Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Drawing the lines - effectively structuring government online teams

There are many approaches in government - and the private sector - to managing their online channel. The area is still young and as yet I've not seen best practice structures emerge, as has occurred within other areas of organisation management.

In this post I intend to reflect on the different approaches and my own experiences of how well I have seen these work in practice.

I'll then propose the approach that I believe delivers the best outcomes for an organisation and its customers in today's environment.

I welcome all comments reflecting other peoples' experiences and views.

Axes of online team management
When I consider the approaches towards structuring an online area within an organisation, I start from the perspective of thinking about the different activities, products and mandate involved.

I believe there are six primary activities involved in managing an online presence,
  • Marketing (advertising, online engagement, online participation)
  • Content (writing, editing, publishing, training authors)
  • Design (standards-based, rich media)
  • Reporting (analysis, business reporting, technical reporting)
  • Development (coding)
  • Infrastructure (network/hardware management)
Organisations quite often manage these activities separately - a traditional approach being Infrastructure and Development managed within IT teams, the Marketing and Content functions within Comms and Marketing (or HR) areas, and Design and Reporting sitting in either, depending on the organisation's structure.

There are also often product/service or brand divisions in play,
  • Intranet - one or many
  • Website - one or many
  • Extranet - one or many
  • Online campaigns
Some organisations make different business teams responsible for different products, services or brands - which lends itself to each team having responsibility for the website and online campaigns related to the products it manages.

In these cases there is often - but not always - a central IT team looking after back-end activities.

Finally there are different levels of mandate for sites within an organisation
  • Official sites (endorsed by entire organisation)
  • Semi-official sites (endorsed by a group, may be known but not endorsed at senior levels)
  • Unofficial sites (managed by teams and commonly kept under the radar)
In organisations with significant network flexibility it becomes easy for individual teams to build their own unofficial sites - particularly for internal team collaboration. I've even seen cases where ares build intranets in Powerpoint or similar tools to avoid the limits of a central IT system.

These may have a level of mandate within the area, or senior managers may turn a blind eye to them so long as they are adding value to the organisation.

Team structuring
Combine these three axes together and what do you get?

Massive variation, blurred lines and confusion - there are literally thousands of ways to organise an online team.

Worse yet, many of these approaches appear to work - they allow an organisation to achieve its underlying objectives through,
  • Achieving organisational goals (meeting deadlines, delivering on targets
  • Delivering appropriate quality outcomes (products, services, support)
  • Managing people (authority structure, accountability and measurement)
  • Controlling budgets
  • Avoiding litigation and perceptual disasters (spin control)
However it can be very hard to judge whether the organisation is getting the best possible outcomes for the resources committed.

A change in structure could result in a better ROI - or a worse one - but how is an organisation to know?

Common structures
Below are some of the structural approaches I've seen in action over the years and my take on how well they perform.

All in one - Technology focus
One of the first models for online channel management to evolve lumped all activities together within an IT function. This commonly occurred because the internet was new and still perceived as a technological artifact rather than as a media channel.

The approach has had mixed success. Where the IT team was leading the business, highly in-tune and integrated with other groups and contained excellent communicators, they could evangelise the medium, work collaboratively and get business stakeholders involved.

Where the IT team was seen as a blocker, divorced from the organisation or had communications difficulties, the approach had limited or no success. IT didn't engage the business effectively and at times became protective of 'their' websites and intranets - even fearful at times that business people would ruin them with marketing-speak and flashy graphics - rather than focusing on pure substance.

I last saw this approach in practice only a few years ago, where an organisation's IT team saw the intranet, because it used a content management system, as a technology tool. They controlled all aspects of the content that could go in it, the promotion and support of the intranet. As a result the intranet had no credibility, barely anyone used it and the organisation found other pathways around this 'blockage'.

All in one - Marketing focus
The other extreme is a situation that became popular around 1998 when the internet became 'hip'. Marketing and Communications teams got online and realised that websites were a communications channel. Where IT teams didn't have the skills or culture to support them, the Marketing groups went outside to commission, and even employ, web developers to build corporate, product and advertising sites.

This resulted in a huge explosion of interest. By nature Marketers are more interested in communication than IT groups, due to the goals of the area and the personality types attracted to it. The internet was popularised and brochureware abounded.

It wasn't all beer and roses however. Standards suffered - leaving some users unable to access certain websites. Also code standards and reliability declined - many people became web developers without much formal coding discipline.

Single-split - Marketing and IT
At around the same time (1998), IT teams who had been working hard to collaborate with business areas had their first major successes - Marketing teams were interested in taking over the website, but wanted IT to take care of the backroom technology tasks.

This is one of the most common splits today - IT takes care of infrastructure and development, while business teams look after content and marketing. Design and reporting are split between the two.

This approach has worked very well in situations where the two groups share common organisational goals and collaborate well.

However in situations where the priorities of the groups differ, it has resulted in power struggles and poor outcomes. These are generally framed in terms of budget disputes or in one group imposing its will on the other, either making changes and releasing sites without the knowledge of the other group, or refusing to take certain actions without extremely senior approvals.

I see this issue occurring quite often today. As a result while the approach does suit the political or cultural bent of some organisations, I don't believe it delivers the best outcome for them.

Double-split - Marketing/HR and IT
Another very common approach is similar to the Single split - but involves a third group such as HR managing content on internally facing sites (intranets) while Marketing focuses on externally focused sites.

This situation often arises as staff communication is not seen as being as critical or as rewarding as customer communication. In many organisations intranets are the poor cousins of the websites - despite being extremely effective tools for equipping staff in their external dealings.

These situations add stress to the relationships between teams as commonly IT is expected to handle the back-end for both the externally and internally focused sites. This increases competition over limited budgets and resources. It also can lead to more political infighting.

At the same time, without extremely tight relationships between the content teams, websites and intranets do not support each other. I've very commonly seen a new promotion on an external website, yet the staff were not informed of it via the intranet. This results in inefficiencies across the process, lowers ROIs and can damage an organisation's image.

So in summary - the teams need to work together closely, but simultaneously need to compete over limited IT resources. I see that as a recipe for disaster in most cases.

Multi-split - Product teams/Marketing/HR and IT
An approach common in organisations with many brands or products is to devolve website and intranet responsibility to different product teams. In the public sector this is like having many school sites, or sites for each set of services offered by an agency.

The approach appears to integrate sites more closely with individual areas, thereby improving the overall quality and timeliness of information. However, unfortunately, not all teams have the same abilities or commitment - so the end result can be greater variation in quality and an inconsistent experience with the organisation as a whole.

This approach can be executed effectively if it has strong governance and technical support; however this hasn't proven to be the case in the public sector at least. At the moment many state governments are cutting their number of websites dramatically and moving to centralised management.

Integrated team
The final approach I'm looking at today is one where the online team becomes its own group, not directly beholden to Marketing, HR or ICT.

This approach is only four or five years old and represents an evolutionary step in online management It reflects the growing importance of the online channel to organisations and the specific disciplines and skill sets required for effective channel management.

In many ways it is similar to the evolution of call centres. As telephones became an important customer engagement channels, call centres were spun out of communications teams into their own structures. This seems to have worked pretty well.

Some key planks for success in this approach are that the Online group must remain in a business area and be managed accordingly - technology is the enabler, but not the aim of the channel. Also the group must maintain strong ties to Marketing and HR areas, which become its key customers. Commonly this group would report to the CMO or equivalent in an organisation.

The most successful Online groups vertically integrate web development together with reporting, content and design. Commonly IT remains responsible for infrastructure and often the marketing team shares responsibility on online marketing.

This vertical integration ensures that the group has the internal integrity to be able to address both marketing and standards-based organisational needs, while simultaneously innovating in the online space.

The most effective online developments require content, design and development to work together and this is harder to achieve in split situations, where IT and content resources are under the control of different management structures.

Evolution of structure
In many cases organisations move between different models over time.

A prime example is the agency I currenlt work for, which began with an all-in-one Marketing model where the website was a Communications initiative (and intranet was embedded in another Department's intranet).

After a period of growth the technical management of the site (together with the web development team) was handed over to ICT, who had also taken over the intranet's backend. Different content teams looked after the website and intranet - a double-split model.

The agency then used a project approach to develop and manage a secure portal, turning the situation into a multi-split model - intranet, website and secure portal all managed by different teams, but with the same ICT back-end.

When I arrived at the agency I proposed changing to a single-split model, with an interim step whereby our public website and intranet would be managed by the same team.

Thus far the organisation has implemented the interim step, taking us back to a double-split model and I expect further evolution to occur.

My pick
I am a strong proponent for the Integrated model - a separate online group with its own resources and budgets.

This is reflective of the importance of online for organisations today and the need to be able to innovate within the channel without being tied to the slower pace of applications development or be an afterthought to other communications channels.

Where this isn't achievable due to geographic, political or cultural reasons, a single-split model is the next best alternative.

This approach reduces the number of stakeholders competing for IT resources, allowing the alignment of priorities and budgets and cross-development for different online properties.

It does require more active engagement and co-operation at senior levels, as IT and Marketing groups must play nice and, where possible, share the same goals. Otherwise funding and prioritisation issues will see resources directed away from the channel towards other initiatives, crippling the organisation's ability to deliver online outcomes.

Your pick
I'm intensely interested in others' views on this topic - on their experiences of online channel management, on the different approaches that work, and on the approach they believe is best.

Which approach - if any - do you believe is best for an organisation?


  1. A good comprehensive article Craig. Definitely support an Integrated model - although where I am currently we (our group) outsources all hosting, infrastructure and application support ... which while more expensive than in-sourcing it does at least guarantee that technology won't comprimise the business goals - because at the end of the day we're paying the bills so we get our own way. Not so with internal IT departments.

    Of course I'd prefer to see IT departments performing in a truly supportive and enabling role instead of a command and control role but I don't know if I'll ever see that in my lifetime as long as we have deep government hierarchies and the associated politics.

    I don't see much mention of strategy there - would that be an overarching management-driven activity or an element of each of the streams: marketing, development, design etc? Every activity needs to be a part of something bigger and long-term - to have some direction and guidance; from branding right down to coding HTML.

    I would say each individual stream would be best positioned to set the strategic direction for their own specific work - but for a small team such as our own that's a lot of planning overhead.

  2. Excellent overview, very useful.
    I work for an international organisation specialised in research and technology. The management of our online internal communication channel is shared between what you call Marketing and what we call "Information, Documentation and Knowledge". Since one of our organisational goals is to provide expertise world-wide, Knowledge Management is crucial to our organisation. I realise this situation may be atypical but this is how it works: there is a single split between Marketing and Knowledge Management. IT provides support along the lines of "All in one - Marketing". It does not work very well - I can give you more details if you wish - and we are now slowly moving towards an integrated model with HR.

  3. Hi i work for a large company in Italy.my job is intruduce w.g. in organization. I read a lot of document and i spent a lot of time to analyze past experinces (of my customer) in online organization. So now i try to design a model of organization to govern all activity on web:
    1) Design a board of "manager" It manager Hr manager mrkt manager web designer leader
    2) Board decide guide line
    3) Borad Decide key points
    4) Board after analized the datas decide action points to goal

  4. Hi Nice Blog Web oriented business approaches seem to be the most effective way to reach one’s customers in today’s corporate world. This gives your company the advantage of having a global network that links people and businesses. All your global clients get to see is your web development services, if at all, you are going to make any impression on them it is through your website. All that you need to achieve this is to have a professionally designed website that would serve as an undeniably effective tool.Prodigyapex helps you to gain control over your business future through its all encompassing web designing and Web development services.

  5. Craig

    This is a great post (pity you’ve got some spammers trying to high-jack goggle rankings). I’ve used what is here to help inform some research I’m doing whilst trying to prepare a governance model for work.

    I agree that the “integrated team” is probably the best of the models that we’ve currently got. However, I’m not sure if this approach will deal well with the increasing emphases on delivery of online services in the Government sector. In large agencies the delivery of these services online involves integration with core business systems. The integrated model is not able to deal with the governance issues that cut across the many departments and systems, mainly because it treats the web site as stand-alone business activity.. So I suspect this approach could be a barrier to for government agencies as they move into serious online services delivery.

    Anyhow – I’ve also posted some thoughts http://webgovernanceproblems.blogspot.com/