Managing Chaos

Lisa Welchman Discusses Digital Governance

Sally Taylor Posted by

Jan 10 2014

Lisa Welchman, Welchman Pierpoint

Lisa Welchman

Hear “governance” and you may think about budget fights, policy arguments, and gridlock. In the digital world, governance doesn’t actually have anything to do with the government, but it’s very much about getting unstuck.

“A lot of organizations have reached the proverbial wall” in their digital efforts, says Lisa Welchman, a pioneer in the field of digital governance. “They’re in a stalemate, and they can’t move forward unless they get themselves and their websites better organized.”

Welchman has spent over a decade helping large enterprises — multinational corporations, international organizations such as the United Nations, higher education, hospitals and more — get themselves better organized by building governance frameworks.

We talked with Welchman recently about how better governance can benefit content work and her best advice for content professionals.

What’s the core concept of digital governance?

Digital governance is establishing appropriate decision-making authority for digital strategy, policy, and standards. Basically, deciding who decides. In a lot of projects, there are arguments and debates about user interface design, information architecture, editorial standards, or infrastructure platforms like web content management systems or portals. Those organizations have never stepped back and said, who is supposed to decide what the standards are for these things? Who are the decision makers?

Because the web grew so organically, there are a lot of people in the mix who feel like they have the authority to make decisions who maybe don’t have the expertise to do so but historically have been able to. If you can figure that part out, then you can figure out who to go to when there are debates or you need a final decision. So, it’s deciding, outside of the context of a specific project, who has the authority to make decisions about digital strategy, standards and policy.

How have you seen governance make a difference in the content arena?

In big organizations, the core web team often doesn’t have the bandwidth to maintain all the content for the whole website or monitor all the content for the social channels or the mobile apps. So they’d like to decentralize, but they are reluctant to do so because people who have subject matter expertise might not have real web expertise—things like writing web copy or understanding how to maximize user experience.

Part of governance is stewardship of standards and ensuring that you create a standards-compliant environment inside an organization. That means more than saying, “I’m the expert and this is what the standard is, and if you can’t uphold this standard then you can’t be involved.” It’s enabling others in the organization to help support digital channels.

We see a strong connection between effective evaluation and governance. How do you view the role of evaluation in governance?

Once you have your strategy, the measurement piece comes into play, making sure that you have the performance metrics in place to evaluate whether or not you are actually doing the right things online, or doing the effective things online.

The problem in an environment with no governance can be that if you are down some business unit, and you’re asked to provide metrics to see whether some piece of content is effective or not, you’re going to build metrics that are about your business silo. So that’s good for you, but it’s not good for everything, It doesn’t address what your content is doing in another business context, if you’re doing cross-selling or whatever. That’s why it is really important to have a holistic view of evaluation.

What other advice do you have for content professionals?

I hear a lot of complaints from content people that my boss doesn’t get it, my stakeholders don’t get it, they’re not doing what we’re saying. I see far less effort from them in trying to understand the business case. My advice is: Listen to your stakeholders — actually hear what they are saying and understand what their concerns are — and take that more into account when you are developing your content strategy.

The other thing I say all the time is: Lead. It’s not okay to sit in the back seat and say “Listen to me” but be too scared to drive the car. A lot of content strategists want to lead from the back seat, and they are going to have to step up. That means understanding more about about management, budgeting, running content teams, and how their content is making the business money or gaining new members.

How can content practitioners better encourage or implement governance? 

When I go into organizations and say show me your standards, I often hear: “Well, they aren’t really written down, they’re in my head. I’m the expert, and people just run it past me.” Or, they’ll go somewhere to some irretrievable place on their intranet, find some giant PDF or Microsoft Word file, download it and email it to me. And I say to them: Is this the best you can do for your internal stakeholders? You’re complaining that they aren’t doing content right, but you’re making them dig around an intranet that’s a disaster area and pull out a 200-page file and find the standard they need — does that sound right?

How can organizations get started developing a digital governance framework?

The part that makes most people crazy is decision making about standards. Policy, which is like privacy policy, security, and accessibility, are important but less so on the day-to-day tactical level for most digital workers. If you don’t have the bandwidth or resources to start a full governance framework, figure out who has decision-making authority for different sets of standards. We usually break it into four piles: design; editorial; publishing and development; and network and server infrastructure.

I guarantee there’s a lot of people who think they have authority for designing standards, or who think they ought to. And this lack of clarity is what causes so much debate during projects. So, sit down and have that conversation around those standards outside the context of a project. Because if you’re in the middle of a project and you try to make these decisions, it’s called a fight. If you do it outside the context of a project, it will be a conversation.

Lisa Welchman is founder of Welchman Pierpoint. Learn more about her at www.welchmanpierpoint.com. She will share her methodology and insights in a new book, Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, coming out later this year.

Read more about governance and evaluation in our post, “My Goodness, My Governance.”