The Website is your problem

The idea that senior leaders can ignore the web and leave it to people within the organization is over. As a 21st century leader, you need to have dexterity of understanding how social platforms and websites impact your company’s bottom line.

For years, I’ve worked within highly matrices organizations and often had a direct reporting line to the President. In the early days of the web, websites often ended up in marketing shops where brand officers who didn’t understand the web would rely on the technical expert to relay the critical information to senior leaders.

Coming up on the web during the formative years of its presence in the enterprise left me with unusual opportunities for a junior person to rub elbows and learn from senior leaders. A funny thing happened in those early years, those leaders listened to me! Imagine my shock when a college President says “let’s listen to Ron.” This gave me incredible confidence in my abilities from the start. Having spent time in the military gave me respect for the executive suite, but the beauty of my time on active duty was how much people senior to me would elevate me to situations where I had to learn and lead — even if I felt like I didn’t know the answers, I learned and improved steadily.

The problem in 2015 is the web and digital space is so complicated that even small organizations are recognizing the inherent difficulties associated with how to manage and cultivate a digital presence. Senior leaders at the VP level need to be actively engaged not just in the message, but in the tools used and methods which we measure our impact in the digital space.

I’m not going to turn you into a digitally savvy leader in one article, but here are some key questions to ask of the people leading your digital & web presence:

1. What social platforms are we currently on? What was the process for choosing them? Is there an underlying strategy behind our approach? Does it align with specific strategic goals?

2. Are we measuring traffic to our website in something other than Google Analytics? Can you show me a visual comparison of traffic during key times this over the last three quarters? Are there trends we can extrapolate from that traffic to make assumptions about our customers?

3. If a person in a random office somewhere (not an executive) within our organization needed something added to the website would they know who to contact? Do we have a web governance structure? Does only one person have the keys to our web presence? Do we have a plan if that person leaves or is otherwise unavailable?

The key to these questions is, you might not always understand the answers when they’re told to you and it doesn’t really matter if you do. The exercise of being exposed to this infrastructure is what matters. If you ask your physical plant director about the HVAC system, you’re not concerned about the hows and whys of its inner workings — but you’ll know if it’s not working if people are complaining about being too hot or too cold. The digital space works the same way. You won’t notice there’s a problem until it’s not working or something goes wrong.

After years of advising college presidents and business owners on the strategy of the web, digital infrastructure is a blind spot for many unless they have experience with technology prior to their ascension to senior leadership. As a result, organizations spend millions of dollars making bad decisions about technology based on poor information, lack of leadership or failure to fully understand the complexities of how decisions made about the web impact all areas of the company.

By taking an active interest and gaining better understanding of the digital infrastructure, senior leaders can make more information decisions and trust the information provided by those entrusted with these responsibilities.

Web professionals as washing machine installers (Or explaining what we do)

I don’t know about you, but I’m often confronted by lots of people who don’t know what it is I do for a living. I can’t count the number of times that someone in my life — my mom, a friend or someone else — has said, “I just told them I know you do something with computers…with the internet…but I don’t really understand it.”

A few months ago, I was driving home and ended up behind an espresso machine repair service. With the tons of coffee shops that have cropped up in recent years, this makes a lot of sense. But I’d never before considered how the market for espresso machine repairmen have problem increased pretty substantially in recent years. It’s not a job anybody needs a four-year degree for and I imagine for the first ones to hit the market in certain communities, it’s a gig you can parlay into a lot of work if you build up a clientele.

I have a bit of an elevator pitch I’ve refined in recent months when explaining my current work. Invariably, people are impressed because I’ve synthesized it to the point where it kinda makes sense, but I realize that in saying, “I lead an in-house web team for a large college system,” it’s not really saying anything because the difference between me and say, the guy I saw on the way home who was parked at a neighbor’s house since he’s a washing machining installer; is not many people would be confused about what he does.

I’ve been saying some variation of this message for months now, but so long as people view web work as magic and not real work, we’ll never get anywhere. Maybe it’s not necessary for ordinary people to have a handle on the jobs. People are making lots of money without anyone having any idea what they’re up to. But it’s not a sustainable pathway to the future.

Medium? Tumblr? Twitter? :: Thinking about platforms & content

Because I tend to be somewhat prolific, friends will often ask me where they should post there things.

Should they get a WordPress? What about Medium? Is Blogger still relevant? Should I check out Tumblr? They ask me and my answer is usually the same – “It doesn’t matter.”

I’ve evolved on this view of the years, but when I gave a talk on Tumblr earlier this year at Penn State I told people that choosing the platform is really about deciding what your goals are. If you’re trying to cultivate an organic audience, tumblr can be useful because communities are already there and with the right kind of tagging, folks can find your stuff. But there is a real concern of having your content owned on someone else’s platform — especially if it ever goes the way of Posterous.

It boils down to your goals. If you want to reach people outside of your field, Medium is a good place because it enables you to engage people who might never decide to visit your personal site. Sure, you want people to visit your site, but Medium lets you export your content at any time so it’s not as if your stuff is locked away never to be retrieved if they shut it down. (In theory.)

On the other hand, if I feel like something is for more a segmented audience, I’ll use my own blog to share that information because I think if you get on the megaphone too much it dulls the impact of the stuff you really want people to see. This is a personal choice, though. I think all of us think our musings are important, but there’s a big difference between scribbling thoughts that you want to flesh out and using the way for specific feedback that you’d struggle to get from inside your own circles. I’m always hesitant to signal boost things unless I feel like they’ll resonate, which is partially what got me to Tumblr in the first place.

As someone who’ll often do anything other than write, you just need to focus on getting the words down on paper. Where you put it isn’t as important is having something to put someplace.

Latest post at Medium

I’ve got a brain dump of things that I need to start logging over here. But my latest post over at Medium was a reflection — one of the many you’ll see over the coming weeks — from Aggregate Web Conference called Dreaming In Digital.

Basically, I think a lot about how many of our interactions happen online. Especially if you’re like me where you can claim dozens and dozens of folks who became offline friends after meeting online. If one isn’t careful, you can make a lot of assumptions. The blog post talks about that.

Until next time.

The Fifth Model of Digital Teams: Chaos

— C. Daniel Chase (@cdchase) August 22, 2014

The current structure of our web organization is comprised of sixteen colleges who all have their websites housed on a single remote server, managed centrally by a team of four people. There are webmasters whose job it is to manage local users and who have control of aspects of local servers. But it was decided a number of years ago to central web operations and so, we’re dealing with the side effects of decisions made a long time ago by people who have long since disappeared.

Where does that leave us?

In seven years or so, there have been several dramatic shifts of ownership of the website. From marketing to IT and then spunoff into its own department. Then after a huge redesign, a kind of hybrid model where what used to be a department returns to IT and then after a redundant web operation sprung up in response to internal structural inefficiencies; the web was returned back to Marketing.

Then I showed up.

ncloud_Strategy Governance
(nForm Web Governance Models graphic)

Prior to this job, I was pretty sure I’d seen most of the ways that a university or college website structure could operate. I’ve inheirted static websites that needed to be migrated to a CMS. I’ve taken over redesigns in the middle of the process. I’ve seen really strong content structures where content editors and authors were supported and responsive. I’ve taken over websites where the entire structure of the site and all of the decisions surrounding it were made to accommodate whoever was in charge of the site at that time.

Arguably, there is no asset that has more political value than the website. When I started my first job in 2006, there were still institutions just evolving from having one sole university webmaster who managed the entire website. There were few best practices, no consensus and information sharing was scant across the board. Here we are eight years later and we still find in many corners of the country that nobody can agree on who owns the website, where it should live and who should manage it. We have agreed on one thing though — under no circumstances should anyone with web development or digital knowledge actually sit on the leadership team of a president. I know I know, Harvard, Columbia and a few other places have created Chief Digital Officer roles. But places like that you’d expect to lead from the front on this issue.

The real question is, why hasn’t anyone else copied them? Or asked what they’re doing and why? It’s not like they’re not out there talking. It’s just we’re not listening. I get why no one wants to talk about this. We like our jobs and it’s a bit sticky to start talking about what works and what doesn’t. But we’ve got bigger problems than just web strategy or hiring people to tell us what we should be doing online. Our problems are structural, engrained and institutional. We suffer from a crisis of confidence and it stems from the fact that the web is so new that we’re always sure somebody else should own it.

I’m not convinced of this, but I’m also not convinced that every institution should be investing all of their money in a full-time web person who lights the path. It’s not for a lack of qualified people, but rather, a lack of qualified people willing to go all of the places where they’re needed. People will sometimes ask me why I go to the far-flung corners of the country to serve in roles and I answer that everybody deserves access to good information and if they’re willing to support it, then I am willing to be part of the solution. Part of that has to do with timing and opportunity too, it’s not all altruistic. But I do get a certain sense of satisfaction from toiling in semi-obscurity and providing a kind of insight to the web that helps people realize that it’s not as confusing or distant from their everyday lives as they thought. I like being accessible and reverse the image of the web person as unapproachable or someone who says “No.”

The margin for institutions of higher learning won’t be what consultants they hire to help them light the path. It’s going to start with senior leaders — Presidents and Executives — who recognize the value of the web and empower people to chart a way forward in concert with stakeholders. While I’ve not always been Director-level, part of my success in the past has been serving as a direct report. The only other time I wasn’t a direct report was also the only other time I held a Director title, which seems strange that as a junior person I had more access, oversight & influence than I do making more money and having way more responsibility.

Having talked to colleagues around the country, I know I’m not alone.

The turf war between marketing, technology & advancement over who thinks the web belongs to them has to stop. The website doesn’t belong to anybody, it belongs to everybody. And just like you have other experts leading those areas, top brass need to have insights and perspectives from people who can provide it.

The web is grown up and chaos won’t do.

If you want to win the future, start by winning the web.

Blocking out the noise

Megaphone

Being on twitter during the day is sometimes like having a megaphone in your office, sending messages to you at random times. Sometimes, it’s useful because the megaphone broadcasts stuff you want to hear or the timing is right. Other times, it’s just white noise. It’s still better noise than what I hear milling around the office, but the disconnect makes me wish my friends were closer and yearn for connections that aren’t here.

I’m going to attempt this week to confine my daytime tweeting — minus any posts I schedule ahead of time — to 31 minutes of a lunch period and to after 4pm. I realize things happen all of the time, but being so plugged in sometimes has thrown me off in ways I’m not sure it’s cool to admit.

For me, social media provides a link to the world in ways it always has. I’ve always lived far from friends and family, so the social web has brought them closer.

I’ve just found myself with a lot to say, lots of things on the stove and an ability to make all the things at once. All of the apps you can install in your browser to stop you from checking those things just annoy me, but since I use different machines at work than at home, it might not be a bad idea to go back to using them.

We’ll see how the week goes.