Why your web team needs real authority

Paul Boag

Within many organisations the web team is seen as a service department, there to implement the ideas of others. This has to change.

It is time to accept that the web is a business critical tool for most organisations and we should configure our web teams accordingly. At least that is my conclusion after working with various large organisations over the last year or so.

In the early days of the web it made sense for it to be managed by the IT department. Like computers, networks and databases, the web was just another tool to be used by various departments.

As the web grew it became perceived as a valuable marketing tool and so in most organisations the management of the web team shifted across to marketing. However, despite this move most organisations still perceive web team members as IT specialists who provide a service to other staff within the company.

In reality the web is a lot more than a marketing tool. In fact it is a business critical tool and we need to create web teams that have the authority to manage it effectively.

Why a strong web team matters

The web is now a tool for marketing, recruitment, customer service, fulfilment, support and much more. In many organisations it is now as crucial as marketing, IT, finance or any other department. Why then does it not have the same status? Why is not the web team ultimately in charge of the web?

Chris Scott (one of the co-founders of Headscape, along with myself) recently wrote in a report for a client:

The Finance function has a responsibility and authority over financial matters including policy and procedures, the HR function has a responsibility and authority over HR matters including policy and procedures – so the digital team should have responsibility and authority over digital matters.

It is an excellent point. It makes sense that the web team has authority over the sites they run.

Avoid shifting priorities

But it’s not just a matter of principle. There are practical considerations to take into account too. Without strong leadership many websites have been the victim of constantly shifting priorities. With no ability to say no web teams have been forced to build functionality on the whims of colleagues who have little grasp of the web and best practice.

The need for somebody ultimately responsible

There is also a sense whereby the buck has to stop somewhere. Few organisations I work with seem to have a person who is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the website. There are oversight committees or steering groups, but these are no replacement for having somebody who sets direction and makes sure things happen. You need somebody to take responsibility.

Prevent things falling between the cracks

There is also a whole host of elements to running an effective website that seems to fall between the cracks when there isn’t a strong web team in place and the roadmap is being dictated by various other departments. Issues surrounding good governance (like policies and procedures) are vitally important but are often ignored because it does not come up on anybodies radar.

Bring web expertise to senior management

Finally, the blunt truth is that most organisations lack anybody at a senior management level who really gets the web. They need a senior person and an empowered web team/department to provide them guidance and show them the potential of the web on the business as a whole.

This may all sound good to you in principle, but no doubt you have many concerns about how to make it happen.

How to establish a web team with authority

Here is the crux of the problem. Although you probably have a very capable web team that knows a lot about the web, they probably lack the experience to take on what is really a senior management role.

It’s not surprising really. Historically your web team has been viewed as a service division and so that kind of seniority has not be required. But it is now.

You need a digital lead who can head the web team. They need to have a good knowledge of the web and experience in business management. It is this person who will…

  • Set a strategic vision for the web.
  • Liaise with senior management.
  • Manage the web team.
  • Establish the development roadmap.
  • Write policies and procedures for the digital assets.

This person should be reporting into the highest levels of the organisation and comfortable interacting with people who have this kind of seniority.

With such a demanding role and bearing in mind the staff you currently have, what do you do?

How to fill a digital lead role

One option is to hire from the outside. This is certainly a viable approach, but recruiting this kind of role can be challenging.

Another option is to mentor one of the web team and gradually help them gain the business experience and confidence they need. Whether this is a viable option will depend on the people you have.

The final option is to take an existing member of senior management and make them the digital lead. This person would need to become an expert in the web and so they will need to be trained in best practice. This is not something that can be done in a couple of sessions but rather requires an ongoing programme of mentoring that I find myself increasingly doing for clients.

Whatever the case, strong leadership is required, but that is not the end of the problem. This person also needs a centralised team beneath them.

Configuring your web team

Too often the web team in an organisation doesn’t have all of the skills they need to control the website for which they are responsible. Typically they have to turn to marketing for copywriters or IT for server side developers. This creates all kinds of challenges and inefficiencies and is just not a sensible way to run a website.

A web team should have all of the skills it needs to support the website and should wherever possible be physically located together. This enables constant communication and collaborative working, two crucial factors in the success of any digital strategy.

If this is not practical then they should work as a virtual team using technologies like Sqwiggle and Basecamp. The point is they are one permanent team, not an adhoc set of resources being pulled together for a web project.

If your web team cannot be physically located together, consider a tool like Sqwiggle.

I realise that moving people around within an organisation can be a HR nightmare, so where that is not possible employees could continue to report into their existing line manager. That doesn’t stop them being physically located within a centralised web team.

Put an end to committee management

Finally, put an end to web steering or oversight committees. As the web grew in importance within an organisation more and more stakeholders emerged internally, all of whom wanted their say in how the website was run. The result was the formation of committees to oversee website activities.

The harsh truth is that these committees do not work. No one person is responsible for everything and so things fall between the gaps. Worse still you get into a bizarre situation where an IT director (who sits on the committee) is making design decisions and the heading of marketing is commenting on IT infrastructure!

I am not suggesting that the web team doesn’t need to be accountable. I am just saying that a committee is not the way to do it. Instead consider a responsibility assignment matrix, which will both ensure there is somebody ultimately responsible for all aspects of your digital strategy and that the right people are consulted over the right issues.

An example responsibility assignment matrix
A responsibility assignment matrix is a much better way of overseeing a website than a committee.

I am aware that the ramifications of my suggestions in this post are far reaching, but the truth is that your organisational structure is probably the primary reason your site is not living up to its potential. Without a strong web team led by somebody with considerable experience (both of the web and business), your digital strategy is never going to be anything more than a pipe dream.

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