This post is the first in a three-part series.
The digital function is increasing in importance in nearly all institutions today, yet few are actually managing it in an effective way. While there is no one right way to manage digital, the way most institutions—whether corporate, government, or nonprofit—structure their digital teams greatly limits the outcomes they seek, because every innovation they want to do online will be limited by their own internal capacity to dream, execute, and sustain it over time.
Why is managing this function so difficult? Because digital supports all parts of today’s organizations, not just the department where the digital or web silo happens to live. The web space moves fast—in terms of new technology adoption and riding social media waves—and its speed taxes traditional command and control centers of power. Many web departments are still thought of as the “Kinkos copy shop,” serving all comers with tactical publishing services, but not equipped or mandated as leaders to shape strategy or hone messaging, much less to listen and engage with constituents.
The digital world is about innovation and trying new things, and thus it’s literally creating new functions in our organizations that managers are still not quite sure where to place (or even, if they want them). And finally because of such high expectations placed on the field, success in digital is hard. It requires a lot of analysis and collaboration to know what’s needed and to get it done right, and many of our organizations aren’t set up to support a culture of emergent learning or nonhierarchical collaboration across departments.
When an organization’s external digital presence is inconsistent or incoherent, this is nearly always a symptom of deeper internal structural problems, such as:
Silos: The people responsible for digital work are isolated from the rest of the organization. They can’t get the information they need to support other teams/departments until it’s too late. The digital lead or team ends up becoming a quick-turn-around production team expected to blast emails without strategic input or considerations for member engagement. The digital lead may not be seated at a high enough level within the organization to be proactive, or the digital staff may be a sub-unit of an existing team that has a director who does not represent digital well for leadership or cross-team planning opportunities.
Personality Fit: You have the wrong person in the digital role—he/she may have some historically appropriate skills but otherwise brings the wrong attitude and is unable to work collaboratively with others. Digital work interfaces with all aspects of an organization, so the person responsible must be open-minded, solutions-oriented, and ideally a delight to work with. If your digital lead creates resistance, or seems conditioned to say “no” more than “let’s figure this out,” you are—at best—stifling the growth of your organization’s digital program. At worst, you are enabling the growth of a toxic environment around digital work, and your organization may spend years trying to recover.
Overload: The digital lead or team has too much to do and is unable to prioritize work. This is one of the most common conditions we see. Your leadership may have undue expectations for how long R&D or even basic online operations should take, and they don’t know how many requests are coming in from all angles. Often the digital team isn’t the right size to keep up with increasing demands, or the digital lead is unable to prioritize the work on their own. Sometimes, they don’t know how to say no to requests that are unrealistic or that don’t fit their vision (if they have one—see the next point). Leadership can exacerbate the overload by asking the digital lead to chase after new bells and whistles, which they may not have the confidence or experience to push back on.
Lack of digital vision: The underlying issue beneath overload is typically the lack of a framework to strategically prioritize resources for digital work. Every organization needs a digital vision to set a direction that supports the core mission and business goals of the institution, and to evaluate whether the inevitable new tools, creative ideas, and campaigns “fit” with the strategic approach and should be undertaken. Strong digital teams prioritize new opportunities—and kill bad ones—using a simple rubric of “viability and fit.” To measure viability, they need to be experienced and networked enough to know what’s going to work in the digital world, and empowered enough to stand up to people who don’t. To measure fit requires this vision.
Lack of organizational vision: The problem may not actually be with the digital team at all. A good digital communications or engagement strategy can’t compensate for a missing organizational vision or outdated theory of change, both of which have to come before you can establish a digital framework. If you can’t clearly articulate what your organization is specifically trying to change in the world, how to realistically achieve that change through your current actions, and how your supporters can play a meaningful role in making that change happen, then you’re just asking your digital team to create pseudo engagement with increasingly meaningless actions. It may be the toughest thing to do, but spend some time re-evaluating your overall game plan, offerings, brand story, and engagement model, and then re-evaluate your digital work to support that.
So what’s the best way to manage digital at your organization? First, you need to take a look at how you currently manage digital work. Part two of this series lays out four typical models we’ve seen across hundreds of organizations, and shares insight into the ones that are best suited to the demands we all face today.