Digital Workplace Governance Is About Engaging, Not Controlling

September 19, 2022 Digital Workplace
James Robertson
By James Robertson

Managing an intranet or digital workplace can feel like a constant battle, where issues surface on every front and victory remains elusive.

Readers will no doubt recognize many of these issues: Content authors and owners fail to keep their areas of the site up to date; business stakeholders use their influence to get their ‘important’ projects and programs listed on the homepage; and collaboration sites run wild. Above all, staff find their digital employee experience to be confusing and a waste of time.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Governance is the antidote. Successful governance is all about engagement and win-win outcomes. Strong governance helps to set expectations, and manages competing priorities. At its best, it should not just mitigate problems, but actively support the delivery of great solutions to staff and the business.

But sometimes, out of a sense of growing desperation, teams see governance as a silver bullet to resolve all their problems. Governance is not a weapon, and it can’t be used to win the war. Instead, governance is the result of consensus, fostered between all stakeholders.

Wielding an Imaginary Stick

Every organization needs strong governance. Ideally, it is clearly documented and communicated to all intranet stakeholders, and has the backing of senior leaders.  

It’s tempting to think that strong governance is enough to solve intranet or digital workplace problems.

The first challenge that teams encounter is that nobody reports to them. Content owners report to their business leaders, and senior stakeholders are beholden only to executive leaders. That means there’s no way for central teams to ‘force’ devolved groups to do anything.

The second challenge is that organizations are already packed full of policies and guidelines, covering everything from financial controls to HR principles. The brutal truth is that many of these policies exist only on paper, with little impact on actual behaviors and decisions. Governance documents risk just being thrown on the pile, along with the 50 other documents.

The biggest challenge is this: If there’s a ‘war’ between the central team and decentralized content creators, then everyone loses. Content owners become frustrated, and central teams burn out. An ‘us versus them’ approach benefits nobody.

Related Article: You Rolled Out Your Digital Workplace in Record Time. Now Let's Talk Governance

Losing the Language of Enforcement

Language matters. Too often, the language intranet and digital workplace teams use makes them appear unapproachable, or more important than other contributors and stakeholders. These other stakeholders then react accordingly, and the problem worsens.

The first step to building a more constructive relationship with other players in the digital workplace is to use appropriate language. Avoid language and phrases that will generate increased tension and resistance.

Banning the following list of terms from intranet and digital workplace communications is a good place to start:

  • Enforcement
  • Compliance
  • Audits
  • Standards
  • Policies
  • Regulations
  • Obligations
  • Force
  • Require

Teams need to instead communicate openly and on even terms with others. Of course standards are still necessary. And no, the centralized intranet or digital workplace team are not the root of all problems. But someone has to break the cycle of conflict around intranets. As the group with the greatest responsibility for the digital workplace, the central team should set a new tone for conversations, starting with losing the language of enforcement.

Related Article: Intranets Mirror Their Organizations: The Good and the Bad

It’s All About Consensus

The good news is that while there isn’t a way of enforcing governance, it’s still entirely possible to set up an effective and sustainable governance model.

The starting point is to recognize that governance is the result of consensus among stakeholders. More than that, good governance helps to strengthen and sustain governance, for the long-term benefit of all.

Digital workplace teams can build a consensus-based approach with the following steps:

  1. Start by losing the language of enforcement, as the first step towards establishing productive relationships.
  2. Conduct a review of your current landscape, to identify current strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Bring together key stakeholders to participate in a governance workshop.
  4. Using a structure such as the intranet operating model as a framework, agree on the desired direction for the site (including overall vision, strategy and roadmap).
  5. As a group, work through some of the ‘guiding’ elements of governance, including decision-making processes and governance structures.
  6. As quickly as possible, start addressing the ‘doing’ elements of governance, to deliver tangible outcomes.
  7. Use early successes to further foster consensus, and to flesh out other elements of the model.

Intranets and digital workplaces still need strong centralized leadership, and consensus doesn’t mean ‘death by committee.’ However, by keeping the focus on growing consensus throughout the governance process, you will succeed in putting in place sustainable and effective structures.

About the Author

James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”


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