Web Governance: Becoming an Agent of Change
Issue № 332

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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?#section10

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#section11

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#section12

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#section13

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#section14

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#section15

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#section16

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#section17

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#section18

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#section19

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#section20

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#section21

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#section22

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#section23

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.

18 Reader Comments

  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.

  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!

  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

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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!

  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!

  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.


  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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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:

  15. 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?


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