Web Governance: Becoming an Agent of Change

by Jonathan Kahn

18 Reader Comments

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  1. You’ve described my new job – I was a coder, now I’m heavily involved in business strategy as the website reflects the purpose and objectives of the business and it’s directors. As the business strategy shifts and changes, so does the website. And interestingly, I’ve been noticing minor decisions I make as lead developer actually effecting the overall business strategy.

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  2. This article addresses a lot of issues I’m very familiar with by personal experience. It’s breath of fresh air for my motivation. Yes change is painful for some, so people resist it. I totally agree with this paragraph:

    “You might be thinking: “There’s no way I can do this. I’m a designer, developer, or copywriter, not an organizational change maker!” But we can do it, and we should. Because nobody else will do it for us, and if nobody deals with the problem, we won’t be able to do great work.”

    “…and if nobody deals with the problem, we won’t be able to do great work.” Exactly!

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  3. Thank you for your article. Understanding that we as designers and strategists are in the business of changing organizations is essential and you’ve done a great job of explaining this. The only hitch I have found in the article is that building “a business case” is often not enough to cause an organization to change.

    While I used to think that “Organizational change happens when people build a compelling business case”, the identification by individuals with the processes you are trying to change can lead very reasonable people to subvert you. While you may have a mound of concrete stats proving your point, an executive who identifies himself with a solution he rolled out or a role she has had for years, can up-end solutions driven by seemingly unassailable facts.

    So may I make a recommendation? “Men, Machines, and Modern Times” by Elting E. Morison illuminates this issue beautifully through fascinating case studies and shows a way out. I can’t recommend this book enough. The wisdom within the first story (about a failed attempt by a naval officer to change how American ships aimed guns while at sea) on its own was enough for me to change how I now approach my projects. So consider adding this to the stack of books on your night stand.

    Best – Mark

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  4. Great article that crystalizes some very important points that I wish were more widely appreciated. As someone who has been pushing the centrality of web strategy for nearly a decade in various non-profit organizations, I’d like to sadly confirm your point that it’s not at all easy to “swing the oil tanker around”, especially given the management structures of larger organizations, but also given the lack of resources and skill sets in small organizations. One of the major impediments I’ve run into several times is that the “web governance evangelist” is usually pigeonholed as being “from IT”/“a web person”. This has all kinds of ramifications in terms of instant barriers to other parts of the organization being willing to listen at all, let alone change. There are ways to combat this resistance—for instance, by developing good personal relationships with key people elsewhere in the organization who can champion the centrality of the web—but these can be time-consuming and politically fraught.

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  5. I agree with the other comments expressed here – thanks for a great article on clarifying and defining the role that many of use who have worked there way up or on through any organisation from a developer, designer etc, and who are wondering – what’s next?

    No longer can strategy and execution be done in isolation from each other, a cohesive end to end oversight (as opposed to management) of the process from inception to delivery, setting the tone, ensuring the quality and delivering the value – all these require more than just project management, because they require the umbrella skill-sets that each facet touches upon.

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  6. Good read and I very much agree to the points you’re making.

    Curious why you choose to use the term governance as the umbrella term. It’s a bit confusing in the sense that it’s also part of the list of terms you name underneath it: strategy, governance, execution, measurement.

    I’m aware you’re not adding much value to the term as you state: Today we’re calling it web governance. But I do think terminology matters if you want to start a movement.

    Lisa Welchman uses Web Operations Management as the umbrella term, which doesn’t sound very pretty but is more consequent with the rest of the naming scheme where she uses WOM- Strategy instead of web strategy.

    To stay in line with her naming scheme you could choose to use Web Management as the umbrella term. But that might sound little inspiring.

    As I understand it, the essence of the story is to close the circle of business objectives and user goals in such a way that the organization and its web presence are able to deliver 1 coherent and effective user experience. And that for this to be possible the whole organization needs changes on different levels. With your final point being that we as web designers owe it to ourselves to be the people who incite these changes. ‘Web governance” seems a bit of a small word for such a big story.

    Of course, here is where I drop a superb alternative term. Alas, I think I would stick with Lisa’s term or simplify it to web management.

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  7. Your call to action isn’t falling on deaf ears, but one challenge I see is that executives/decision makers have a set idea about what web professionals do, and governance isn’t usually one of them. So in order to be effective, we not only have to carry this message, but also change ideas executives may have about the messengers.

    Our roles are changing and I think people who make websites have some critical perspectives to bring to the table. And after all, if we’re the ones who see the problem but aren’t willing to do anything about it, who will? It will take a little time and a lot of work to get a spot at the table, though.

    Thanks for writing this – a great piece and something we all need to be talking about a lot more.

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  8. The painful process of moving from a bookshelf online to a strategic communications tool requires openness to influencing the organization’s culture (change management) and critical view of our own’s performance (iterations and more iterations) and sense of humor (it has to be fun). Thank you for weaving it so nicely in this article!

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  9. Thanks for all the comments! A few responses:

    @“Mark”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/web-governance-becoming-an-agent-of-change//#3 : Thanks for the book recommendation. Sure, a business case alone isn’t sufficient, we have to combine that with clear warnings about the risks we’re taking. The status quo isn’t an option, right?

    @“Thomas”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/web-governance-becoming-an-agent-of-change//#6 : Well spotted that I used “web governance” as a umbrella term where Lisa Welchman has used “web operations management” in the past. Choose the term that fits your audience: I decided that “web governance” would make most sense for ALA readers, but for executives I might use something else. The terminology isn’t critical, it’s a means to an end.

    @“John”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/web-governance-becoming-an-agent-of-change//#7 : you’re right that web professionals aren’t perceived as being interested in strategy or governance. I think this is partly our own fault. If we start leading, perceptions will change. Right now it’s an accurate perception!

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  10. J, this is a terrific article.

    We need more people—be they designers, developers, users, managers, or executives—to recognize the organizational change opportunity that social media systems offer. 

    The challenge (and path forward) is not so much about pressing for changes so that work systems fit the new technology, but rather about recognizing that technology can be a much needed scaffolding and facilitator of new working relationships.

    Most people aware of the tensions for organizational change tend to assume that ‘what technology can now do’ should be what directs the change. That’s the wrong approach.

    The better approach is to look at what organizations can be, who we can be individually and collectively, and what we can do with our work. 

    Purpose, organizational and individual purpose, should drive organizational change.

    This has always been the case.  What’s different now is that we have technology tools that make it possible to create new/improved/better kinds of work and relationships. 

    Folks might want to look at the work of DebLavoy and Drmcewan for insights on purpose-driven technology.  Also, I write about this at AuthenticOrganizations.com, and would love your thoughts.

    cvh

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  11. Jonathan,

    Your article inspired me to take action. After reading it, I put together a proposal detailing why and how my organization should be governing our web content better than we are now. Long story short, I’m now the point person for the project in my organization. Sure, it’s more work on top of my already full plate, but in the end, if it brings value to my organization and makes our web content better for our users, it’s worth it. Less complaining, more doing. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Best Regards,

    Lauren L.

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  12. Hi Laura,

    That’s fantastic! Nice work, and thank you for sharing.

    Jonathan

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  13. what a great and thoughtful location I say Thanks for all about this post detail.

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  14. I have long thought that we as professional web designers need to work together with other professions to achieve real change in how companies create and maintain their digital services and content.

    Khoi Vinh’s article, http://www.subtraction.com/2011/07/20/the-end-of-client-services – about digital products and how companies cannot rely on client services to create them, describes a way to speed up the very necessary change within companies. As does Cennydd Bowles, suggesting that:

    “… if we want to rise to positions of senior influence, we should be open to alternative routes — product management, marketing, even technology — in which we can use design as a lens to innovate, and spread the infectious message of user-centricity from department to department.” (http://www.cennydd.co.uk/2011/fall-and-rise-of-ux/)

    As much as I agree that change has to be made and that we very possibly are the right people to do it, I’m not sure that we, as consultants, can hope to gain enough influence to actually persuade those-that-must-be-obeyed to push said change through.

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  15. I’m late to this article, but it’s among the most validating reads I’ve had since I took my first steps in HTML 3.2 back in 1999. I appreciate the attention to clear terminology, and the various qualifications that other commenters have had about that terminology (crucial, in my opinion). You’ve really laid out this cluster of ideas in pieces and chunks that are accessible – they may form the backbone of my own work manifesto from this point forward. Bravo, and thank you.

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  16. Chris,

    Thanks for sharing, and you’re welcome!

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  17. Jonathan, this indeed is a great read. To try and give people and organizations some kind of “measure” how they are doing in terms of web governance, I am currently working (really work in progress) on a “maturity matrix”. Couldn’t find one out there. Mine is based on experience with a number of organizations, but not (yet) validated to be called scientific. It is focused on various aspects of organizational development, just thought it may be a good thing for others to comment on and perhaps contribute to further development. It can be found here:
    http://www.ophileon.com/en/WebsiteGovernanceMaturityMatrix.pdf

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  18. As others have already said, great article Jonathan. Couldn’t agree with your messages more, except on one point (although it could be another of those pesky terminology things).

    I’m wondering why we would limit this governance focus to web? From my perspective, what’s lacking is governance across all customer/consumer/citizen touch-points. From the website to the mobile app to the call centre to the written documentation. All of these contact points suffer from lack of governance as you describe it, and increasingly I don’t think we can limit our focus to just the web.

    Perhaps what I’m suggesting is that we absolutely need to push organisations towards web governance, but also towards governance for customer contact more broadly. What do you think?

    Cheers
    Jessica

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