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Nick is scary-smart. Listen up. Posted on 05/15/2002.

Nick Ragouzis, sent me an email about my essay(s) on unifying the online presence of decentralized organizations, wherein he perceptively challenges the notions I put forth, extending them to a level of complexity I wasn't yet prepared to go. I asked if I could post it, and he said yes. Nick wasn't sure if a weblog was the best place to promote a disccussion of these issues... I'm hoping we can show him the value!


Now I'm sorry I didn't write sooner. :-)

From our discussions, you know that we agree on the foolishness of offering customers a website that is a simple mirror of the org chart. Do you agree that's so even if the site is consistent throughout?

Brochure-ware and orgchart-maps are but two forms of website immaturity. A third would be uniformity of presentation -- the brand-face website.

The primary mistakes involved here are two: 1) a belief that the web offers limited opportunities beyond recapitulation of the principles that marcom, e.g., has used to control "the" corporate message; and 2) a confusion between consistency in presentation and consistency in principles, coupled with a blindness to the threat this presents the organization.

Starting with the last, the threat is significant: this sort of consistency is one more component of inertia in an organization. The smallest effective argument here is to point out that for a 2-year turnover cycle with 6-month delivery bursts, if the website is responding to marketplace dynamics (let alone service and product evolution), at least 1/4 of it must be [1] inconsistent with the remaining 3/4s. More important arguments (though longer to make) concern, e.g., organization change (yes, internal stuff), competitive dynamics, and, significantly, the primacy of local-ness in communications (revisiting my connectionism argument [2] from years back, and others before me).

The first mistake I listed is no less crucial: the consistency one must seek is on principles, not on presentation, not even on (tho' much preferred over presentation) characteristics. Consistency on principles means understanding the perceived value formula of each of the key constituencies and delivering on it ... even if that suggests, demands, an inconsistence in presentation or characteristics. (A close, weaker, cousin to this relationship is the difference between brand presentation and brand promise.) Or, for another example, some of the principles will have a manifestation in variations in copy style -- even though each part of the website might have its own style variant. Likewise, in the same similar-but-different way, each part of the website will exhibit core and local principles.

Principles are harder than presentation; well, once you go beyond the simple ones of clarity, performance (all kinds), quality, privacy, security. Principles are harder to identify in the organization (it's real work, esp. to get beyond the "Principles we live by" orgspeak, or brand personality police -- which still, btw, concerns mostly static attributes ... can you imagine?); principles are harder to validate.

One side note: with many organizations looking to the website as their new face on the world, we are rapidly losing (or drowning out) one key, crucial, innovation driver: the big-mouthed salesperson. Really successful sales folks, and the P/CEO when let loose in the field, have a tendency to say anything they need to say to close important deals, to retain important customers. Not just anything, of course, but the "Right" anything. Often that is not consistent with anything the organization is officially saying. Or doing. Or wants to do. Despite the fact that sometimes it isn't something the organization should do, it is a primary driver for change in response to important customers, to important competitors, to significant marketplace opportunities.

Well, it is a primary driver still. People in the organization now have a way to participate in this -- to extend their role beyond noticing and acting on things that less important customers wanted, on weak signals from the marketplace, in other words to extend their role beyond things consistent; to extend it to exploring and forcing change. Not by dressing up every page in the same uniform (as some companies have done when they realized that all of those sales folks dressed in their own idiosyncratic, sometimes local, style) but by naming principles and carrying out locally-relevant execution.


[1] "Must be" might well be read as an organizational mandate.

I have a lot to say about this, but unfortunately don't have much time write now. The one thing I want to point out as an exemplar of the problem Nick is mentioning is The "look and feel" of is rigidly controlled by its brand identity group, and they've done a remarkable job ensuring the same typefaces, color schemes, navigation layout, etc., across what is a massively decentralized organization's website. What they haven't done, though, is ensure *functional* consistency, *behavioral* consistency. Such that elements that look the same, and are in the same place, and appear to have the same perceived affordances, act differently in different parts of the site. And that's *worse* than letting the different sub-sites look and feel different--at least in that world, you'd expect different behaviors (though, you might wonder if you're still on the website of the same company). What happens at Intel is that you quickly learn you cannot trust the behavior of the elements, and you feel paralyzed, as your expectations are repeatedly dashed, and you're afraid to click anywhere. (This is part of what I was trying to get at in the fourth step of the second part of the essay, stating that an online style guide has to go beyond appearance, and must specify interaction behavior as well.

2 comments so far. Add a comment.

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You might want to look at GE as another example of a diverse and decentralized organization trying to achieve some consistency across business unit web sites. (Their style guide is online as well.)

Well, anyway, I'm not sure how this fits with Nick's arguments, but one must wonder how Yahoo (US, Canada. Germany, Japan) and Amazon (US, Germany, Japan) deliver localized versions of their site with such remarkable consistency of interface.
Posted by Gene @ 05/16/2002 08:08 AM PST [link to this comment]

Oops... correct link for Yahoo Germany.
Posted by Gene @ 05/16/2002 09:08 AM PST [link to this comment]

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