Episodes

Lisa Welchman on Governance

"The sharing of information globally and instantly is definitely an inflection point for human beings — and I think we're just starting that."

My guest today is digital governance advocate Lisa Welchman. For the past twenty years, Lisa has helped organizations manage the flow of their digital information. In this episode, she tells us about how content models and governance frameworks can help organizations manage their information more intentionally and safely.

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Show notes

Read the full transcript

Jorge: All right, Lisa, tell us about yourself.

Lisa: Not sure what you want to know. Do you want to know technical Lisa, musical Lisa, all of the Lisas?

Jorge: Lisa sounds like a very multi-faceted person and I am super intrigued now by everything you’ve said, so why don’t we take those in that order?

Lisa: So there’s governance Lisa. I don’t remember which one I said first. There’s governance Lisa, what I really have been doing – it’s taken me a while to figure it out – for the last 20 years, is help – usually businesses, but sometimes nonprofits, sometimes higher education, sometimes governments sometimes NGOs – so anyone, I guess – organizations, let’s put it that way. I help organizations who are dealing with it sort of multi-faceted online presence figure out how to get organized so that they can make that with better intention, higher quality, and more recently, I’ve also been saying safely; with safety in mind, right? So as everyone knows, but I’ll just say it again, the web sort of crept on organizations particularly ones that already existed prior to the advent of the commercial web, sort of snuck up on people and so they’ve tried to impose some of their previous work practices. And previous disciplines and domains like marketing, IT. to try to make digital fit within those confines of what this groups already doing. It doesn’t really, right? Because while there are a lot of similarities and a lot of things the marketing team could claim as theirs, or an IT team could claim as theirs, there are some unique ways that information flows inside an organization that demands some tweaks to that and even some new things the adage that work model. So that’s what I spend most of my time doing. It’s really helping these organizations digest digital and integrate those practices in their organization.

So that’s for one that existed already prior to that. Occasionally, I’ll work with dot-coms. Sometimes very different model. They’re all digital, right? So they’re trying to figure out the reverse which is how they impose structure and any kind of governing practice into a new business model. So the aim is the same which is how can we create and put things online and safe manner and a clear manner and with intention. So that’s what I spend most of my time doing.

In my spare time, I do all kinds of things. My son says I don’t know how to sit still or I’m a production-oriented person. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but he might be right. And you know, I spend time I make a lot of music and recording music. I posted music on the Insight Meditation timer so I create these interesting meditation pieces and put those online. Creating them helps me relax and I like to share that with other people. And I also quilt which is a fun thing to do. We were mentioning before we hit the record button that quilting is very mathematically oriented geometry in particular. It’s just a fun way to relax to sort of design and make those quilts as well. So those are probably the primary things that I do.

Jorge: What type of music do you play?

Lisa: The first thing I am is a singer. The second thing that I am is a jazz pianist. This is in order of competency. So I sing the best. And I do a lot of that. I was trained as a classical singer and then we do some jazz on the side because I grew up in a time where there were a lot of replays of Cole Porter songbook all the American Songbook, all this classic Gershwin all that sort of thing. So I grew up with that songbook; listening to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald. My dad was a jazz nut. A lot of musicians in my family. And so, I started to Jazz sing probably when I was in my 20s. And I started to get annoyed at not being able to find someone to play the piano for me consistently. And so I learned a little bit piano, taking like five or six years of piano lessons in childhood. And so I thought you know by the time I finish complaining about this I could have learned how to do this myself. So I also play jazz piano, but it’s really hard to accompany yourself. So I have a lot of admiration for people who do that. But I do it for pleasure. It’s fun.

I wanted to talk about when we did this… to talk about just organization in general. Information organization, inside of a business or corporation or whatever you want to call it, school. And then also the organization of the team that makes that information so, you know, I think that’s just an important component that I really like to bring out. Because when you asked me to do this it was confusing to me, and I’ve come to the conclusion – and I may have actually written in this in my book and forgot about it – but there was just this symbiotic relationship between the team that creates the information and the information. And those things need to be architected in complementary ways so that they can support each other. And there’s also sort of a chicken and egg thing that comes on. When I work with a lot of digital teams inside of an organization, the number one complaint is usually the content people, right? And they’re usually inside the marketing team, and they’re upset because they’re trying to create some sort of content model – could be an information model – and they’re not able to do it consistently because they don’t have any authority over the team of people that make that content. That’s a complaint. You know what it should be, you know how the information should flow, whether or not that’s omni-channel, whether or not it’s just a simple modular reuse of certain types of content, chunks not omni-channel. It could be just the reuse of content on a set of websites or single website. They can’t get control over that information flowing is usually because the team isn’t structured to do so.

Jorge: The shape of the team affects the shape of the information, right?

Lisa: Or the other way around. In fact, that is what I think is the really interesting question. What’s dominant? That’s why I’m calling it a symbiotic relationship. So say you’re – I don’t know – an airplane manufacturer. There’s a few of those, like we could be talking about any of them. So you’re an airplane manufacturer and you’ve existed since airplanes have been manufactured and you have work processes and models that are in place to support paper-based content delivery or information delivery. And it’s very very controlled in that way and you’re conservative. So all of that information comes out of that office of communications or marketing department has reviewed and that’s how it gets done. In comes the World Wide Web, into that model, and we all know – I won’t tell that story again – the web comes, everyone claims it, and you get a lot of things popping up inside the organization. So maybe one business aspect of the organization thinks they want to have a website that says this, and another says that. And so you get this fragmentation. That’s what happened; it’s happened to everything on the web. Let’s not talk about dot coms right now. Let’s just keep that to businesses that existed prior to the web and had the web sort of imposed on them. Right? So all of a sudden here comes the web things start to pop up because you have new rules about how to manage the web in the organization, and then you fast forward 25 years, which is now, and you say something like. Oh, I want to do omni-channel, right? How would you actually get that done? So who’s driving that and what’s the structure of people to get that done? Say you figure that out; you figure out how to do omni-channel. It means that you need to be consistent about certain content standards across the organization. If you live in an organization that has a highly decentralized behavior, the culture is one of decentralization, and where certain business units are allowed to make certain decisions, they may not like having a consistent content model imposed on them. And you can say, well so what? They don’t like it, they still have to do it. But if the culture is that that’s not how they do it, they don’t actually have to do it. Right? And that’s the governing problem that affects the piece: how do you make these people do that? Or you could say, there’s another thing you could say: we’re going to say it stays decentralized but we still want you to follow this content model, but we don’t want you to produce it in a decentralized way, we want you to make your stuff, send it back to headquarters, we’ll review it, and we’ll clean it up and brush it up and make it the way we want, and then we will deploy it. That’s a horrible content model. It creates a bottleneck. But that’s a way to get it done. So there’s a lot of different ways to get it done. But you have to settle on something and a certain set of compromises that you have to make on the people side and a content side to get it done. That’s the struggle.

Jorge: For the benefit of our listeners, what is a content model?

Lisa: Content model to me is the structures and processes that need to be put in place in order to deliver information to the community of users that you want to deliver, when they want it, how they want it, just in time right in time. How do we best do that serve the mission of the organization? Maybe that might just mean minimal content reuse for folks, right? It may mean highly modular content. One of those exciting things that for me and my career is that I started out at Cisco Systems. And they already had a multichannel delivery in 1999. And I talked about this in my book, but and I keep talking about it, but it’s true. Like people come to me now. They still can’t do multi-channel content delivery . So we had a content model Framemaker that basically imposed content reuse and they delivered to multiple channels. The channels were to a CD-ROM drive, make a book that you can put in a box – this is 1999 – make a book that you can put in the box with the servers or routers that Cisco sold, and the last one, or the last two ones were push to the web and push to the intranet — basic content information so that the sales team could see the information and they knew what they were selling. And there’s a lot of redundancy in that content. So they created a model that you knew what content needed to be used for which delivery whether it’s the book, CD-ROM, or the web. So they created that model. And my point is that when you create a content model there’s a certain type of workflow that goes along with that content model. If you’re going to reuse a title, if you’re going to reuse a whole white paper – which at that time was a big deal – you have to think about who needs to touch those things in workflow to get them working particularly well. And my point is that that content model may not fit well with how an organization works culturally.

You might be insisting on consistency across multiple business units when they never had to do it before. And that means that they don’t have shared work practices. Maybe they don’t want to use the same standard. Maybe they don’t like the writing style; one business unit doesn’t like the writing style that’s used for the content and they’re used to having their own. And see how this push and pull. And you have to create that sort of symbiotic relationship between a workflow and the content so you get the right balance. It’s real challenge. I mean, I’m listening to myself and understand that I’m making this sound really really complicated, but it’s not. It’s very simple in a lot of ways what’s complicated is people. People don’t want to do it.

Jorge: So the way that you’re describing it, it sounds to me like what the content model does, is it brings everyone onto the same playing field when it comes to language, right? Like you said that in the Cisco example, all those various channels by which content got communicated to folks ended up informing the sales team and getting them to a degree of cohesiveness about what they were selling. So I can see how that would influence the culture of the organization because in some ways it’s like you’re putting rails around the language they use.

Lisa: Right. And you know, people don’t like that. The interesting thing about the digital space and the web space is that the way that it came out of the box was very sort of wild and unruly. Everyone likes to say “Wild West,” but it is a good example. There weren’t any rules. When I was at Cisco, we were making up stuff as we went along.

Jorge: I’m wondering about how people did this before the internet because you’re talking about the arrival of the web in particular as this kind of turning point of sorts.

Lisa: I think yes, if you know what it’s just it’s… It is a significant inflection point for for humanity, the sharing of information globally and instantly is definitely an inflection point for human beings and I think we’re just starting that. We celebrated the 30th anniversary of the web this year who that’s really nothing.

I say all the time it took, you know, a really really long time for printing to mature, it took a really really long time for the phone to commoditize, it took a long time for people to know how to manufacture cars safely. We’re struggling with all these things right now. How do we have consistent standards across the board?

Lucky for us, the World Wide Web is standards-based. If you don’t follow certain standards, it’s just isn’t going to push through the browser. It’s not going to work. So I’m not talking about the technology. I’m talking about standards within our organization. And people like to say that organizations don’t make standards or have standards and that’s just not true. Organizations usually have a consistent business card, a consistent brand which includes a consistent mark. They have consistent ways that they use language. They have consistency around the way that they house their employees. They have these big campuses that have consistent layouts that have naming conventions for their conference rooms.

So when I walk in and they tell me, ” we don’t do standards here.” I’m like, “that’s just not true. What you haven’t decided is that digital is something that should be in that set of things that you all do in a standardized way”. Right? And part of that is the web has a culture of do what you want when you want. And I grew up in that culture. There were no rules and so the web as a discipline and digital as a discipline needs to mature. Now does that mean that everything has to be sort of choked through this gate of sameness? No. That would be one way to do it, right? But that doesn’t mean it just means that an organization needs to be consistent about how they push information through the organization and therefore consistent about how they staff for those positions that move that information. So a lot of times, I’m walking in and there’s a digital team that’s already formed with names in it: UX; it’s usually split somewhere between IT and marketing communications and some loud people in the business units. They all have names, they all have jobs, and they basically are saying “give me a governing framework, but don’t change my job.” Right? And that’s not how it works. If you want to have an omni-channel experience for your users. You’re probably going to have to change the way you create information, which means you’re going to have to change the jobs of people that create information and that’s really what people are pushing up against, right?

They’ll all agree that this is a great content model. We want to do this type of delivery scheme for information management for our users. But as soon as you say that means you’re going to lose your power or you have to move from here or no marketing, IT does get a say about certain systems, or you need to tell the business units to rein themselves in about making certain choices people get really in a muddle. Right? And so that’s really what they’re bucking up against and it makes it a very interesting human problem.

Jorge: When you’re talking about content and communications, I can think of at least two different kinds of communication and content being produced. One is the sort of stuff that goes out to the world. So you’re talking for example about marketing and marketing produces content that gets shared with people outside the organization. And then there is content that is meant for internal consumption, just for the folks who work at the company. And I’m guessing that these governance frameworks affect both. Is that the case?

Lisa: Well, they often are different governing frameworks. So a governing framework for me is about decision-making. Who gets to make decisions about standards. A content model is a standard for delivering content. Brand has a set of standards that are underneath it. IT has a set of standards. Right? So it’s decision-making about standards. In some organizations the internet and the intranet, which is that external and internal content names, which I’m talking about websites just to be simple, right? Those things aren’t managed by the same team. It doesn’t happen that often. So the governing framework of who makes decisions about standards for the intranet and internet might be similar. In most instances, it’s not the same. Some other organization does the internet and some other one does any external-facing things. And so you might have different governing frameworks, and you often do. Right? Because it’s who makes decisions about the standards for internally consumed content might be different. Marketing usually doesn’t want to have anything to do with that but everything to do with external, right? So those are going to be different types of governing frameworks.

However, the types of decision-making that happens in a governance framework are threefold: strategies, policies, and standards. So standards might be made by different people in the group, strategies might be different, but oftentimes the policy-making framework is the same for internet and intranet because it usually has to do with compliance and regulatory aspects and then talking about the legal team or compliance team and that can sort of roll up . But sometimes that can be different as well. So these are just sort of dry things that nobody wants to think about. But it is the thing that people fight about the most. I have a new visual design for the website. Who gets to decide what that is? That’s the number one fight.

It is the number one fight inside of an organization, used to be what’s on the home page. Number one fight, right? So figuring out who makes these decisions about standards is really important and if you can figure that out once for the internet, once for the intranet, once for the extranet, what that decision-making paradigm is, multiple projects and operational teams can flow through that governing framework.

But people don’t want to do that. It’s really fascinating. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and just now with the sort of blow-ups that you’re seeing in the dot-coms are people starting to say, “oh wait, this stuff needs to be governed. There needs to be policy, there needs to be standards, whose supposed to be making rules about safety? How do you make safe online products?” Right? And so it’s really fascinating that now after 20 years, I think we’ve reached a letter level of maturity and another inflection point where were like, okay, you see what we can happen when we blow this stuff up in a very large way. How are we going to govern that from a Global Perspective? Right? That’s really the tough question, who’s going to make rent rules about how we govern the World Wide Web – not from a technology perspective, but almost behaviorally. What is okay stuff to do on the web and not okay stuff to do? So that challenge can be in a business, in a big dot com, working the inside a for-profit business, in a non-profit, for a government.

The way that the web is governed in China is very different than the way the web is governed in France. So this governance thing, not self-serving, I think is central right now. Whether or not you’re trying to publish content in a way that makes sense for whether or not you trying to govern the whole web.

It’s the same problem.

Jorge: How has doing this work influenced the way that you use information yourself?

Lisa: Do you mean actually doing the work of working with the folks on a governing model? Or just in general, what have I absorbed in my own work practices?

Jorge: The latter, because it’s a meta thing, right? Like you’re advising folks on how to be more intentional about their use of information and I’m wondering if you have picked up any patterns, any best practices that have helped you in your own use of information.

Lisa: Probably yes. But I would say what probably is more true is the reverse. So you asked me about myself at the beginning of this podcast and I talked about music and I talked about quilting and I talked about governance. Well, what do all of those things have in common? They are all very highly organized.

So despite looking at my not organized home or my not visually organized tasks, which would make some people crazy, in my head I’m very organized. So I studied philosophy in school and people think that when I say that they’re thinking of a Jean-Paul Sartre with a beret on their head and smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Right? And thinking existential thoughts. And I did a little bit of that. But then I got very quickly to symbolic logic. And for every year, which was four years of undergrad in the US and then a year in grad school where I decided didn’t want to be a philosophy professor. For every year, I took symbolic logic very very deeply. And I was very interested in semantics. People don’t talk about the semantic web anymore for all the reasons we were talking about. Delivering on the semantic web would be very very challenging High degree of organization across the board. So people don’t talk about that.

So I think what’s more happening is my love of organization has led me to this aspect of managing and thinking about digital – so not in a visual, in my face kind of way, where people really need to have visual organization – in fact, I collect art and it’s all abstract. All abstract art. Would make people crazy.

I’m really trying to impose organization on things, on any type of paradigm that I see, I’m always trying to systematize it and figure out, how does this work? Like add a meta- level, what is going on? What are the dynamics that are happening? That’s what I’m really interested in. You know, what are the dynamics of Team? What are the dynamics of the content? How are these two things going to dance together, partner to partner, in a way that’s elegant, that gets the job done, but also allows the other one to have its own entity, have its own being. And so that’s really what’s happened. I love organizational patterns, period. If I can quilt them, if I can chord-progress them through music, absolutely fantastic. One of the interesting things I talk about in my book is how the reason that I like jazz is because it has a structural frame underneath it. Right? And on top of it you can improvise. And that’s really, I think, what everybody’s trying to get to. Some people want to improvise a little bit, some people a lot. But organizations need that structured frame so that everyone just one understands what the patterns are and then if you get that right and you allow each entity inside the team to maximize what they do well within that frame, then you get the best of both worlds. You get a structured content model that is really well managed. You get people who love their jobs because they’re allowed to improvise and freestyle within that framework and do things that they love. And you get this beautiful output that your customers or your citizens, whoever it might be, actually are congruent with. And I’d say in the digital space we see very little of that dance. You just sort of see everybody either trying to freestyle or we see it so locked down that it’s not interesting or it’s not really delivering. And so that I think is really going to be the challenge of the next 20 or 30 years for the enterprise, which is how to create that balance. How to make my team and marketing work together when they have two very different types of work patterns.

There’s so much freestyle going on that some of the stuff that’s getting delivered is not safe. Right? And so I think we’re going to be calming down and actually putting into place governing models in the organization and more broadly across the web, the cross vertical market spaces like healthcare, using that as an example, to make sure that things are operating with intention – I love that word, I use it all the time – and safely.

Jorge: When you use this fabulous analogy with jazz – and I think it is fabulous because this notion that the structure is what grants you the freedom to improvise — the fact that it’s not turning into a mush because everyone is working off the same underlying structures. When I think of good jazz, they are making amazing music that works with the structure but also feels loose and the players are listening to each other and responding to what the others are doing. And there’s this kind of looseness. So there is a balance between the structure and also the looseness of going to where the music takes them. And the notion that popped in my mind is that that requires a certain degree of mastery on the part of the players. Right?

Lisa: Yeah, I would say so. One thing is I’ll say I’m less judgmental than you are about good jazz. So I like the type of jazz you’re talking about and might even lean in your direction personally, but I would also say there’s highly scripted jazz. Musicians are in a big band in their reading off of the thing and only occasionally will somebody stand up and solo. But for the most time, they’re reading music and they’re playing that. Right? And so that’s good and true if that’s your intention.

One of the things that I say when content teams in the corporate structure of an organization do not want to decentralize the creation of content outside of that, they don’t want to give it to the business units because they don’t trust them to do a good job, and I say,” hire well and train often.” That’s a job they don’t want to do. You’d be surprised still how much of information and content creation is collateral duty for people who are not trained to do that. So you’re going to get kind of crap, right?

Just as there are people who are trained to select and deploy web content management systems and to understand how technology stack works. Those people aren’t necessarily only in IT or only in marketing. If you know how to do that well you can get a job anywhere because IT and marketing are trying to pick up those things. So there are disciplines and competencies, particularly in the digital space, that need to be written down and then you need to hire well or you need to train people to do something well. And then you get that quality. And that’s all the freestyling part that you said that you liked a lot. I like it too because I think that’s what most people want. They want to go to work and do something that they love and do it well and be in an environment that supports them in doing that. And then you have happy employees, happy at work. And then you have happy people. When you have happy people, I think you get less of the bad things in the world. If you have people going to jobs that they don’t like or that push against their needs that’s not going to help anyone globally, or just humanity globally. And maybe I’m just stretching that out a little bit but I think that’s important component the human components important when to bring in.

Jorge: I love this idea of setting up these structures not necessarily with the objective of constraining people, but to make their work easier and make them happier. I love that. This is actually a great place to wrap it up. So where can folks find you, Lisa?

Lisa: Well, they can find a little bit about me and a contact form at lisawelchman.com and they can buy my book Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design either at Rosenfeld Media or on Amazon.

Jorge: I’m also wondering where folks can listen to your music.

Lisa: If you are a part of the Insight Timer community, I’ll tell people a secret: I publish my music under a name, Scientific Eve. So see, even in that even in my arty name there’s science.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. Thank you for sharing that with us and thank you for sharing just in general what you’re doing. It sounds fascinating.

Lisa: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

End music: “Good Morning” by Scientific Eve