How is it that a company with informed, talented, experienced people can still fail to get a return on their digital investments? Sometimes it’s not a matter of what the people are capable of, but how they are working together. Lisa Welchman, digital governance consultant and author of Managing Chaos, excels at bring systems into alignment so that teams can reach the next level.
In Managing Chaos, Lisa Welchman addresses the common symptoms that teams struggle with, including internal politics, unclear standards, poorly chosen technologies. Yet for most of these teams these symptoms aren’t actually the problem. The problem is a lack of digital governance, and it can’t be solved by acquiring more UX skills or new team members.
The solution is a framework, or workflow, that will help empower teams to become more collaborative, more creative, and more successful. Lisa Welchman was kind enough to sit down with UX Booth and discuss digital governance, and all that it can provide for readers who make governance a reality.
- Not many 5yr olds are saying “I want to be a digital governance consultant when I grow up!” (Maybe they should be?) How would you recommend someone train to go into a governance role?
- My own personal background is in philosophy, symbolic logic, and semantics. What this really means, I think, is that I spend a lot of time thinking about systems and their meaning and how to problem solve within systems. An online presence (and the people that make it) is a large system but there are also smaller systems, such as an application development team or a design team. Each of those components has its own dynamic. I’m interested in getting the full team tuned and working to the same dynamic. So, we have to work on the full system and the subsystems to get it all working together nicely.
I am biased, but I think that any humanities-focused education will allow you this sort of thought. The other side of this is having a very broad and medium-to-deep depth understanding of digital management. This means understanding the fundamentals of user interface design, or the fundamentals of code and how various backend systems fit together logically. As I mentioned already, you are trying to orchestrate a system and you need to understand the range of every aspect of that system. So, that means that people who work at interactive agencies and have seen a number of different clients struggle with this problem and have helped craft solutions would be good candidates to move towards a role in the digital governance space.
The other attribute is that you have to be good with people. At its core, digital governance problems are people collaboration problems. And when you go into an organization with collaboration problems, frequently folks are on edge. You have to be able to understand different perspectives and have an even disposition, and the ability to be objective even in situations where you might have your own opinion is crucial. Based on this, those that work in change management have an advantage. If they have this expertise coupled with an understanding of digital they are going to do well.
- If a team can only do one thing today to move towards digital governance, what do you recommend they do?
- Of course I can’t give just one answer! I’ll give two: one is an answer which something that people can actually do themselves, and the other is something that people can do but they may or may not be successful, given the dynamics in their organization.
I’ll start with the latter. Try to engage executives in understanding the strategic importance of digital for your organization. Once an executive is onboard, many thing that seem hard (like staffing augmentation and budgeting for new initiatives) can fall to the wayside. Unfortunately, sometimes executives are ready to hear the strategic digital pitch. Usually, if you spend some time trying to position your argument in business terms (instead of just UX terms) then you will be more successful. But in some environments, even that doesn’t work.
The other thing that can be done is to make sure that you have a handle on your policies and standards. A lot of times I speak with folks inside organizations and they are very upset about the lack of compliance with digital standards. But when I ask them to show me their digital standards, they have nothing documented. Documenting standards and policies is something that anyone can do—and being certain that all of your technology platforms and training programs are aligned with standards so that your internal digital stakeholders can actually adhere to these policies and standards.
- You recommend that any team—regardless of organizational culture—implement digital governance. What types of culture have the easiest time starting governance tactics? What types have the hardest time?
- Interestingly, organizations that pride themselves on collaborative, inclusive team dynamics have the hardest time with digital governance. First, “governance” sounds like a nasty word to them. They think it means top down control, and it doesn’t mean that, or at least it doesn’t have to. Organizations that are mature and, for whatever reason, already have in place mature governing practices for other reasons — such as organizations in the financial or pharmaceutical industry or other areas that are highly regulated, find it easier to accept the idea of governing, because they have to govern other things. On the whole, though, I still find that most organizations have a tough time when it comes to digital governance because they haven’t yet figured out that digital is something that needs to be governed. There’s a sense that things that you put on online in other channels are easy to do and don’t require any mature operational approach. I see that view starting to shift though. So, that’s good news.
- Oftentimes, people who want to be “in control” may struggle with not being on the core digital team. What are some of the benefits to being on the distributed digital team?
- Being on the distributed digital team is one of the best things there is! You don’t have to play “good cop/bad cop” and you get to make things. Also if your digital team is well-formed then there should be an arena where distributed team members can actually offer constructive input to the establishment of standards. Usually though, when distributed team members see what it means to be in the core team they’re not as interested. The core team’s main remit is defining and implementing standards so that when distributed team members write content or develop applications, for example, they do it within a frame that allows the whole online footprint to hang together. It’s the distributed team, usually, that does a lot of the making.
- A good governance plan identifies who is responsible for making decisions in various scenarios. Do you have any recommendations for deciding who makes the decisions? (rock, paper, scissors, perhaps?)
- Deciding who makes the decisions should be relatively easy. Digital domain experts make these decisions. In the best world, decisions about digital standards are not based on opinion, but based on expertise. Once an organization takes this view, they realize that many of the debates that are taking place aren’t really taking place amongst domain expert peers but amongst domain experts and everyone else (everyone else may have strong but often not particularly informed opinions). One of the challenges around digital is that it is a fairly immature discipline, so people don’t have as much respect for it or understand that there are actually people who are experts in how to make things digital—people who have worked in a focused way in the digital space for 20 years!
- You offer many great suggestions for organizations to develop and maintain digital governance. How did you develop some of these strategies?
- I’ve been working in this space since 1996, when I worked at Cisco Systems. My entire career has revolved around looking at large scale international digital teams web teams in all vertical spaces and in trying to understand how to make them work better. So, I’ll have to say most of the development of my digital governance methodology comes through 20 years of trial and error and the redundancy of seeing teams make the same mistakes over and over again in different context and with me trying to solve those problems in different ways. Early on I saw that it wasn’t technology or design that made online experiences fail but that it was all of the internal churn and debate as it related to people. Once I figured that out, it was only a matter of trying to understand what was it, exactly, that was causing that churn. After a while I saw that it was decision-making and a lack of clarity about who ought to be making decisions that all rolled downhill into governance.
- How can readers learn more about digital governance?
- The ActiveStandards Resource center has a series of articles I wrote on digital governance. Capgemini and MIT also have an interesting paper out. Their take on digital governance is broader and its emphasis on risk and compliance more focused than how I chose to handle digital governance in Managing Chaos. I think that’s the next step for organizations, determining which of their digital channels need to be brought into harmony. For marketing-focused digital teams the channel emphasis is website, mobile apps, and social media. But, for organizations that really want to get their arms around “big data” and dive into the pool of the Internet of things, the approach will have to be broader and deeper. I’d love to see more case studies coming out of organizations that have had success stories. We need to deepen the dialogue.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Lisa! For readers implementing digital governance in their own organizations—and even for readers who aren’t, we can’t recommend Managing Chaos enough. Having a culture that is receptive to creating positive user experiences is a key part of the UX process.