Often, when I attend conferences, I like to purchase a new book. This is how I discovered Lisa Welchman’s book, Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, to which I was immediately drawn.
Digital projects are often challenging, creative, and fun. There may be a fair amount of healthy—and, sometimes, unhealthy—debate, but that’s generally a positive thing. Inevitably, if you are working on an initiative of any great size, someone will mention governance.
If there’s a faster way to remove oxygen from a room, I’ve yet to find it. Perhaps part of people’s aversion to governance is its reputation for bureaucracy, overhead, and generally slowing things down. There may be a sense of dissonance between those who exercise governance and those who feel encumbered by it.
Throughout her book, Welchman addresses the causes of weak or failed digital governance, while providing strategies for designing and implementing a model of governance that works for a variety of industries and organizations. Particularly helpful are the case studies she provides, which show how various organizations have implemented digital governance in a variety of industries, including manufacturing and academia.
Title:Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design
Author: Lisa Welchman
Formats: Paperback, Kindle, ebook
Publisher: Rosenfield Media
Published: 2015, 1st edition
Much of the apprehension people have around governance stems from the perception that they may lose control or won’t be heard. They conjure images of standards and rules that dictate every aspect of their work. Welchman addresses some common arguments against governance models and eloquently advises us how to overcome their weaknesses.
Governance doesn’t mean the centralized control of all activities. It doesn’t mean that a central office needs to approve everything. What governance really ought to be is an agreement on how to move forward with a digital transformation. In Welchman’s view, governance is about defining who makes decisions pertaining to digital policies and standards.
Governance is about how to make decisions, and resourcing and headcount are part of the formula. Welchman suggests taking care in deciding who should be on a governance team. While it might seem natural to allocate that responsibility to the digital pioneers within an organization or to the team already doing the work, these team members might not have the political clout to affect change in an organization, get adequate resources, or encourage adherence to the firm’s digital standards, policies, and strategy. Further, these teams might easily become overwhelmed by demand for their work.
It is vital to include people who are established leaders within an organization on a governance team. Although they might not have intimate knowledge of digital projects, it is important for the team to have an executive advocate who sees value in digital and can support digital efforts by providing resources and political capital.
Early in the maturity curve, there may be friction between the digital team, who have the knowledge and ability to execute, and company leadership, who may have limited expertise in digital.
Policies and Standards
Two other groan-worthy words are policies and standards. Some designers and creative types bristle at the thought of standards. How can you standardize creativity? The key here is to understand what standards are and are not. Standards should not be cookie-cutter approaches that are imposed on an organization, dictating how to create something. Welchman deftly points out that standards provide the underpinnings for many vital, creative endeavors. For example, Wikipedia, which is very open community, has a strict set of standards and policies; written music has a set of standards; and DNA represents a set of standards. Standards provide a framework that enables digital teams to execute with consistency and quality.
However, the use of standards can be contentious. The stewards of digital standards need to accept a necessary degree of flexibility in adherence to the defined standards. You’ll never achieve 100% compliance with standards. Sometimes people are ignorant of them, new team members or vendors may be unaware of them, and, at times, standards just don’t answer the questions a design team is asking.
Welchman describes the importance of aligning digital policy with corporate policy. While standards are an active work document that apply to the appearance of a product and the ways people can interact with it, policies are essentially governance documents that give authority to those standards and the governing team. Digital policy may include things such as when to collect customer information, privacy matters, and copyright information.
Similar to the decision to establish governance, policies and standards are foundational to achieving consistent quality and setting the guidelines for digital teams.
Digital and Business Strategy
Not everyone who should read Welchman’s book works for a startup or one of the big technology companies who have digital as a core competency of their business. Some may work for traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers who have an ecommerce division. Others may work for B2B (Business-to-Business) companies or manufacturers who rely largely on relationship selling and meeting customer specifications. Still others may work for nonprofits or in education.
What I like about Welchman’s advice in her book is her understanding that different industries have experienced varying levels of digital disruption. Too often, consultants and articles either provide a one-size-fits-all approach to governance and strategy, or they paint a pie-in-the-sky picture of the great potential that a pure B2B firm can achieve by following the latest digital fad.
Key among Welchman’s insights is the recognition that an organization’s digital maturity is a critical factor in its journey to creating a governance framework. Organizations seem to follow a maturity curve: in the beginning, digital expertise and projects are relatively unmanaged and may not be entirely incorporated in or aligned with corporate strategy.
Welchman provides a brilliant example in her anecdote about Blockbuster Video. It is well known that the video-rental chain met its demise largely because of digital disruption in its industry from the likes of Netflix and others. Certainly, Blockbuster maintained digital standards and governance to some degree. The company had a Web site and some identity standards. However, if digital activities had been better integrated with corporate strategy, Blockbuster’s leadership might have been able to benefit from digital disruption rather than suffer because of it.
Governance for All of Digital
Too often, as new technologies arise, their novelty leads executives to believe that things have changed. Indeed, the marketing materials for many new technology products includes similar messaging. Growth can lead to the creation of alternative governance structures. For example, companies may treat mobile apps as distinct from Web sites. This leads to fragmentation in an organization’s digital strategy and uneven quality in its execution.
I’ve seen this in my own experience—more than once. Although we may start out with one form of governance that we’ve defined in terms of a single deliverable such as a Web site, when a new development effort comes along—perhaps for a mobile app—we are caught flat footed. Because we’ve failed to think about the firm’s entire digital strategy, we didn’t consider other possibilities or a framework for standards. Instead, we focused on a specific type of deliverable.
Managing Chaos advocates taking a broad approach in establishing digital governance—one that is independent of specific technologies or work products.
Throughout her book, Welchman describes the decision to take on governance. Organizations—which are really just collections of people—need to appreciate that there is value in aligning activities that support governance, policies, and standards. This seems fundamental, but a key point of this book is that governance needs to start with people, not technology. Governance fails when it is half baked, unsupported, or unclear, or when it meets entrenched resistance.
I wish Welchman had written Managing Chaos about ten years earlier. I believe this book would have been hugely beneficial to both me and my colleagues in our previous work. It will certainly be helpful going forward.
Ben’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Read More