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The case for digital governance

If you’re anything like me, you’ll cringe at the thought of digital governance. Even now, as I sit here writing this article, I feel torn making a case for something that would have, at one time reviled me.

Before I start, its probably worth defining what we mean by Digital Governance.

Lisa Welchman, writing for Rosenfield media describes Digital Governance as a ‘framework for establishing accountability, roles and decision-making authority for an organisation’s digital presence’.

For me, Digital Governance can be defined in even more simple terms, as “doing the right things and doing them in the right way”.

When I started out in my career, digital as a discipline was new. The ground was unbroken, fertile and offered limitless potential. There were no rules and standards and conventions had not yet been formed. It was a time where Amazon had only just started selling books online, real physical ones, and those (mostly young and tech savvy) people who were using the internet were accessing it through AOL on dial-up.

Back then, even the thought of introducing something akin to Digital Governance would have been seen as the antithesis of what the internet should be, a space where the traditional rules were being challenged, where the new was fighting for dominance over the old and where innovation and change were the foundation-stones of the world yet to come.

At that time, I think if anyone had put their hands up to raise an objection or express a concern, “Excuse me Mr Zuckerberg, we really should have a policy to govern that change,” or “Making that update without testing may cause irreparable damage to our brand” they would have, at best, garnered some very strange looks from their colleagues and more likely, been laughed out of the room before being sent to work for Kodak or Blockbuster video.

Of course, even this assumes there was another person actually there in the office to laugh at you. Digital teams back then certainly weren’t what they are today. In the late 90’s many organisations didn’t even have a digital team. In fact, you’d have been lucky if there was someone within the organisation who had assumed responsibility for digital at all.

How times have changed


Flash forward 15 years and digital governance has become central to how many of us wrestle control over our ever-growing and ever more complex digital estates.

Digital Governance doesn’t only provide a framework with which to mitigate against catastrophe, when used appropriately, it is the mechanism by which we can better protect our investments and ensure that we achieve consistency and quality, while maintaining the alignment with our strategic roadmap and business plan.

Yet, despite this, I’m surprised by how many organisations I work with that fail to get their digital governance regime right. That’s not to say these organisations haven’t tried, they definitely have, but like many things, achieving the correct level of governance is about balance. Too much and you risk stifling creativity and freedom of expression, which in turn leads to the suppression of innovation and competitive advantage being squandered.

Too little and you will severely limit the longevity of your digital solutions and find yourself in a never-ending battle, fighting fires and wasting your time and budget repairing the ‘potholes’ in your digital products.

Pras Hanth is quoted as saying “Good governance should be like air. It’s existence need not be discussed, but its absence would make a huge difference”

I personally subscribe to this view, one where Digital Governance plays the role of the ever-present protector and guide, standing guard in case the unfortunate were to occur, but never taking centre stage, or actively working to subvert an organisations ability to develop and grow.

Assessing the maturity of your digital governance


In her article, Lisa Welchman describes the 5 stages of digital governance maturity, Launch, Organic Growth, Chaos, Basic Management and Responsive. Each represents a stage on the evolutionary ladder for an organisation wishing to achieve high standards of digital governance compliance.

‘Launch’ refers to the period of initial business deployment, where standard processes and policies, with the exception of those concerned with legal compliance are largely undocumented and unknown throughout the organisation.

‘Organic growth’ defines the period of development within an organisation where ways of working and operating procedures are starting to emerge. At this stage, limited governance practices may be starting to form, but are far from standardised.

During the ‘Chaos’ phase, organisations have typically come to realise the need for standards and a digital governance. Some of these may have been documented as policies, but often there are still large inconsistencies between the approaches taken between one department and another. The ‘Chaos’ phase is also likely typified by a plethora of stakeholders wanting to claim ownership of any given process, but yet despite this there remains no overriding ownership for compliance, standardised working practices and digital governance at a senior leadership level.

The ‘Basic Management’ phase of the maturity model is reached when standardised processes and policies governing how Digital Channels begin to percolate within an organisation and their use is commonplace .

At this stage, ownership is much clearer and documented policies are far more consistent. There is also typically much more evolved organisational collaboration between teams, departments and divisions, so as to ensure a jointly held view of the policies is defined and abided by.

The final stage ‘Responsive’ is used to describe an organisation that has achieved the highest level of digital governance maturity. Organisations in the ‘Responsive’ stage have highly integrated, unified and consistent standards and policies in place. There is significant cross-organisation collaboration and standardised ways of working, developed over time to maximise quality and consistency, while simultaneously ensuring all work undertaken is aligned to a strategic roadmap.

If you don’t immediately identify where your organisation sits in the digital governance maturity model, don’t worry, most organisations are likely to straddle multiple phases. Changes in leadership, organisational focus, culture and even the expertise and experience of individuals within teams will all play either a positive or detrimental role on the state of digital governance maturity. You should see it as a journey full of peaks and troughs rather than a consistent line from one stage to the next.

Increasing your digital governance maturity


Building a more mature digital governance model within your organisation will ultimately take time. Depending on your starting point, it would not be unrealistic for some organisations to take years to reach the higher levels of maturity. Also, it’s folly to think that you can massively improve your maturity overnight. Even if policies were written to cover all eventualities, organisational culture will still take time to catch up and adapt.

But don’t dismay, perseverance over the long term does however bring with it the prospect of significant benefit. With every incremental step made up the digital governance maturity model you will find that you are better able to exercise control over the quality of your digital deliverables, where your budget is best spent to maximise return and devise methods that ensure enduring quality in the digital products you produce.

Of course, every journey has a beginning and you need to start somewhere. In my experience there are three tactics that if introduced will immediately improve the position of your organisations governance of digital and give you the greatest bang for your buck. These are:

  • Define a clear Digital Strategy
  • Document standard policies for your digital channels
  • Establish collaborative governance approval boards.

Define a clear digital strategy


If your aim is to improve not only the quality of your digital products, but also to optimise the way they are constructed, you need to first set a direction, roadmap and a digital strategy that articulates these things.

Developing a digital strategy and communicating it effectively throughout an organisation is the best way to influence the behaviours of your employees. If you lay down the gauntlet and specify the standards expected by the leadership team, then your subordinates will help you reach that end goal. Failure to clearly articulate your digital strategy on the other hand, will have the opposite effect, encouraging an ‘anything goes’ culture, where your digital solutions are not outcome focussed and where quality is inconsistent and in some cases totally lacking.

Document standard policies for your digital channels


If you look closely enough, you will likely find that policies governing the standards of your digital channels and digital propositions exist, however they may well be inconsistent, poorly socialised and little regarded outside of the team from which they were documented.

Good policies should be clear about what is acceptable and where there are ‘red-lines’ that cannot be crossed. If you take the digital brand guidelines for example, it may be appropriate to use your standard tone of voice guidelines on your company website, however would you also want the same guidelines to govern how you interact with customers on Twitter for instance.

By the same token, policies should also not try and close down the evolution of the brand. One of the great things about digital is the wide array of possibilities it offers, however unduly restrictive policies can often lead to these opportunities being dismissed as they would contravene the edicts laid down by heavy-handed compliance teams.

Also, with policies, when you have documented them remember to share them widely. If you work with a number of agency partners, contractors or freelancers, make sure they also have copies. It will help them understand the standards you expect, increasing the chances you’ll get a product from them that you’re happier with and that stands a much improved prospect of gaining organisation support and approval without undue scrutiny.

Establish collaborative governance approval boards


Getting people around a table to talk is very rarely a bad idea. In the case of digital governance, the more collaboration that can be achieved the better. If all teams and departments are aware of the organisations digital policies and have a forum to discuss, prioritise and debate the work processing, it will inevitably lead to improved quality and a more well rounded product.

A good governance board, or committee should consider all requests, small and large before prioritising each one in turn based on its merits. This is important as if a digital change committee or approval board only reviews large schemes, then over time, small ungoverned changes may cause a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ where the overall quality of your estate is eroded, despite having a number of highly successful flagship propositions.

While prioritisation at this level can be time consuming, the pay off is immediate in that non value adding activities are removed or repurposed before they can consume effort and time. Working through at this level also improves organisational awareness of change, meaning the time spend on encouraging adoption and communicating the change is also vastly reduced.

It is also wise to use the digital governance approval board to ‘check in’ on work in progress, ensuring that where policies have been set, those responsible for the delivery of the initiative or project are demonstrating their compliance with the policy, or at least have a good justification as to why not.

In conclusion


Digital Governance is ultimately a pivotal tool that when used correctly and appropriately can help to ensure the overarching consistency and quality of your digital estate. As the number of digital channels and touchpoints through which a customer can interact with a brand increase, it becomes ever more challenging to ensure businesses deliver a consistent user journey and a seamless brand experience.

This is why defining a set of clear digital policies and standards and setting up the correct digital governance forums is so important and underlines how digital governance should play a central role in the way in which you manage your organisations digital capabilities.

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