Where does responsibility for digital communications sit within a large organisation?
That used to be a fairly easy question (“In the web team of course!”) but it’s not so simple any more.
These days, it begs two rather more difficult questions: which bit of digital and what kind of responsibility do you mean?
Digital communications has evolved something like this:
- IT. In the beginning there was code, and only the tech guys knew how to transform it into websites. Responsibility for managing the channel was theirs accordingly, but this wasn’t terribly responsive to the needs of the organisation, was poorly integrated, and not at all focused on end users.
- Comms + IT. Databases (and later, CMSs) liberated content from code. Responsibility for the ‘new media’ transferred to the business, web teams sprung up in communications departments, while the underlying infrastructure remained with IT or got outsourced. Websites were still organisation-focused but awareness grew fast about accessibility, information architecture, and writing for the web.
- Devolved publishers + Comms + IT. With publishing volumes increasing faster than resources, web monkeying was incrementally farmed out across the organisation, often without much of a plan for quality, editorial oversight and skills transfer. Much vanity publishing ensued and keeping all those pages current inevitably became like painting the Forth Bridge.
- Users + Devolved publishers + Comms + IT. Then came a growing recognition of the importance of providing a good online customer experience, with fewer, better pages and more usable transactions. Websites became more user-led, evidence-based, and search-friendly. Quality assurance and training of devolved publishing was tightened up, with more of the responsibility returning to the centre.
- Moderators + Users + Devolved publishers + Comms + IT. Along came forums, blogs, commenting on articles and the brave new world of ‘user generated content’. New responsibilities brought in new people (with no need for pesky CMS training) to moderate, facilitate and respond to users’ feedback. User-focused web management was by now a mainstream principle, but the organisation was still in control of its message.
- Everyone else + Moderators + Users + Devolved publishers + Comms + IT. Here comes everyone! And a zillion free tools to play with. The explosion in social interaction online created direct communications between customers and employees, and before long it will be happening all over the place. The organisation is no longer in control of where customer-employee or customer-customer interaction happens; let alone what’s being said. Digital communications is now, or will soon be, everyone’s job – listening, collaborating and responding online must become core competences for all if the organisation wants to continue to manage its reputation and meet the expectations of its customers.
So if everyone is going to be at it in future, where will responsibility for digital communications sit? Will there be any need for ‘web teams’ at all? Could responsibility for digital become atomised like it has for Human Resources or Corporate Social Responsibility?
In both those professions, highly specialist, strategically important responsibilities once held in large central teams are now almost completely dispersed – with only a handful of experts setting the rules and giving guidance from the centre.
You could anticipate the same fate for digital. Just as HR can’t line manage for everyone, and just as CSR teams can’t be socially aware on everyone’s behalf, neither can web teams engage with all of the organisation’s many niche customer groups on many niche subjects with anything like the immediacy or authenticity that local teams and individual decision-makers can.
On the other hand, you might argue that this trend of decentralisation could lead to a stronger role for central digital teams in future – just a slightly different one.
That’s certainly my view. Not only because I have a mortgage to pay, but because ‘doing digital well’ is now of such strategic importance and involves such a complex and sophisticated mix of skills, disciplines and knowledge that it needs stronger than ever leadership from a centre of genuine expertise.
I’d even venture to say that in the past we may have devolved some of the wrong things. It’s time for web teams to rein in control over quality of content and user experience, and let go of the local conversations – providing guidance, clear policies, support where it’s needed and light-touch monitoring where it’s not.
Rumours of the web team’s death (in the title of this blog post at least) have been greatly exaggerated. To me, the future of the web team involves a simultaneous strengthening of control by the centre and a transfer of trust and skills to the wider organisation. It’s about choosing the right bits of digital, and the right bits of responsibility to hold onto or to devolve.
The web team is dead. Long live the web team.