us that there’s great demand now for leaders who have strong communication experience in connecting people, ideas and skills to effect successful outcomes. They told us that they were less interested in a program that produced graduates with certain skills, and rather sought potential hires that could instill a particular aptitude to managing and leading the dramatic professional change that so many are presently facing.

We fed that conversation with reading from Fast Company magazine’s “The Secrets of Generation Flux”, which outlines how leaders who thrive today share “an embrace of adaptability and flexibility; an openness to learning from anywhere; decisiveness tempered by the knowledge that business life today can shift radically.” We combined that with a two-page excerpt from Howard Rheingold’s 2012 book, Net Smart: How To Thrive Online, which makes the case for a shift towards “networked individualism” away from a traditional reliance on (geographic/family/work-related) bounded groups and towards the cultivation of personal networks and personal brands. “The Web is no longer a special place but rather part of what most of us do.”

With this new program and the pervasiveness of digital technologies, we declare that “communication” is now as fundamental a field of competence for leaders as say “finance.” So it’s crucial that our graduates bring a considered approach to the creation and distribution of content and knowledge within strategically convened networks. The MCDM had already been headed in this direction. I hope that the Communication Leadership program, with the MCDM and now the MCCN will take us all the way.

We’re offering two opportunities to connect to us and our expanding program in the coming weeks:

(1) February 4 2013: Communication Leadership information session, 6-8 p.m. at the Husky Union Building at the University of Washington: details.

(2) February 13 2013: We’re co-sponsoring (and I’m hosting) the Seattle Chamber’s in-nw Conference 2013 “the current and future landscape of social engagement” at the famed Showbox in SODO. The day-long program is designed to reflect much of what I’ve outlined in this post. So if you want to experience Communication Leadership in a nutshell, register here.