How to Destroy Departmental Barriers and Become Digital First

Paul Boag

If we want our organisations to become digital-first, we cannot just stay in our digital teams. We need to adopt a new departmental structure that is more inclusive.

Running an in-house digital team is a tough job for oh-so-many reasons. But one area that can be particularly fraught is the relationship with other departments.

In this post, I want to explore why this is the case and outline a solution that an increasing number of teams are adopting.

Why Digital Teams Clash With Other Departments

While most businesses are shaped by the industrial and consumer ages, digital introduces a new set of rules. Digital provides unprecedented amounts of data that can be used to form how it is used. But more importantly, the raw materials of digital are free. Publishing and editing a web page has no cost beyond labour.

This has created an experimental culture in digital-first companies. They design, test and iterate towards the right solution. They have replaced the waterfall project approach born from the era of the production line with Agile and minimum viable products.

These new methodologies have led to more collaboration, fewer specifications and a more user-led approach. That is both strange and often incompatible with the rest of the organisation.

This problem is compounded by the lack of knowledge across the rest of the organisation about digital. They constantly underestimate what is involved in delivering a digital service and also maintaining it once launched.

That in itself would not be a problem if these services were under the control of the digital team. Unfortunately, in most organisations, digital is seen as a service department like finance or HR who support the business orientated departments. It is these departments who own and drive the projects.

Most organisations have either regional or product units that are supported by departments such as I.T. finance, HR and Digital.

Too often the result is a clash of culture between old and new. The digital team becomes seen as argumentative and uncooperative. So how do we solve this problem?

Introducing the Hub and Spoke Model

One approach I have seen many digital teams try is centralisation. Move all digital services and projects into the digital team and run it from there. Although this approach does indeed work for ensuring quality, it leads to the creation of yet another business silo.

A centralised approach creates animosity and can cause the digital team to become a bottleneck.

Instead of the organisation as a whole becoming more digitally savvy, it results in one large and powerful digital business unit. That inevitably meets resistance and causes conflict with colleagues across the organisation. In the long term that is damaging to the business.

A decentralised approach to digital leads to repetition of effort and an inconsistent user experience.

However, I am not proposing that digital is decentralised either. Doing so leaves a few digital specialists spread across the company in isolated pockets. These individuals quickly become assimilated into the existing culture, and so digital service are managed like any other project. That severely impacts the quality of the final deliverable.

The best model I have seen work is the hub and spoke model. In this scenario, you have a central digital team and digital specialists embedded in the other relevant business units.

A central digital team coordinates the companies digital approach, while staff embedded in other teams manages digital services for that team.

However, it is essential there is a strong relationship between the central team and those embedded in the units. Without that, those in the units often feel like second class citizens.

The way you deal with this problem is through reporting lines. Even though a member of staff sits and works with the business unit on a daily basis, they report into and are an official part of the digital team.

Digital staff embedded in business units should still report into the central digital team.

By sitting with the business unit, they get to understand their needs better. They can easily collaborate with other stakeholders in the team, and will be focused on delivering their requirements from digital.

Also, because they are dedicated to the digital services relating to that team, there is somebody to support the services post launch.

They become the product owner for any services the team owns. That has a massive advantage as often product owners have a relatively poor understanding of digital. Under this model, digital services have an expert in both digital and the business requirements underpinning it.

However, for this to work best, these product owners need to feel as much a part of the central digital team as with the business unit. They should take part in all the same training, meetings, socials or any other activity. They just happen to sit in the business unit.

It is also often beneficial for them to spend two or three months with the central digital team before going to work at the business unit. That gives them time to get up to speed with how the central digital team operates. Some organisations even run training boot camps over this period.

A reverse model is possible where business specialists are embedded in the digital team but report to their business unit.

There is a variation of this model where the business unit digital staff sit with the central digital team but report into the business unit. This works reasonably well too. Because they are with the digital team daily, they are heavily influenced by this team's working practices. However, because they report into the business unit, they are focused on delivering this group's work and agenda.

Although I favour the former model, both can be made to work. The key is that the product owners involved don’t report and sit with the team. If they sit with the digital team, they should report into the business unit. But if they sit with the business unit, they should report into digital.

The reason for this is to ensure they have a foot in both camps mentally. We are influenced by the colleagues we sit with, but we are also affected by the person paying our salary!

So now we understand the model, what kind of person can fulfil the role within a business unit?

Who Do Digital Teams Need to Embed in Business Units?

Obviously who exactly you need to sit in a business unit will depend on your organisational requirements. However, in my experience, most organisations have a cross between a Digital project manager and content editor.

That person runs the business units digital service on a daily basis. They collate and edit content, liaise with the central digital team to make updates, and ensure the service is hitting its key performance indicators. In effect, they own the digital service.

It is important to point out that this is not a junior appointment. We are not looking for somebody to just update the CMS and implement the ideas of others in the team. This person has to own and run digital services, which means they need to have the authority and experience to stand up to internal stakeholders and shape the services direction.

A Tool for Cultural Change

The hub and spoke model is not a magic solution that will solve all of your organisational challenges around digital. It will not transform your culture overnight or make every project run smoothly.

However, it will break down business silos and improve the quality of your services. More interestingly it will start to shift the culture within the business units where our product owners sit.

Because they will have the support of the central digital team, these people will be ambassadors for digital best practice in their business units. They will educate, encourage and inspire others to think and work differently. That makes the approach worth considering.

Stock Photos from Jacob Lund/Shutterstock