I have heard it said that if a university were a country, it would last about a week before breaking apart in civil war. At first brush it sounded ridiculous, but now I think it actually makes a good bit of sense.

Think about it – a university:

  • Has a large population.
  • Is highly diverse.
  • Is geographically distributed.
  • Has lots of stakeholders and specialist interest groups.

So, short of calling out the troops, what can you do to get everyone acting in a unified way online?

Enter ‘Web Governance’

The purpose of web governance is to create stability in online operations.

In an ideal system, all issues of ownership, authority, responsibility and resourcing are put to bed so you can focus your energies on pursuing online goals.

For a small organization, this is usually quite manageable. All you need to keep the show on the road are a few informal procedures and some basic freeware tools.

However, this type of informality does not scale well.

For example, if the governance sophistication of a large university fails to keep pace with its online ambitions, things fall apart.

  • In the absence of agreed-upon rules, solo-runs become common as individual colleges do their own thing, resulting in a wide diversity of technology and design.
  • In the absence of skilled support, great disparities in the quality of experience emerge, as some sites are well maintained and others are ignored.
  • In the absence of necessary tools, no one can track what is happening online, exposing you to reputational risk.

There is a way out!

The answer lies in recognizing that professionalism in web governance must keep pace with online ambition. In the first instance, this means adopting a more sophisticated 

top-down model of online management. Second, it means investing in better bottom-up supports for staff, to help them maintain quality.

Let’s examine both of these approaches in more detail.

Impose order from the top down

A key problem on many large sites is that the complexity of operations overtakes the ability of a Web Manager to make sense of it. There are simply too many things going on.

Adding to this, unlike other aspects of management (HR, finance, marketing, etc.), there is as yet little understanding of what exactly web governance is about.

An essential first step, then, is to re-impose order on operations using a structured governance framework.

Indeed, this approach can work particularly well in institutions of higher learning.

Academics are used to dealing in frameworks and models, whether for physics, economics or politics. Explaining the needs and purpose of web governance in a similar way means you’re already speaking a language they understand.

The new framework of web governance describes all the elements needed to manage an online presence.

The main benefit of this framework is that it reasserts order over complexity, and reveals interconnections that were once obscure by grouping similar elements together.

Its second benefit is simplicity.

The framework shows how everything to do with online management can be described in terms of just 3 elements. These are:

  • Activity: This describes everything you must do to manage a website, no matter how big or small your site is.
  • Resource: This describes everything you must invest in to make governance happen, e.g. people, tools, etc.
  • Scale: This describes how to balance the activities and resources in a configuration of governance that works.

The simplicity of this framework makes it very effective as a communications tool when explaining what web governance is about to senior executives.

It is also useful for contextualizing the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in operations. This includes the many non-web staff typically involved in day-to-day maintenance, e.g. content publishers.

This brings us to our second approach for improving web governance: bottom-up.

Invest from the bottom up

The clearest trend in web governance in recent years has been towards the centralization of digital activity.

As noted by leading expert at Cap Gemini, Didier Bonnet: 

“Older silo based operations … are coming under increasing pressure to change.”Several examples of this tendency can be seen within higher education, such as at RMIT in Australia and Harvard University, as well as in other sectors, such as government.

The defining feature of this model is that nothing significant happens online without the say of the central digital unit.

Well, almost nothing.

Inevitably, there are instances where doing things centrally can actually inhibit progress, rather than assist it.

The principle of subsidiarity states that in a highly distributed organization some activities should continue to be exercised at a local level. The challenge is allowing this to occur while still maintaining standards.

This is where your new system of web governance must be backed-up by the supports staff need to do their jobs, e.g. online tools, process documentation, etc.

Wait, there’s more

So, we see that despite the challenges of web governance, there are ways to deal with it.

Indeed, given the scale of the challenges, it is not surprising that some of the best solutions to online management arise within higher education.


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