Three Digital Governance Challenges

I didn’t blog much last year but I have been busy nonetheless. I worked with a number of new clients in a number of different industries. I collaborated with those in higher education, the pharmaceutical industry, and finance as well as several different B-to-Bs that make things we use every day but take for granted. At the end of last year, we also conducted a small study and co-authored a report with ActiveStandards on content quality for U.S. federal government websites.

Additionally, I've been hard at work on “Managing Chaos,” a book about the fundamentals of digital governance. For those of you who've known me over the years, I've been talking about writing a book for some time. I'm really grateful that Rosenfeld Media is giving me the opportunity to document what I've learned about organizational digital governance over the last 15 years. Writing a book is a challenge but I'm really enjoying it. I'm uncovering areas where I have insight as well as understanding areas where my thought needs further development. I’m excited that I’ll be able to share WelchmanPierpoint’s methodology for developing sound digital governance along with some real-world case studies of what works (and what doesn’t).

I thought I would take a quick break from book writing to note a few governance dynamics that I see over and over. I hope this post will help you understand that organizational digital governance concerns are common and often not that sophisticated or complex. Simple things can cause big problems in a large organization. And, solutions don’t always have to be complicated. It is my longer-term hope that “Managing Chaos” will provide the information to help you resolve some of these simple issues so you can move forward. So, wish me luck wrapping up my writing over the next couple of months.

Challenge #1: The Decentralized, Silo’d Organization 

Every organization I’ve worked with believes that it is unique because of its decentralized working style. Usually in my first meeting with a client (and sometimes before we've even begun a project), web managers, directors, and executives are eager to explain to me just how decentralized their organization is. The budget is decentralized. Work activities are decentralized. Decision-making about everything is decentralized. And, of course, web development is decentralized … and that’s the reason why the website is so crappy.

I don’t agree.

Decentralization in large organizations is the norm—not unique. Without it, probably no work would get done. So decentralization might be contributing to the challenges of digital development but it’s not a unique excuse as to why your particular digital presence is subpar. And besides, decentralized decision-making and a culture that demands it is not the reason why you can't manage website and social media channels properly in the first place. Most likely, the reason you can't manage a digital effectively is because you don’t know whose job it is to make decisions about what gets developed in the first place. So, everyone ends up making decisions about everything, all the time, all over the place, and then they execute on those diverse decisions. The result is a mess online and an ongoing battle within your organization about whose fault it is.

Governance, at its core, clarifies accountability, roles, and decision-making. If you want to build a responsive development environment whose output is effective content, applications, and interaction, then you’ve got to pause and address the governance concerns.  You’ll still be decentralized but you’ll be operating according to a common blueprint.

Challenge #2: Thinking About Digital Ownership (Not Stewardship)

Sometimes, web teams and business divisions want to “land grab” or claim “ownership” of the organizational web. The web team feels they should “own” websites and social channels because they feel they have the skills and knowledge to maintain a quality web presence. Similarly, business staff want to “own” their part of the website because they feel they know their customer base better than the web team—not to mention they often have a fiscally vested interest. I believe that the organizational digital presence is a corollary to the organization's physical and human presence. Taken together, they should represent the brand and support the complex needs of the business at large. No one really expects for the business at large to run solely from the decisions and efforts of one small team. Nor should the organization expect that its digital presence can run from the decisions and efforts of one small team.

Organizations need to develop a mature operational model for an extended digital team, one which includes not only the core web team and business stakeholders but also satellite Web managers within the organization and deep and rich support infrastructure that can include your legal department, your business subject matter experts, your call center personnel, your IT and Communications departments as well as external vendors—in essence, everyone. And most importantly, those team members need to realize that they are stewards of the digital presence—not owners. The organization “owns” its digital presence.

Challenge #3: Having Unreasonable Expectations

“I work in a 20,0000-person company. We have a 100,000-page website and a bunch of other websites in different languages. The site is full of outdated, unstructured content and some applications (we’re not sure how many because IT just makes stuff for people if they have a budget). We’ve been mandated by executives to ‘clean up the mess’ in six months.”


For most organizations, the historical “strategy” for developing a web presence has been “playing around” with technology and ideas in an effort to understand how to best use the web to support the organization’s goals. Unfortunately, we’re all left with the result of that tinkering around—good and bad.

The good is that time has passed and there are clear norms being established for what an organizational digital presence is comprised of—even if new ideas are cropping up every day. The bad is that there’s a mess to clean up. It’s going to take more than an executive mandate to clean up that 15-20 year mess. And it’s going to take governance to ensure that when you begin the evolution and transformation you don’t create the same sort of mess you created before. Those who are primary stewards of digital need to help the rest of the organization understand that fact.

It’s time to leave the web sandbox and lead the organization into a deeper understanding of the power and use of digital channels. It’s time to inform and engage executives so that organizational expectations are reasonable and that they’re supported culturally and fiscally. So maybe you can clean up the mess in six months—but it’s going to take a lot of resources and a cultural shift that can probably only be directed from an executive level. Most likely though, tough “redesigns” are going to be ongoing evolutions.

Reading over these challenges, it all seems sort of depressing, eh? The good news is that most organizations are in the same uncomfortable spot. When I talk with those responsible for the care and feeding of digital channels, they almost always know good digital developments practices and “get it.” They know how to make and sustain a quality digital presence for their organization. Often, though, they are tired of the debates and arguments.  They’re just plain worn down. They’re tired of trying to convince others of the right way to do things. But teams that succeed just start anyway. They learn to lead the charge not by pointing fingers or being cynical about their non-web colleagues but by educating them about digital and listening and gaining knowledge from their colleagues’ business insights. They begin to understand that the digital team can’t be a team operating in its own silo—they must demonstrate the model of collaboration they want to see within the organization.

Good luck!



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