Top

Book Review: Managing Chaos

July 6, 2015

In her book Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, Lisa Welchman shows us how to tame the digital beast. Her reality-tested approach and holistic view make for a great read that is worth every minute of your time.

The book’s subtitle promises digital governance by design, which will get the attention of curious designers and other digital workers alike. But it will also likely produce some skepticism in her audience. After all, don’t we owe a huge part of our creativity to the boundless freedom and chaos the digital environment provides? But if we can hold back the romantic within us for a moment, we’ll remember various situations in which our energy and creativity were stifled by chaos.

Take, for example, what we learn from a conversation with the digital lead of an international company: She has no influence whatsoever on whether the style guide her team worked so hard on will actually be used in the company’s markets. Disconnected teams develop rogue Web sites, ignoring all standards. And nobody has the authority to change that. Chaos, we have to admit, can be a frightening beast, standing between us and our achieving our best work.

So, what is Welchman’s strategy for taming that beast? First, she combines ambition with realism. As much as she wants us to recognize and realize the big, strategic possibilities of digital governance, she never forgets the challenges of the daily grind. Welchman brings a decade of experience to her efforts to improve the practice of digital governance in organizations. She is not a theorist speaking to an audience that is unknown to her. She is a seasoned practitioner and is highly familiar with both digital and corporate environments.

Book Structure, Target Audience, and Didactic Approach

Step by step, Welchman shows us what is necessary to bring some order to the digital realm. She has directed her book to digital workers, their stakeholders, and decision makers, no matter whether they are working for a corporation, government institution, public organization, or non-profit. Experienced UX designers and senior leaders who are ready to trade their operational lenses for a holistic view will get the most out of the book. However, this book will also benefit those readers who have responsibility for purely operational measures—who must often live with the results of uncontrolled digital activities.

The book’s eleven chapters build on each other. Welchman addresses the skeptics up front and provides a FAQ with short answers to some burning questions her readers will likely have: What is digital governance? Do we really need it, given the fact that our company is extremely agile, dynamic, and innovative? What can I do if I’m the only one fighting for some governance at my company? These answers give readers a better idea of whether reading the book is worth their precious time.

To get her message across, Welchman often writes long paragraphs, which are full of concrete examples and do’s and don’ts. Her tone is to the point, and she avoids wagging a finger at us. In introducing her subject, Welchman shares some short anecdotes from her own experience, which gives readers an easier start. Concise summaries at the end of each chapter provide an excellent reference, without making the chapters’ content seem redundant.

Several short assessments help readers to connect the insights to their own work—for example, when Welchman helps us to estimate the current digital governance situation at our own organization. Overall, the author follows the advice that she preaches: be precise, communicate clearly, and motivate people.

What You Will Learn: The Book’s Main Topics

Welchman sees digital governance as a framework that can help an organization to define responsibilities, accountability, roles, and decision-making authority for its digital presence. Therefore, digital governance applies to all of an organization’s digital channels, applications, systems, and services. For an organization to achieve all of its goals for managing chaos, digital governance must be

  • tailored—It must align with a specific organization’s goals and needs.
  • well-funded—It requires the backing of senior management and the C-suite.
  • collaborative—It needs to engage not only the core team, but all departments and stakeholders who have an interest in the organization’s digital presence.

If a company wants to optimize its digital activities—achieving greater efficiency and better results—it must establish clear structures, processes, and accountabilities on which everybody can rely. Designing and implementing a digital-governance framework leads to digital maturity, which offers multiple benefits to an organization. It reduces development costs and stress, minimizes risks, and makes everybody’s job a lot easier.

If you want to start your journey toward digital governance, the central building blocks, according to Welchman, are as follows:

  • digital-governance framework—This overarching construct supports the management of all of an organization’s digital activities.
  • digital strategy—This guiding statement orients the organization toward what it wants to achieve with digital.
  • digital policy—A combination of several binding policies helps to control and mitigate digital risks—that is, they ensure that the company breaks no laws, and everyone respects the company’s values.
  • digital standards—These ensure that strategic and leadership demands get translated into tactical measures and everyone observes them.

Overall, Welchman does an excellent job of imparting this knowledge. She provides us with a clear vocabulary that will be very helpful in discussing issues relating to governance. However, on a few occasions, I would have been thankful if the author had made even clearer distinctions between certain terms—for example, between digital policy and digital standards.

The cornerstone of every successful digital-governance initiative is a balanced and motivated core team. Welchman shows us how to assemble such a team and, equally important, who else we should invite to the discussion. One of the book’s strengths is the inclusive business world view that it promotes. It emphasizes the need for cross-functional collaboration. To be successful, you must combine digital expertise and a deep knowledge of your business domain.

UX designers, who are the main drivers and developers of a digital-governance framework, can derive a lot of benefit from this work. But they must go beyond their comfort zone and converse with their business colleagues who hold a deep understanding of the organization’s business domain. For many UX designers, who are used to working only on digital teams, this will be quite a stretch. But Welchman offers readers a lot of guidance that will ease our journey into this new territory.

By bringing digital governance to their organization, UX designers can prove their strategic value to the business rather than limiting the sphere of their effectiveness to operational activities such as UX research design. This might actually be the biggest service that Welchman’s book provides: it empowers UX professionals to take their seat at the business table.

In the first part of the book, which comprises eight chapters, Welchman offers a surprisingly light-footed foray into the arena of digital governance. The book is at its strongest when the author’s passion for her subject shines through, and she conveys how designing a digital-governance framework almost resembles art.

The second, much shorter part of the book presents three case studies from Welchman’s own work experience. Because the book’s first part forms a self-contained unity, its second part feels almost like an appendix. The examples the author gives there do not achieve the conciseness and informative value of the first part of the book. The case studies remain too close to the surface to really help us translate theory into practice.

Conclusion

Lisa Welchman has introduced us to a subject that isn’t yet on the radar of many UX designers and leaders. Risks, responsibilities, and accountability are rather new themes in the design discourse. With her combination of valuable knowledge, a well-ordered tool set, and practical advice from the trenches, Welchman does a terrific job of facilitating the much-needed discussion about digital governance. But it’s her sympathy for everyone who struggles daily to change things for the better that really makes the book shine.

Welchman not only describes the building blocks of a digital-governance framework, but grounds this approach in a much broader, holistic context. Her mission is fundamentally the improvement of collaboration within organizations through clear structures, processes, and accountabilities. She advocates for a more professional stance on all things digital, leaving behind the exotic aura that they still have in many organizations. Digital should be tightly integrated into an organization’s core—and Welchman demonstrates how to achieve that goal.

Thus, Welchman’s book is not only an essential addition to every ambitious UX professional’s toolbox; it also makes an important contribution to the development of the digital-design discipline. More than twenty years after the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, it is high time that we tame the digital beast. This book provides a great opportunity for us to learn from a real master of digital. 

Principal Consultant / Design Strategist at Futurice

Munich, Germany

Johannes StockAt Spreadshirt, a print-on-demand apparel company, Johannes leads an interdisciplinary team of UX, interaction, and user interface designers. He has over eight years of experience in the field of digital design, marketing, and branding—mostly from an agency perspective. Among his clients are Porsche, Deutsche Telekom, eBay, Vodafone, Fujitsu, and other international brands.  Read More

Other Articles on Book Reviews

New on UXmatters