Right from the start of the web revolution in the 1990s came what I call the “Sphincter Effect.” Remember, those were the day when websites had Web Masters and if you were some excited person in an organization with a website, and you wanted to participate and get a “page” for your department or brilliant idea, then you had to go to the Web Master to get it done. “Sphincter?” Remember the old joke about all the different parts of the body having an argument about who was the most important? The eyes claimed that if they stayed shut the body wouldn’t see the truck and would get hit crossing the street? The mouth saying if it went on strike the body would starve? Well the winner was the sphincter – the single point of relief.
Webmasters were sphincters. The Tulsa office would ask for a web page promoting its awesome new project to save the Prairie Chicken and the Webmaster would tell them to take a number from the little dispenser at their web deli counter and wait their turn. Well, Tulsa took some inspiration from the old Confucian parable that the “Sky is High and the Emperor is Far Away” and turned to some freebie web tool like Geocities or Microsoft Front Page and before you knew it – as the Web became more and more of a thing – your typical business or institution had a boatload of rogue sites. I know. I watched it happen at Forbes. And soon I came to dread the single scariest question in the world: “Did you know about this?”
The very freedom of the web, the accessibility to anyone in an organization to go to Blogger or WordPress.com and launch their own little piece of digital turf which they can change and play with on their own, without appealing to the Sphincter, meant chaos was inevitable. IDG was out of control when I arrived in 2005. Dear old Pat McGovern, may he rest in peace, made decentralization part of IDG’s DNA when he realized that he was the sphincter and impeding decision making. So he let his country managers and publishers do their own things and they did. Except that came to bite the company on the ass when a big advertiser like IBM expected to make an advertising buy across all of IDG’s publications which ran the gamut from the Industry Standard to InfoWorld to ComputerWorld to PC World – all of which were published in Russian, Tagalog, Portuguese…….
Oh my god the insanity. Anyway, Carrigan fixed the mess, the company federated all of its subscriber databases into one big monster, and before long stopped printing rags like Infoworld and went all in with digital. But the solution was because the content management system and the digital asset management system and the web metrics systems were all centralized.
Lowell Bryan at McKinsey taught me two things in his disarming southern drawl. This is the man who led McKinsey’s Global Strategy Practice. This guy knew a thing or two about strategy and big organizations. The first thing he told me is irrelevant to this screed, but worth repeating:
It takes a brave man to call a baby ugly
And the thing applicable here:
“You have to loosen control without losing control.”
What does that mean for global web management? Simple – give the people on the front lines. The ones who have the content that needs to be updated, the ones who don’t want to wait for the Sphincter to take care of their request, total control over their glass. But do it on a single platform so they won’t go off brand, won’t waste money on stupid software, and won’t break the law by doing some dumb-fuck move. And trust me, people can be counted on to do the wrong thing.
Governing a global web organization doesn’t get any more insane than it did for me at Lenovo. I mean, think about managing “digital experiences” for a company funded in part by the pension fund of the Red Army in a country that blocks Google and Facebook. Even with the Chinese approach to organizational hierarchy and governance, that didn’t stop a country marketing manager in Poland from buying web advertising from some R-rated bikini model site. If you want to break out in a terrifying sweat, try reading an email one morning with the ominous subject line “Did You Know About This?!?!” that contains a screenshot of a Lenovo banner ad on a website campaigning against Tienanmen Square over that famous picture of the dude facing down a tank.
But I sympathize with the marketing manager in the Philippines. He has autonomy over how he spends his budget. He needs to have a homepage that celebrates some weird Filipino national holiday or launch a new campaign around Imelda Marcos Shoe Collection Appreciation Week. Whatever. He needs control locally. Not from the Sphincter and the Committee of No at headquarters. So, piss him off enough and he’s going to launch his own little web pirate ship. Good for him.
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