What is digital governance in the first place?
Digital governance is a discipline that focuses on establishing clear accountability for digital strategy, policy, and standards. A digital governance framework, when effectively designed and implemented, helps to streamline digital development and dampen debates around digital channel “ownership.”
— From the Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design website.
Intellectual autonomy and stubbornness of staff
— From the index, Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, p. 229
Time to take a little medicine! All those digital projects, all those digital projects teams, all those digital projects strategies. Libraries, academic libraries, we know them well, don’t we.
Chaos is a good word. Lots of stakeholders, limited resources, competing priorities. Governance is a good word too, for libraries, as it tends to imply less a top-down, less hierarchical, more collegial way of making decisions. And when it comes to deciding how an organization should make decisions about their digital presence, finding a way to makes those decisions more effectively is very important.
Which is exactly what Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design by Lisa Welchman is about — how to set up internal structures that will help organizations make decisions about digital strategies, policies and standards. Note that the book isn’t about what decisions to make or even really how to organize the decision-making process. It’s about what structures can facilitate and inform and govern a decision-making process that results in strategies, policies and standards.
It’s that twice-removed aspect that is both the book’s greatest strength and the source of some frustrations as well.
It’s a strength because it provides a level of abstraction between the content of the decisions and the process of deciding that can take a bit of heat out of the whole thing. Frustrating because the occasional lack of grounding in reality of all the talk of policies and whatnot make it hard to see how it all ties back to reality. The endless talk of process this and committee that is sometimes like grasping at smoke. There are fairly detailed case studies at the end, but perhaps some of that content should have been distributed a little better up front — or at least some more real world examples.
Building a governance structure where none existed before or overlaying one on an existing chaotic situation are challenging tasks to say the least. Basically it requires defining the appropriate structures and then figuring out how to overlay those bureaucratic structures on an organization that needs it but may not realize or recognize it needs it.
And Welchman does a terrific job of going through how to define those processes and even how to talk about implementing them. She’s very deliberate and patient, setting everything out in words and charts, step by step, how to figure out who defines, who has input, who has final authority. And the things we’re talking about deciding about (see how circular and vague and smokey this gets…)?
Digital strategies, digital policies, digital standards. And not in any concrete way, of course, but as those higher-level abstractions that will be different for every industry or sector and which will be different for each organization within those industries.
And yes, higher education is one of the sectors that get a case study at the end. The example is a university’s central web team in charge of managing and integrating the school’s web presence across all the various units. (The case studies are anonymized versions of experiences in her own consulting practice.)
Governance can be a good word for higher education, of course. But the challenge in the modern higher education landscape is distinguishing between governance and “governance” or governance-washing. Setting up a digital governance strategy for institutions that are as decentralized and multi-faceted as universities is doubly challenging. What’s being governed in digital strategy anyways? Just marketing and communication? Data and scholarship resources? MOOCs and online education? Faculty and departmental web-presences? To what degree is the marketing and communications tail wagging the educational and research mission dog? Someone has to keep an eye on what universities are really for — teaching and research. And not marketing. We don’t have universities so we can market them — as the tail sometimes seems to think.
Welchman trods this fine line not always successfully in the higher ed case study. Too much emphasis on top down from the senior admin and provost and not enough grassroots bottom up from faculty, staff and — yes — students. For governance to be legitimate in a higher education environment, the decision-making needs to flow upward, not downward, as inconvenient and frustrating as that can seem sometimes on the inside. The digital part of the university serves the teaching and research mission of the university, not the other way around. Autonomy and stubbornness are virtues, not inconveniences to getting input on long, tortuous processes.
Overall, this is a very good book, if a little dry and disruption business web hallelujah jargony at times. The digital/web teams are perhaps too often portrayed as the misunderstood heroes of the various tales rather than part of complex organizational ecosystems where heroes and villains don’t really exist. References to “disruption” and “digital natives” and “digital campus” don’t necessarily inspire complete confidence, but there is also an incredible amount of wisdom here when it comes to creating collegial governance. Your mileage may vary, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone involved in digital projects at any level won’t find something here to help them navigate creating better processes at their institutions.
This book belongs in any library/information science, technology or business library collection in academia. Probably only quite large public library systems would find an audience for this book, but branches in technology hub neighbourhoods should probably put a copy in their window display. Also, buy a copy for everyone on your digital team, up and down the hierarchy all the way to the CIO.
Welchman, Lisa. Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media, 2015. 248pp. ISBN-13: 978-1933820880