Where digital sits on the org chart: A coming of age story

9 min read Guest writer: Tim McQueen

Since organizations began using the web in the late 90s, digital teams have grown in size and influence. While more well-established units, such as accounting teams, have had decades to settle into their respective spots within organizations, digital teams are still experiencing growing pains as they weave their way into an org chart.

This question — of where digital teams are best placed within organizations — is important because, from my experience, the overall quality of a website can depend almost entirely on this placement and the reporting lines. Having developed a few strong opinions on the topic, I decided to run a qualitative survey asking people who work in large organizations for their perspective.

What follows is a close look at the responses, and a discussion of some of the key issues I think are at the heart of this question.

I surveyed 24 people

Whilst there was a relatively small number of respondents (24), their input was very valuable and relevant to this topic because:

  • most worked in large organisations (see graph 1)
  • many have been working in digital/media for some years.
digital teams survey results Graph 1

The respondents represent a variety of professions, but more than half (63%) of the respondents work in the web production area (see graph 2).

digital teams survey results Graph 2

Where do digital teams sit within organizations?

By far the most common area that these people sit in is the marketing team, at 63% (see graph 3).

digital teams survey results Graph 3

The good and the less good of web teams sitting within marketing

From my experience, there are some important advantages of the web team sitting within the marketing team:

  1. The marketing team often consists of people with excellent business and communication skills.
  2. The head of marketing and the CEO often have a close working relationship.
  3. Marketers are often very good at networking.
  4. Marketers are skilled in the art of persuasion, which helps to get internal buy-in for website improvements and major website changes.

A few participants echoed this sentiment:

“In our business, the main purpose for a web team is to directly drive revenue into the business, and therefore it would make sense to place it in the marketing department”

However, from my observations, digital strategy and marketing strategy, though linked, are commonly driven by different priorities and expertise. Digital professionals sometimes have to spend a lot of time explaining and getting buy-in on broad digital concepts, or just don’t see the value in.  This time would be much better spent focusing on improving the website to higher levels.

One participant from my survey commented that:

“Marketing appears to lack an understanding of how users are in control of the experience.”

The other major problem is that marketers often over-allocate time and effort to short term campaigns instead of long-term digital strategy and planning. In this scenario, web content that isn’t part of the short term campaign is neglected.  Marketing teams may not prioritize monitoring and measuring the outcomes of a campaign beyond their own KPIs of sales and traffic data — which is fine, because that’s what they’re good at. But the quality of this traffic and what this traffic did after landing on the website can often be overlooked.

Ongoing maintenance, such as correcting broken links and fixing typos on a website, is not fun or sexy. And if there’s a lack of systematic user testing, senior marketing staff may not ever see the detrimental effect this can have for users.

The good and the less good of web teams sitting within IT

It used to be common for digital team to sit within IT departments, but not so much anymore. Only 4 participants (17%) reported that this is still the case for them.

I think it makes sense that this traditionally has been the case. IT team members are often the gatekeepers of vital technology. They can hold great power over projects and priorities, and have the potential to both help and hinder a web project. They control the infrastructure, or at least the access, that websites rely on. They have valuable technical skill sets and experience, especially when it comes to website domain names, security, and website hosting. And — perhaps best of all — having the IT team on your side can enable a number of important tasks to get done quickly and efficiently.However, as organizations have been realizing, there are a few pitfalls as well.

IT pros have a lot of mission critical tasks on their to do lists — any modern organization would come to a grinding holt if there was a major problem with their IT infrastructure. So we can’t expect IT teams to have the time, the expertise, or even the inclination to prioritize the effort required to produce a high-quality, well-maintained website.

I’m not saying that all IT professionals are disinterested or uninvolved with digital strategy and design — plenty will be, and there are organziations that bring the two together successfully. But overall, it isn’t their job to understand or practice things like user experience principles, visual or interactive design techniques, qualitative user research, information architecture, and so on (in the same way it’s not ours to ensure email is secure).

This perspective is neatly summed up by one participant:

“A website is a communications platform, not a technology platform…”

Who does your head of digital report to?

Not surprisingly, most people said they reported to people other than their CEO or GM, the head of Marketing in particular. I’ll explore below why I think this is an important question to ask.

digital team survey results

Are the right people doing the right things?

In your organisation, are the people with the relevant knowledge, experience and expertise making the decisions on the fate of the organisation’s website? If there’s some sort of committee that steers the web, are the members digital experts? Do the most experienced digital people within an organisation have the authority to make important decisions about digital efficiently?

Similar to how movie directors always have people telling them how they should’ve made a movie, senior staff and executive members (who scarily often have little to no professional experience within digital), will influence or even make important decisions about websites.

How, history provides many examples of senior leaders wanting to make their mark. Think ancient Rome or Egypt, for example. While I’m not trying to equate senior executives with the brutality of Caeser, but it can be difficult for people in leadership roles to admit they lack the knowledge to judge.

Furthermore, can be difficult for a digital professional to challenge the CEO or a senior member of staff because, like most people, digital professionals value their employment. As an illustration of this, Malcolm Gladwell contends that the “alleged reluctance to point out a superior’s errors, no matter how grave”, was one of the contributing factors within a number of Korean Air plane crashes:

“I use the case study of a very famous plane crash in Guam of Korean Air. They’re flying along, and they run into a little bit of trouble, the weather’s bad. The pilot makes an error, and the co-pilot doesn’t correct him.”

OK, the example may seem extreme. But the sentiment is similar.

I noticed something unexpected in comments on other blog about this topic. Quite a few people were digital professionals who’d been frustrated with previous roles working within medium to large organizations, and had decided to go freelance. Having just done the same, I can understand why.

What’s the main limitation you see with where your digital team is placed?

This was a question I had to ask, because it’s so often our frustrations with limitations that drive us to seek work elsewhere.

By far the most common limitation was the disconnection (both in communication and in mutual understanding) between web and the other org units. This is interesting feedback since, from an outsider’s point of view, an org’s website represents the entire organisation. Studies have shown that the majority of people visiting websites don’t understand, or care about, the behind-the-scenes sub-groups within an organisation. However, the feedback from the website producers is that they feel as though they’re limited in improving the site because of a lack of cross-team communication and collaboration.

The second most common limitation was lack of governance or ownership of web content. This sentiment is in line with Kristina Halverson’s comments in her book, Content Strategy for the Web. Halverson talks about this issue in terms of the need for a ‘sheriff’ of content, and likens digital managers the editors-in-chief of traditional print publications.

When I was in London last year, I took a walk down Fleet Street and thought about how the processes and procedures for creating and publishing print content have evolved over many centuries. I agree with Halverson that, in terms of content ownership, digital has a lot to learn from its much older sibling.

So, where are digital teams best placed on org charts?

Interesting, we can see that just over half of the participant thought the digital team should stand alone, and 4 people thought it should sit within the Marketing and Communications teams respectively. I’m not surprised that the stand alone vote one out — as this is where I stand as well.

digital team survey results

Participants were able to explain why, and the general sentiment of those who selected a stand alone web team was the importance of autonomy: for web teams to be able make decisions based on best practice and user research, without their work being influenced or degraded by “the priorities of other departments”:

“It’s the best way to ensure all users and business group needs are met.  It’s not just about external marketing, nor is it only about systems — the web is really about people.”

“For a digital team to be successful, it needs to be an independent voice in the organisation and recognised for its expertise in the field. Of course, IT infrastructure, compliance and marketing have a crucial role in creating a digital strategy but given too much power they will hamper innovation and slow down progress and impact on team morale.”

Why I think digital teams should stand alone

I personally advocate that the digital team is a stand-alone group with very strong ties and productive relationships with the IT and marketing teams.

I would argue that the leader of the digital division should report directly to the leader of the organisation or org unit: when non-digital professionals make important decisions about digital, this often leads to, at worst, a poorly performing website and, at best, a website that doesn’t completely fulfil its potential.

If the decision-making process is ambiguous, the process is left open for senior management to impose their views that are not based on digital expertise or evidence. Shouldn’t the head of IT, Marketing and the CEO focus on their own portfolio instead of debating with and (in some environments) overruling their digital professional colleagues?

I also believe that every major change made on a website should be monitored and measured, and the decision-maker should be made aware of the results of their decision so that they can use this knowledge to help them make decisions in the future. And it almost goes without saying, but digital teams should also have their own un-siphoned budget, which will nip a number of time-consuming debates in the bud.

A question for you

I’m interested in hearing the perspectives of professionals that have been able to produce high-quality or award-winning websites within large organizations, so feel free to point me in the right direction. And please share your experiences and thoughts on where you think digital teams should sit. I’d love to hear them.