A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Web Governance: Becoming an Agent of Change

The web’s hit the big time in a way few of us imagined possible. So as people who make websites, you’d think we’d be celebrating our repeated successes in designing amazing user experiences, as the organizations we work for become increasingly successful. But many of us have noticed a problem in our work: the user experiences we deliver don’t meet our expectations. Here’s the problem: organizations are the context for our work, and when it comes to the web, organizations are broken.

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Consider these common project scenarios: a website redesign, a web application, or an email or social media campaign. We keep hitting brick walls because the organization has problems with strategy, governance, execution, or measurement. We know that the project won’t achieve its objectives, because we’re working on the wrong horizon of focus. To fix this problem, we need to start talking about web governance.

Defining web governance

What is web governance? That’s a difficult question to answer, because business language is slippery and organizations and modern web management are complex. Luckily for us, Lisa Welchman has pioneered this space. She’s already defined the areas we need to learn about.

We’ll use “web governance” as an umbrella term to cover the four components of web strategy, web governance, web execution, and web measurement. Let’s take each in turn.

  • Web strategy should be created by senior management to establish guiding principles for the web: high-level objectives and metrics based on the organization’s business strategy. It also formalizes authority and funding for the web within the organization.
  • Web governance defines decision-making processes for the web, and sets policies and standards for web content, design, and technology—in a way that respects subject-matter expertise. (For example, your CEO shouldn’t be setting standards for markup or tone of voice.)
  • Web execution ensures that the organization has an appropriately staffed and resourced web team that can realistically execute the web strategy. (This is where most A List Apart readers work at the moment.)
  • Web measurement measures web performance against the high-level objectives and metrics set by the web strategy. While web analytics help to achieve this, we should be careful not to confuse the numbers we read in analytics tools for web measurement—we need to relate those numbers to business objectives to truly measure success.

One more definition: Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs, is business jargon for the numbers managers use to measure the success of their organization. The point of a web strategy is to relate the success of the organization’s web properties to its overall performance—in other words, to engage senior management with their online successes or failures. To do that we need to talk about the KPIs they care about. Unsuck It defines KPI as, “Measurement (of success).”

The web changed the world and organizations are in denial

Organizations have been using the web for more than 15 years. During that time, it’s grown from being one channel among many to being the channel: the website is now the digital manifestation of the organization, critical to marketing and sales, communications, branding and reputation, and customer service and support. The internet revolution has created huge social change: it’s changed the way people relate to organizations and it’s already destroyed several once-mighty industries, like newspapers, travel agents, and music publishing.

Although we’re comfortable with the idea that the web is critical to organizations, we often miss the corollary: the web has changed the way organizations operate, and in many cases it’s changed their business models, too. When executives can’t see that, it causes a crisis. Welcome to your daily web-making reality.

Organizations manage the web badly

To stay competitive, modern organizations need web strategy, web governance, web execution, and web measurement. But most organizations suffer from:

  • organization-centric thinking and widespread denial about web-related change, combined with no formalized authority for the web, resulting in weak web strategy,
  • a lack of standards, policies, and decision-making processes for the web, combined with turf wars between organizational silos, resulting in no web governance,
  • inappropriately staffed and resourced web teams, resulting in lackluster or patchy web execution, and
  • a lack of appropriate web metrics linked to KPIs, resulting in no realistic web measurement.

Denial isn’t a strategy

By sticking to what they know—that is, pre-web operational practices—executives are crossing their fingers and hoping that time will run backwards. This is crazy. Consider some of the risks they’re taking:

  • legal and regulatory risks caused by out-of-date, inaccurate, or poor quality content (i.e., no content strategy),
  • reputation and brand risks caused by lack of web policy (e.g., for the corporate social media presence),
  • compliance risks like violating regulations about accessibility, data protection, consumer protection, or disclosure caused by lack of standards and policies (web governance),
  • risk of losing market share to more agile competitors who can respond more quickly to events, caused by poor web governance (which leads to slow decision-making),
  • customer relationship risks when customers have difficulty completing top tasks, caused by a lack of web measurement, and
  • financial risks associated with wasting customers’ and employees’ time, caused by poor web strategy.

Organizations are like oil tankers headed the wrong way as if the web never happened. And we can see the approaching iceberg.

We need to tackle organizational change

As web professionals, we strive to serve users’ needs while simultaneously achieving business goals. Although that sounds great, nowadays it’s actually impossible to achieve without tackling organizational change.

We’ve learned that effective user experience work isn’t about taking a single channel, campaign, product, or website, and designing the smoothest possible experience. To actually improve user experience in a sustainable way—that is, while achieving business goals—we need to help organizations deal with the revolutionary changes that the web has created in their business models, operational structures, and customer relationships. As Adaptive Path argues in their book, Subject To Change, organizations need user experience design as a core competency.

You might call this approach service design, multi-channel user experience, or top task management, all of which are valid labels. Today we’re calling it web governance.

Aside: why everyone’s talking about content strategy

This helps to explain the huge impetus behind the discussion of content strategy. Web content is the one thing you can’t touch without involving every part of the organization, which is why most organizations are in denial about it—they’ll do anything to avoid talking to each other. It also explains why so many web teams attempt to bypass the thorny issues surrounding content by repeatedly redesigning, launching short-term tactical campaigns, or spending money on technology. Smart web professionals realize that we can’t deliver great user experiences without content strategy, so it’s our most obvious blockage. But it doesn’t follow that getting better content will solve the web governance problem. It’s the other way around: we can’t sustainably create, publish, and govern quality content unless we start to solve the organizational problems around web governance. As Karen McGrane puts it, content strategy is change management.

Web governance is about changing working practices to match reality

Simply telling the organization that it needs to change won’t have any effect. We have to become change agents ourselves.

More specifically, we can’t change organizational culture on our own. That culture is being forced to change by outside forces, so our job as change agents is to help to change working practices so they start to match the organization’s reality. It’s about pointing out risks, shining a light on organizational denial, overcoming resistance, and facilitating constructive discussions about change.

We’re facing a stark choice

If that doesn’t sound like what you want to be doing with your career, stay with me. There’s a huge upside: actually shipping user experience work that meets user needs while achieving business objectives. How much of your work so far has achieved that over a sustained period? Speaking for myself, not much. As web professionals, we’ve always wanted to make meaningful change in the world. Tackling web governance will get us there, even if the journey scares the hell out of us.

We’re facing a stark choice right now: keep whining or start leading.

Are you crazy? Why me?

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.

Today, the critical skills of a web professional aren’t technical. They’re skills like advocacy, facilitation, diplomacy, pragmatism, and patience. Technical skills still matter, but they don’t differentiate us in the market anymore, and we can’t use them effectively without tackling organizational change. To be effective, we need to leave our comfort zones.

The skills market is changing

The choice is stark because the skills market itself is changing. The era of charging a premium simply for knowing how to code HTML and CSS, install a content management system, design wireframes, or write for the web are behind us. And if you live in a high-cost location like North America or Western Europe, sticking to your professional comfort zone will likely lead to commoditization, low pay, and ultimately frustration and depression.

Another way to look at the problem is through the organizational context for our work. Until recently, we got away with a Wild West approach to web management: anything goes, no accountability, no measurement. As Christine Pierpoint argues, executives won’t put up with this attitude for much longer.

It’s time to broaden the scope of web standards

We learned from the web standards movement (and parallel campaigns to demonstrate the value of information architecture and user experience) that we have the power to make a difference, if we do the work of articulating why the practices we advocate can help people achieve their goals. It’s time to broaden the scope of web standards beyond interoperable, accessible markup and scripting languages for web content. Organizations need web standards that cover these areas, but they also need web standards for editorial considerations (see content strategy), design (see user experience design), and technical considerations (see structured content, interoperability, data governance, hosting, etc.).

As a community, this is something we know how to do. Let’s rise to the challenge.

Start a web governance campaign

So we’ve decided to give this web governance thing a shot.

The most important step we can take is to get started, which means leaving our comfort zone. Becoming a change agent means getting used to doing things that we find scary: challenging assumptions, asking questions about business goals and risks, and facilitating discussions about change. We need to articulate the problem so that our stakeholders will understand it and find it difficult to ignore. To get there we need to do some homework. Here are some questions to get started:

  • What are our business goals? Do we have a written web strategy? (We need one.)
  • How does the organization make money (or equivalent for non-profits), and how are web operations linked to that? How is that measured?
  • How much do our web operations cost, and how much money do they make? (In most cases nobody can answer this question, which is a problem.)
  • Has anyone documented the decision-making process for the web? Do we have any standards and policies?
  • How are our web teams staffed and resourced? Do we use external agencies, or is everything in-house?
  • How are we measuring success on the web? Are web metrics linked to the organization’s KPIs?
  • Has anyone documented the legal, financial, and reputation-related risks we’re taking on the web?

As well as asking questions, we’ll work with what we’ve got: web analytics, sales numbers, data from annual reports like KPIs, and web case studies like A/B test results, especially anything that demonstrates how a design change influenced customer engagement or profitability.

Articulate the problem

We’ll attempt to articulate the problem in a way that relates directly to:

  • the executives’ actual jobs, e.g., their targets and renumeration,
  • the risks we’re taking (legal action, lost customers, competitive advantage, profitability), and
  • what the competition are doing, and how that might impact profitability and market share.

In short, sell to their pain. For maximum influence, we must speak in management-friendly language, making them feel smart by avoiding tech-speak and jargon and being as clear as possible.

Build a business case

As bland as it sounds, organizational change happens when people build a compelling business case. If we can put dollar signs behind every recommendation we make, our stakeholders will be more likely to listen. We need to combine the scare tactics of pointing to risks and lost revenue with specific, positive suggestions of next actions that will start to address the problem. For example, check out Melissa Rach’s guide to putting a dollar value on web content.

Get help from the outside world

We can get help from the community outside of our organizations by attending meetups about web strategy, content strategy, web management, or intranets, to share our knowledge and learn from other people’s experiences. If there’s no meetup in your area, start one. We can also attend relevant conferences, pitch presentations to those conferences, and blog about our experiences (without revealing anything confidential, of course.)

Another way to get an outside perspective is to commission a study from consultants. We could also try some targeted usability testing to demonstrate the influence our web governance problems are having on real, live customers. Once our stakeholders understand that effect on a personal level, they’ll find it easier to see the bigger picture.

Build support for change within the organization

Get a sponsor: someone senior in the organization who cares about this problem and wants to fix it. Let’s find that person, and get them to teach us how change happens: who should we speak to, when, and how should we present our case?

Make allies

Web governance isn’t about getting our own ideas implemented—it’s about building support and awareness among other people in the organization. Why not treat our web governance campaign like a communications project, complete with target audiences, key messages, and business goals? For example, Sarah Marx Cancilla’s team built support for content strategy within the engineering-led hacker culture at Facebook with their “Friends of Content Strategy” campaign of group lunches, practical tools, targeted case studies, and cool tee-shirts.

Get people talking about governance in a positive way

We’re trying to create an open, non-confrontational context for stakeholders from different organizational silos to start talking to each other, so they can align around goals, work to find differences of perspective, and clarify objectives, metrics, and challenges. Once people get used to talking about the issues—and they see that alignment is actually possible—it’s easier to convince them that working together on web governance will help them achieve their goals.

Keep your eye on the prize, but be realistic

It takes a long time to turn an oil tanker. Instead of setting ourselves up for failure by trying to fix everything at once, let’s make our objectives realistic. For example, in a large organization we might need to spend weeks on the road visiting different teams just to get alignment on a project.

Start a pilot project

Choose a pilot project that has a good chance of getting results: an easy win. For example, is there a section of the website with dire analytics, or a piece of content that’s clearly losing money because of poor web governance? Once we’ve found our pilot project, we’ll state what we’re going to do, and set a clear metric so everyone knows what success looks like. Then we’ll start the pilot project and measure the results. If it succeeds, we can make a big deal of it, write a case study, and use that to build a business case for broader change. If it fails, we’ll reframe the problem incorporating what we’ve learned, and then try again.

Keep up the momentum

Once the boost of our initial success fades, we’ll enter a dip in enthusiasm. Lesser mortals would give up at this point, but it’s crucial that we keep going. If that sounds like too much work, ask yourself how committed you are to this organization. If you don’t genuinely care whether the plan works, consider your options. This place might not deserve you, and there are hundreds of other places that desperately need your help.

The opportunity of a lifetime

We’re living through a revolution as significant as the industrial revolution—as Clay Shirky has pointed out—and it’s already had a huge influence on our personal and social lives, the way our organizations operate, even our politics and civic institutions. Although working on web governance might sound like the last thing we’d want to do, I think we’re lucky to have the opportunity: our skills and experience as web professionals mean we’re uniquely placed to do this work. Our parents never had it this good.

Let’s get out of our comfort zones and start to make some change within our organizations, so that they can begin to deal with their new internet-era reality. We’ll be glad we make that choice.

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