Web Governance: A Definition

Wom Icon of a gavelI’ve been thinking deeply about a definition of Web Governance and the formalization of methodologies for implementing Web Governance in organizations for the last ten years. As I venture out to speak about Web Governance, I find that different organizations have different senses of what Web Governance is (and isn't). Some have a very broad idea of Web Governance, which might include operational and production-related business processes.  Some think of it as the rules related to Web content management (but not Web applications development). Some relate Web Governance to Web Team management. All of these concerns need to be addressed under the larger umbrella of Web Operations Management. But, Web Governance, I feel, is something very distinct and should be examined away from all the noise of Web site production and Web Team management. Below, I've offered up my definition of Web Governance. I'm hoping for comments and discussion so we, as a community, can help codify the meaning of Web Governance and contribute to the maturation of the Web Management profession.

The Business Case for Web Governance

Over the years, the organizational Web presence has grown organically to such an extent that ad hoc and informal business processes and management and production guidelines are no longer adequate to manage it. The continued growth of the organizational Web presence managed by informal processes and guidelines exposes organizations to risk and liability.  Key risks include loss of credibility, loss of market share, resource waste, and risk of litigation. While the risks associated with a corporate Web presence can not be completely eliminated, they can certainly be mitigated and the liabilities which come along with an underperforming or low-quality Web presence reduced--but only if organizations apply standard corporate governance constraints over Web operational practices.

What is Web Governance?

Web Governance is the authoritative administrative structures that set
policy and standards for Web product management. It includes:

  • the implementation of a Web Governance Framework;
  • the establishment of Web Policy;
  • and the codification, implementation, and enforcement of Web Standards.

Combined with strategic leadership from the executive level, mature
management of the Web division, and comprehensive Web measurement practices, Web governance is one of the core dimensions of a mature Web operations approach. It helps reduce Web development risks by establishing clear Web decision-making authority, extending Web accountability to more senior levels of the organization, and improving Web standards compliance.

What Web Governance means for the organization:

Web Governance refers to the way people make decisions about the
organizational Web presence. It determines who gets to sit around the table when those decisions are made and who has final decision making authority when consensus cannot be had through discussion. Web Governance also includes writing Web-specific polices that will reduce risk to the organization, and forming appropriate teams to write the Web standards that will  raise the quality of the organizational Web presence.
If organizations implement Web Governance, have a Web Strategy, a sensible and unified approach to Web content and application development, and effectively measure Web performance, the organizational Web presence can be a great asset and not a liability.

Web Governance Framework

The Web Governance Framework specifies the organizational mechanisms through which Web Governance related policies and standards are set, maintained, and enforced. Ideally, the Web Governance Framework should be emplaced by a formalized mandate from senior management. A Web Governance Framework specifies who provides inputs and who makes decisions related to the various aspects Web operations, from non-technical communications focused-concerns such as the design of Web sites to highly technical such as load balancing and network security.

What a Web Governance Framework means for the organization:

Having a Web Governance Framework helps minimize and settle internal Web site ownership disputes and can smooth the relationship between Marketing Communications, IT, and various departmental Web stakeholders. This turns the focus to managing Web sites instead of arguing about them. Because the framework holds senior strategically-focused organizational leaders, mid-level program and line of business managers, and Web subject matter experts, it provides a structure to align the strategic and tactical needs and concerns of the organizational Web presence. This ensures that the management of the Web is properly orchestrated and conducted in accord with both organizational needs and website-user needs.

Web Policy

Web Policy refers to a set of legal, compliance-related, editorial and technical constraints for Web development. A mature approach to establishing Web Policy considers the full range of Web-based interactions an organization can have with the world and considers what constraints and practices may need to be put into place in order to protect the organization from risk, ensure that the organization is in compliance with any relevant regulatory concerns, and otherwise operating within the bounds of the law and good practices.

What Web Policy means for the organization:

Web policies guide the organizational Web team by putting into place the constraints of Web development. These constraints are mandatory: meaning that all that those who develop content, data, and applications for the Web must abide by these policies whether those developers are part of an in-house Web team or an outsourced vendor team, or are casual contributors to the site via interactive software. Most organizations have an incomplete set of Web policies that may focus on security and privacy concerns or a set of best practices or Web Standards (see below) that may masquerade as Web Policy. Web Policy is best set at a fairly senior level of the organization with the guidance of key senior Web subject matter experts.

Web Standards

Web Standards describe specific parameters, limits, and exceptions for the development of Web products. It provides explicit protocols to be used by those creating content, data, and applications for the Web. Web Standards should cover design and editorial, information organization and access, Web tool and application, and network and server infrastructure concerns. Standards differ from "guidelines" in that they must be adhered to and they differ from standard operating procedures in that they do not specify deep procedures or workflows that may be utilized when developing for the Web.

What Web Standards mean for the organization:

Having a codified and enforceable set of Web standards helps raise
consistency and quality which can contribute to a better user experience. Complete Web Standards also improve the internal Web development environment by reducing the opportunity for conflicting editorial, structural, or technical approaches to Web development. The practice of establishing Web Standards provides an opportunity to bring together often competing Web stakeholders in a forum where disparate needs and production practices can be aired, aligned, and replaced by a consistent and effective set of Standards. Web Standards are best set by a team of Web experts with informed input from all organizational Web stakeholders.


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This is a sensible and realistic approach to a issue faced by many large organizations. I have no argument with the points made here, except that it assumes top leadership sees web operations as critical to their organizations success. That may be true at many places, but not in my industry (health care). At most hospitals the Web is seen as a segment of marketing or communications, but rarely a function that crosses many lines and should stand on its own.

So, the first step towards building a Web Governance model will be convincing executive leadership that they need one!

Thanks for taking the time to read this Ed and for your comments. Helping executives understand why Web Governance and Web operations is crucial and can be tricky. I find that usually Web teams come at their executives with a "give me some money for some weird sounding technology" mind set. Executives speak the language of benefit and risk. Netting out how effective Web Governance is going to save the organization money, reduce risk, increase market share, etc. is a good way to engage executives. Be explicit. Show the risk. Show how redundant applications make for a confusing user experience. Show how competitors do it better. Use screen shots, quotes from articles where organizations have run into trouble with a low-quality ungoverned Web presence.  I know for a lot of folks it can be tough to get that audience with the organizational leaders but when you do, don't make an eye-crossing speak about taxonomy or WCM technology.

By the way, translating Web management "techno-speak" into "management speak" provides a huge opportunity for those Web subject matter experts who want to move their career up a level or two, as well. As I've said before, I think we'll see a lot of ex Webmasters in the CEO seat in the next 10-20 years.

Thanks again.

Ed Bennett has a point. I think your approach to Web Governance is the right way to secure management and organizational focus on your web activities, only that the levels of documentation of policies has to be a evaluated case-by-case. But, first you got to have the senior (top) management commitment. And this is where a lot of web organizations fail to do their basic work. Developing a web strategy (or web vision), is the foundation for a Web Governance model (see my earlier post on Are “The basics” of an Intranet a set of operational features or creating the strategic platform?). If you do not have the top management commitment, then your Governance board don't have the decision power (and budget) to actual manage their job properly. So from my point of view, Lisa's approach to Web Governance is the right way to do it, but don't start building up at Governance board, if you don't have your web strategy in place.

This is the very foundation of our approach with clients, and I'm glad to see it spelled out in this fashion. We agree completely that you need senior leadership support and buy-in, especially if any of them are going to be part of the governance body! Every organization we see that is struggling with their Web strategy and results should read this post.

I agree with the other commentors that your approach to Web Governance is certainly the ideal approach and that senior management commitment is key.

However, realistically in my workplace community and in this current economic decline, web governance of the corporate website is not at the top of the priority list. As a matter of fact, it is not even on the list. It is regarded as one of those essential documents that closes the loop and establishes policy of how staff must self-manage their content contributions to our Content Management system. Of course an assumption must be made that staff will even read the policy.

In our case the Web Governance document was drafted by me and ownership was then passed onto the marketing department to update and establish as policy. Governance is then assumed to be "built-in" via the content reviewers and approvers. I tried to build in easy to understand principles regarding web audiences and relevant content.

My biggest fear? Regardless of what is in the web governance, after we rollout the new site, the current information architecture will be decimated within days of our users having easier access and permission to post via the CMS as they rush to post everything they think THEY might like to see on our site.

Implementing Web governance likely involves additional head count of at least one: perhaps a process evangelist.

I'd like to add two other points.
The first is an obvious point that has a huge impact on the governance of a corporate Web site: training. Drafting, signing off, and distributing a policy document is never enough. A one-hour training is not enough either. Training in policies and in the procedures that derive from them as well as the vision that spawned them should be ongoing. The consistent application of policies and procedures that shows the understanding of their purpose and value needs to be tied into performance objectives of individuals and teams.

The second point is policy maintanance. Contributors to corporate Web sites, whether they are IT pros or experts from other areas, disdain processes that get in their way, even if they see the vision that motivates the processes. Maintaining the policies and processes--updating them as required--is essential. For a viable large Web site, interested parties need to adapt them to their real working situation while preserving their intent and value.

Your thoughts are right on Lisa. Getting there; however, is an evolutionary process.

My Web content managers forbade me from even uttering the word governance for nearly a year. It was affectionately referred to as the "G" word. Clearly, the team wasn't ready and/or had other priorities. So I, with the assistance of some capable consultants, built a draft Governance framework without my team's input.

As I was literally crossing the final "t" in my Draft Governance Plan, they were begging me for policies and standards to help them with a massive content clean up effort in preparation for our CMS implementation. One of my staff's exact words, "I have no authority to tell people what to do on the sites, heck I'm not even sure what all of our standards are. I'm making 'em up as I go. We need, dare I say it, Web Governance."

The ah ha moment is something to behold. We are scheduled to review my "Draft Goverance Plan" within the next several weeks and I suspect they'll love it.

When I speak to my senior managers about governance they look at me only half interested. I suspect they too will have a Governance epiphany one day and I will be there to lead them to the proverbial water.

I, actually, am awaiting your next paper. I think an appropriate title would be, "How to Get the Horse to the Governance Well and Get Him to Drink".

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