Confab Central 2014: Big Thoughts on Digital Governance

sign reading "Welcome to Confab Central"Following last year’s most excellent experience at Confab, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend again this year (now rebranded as “Confab Central,” as Confab Events has expanded to offer events for several specific audiences) but was a little nervous that it wouldn’t be as good an experience the second time around. I needn’t have worried. While there were perhaps fewer presentations that blew my mind, every session I attended was solid and gave me something to think about, and there was a great mix of inspiration, big-picture strategic thinking, and hands-on tactical ideas to bring home via one’s to-do list – as well as networking opportunities with hundreds of very smart, very friendly content strategists.

Thanks to a Professional Development Grant from the IU Bloomington Professional Staff Council, this year I was able to attend one of the optional full-day workshops presented the day before the conference proper began. These workshops ran from 9:00-5:00 with a lunch break (during which, thanks to aforementioned networking opportunities, the learning did not stop) – so it really was a full day of filling up my brain with new ideas and big thoughts. I knew I should’ve emptied out some of those memorized 1970s song lyrics ahead of time in order to make some extra brain space.

My workshop was “Doing the Right Thing: Web Governance for Your Organization,” presented by Lisa Welchman. As we’ve been so focused here on planning the launch of the Libraries’ new website, I’ve had many thoughts about governance at that level – who should be responsible for what content (things like library services, “About the Libraries,” the home page, etc. often require input from multiple sources, but someone has to be the final arbiter of what gets published), how CMS training should be managed, whether at least some content needs to be approved prior to publication, whether anyone other than the content creator/owner should have the authority to delete content if for example it turns out to be duplicative or is so outdated as to be less than confidence-inspiring, and so on. These are all nuts-and-bolts, tactical questions – and as it turned out, Ms. Welchman’s workshop focused on much more big-picture, strategic issues.

Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t useful. I learned a TON, and thinking about the big questions of governance at the organizational level definitely helps me to understand how the local/tactical issues should be approached. I may not have the authority to say “okay, you associate deans, go into a room and don’t come out until you’ve outlined a digital strategy for the Libraries” – but thinking strategically is useful for anyone at any level, I believe.

As Welchman began describing what she meant by “governance,” I realized that here in the Libraries, this structure is incredibly large and complicated. We’re talking not just about the content creators, editors, coders, etc. who make the Libraries’ website happen – but also about other digital presences (social media, LibGuides, digital collections, this blog), and about responsibilities that fall under the purview of Library Technologies Core Services, UITS, etc. all the way up to the Vice President for IT. The Libraries’ digital strategy and policies are governed both by the Libraries’ mission and overall strategic plan and by larger University-wide strategies and policies. Our governance structure is also influenced by people and groups outside of IU, such as the consultants with whom we contracted to help migrate our website and even those responsible for outside services we use. (As an example, some social media services make it difficult to change the name of an account, so if you want to change your branding from “Herman B Wells Library” to “IUB Libraries” it can be tricky.)

Clearly, we’re not talking about a “web team” of half a dozen people who could sit down in a room together!

So I didn’t come away from this workshop with a to-do list of actionable ideas, but with a better understanding of some strategic concepts:

  • Governance as the mechanism by which strategy is implemented
  • The difference between standards (guidelines for getting work done) and policy, which is set at a much higher level of the organization (“if you break it someone might get sued”)
  • Lisa Welchman: “I don’t believe in ‘best practices.’ I believe in stuff that works.” You should learn about best practices, but then adhere only to the ones that actually make sense for your work.
  • The difference between policy authorship and policy stewardship – oftentimes the part of an organization that is really good at writing policy is different from the part that is really good at managing existing policy.
  • Best ways to communicate standards to your community – this is something that is very applicable to my day-to-day work managing web content that is created by dozens of authors. When you create a new “best practice” you need to communicate the standard for it, provide a deadline for compliance, and then measure compliance in a structured manner.

I’ll continue to review my notes from this workshop and from the rest of Confab Central – watch for future blog posts featuring more of my 2014 takeaways.

Besides the snacks, that is. Once again, Confab did not disappoint in the food department – they take really good care of us there! One of my takeaways may have been a few pounds, due to deliciousness like this in between sessions:

menu for afternoon snack at Confab Central, featuring local cheeses

Those Minnesotans, man. They know how to throw a party extremely useful professional conference.

As a side note, Lisa Welchman’s book, Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, is due out from Rosenfeld Media in the near future. It should be worth a look.

Author- Anne Haines

Web Content Specialist in the Discovery & User Experience Department, IU Libraries. I've spoken at events including edUi, Confab Central, Confab Higher Ed, IOLUG, ILF, the IU Libraries' Digital Library Brown Bag series, and the Libraries' In-House Institute. You can find me hanging out at the intersection of content strategy and librarianship, singing a doo-wop song under the streetlight. Follow me on Twitter: @annehaines