Curated content for content, computing, and digital experience professionsals

Author: Lisa Welchman

Don’t Hire Fancy Pants Consultants Like us to Tell You the Obvious

I was talking to someone in the office this morning. I was actually watching tech support change a failed hard drive – that’s how badly I didn’t want to sit down and write a particular document. He told me that I didn’t have to watch him change the hard drive (especially because it wasn’t my laptop). I told him – “I’m procrastinating on writing a client document.” After a few polite questions he asked me what the problem was with the client. I sighed and said the conversational equivalent of: “Senior management is completely disengaged when it comes to setting strategic direction for the web.

So, middle management and the web team are just flailing about in a reactionary way putting up whatever content needs to be had at the moment and fighting with each other about what’s the most important content on the site, and watch technology to use, yadda, yadda, yadda…” He nodded knowingly. Then I realized, this statement could be made for just about all of our clients. Most “web site problems” stem from the rotten root of ambivalent senior management. So in a moment of largesse (and finding a more creative way to procrastinate), I thought I would write this blog entry.

If you’re having Web problems, the first thing to consider (before calling a content management system vendor, a taxonomist, a web design firm, or Web Operations folks like us), is whether or not the CEO, Administrator, President or whoever heads your organization is even thinking about the site – strategically. If they are not, then more than likely any changes that the web team makes to the site will just be “interim” or “quick fixes.” For a lot of organizations, the organization’s public facing web site is the first point of contact for business partners and customers, prospects, and information seekers it deserves serious senior consideration.

I’m not just talking about making sure that the web site looks good either. Good web design – while shockingly rare in some segments of the Web – is not a mystery and good web designers and information architects are easy to locate. I’m talking about establishing performance and quality objectives for web sites – objectives, which support the overall mission, service and/or business objectives of your organization and then holding folks accountable for meeting those objectives – like you don’t get your raise if you don’t get it done. If you establish these basic strategic and governance related principles, you will find that a lot of the other decision related to web design, what types of software needs to be utilized, etc. become a lot easier to answer.

So, get your Web Strategy and Web Governance ducks in a row before you shell out the big bucks for a web site redesign or a new web content management system or fancy pants consultants like us.
But if your still dying to talk to someone anyway or just commiserate with other folks with messed up web sites, we’ll be talking a lot about various strategic and governance issues at the Gilbane conference in Washington DC next week.

Hope to see you there.

Why I’m Disgusted with Web Teams

What’s it gonna take to get organizations to take their web sites seriously? By seriously I mean staff them, fund them and manage them? I’m beginning to believe that some newsworthy misinformation-on-the-Web or ecommerce-related revenue losing incident may be the only way that some organizations, both public and private, are going pay attention to the fact that their Web products are an embarrassment and, sometimes, a liability. Is that what it’s going to take? Some unlucky organization’s got to get caught with their Web pants down?

In 1997 I was working on the web team at Cisco Systems. The public web site was serviced by several different groups within the organization and we were constantly battling about who was in charge (sound familiar?). I only mention Cisco by name not to name drop but because it’s significant to my gripe: Cisco Systems, the first big retailers of multiprotocol routers. Cisco gets the internet. Cisco gets the Web. Cisco has a vested business interest in having the Web work for every breathing human on the planet. Cisco would be the first to put the internet on Mars (if it’s not already there). But, Cisco still had a lot problems managing their web site. Why? Because managing a large Web presence is less about understanding the potential and possibility of technology and more about sound operations and management practices– creating an environment where people work together to create a quality product.

Web People (this is a special breed of people who were drawn to work with web technologies during the Web’s commercial proliferation in the 1990s) have many strengths. But establishing sound operating practices and sound management principles don’t seem to be among them. Web people are good at flying by the seat of their pants, doing the impossible overnight for demanding and technologically clueless managers, inventing new products out of new technologies, and complaining about being underappreciated and overworked… but not great about clearly explaining to managers why the organization is at risk because of the low quality of the organization’s web products. In short, Web People are not good managers. It hurts me to say this because I feel like I’m dissing my own people. But, I think it’s for the greater good.

The Web needs to be managed and it needs to be managed by people who understand not just the Web but also business operations and product quality. Unfortunately, this is not a description of many of the plain old vanilla business school manager types we see in organizations. A lot of managers we work with have an aversion to any knowledge that might be construed as specialized. I’m generalizing to make a point. There’s a general view that mangers don’t actually need to *do* anything (particularly anything technical)… that would be for subject experts and individual practitioners—not managers. But not doing something is a lot different than not understanding what you’re managing. Not understanding what you’re managing is bad management. And there is a lot of bad management happening around web sites.

So, on the one hand you have technically-literate but managerially-illiterate individual contributors who know that the organization’s web site is a ticking time bomb. And, on the other hand, you have technically-illiterate but managerially-literate managers who just want to be able to report up that everything is “just fine” with the site. The result is that organizations are stymied by big, unwieldy messed up web sites largely created by a lot of smart, technology-focused Web People who don’t know how to manage their way out of the mess they have unwittingly created. Above them is typically an administrative structure that might know how to manage but won’t take the time to understand the basic technical underpinnings of the Web (“I’m not technical”); so, they can’t manage effectively and make bad, mostly tactical, reactionary choices for their web products based upon the complaint of the moment from the Web People who report them.

These things combined lead to what I consider to be a “deer in the headlights” web syndrome: where lots of smart people in an organization are standing around stunned and up to their waists in bad Web product — and they just stand there knowing that something bad is going to happen but unable to move. It’s a sad sight.

What’s to be done, for all my complaining? Here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Admit Defeat – Admit that you are powerless over your web site and that your web site has become unmanageable.
  2. Figure Out Who is In Charge – Establish some basic organizational norms around the management of your web sites. Make sure the definition of these norms includes Web People and Good Managers.
  3. Make an Operational Plan – Figure out how to get out of the mess that you’re in and how you will work in the future to create a higher quality, strategically-focused web product.
  4. Get a Sponsor – I say this a lot but I also mean it a lot. Find the most senior person that you can in your organization and get them to support you with management mandates and human and financial resources.
  5. Be a Copy Cat – Most organizations have at least one thing that they do really well. Figure out what that is and then figure out why it works. Then apply those principles to your Web Operations plan. While the Web may be new, sound management principles are not.

I’ll talk a lot more about sound Web Operations Management practices and how organizations should approach the staffing of Web teams in 2007 at the Gilbane Conference in San Francisco. Hope to see you either at the Web Operations Management pre-conference tutorial or my talk on Web Team 2.0.

When Web Sites Go Bad

Is your web site any good?

I bet that question made a lot of you cringe and start down a guilt spiral of rationalizations about why your web site isn’t really quite what you wish it was. If you have a bad web site, it’s because your organization is producing a bad web site. And no one who is visiting your site cares why. They don’t care about the bickering between marketing and IT over web site control. They don’t care about the 18-month argument about who gets a link on the homepage, or about the 30 years of history which makes it “impossible” for all the various programs and offices in your organization to cooperate in order to create the integrated web presence that your site visitors long for. They don’t care. But, everyday they are clicking away on your site, frustrated, trying to do business with your organization and trying to get information from your organization. And your organization continues to dither. By rationalizing low quality, you are prioritizing your organization’s bad habits over your customer’s and constituent’s needs.

For a business or an organization with a clearly articulated mission, the intent and purpose of its web site(s) should be obvious–expressed most clearly as a high quality web product. The mission should also be front and center for those producing the organization’s web site(s)- expressed as a coherent set of strategic policies and tactical standards for web site product development. But, we all know this is seldom the case. Web site quality is frequently at the mercy of some set of ill-thought-out, status quo web production processes and a lack of strategic oversight by senior management. All this for what is most likely the first point of contact for individuals interacting with your organization.

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