2011: The Year of Web Governance (in Higher Education)

2011: The Year of Web Governance (in Higher Education)

Web Governance in Higher Education

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the state of higher education web sites. IMHO – we are approaching an important crossroad in the development of web communications and services on college campuses.  There are two converging trends that will require us to take our sites to the next level. First, the web has never been more important.  It has continued to mature and is now a strategic asset for the institution.  The web plays a mission-critical role in all campus activities.  Secondly, higher education is being flattened. By flattened I mean when the impact of the Internet and globalization render an industry unrecognizable, and in many cases, obsolete.  The Axe Man is coming, and in may cases, he is already here.

To move forward, we need change at the institutional level. It’s time the web is taken seriously on college campuses and give it the appropriate resources and structure.  I believe the way to achieve this is through web governance. During the course of my travels I have seen only a few colleges and universities that have a true web governance and management structure in place. The reality on most campuses is that senior administrators are disengaged from the web. It simply isn’t on their radar as they deal with other pressing issues.  And the lack of any formal operational model results in an inefficient use of resources and no real sense of the value and ROI the web provides.  Moving forward, this all needs to change.

It is time to bring formal web governance to the academy. For many, the idea of governing and managing a higher education web site seems counter-intuitive. When you combine the general freedom of the web with the academic freedom and decentralized organization of higher education, attempts at governing and managing this chaos seem fruitless. I expect considerable skepticism about the viability of all this but it can, and must, be done.

Allow me to introduce Lisa Welchman, a name I will be mentioning frequently as I discuss web governance.  I’ve gotten to know Lisa over the past few months and there are two important things I’ve learned about her. First, she has unmatched experience and expertise in web governance and management in large organizations. Secondly, her work is very applicable to higher education.

Earlier this week Lisa wrote a great blog post called 2011: The Year of Web Governance in which she made the case for making web governance a priority this year.  Like Lisa, I am determined to make 2011 the year that we start to focus on web governance in higher education.  To quote Lisa – “It is time to graduate from a production shop to a strategic shop.”  This won’t be easy.   It will involve considerable hard work, fortitude and leadership. It will require finding that elusive balance between authority and autonomy.  And it will involve more than the web team and traditional stakeholders. Senior administrators need to be around the table.

Web governance in higher education will be my primary focus in the coming months.  I am already booked at several conferences to talk about web governance and there are some great ideas in  the pipeline on how to move this conversation forward.  I look forward to your thoughts and ideas on the challenges and opportunities to make web governance a reality and help take our sites to the next level.

P.S. – As we discuss this topic on social media channels, please use the hashtag #hewebgov



  1. This hits home very much. I am at a very distinct frustration with this idea right now and dont know where to take it.

  2. You’re right on track, Mark, and Matt’s comment mirrors the experience of many Web pros I interviewed this fall.

    I think one of the biggest challenges is moving institutional cultures from considering the Web as “it” — something out there, something that we use to market our institutions — to the Web as “us” — a fully immersive environment in which we do a full range of activities, from engagement to scholarship and reserch to transactions and services.

    I’d also like to suggest that we should be considering the wider Internet as a platform for multiple services — open and proprietary, public and secure — above and beyond just the World Wide Web.

    For folks based in the northeast, we’ll be discussing Web governance at a NERCOMP workshop on Monday, February 7, in Amherst. Please join us.

    Titled “Planning for Disruption: Governance, Strategy, and Management in a Web 3.0 World”, the workshop will be evenly divided between presentations and discussion with colleagues.

  3. I concur with many of your (and Lisa’s) points, Mark. But I worry about discussions of web governance, standards, etc., outside the context of a broader institutional communications and marketing strategy. Shouldn’t the move from a “production shop to a strategic shop” for the web be integrated into a broader strategy for all of the institution’s communications and marketing?

    Maybe I’ve been hanging out online with web folks too much, but I seem to detect a growing fissure between web communications and marketing and other aspects of institutional relations, such as marketing (in general), constituent relations (whether development, alumni relations, etc.), PR/media relations, strategic communications and the generic “print” side of design.

    Veering off-topic, I know. But your post, and a couple of online conversations I’ve seen elsewhere recently, make me wonder about whether emphasizing one aspect of the strategic communications/marketing area (i.e., “web”) over others will end up hurting us more than helping.

  4. You’re hitting one of the big issues in higher education – not just as it relates to the web but educational organizations as a whole. Production shops are (for the most part) expenses that add little value. The ability to move things forward and execute big ideas comes at the strategy level. In most institutions, the strategy level is distributed across divisions.

    The dangerous byproduct for everyone involved in the web is that you are often charged with having a strategy level impact but only given service-level authority:


    • Good points, Rob.

      If one defines one’s work as a service provider or technologist, such Web development services are more easily and efficiently being outsourced every day.


      If you see yourself as an integrator, bringing together strategic vision with tactical projects (internal our outsourced), the school-specific context makes this role more important every day.

      The following is cross-posted from the UWebD mailing list:

      Would it be fair to suggest that the connections between an institution’s raison d-etre — the broad vision and deep goals as clarified by our executive sponsors — and the day-to-day work need to be clear and measurable?

      In other words, no matter the role, if we aren’t rowing together, the ship is just going to float aimlessly. I would suggest that the people, roles, and processes that define those connections — and keep us moving in the same direction — are what governance is all about.

      A vision that keeps us on track can be explicit or implicit, but it needs to be shared in order to succeed. Then, its translation into shorter-term tasks needs to be clear, too.

      Many years ago, at Dartmouth, we developed a process to connect the highest guiding principles that were available — at that time the facets of measurably-effective online experiences — and filtered the countless requests for online products and services. This allowed us to select the projects that supported broader principles, and helped a CMS migration succeed within the then-current situation. We had clear principles for success to measure against.

      Even better would be to link broader institutional goals all the way through to online experience, from the high-level vision to the tactical work.

      However, when it comes to governance, the many goals and initiatives of senior staff affect the discussion more than in the world of media development and production, so the circumstances are more rooted in the ground of each school’s administration. Abstract pronouncements tend to apply less.

      I propose that learning about successful models, to test and adapt to our specific circumstances, can be most helpful. I would suggest that reticence isn’t necessarily shyness, but more about respect for the competing approaches to online communication within a school. Often governance work needs to start within a safe community of practice.


  5. YES!

    Higher ed’s penchant for freedom of speech, thought and expression, while noble, have created systemic problems at the organizational level in practice. Complete freedom manifests itself as “decentralization” much of the time- the idea being that individual departments and programs should be unencumbered by centralized authority. But in my time within the higher ed world, this call for freedom and autonomy has become disconnected from the reality of running the organization. It has become an untouchable ideal. To centralize some decision making, some strategic thinking and some management practice (i.e. responsibility WITH authority) is not a threat, however. It can be an ally by acting as a springboard to more efficiently and effectively brainstorm, discuss and innovate- the hallmarks of academic freedom.

    • I agree. I’ve always wondered why the centralized-decentralized debate is so often presented as a dichotomy. Can’t our organizations respect both, in their appropriate roles?

      I think the concept of hierarchy — the natural relationship between the whole and its parts — is sometimes confused with power inequality. In other words, centralization means power over others.

      Instead, a natural hierarchy — the hand contains fingers; neither exist without the other — provides an opportunity to distinguish between broad truths (strategies) that integrate and the specific tasks (tactics) we need to do every day.

      In this area, I think post-modern deconstruction does us a disservice in education, and distrust of the central coordination role leaves us rowing in many different directions.

  6. Following up on Mike’s comments … I think all of those things, such as freedom of speech, thought, expression … are *great*. The lifeblood of the academic enterprise. Seriously, those are the things that attract most of us to working where we work, instead of at ABC Widget Company, where the organizational model might be more conducive to developing an effective web presence. And those are really the key issues … how does the website of the university serve as a catalyst for those things? How do we build in capabilities that relieve the considerable friction of web development from the space between the sender of the speech, thought, or expression and the receiver, be she one or many? I’d argue that when a departmental website is made the central avatar for those things, the point is really missed. The website can be the crucible for all of that, but I don’t think anyone can effectively get there if their website is fractured among many competing interests.

  7. My god, we were ahead of the curve for once. I actually presented on web governance at last year’s HighEdWeb conference.

    We’ve only had a few problems with departments not wanting to be under the brutal thumb of central web governance, but two things worked in our favor: we were offering free sites in our new WCMS as an incentive to get on board, and budget cuts made people more interested in ‘free’ and less concerned about ‘freedom’.

  8. Thanks everyone for your discussion on this important topic.

    Jay, thanks for the information about the NERCOMP workshop. It sounds like a great event. I’m very interested in the discussion about strategy and tactics which can also be framed as governance and management. As you know, I think higher ed web development will get flattened and outsourcing will be a major topic of discussion. And I totally agree that we need to move beyond the centralized-decentralized dichotomy. Instead of “us-them”, we should think “we” (easier said than done).

    Andrew, yes the web strategy needs to integrate with the overall institutional communications and marketing strategy. In fact, I’ll take this one step further ans say the web goes beyond “communications and marketing” and impacts all facets of the institution. I’ll be writing about this more in the near future.

    I will also be writing more on authority. This is one thing that is almost always lacking in higher ed web policies. A policy without enforcement and consequences is not a policy. We need real policy. We need real authority. Someone needs to be in charge.

    And Tony, you will always be ahead of the curve my friend. (As I get more into web governance, I will be longing for the days of TFRL!)

  9. Thank you Mark for bringing up this discussion. Our school recognizes that we need to do “the web” better and that involves modifying the structure, resources and organizational importance of what we do on the web. In a month or so, I’ll have an audience with our top executives to describe how I’d change what we do. I look forward to the discussion.

    Right now, I’m focusing on using the web strategically (I love the production/strategy distinction made here, it puts into words what I’ve had a hard time verbalizing), focusing on more measurement and responding to what that measurement tells us, integration of all our web systems, and executive engagement (Meaning that ALL the executives understand the basics of and buy in to how we use the web – much like they all understand the basics of and buy in to how we budget). I keep struggling with developing a structure that gives people a voice but doesn’t allow pieces of the web to veer too far off the course we set as a whole (not to mention a structure that retains some agility if a change of course is warranted).

    I look forward to your future posts and discussion. I’m curious about which colleges you’ve seen that do web governance and management well. I’d love to be able to talk to them before I make my report.

  10. I’m pretty skeptical. What is web governance? It isn’t defined clearly here, or in the links, and there’s no other articles in a governance category or tag on this site, and no mention in your Delicious link cloud. I googled it, and there are less than 11,000 results…led by some consultants pushing the idea, a murky Wikipedia article and this week-old blog post. Suddenly it’s a passionate movement that everyone needs to embrace?

    From what I can gather, web governance is a consulting buzzword for doing the normal things that big organizational websites should be striving for: have a process for posting content, keep a record of who has access to what, conform to branding, etc, and monitor all these things on a regular basis while looking for ways to improve based on data showing where your problems are.

    Don’t get me wrong, these are good things, but I think we need to be clear that they aren’t new things, and this isn’t a magic solution to all your problems. If your organization is struggling with basic business concepts like planning, monitoring, and improving, you need cultural shift, not a buzzword and a web consultant.

    • Yes, it is about a cultural shift toward planning, monitoring and continual improvement, but one within an industry that has operated outside of those metrics in many areas. So no, you don’t NEED a consultant, but clearly these concepts are missing for a reason. If a consultant can swoop in and do good, great. Otherwise, the status quo lives and those in the trenches suffer or wait until one of them rises high enough to enact these principles.

    • Hi,

      Great conversation and comments. I have a couple comments.

      First, to Dave’s skepticism – (it’s always good to have something to push against). The practices you describe are good production practices for developing a Web presence or intranet. Those are important and should be more self-evident and more prevalent than they are. I agree with you.

      That said, I’ll have to defend my vocation and the discipline of web governance. It’s true that it is emerging and not as out there as IT governance or other mature organizational governance concerns. And while perhaps new in higher education, many large governmental agencies, NGOs, non-profit institutions and global corporations have been addressing corporate Web governance concerns in earnest for the last 5-10 years.

      In the US federal sector, Candi Harrison and Sam Gallagher did some important early work in Web governance particularly as it relates to content governance and understanding that the Web needs effective administrative management and senior-level dedicated resources who are held accountable for quality. There’s interesting stuff to peruse at: http://www.hud.gov/library/bookshelf11/webproducts.cfm

      The United Nations held a Web Governance event for it’s Web development community (Web4Dev) a few years back. I was invited to participate and spoke on corporate Web governance which focuses not so much on content quality and production efficiencies but on trying to ensure that organizations have effective Web policy, have clarified decision-making for the Web, and have an appropriate paradigm for staffing and funding AND, most importantly, are measuring performance in mature way.

      Also, at this UN event were some good talks on World Wide Web Governance and Internet governance and other regulatory concerns. Decisions in these area (like net neutrality) can heavily impact they way organizations function online and should be on the radar screen of leadership.

      In my experience, many large NGOs including The World Bank have been discussing and establishing Web governance paradigms for 5+ years. These international, protocol-driven organizations seem to be culturally inclined to understand the need for governance. Large multi-national companies and Fortune 50 firms are also actively working on Web governance.

      The definition of Web governance I drafted a couple years ago (I might make some tweaks in that some time soon), was my attempt to put some definition around the concept. http://www.welchmanpierpoint.com/blog/web-governance-definition . I invite and welcome criticism and discussion from those in the trenches (and from on high). While definitely biased, I see Web governance as an emerging field which is becoming more important as use of the web matures in organizations. It’s part of a maturity cycle, in my view.

      Second, and more broadly. Yes! to everything folks have said above. The Web is not about a web site. It’s about re-inventing your institution with knowledge of the capabilities of the Web. This is not a short term or easy to do thing. We’ve seen how the Web has transformed heretofore commoditized business like the music industry and publishing. And shut down places like Blockbuster while ramping up Netflix. These transformations didn’t just happened. Organizations succeed when they embrace the reality of the web and make it their own. They fail when they underestimate or mis-manage.

      Depending on the type of higher ed organization you work in and your customer (student) base and mission, the Web will force significant change over time (if it hasn’t already). This change will extend beyond the Web site and is probably already in classrooms, dorms and offices– and then there’s mobile. Some of us who work with the Web will have the palate to ride this wave and join the revolution. Others will not. But, it’s here and there are opportunities to succeed and fail.

      Thanks Mark for mentioning me in your post. I look forward to a continuing discussion over the years and to learning from the higher education Web community. From the comments above, it seems like you all have great ideas and a lot to offer.


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