Who owns the Web?

Workers at Excel Switching Corp. spent months studying successful Web sites, mapping out a strategy and implementing their own Internet vision. But the planning couldn’t eliminate a common problem: internal debates.

For example, engineers at the Hyannis, Mass., company, which sells hardware to the communications carrier industry, wanted graphics and information to dominate the site, while marketers wanted a more streamlined approach. “There is that push and pull,” says Bill Kelly, Excel Switching’s director of marketing programs, adding that the company takes a democratic approach in those struggles. “Whoever has the most influential argument, we’ll go with it,” he says.

Technology experts and business leaders alike say ownership of corporate Web sites is often up for grabs, as departments fight for placement, space and functionality. Marketing uses the Web site for branding, sales uses it to sell, and customer service uses it to minimize inbound phone calls. IT is left to support all the demands — within budget, of course.

But internal bickering comes at a price — lost leads, delayed launches and budget overruns — that can cost the company sales, brand recognition and customer satisfaction.

A 2004 report from Jupiter Research in New York highlights the problem: “Often there is neither an incentive for units to work together to accommodate each other’s objectives, nor a governance mechanism to maximize the overall value of the Web site as a corporate asset.”

“The Web represents a confluence among different parts of the company,” says Jupiter Research senior vice-president David Schatsky, who wrote the report. He points to a well-known consumer travel company that also serves businesses. The company’s business division wanted to promote its business-oriented products on the Web site, but other divisions thought that would puzzle the company’s core clients: individual consumers. “In that situation you need a higher authority who can make a decision,” Schatsky advises.

The cost of dissension

Jackie DiGiovanni, vice-president of marketing and communication for U.S. Group Pensions at Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corp., knows how costly those debates can be. When her division redesigned its Web site last year, the internal audit department wanted last-minute changes to the security features. Other departments disagreed with the proposal to assign new numbers and access codes to the 1.2 million participants who would use the site, but audit got its way, DiGiovanni says.

The change was a disaster, prompting frustrated plan sponsors and participants to bombard Manulife’s customer service department with calls.

“What internal audit wanted ideally was not workable in the real world,” DiGiovanni says. Manulife spent US$500,000 and six months resolving the problem.

Now she tells team members to bring such disagreements to the attention of the next level of management. “We’re more aware of needing to identify the conflicts and take more to the steering committee and let it get hashed out at that level,” she says.

Web steering committees are typical at more sophisticated companies, Schatsky says. A financial institution, for example, might have leaders from IT, the mortgage unit, the credit card division and customer service on the committee, with the chairman reporting to a senior executive.

But Rick Swanborg, president of Icex Inc., a research and content management firm in Boston, says simply forming a steering committee isn’t enough. “The companies that have done a better job at it have really put together a specialized group with people from IT, marketing (and) maybe some people from human resources who can think through the best way to build the corporate Web site,” Swanborg says.

He suggests that a company form an entity that’s focused only on the Web site and that holds ultimate responsibility and authority.

Jupiter Research’s report recommends appointing “a single executive with responsibility for maximizing the value of the company’s Web site overall.” That executive’s job would be to make sure decisions support the whole company’s objectives rather than the goals of an individual department.

Companies also need to define a primary, high-level purpose for their sites. “It’s crucial to getting to the next step,” which is to maximize the Web site’s return on investment, Schatsky explains.

When developing its initial site in 2001, New York-based Verizon Communications Inc. defined it first as a single door to the corporation and second as customer-focused, says Maria Malicka, executive director of e-commerce and call management. “We gained alignment around that, so we didn’t experience infighting or major disagreements,” she explains.

Verizon also instituted an e-commerce council of vice-presidents and directors to address corporate-level questions and develop high-level strategies for the site. And the company has stakeholder forums, so leaders from different departments can hear and weigh in on proposed Web site changes. “Everyone was at the table from the beginning,” Malicka says.

These steps haven’t eliminated all debates about the Web site, she says. But they’re crucial to resolving departmental conflicts so that the outcomes are best for the company.

“We are all in alignment on its goals, and if there are any disagreements, we have forums for discussion and negotiations. And when we focus on goals and customers, we don’t have any issues that we can’t resolve,” she says.

A clear strategy

Randy Gravlin, president of Business Innovation Inc., a technology consulting firm with offices in Woburn, Mass., and Montreal, says that without a clear strategy, companies end up with “clusters” such as IT, business and marketing that ultimately have to come together to build a successful Web site. “We’ve heard it many times: ‘This is going to be very hard. How do you bring these groups together to build a consensus?’ But it is doable,” he says.

Business Innovation worked with St. Louis-based Upbeat Inc. when the company spent nearly US$1 million revising its Web site earlier this year.

Carla M. Russo, Upbeat’s vice-president of material management and MIS, says the site was reworked to integrate it with back-office functions, collect better data and drive more traffic. The marketing department at Upbeat, which manufactures and markets indoor and outdoor products for business and government properties, controlled the Web site prior to its redesign, Russo says. But marketing also oversaw the production of 5 million catalogs annually, and the Web site had to compete for limited resources. Sometimes that meant Russo and the Webmaster were overruled.

Russo remembers one instance where she pushed for photos to correspond with each item available for sale on the site, arguing that customers want to see exactly what they’re buying. Marketing said no, citing limited time and resources.

But with the redesign, Upbeat’s CEO agreed with Russo and ordered new photos. Russo sees this as one sign of the company’s new focus on the Web.

“Prior to this redesign, the Web was there, but I don’t know if anyone was really treating it as a channel,” she says. There was no clear marketing plan, and there were no specific goals. “Nobody was really driving it,” Russo says.

Russo now sees IT and marketing as having more equal standing, which means better decisions for the company overall. Upbeat even plans to add a new position staffed by someone who has both a tech background and marketing know-how to help bridge the two departments that run its site.

“Unlike other channels that can be owned by one department, the Web site is a unique animal. It just plays too interactively into other areas,” she says. “It’s the one channel where there has to be a clear collaboration.”

Pratt is a freelance writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at markmary@mindspring.com.

Side bar 1: First among equals

Companies often put functionality or time to market first when it comes to their corporate Web sites, but they should put security at the top of the list, says Jonathan G. Gossels, president of SystemExperts Corp., a Sudbury, Mass.-based provider of network security consulting services with nine offices throughout the U.S.

That means the security team must rank as a major stakeholder as sites are built and revised.

“Security should be part of the overall plan. That’s early; that’s before anything has been written,” Gossels says.

Companies should have guiding principles when it comes to IT security, and those principles must apply to Web sites, says Bala Iyer, an assistant professor in the information systems department at Boston University’s School of Management.

Without those guiding principles, companies “could drop the ball on security” as they build their Web systems, Iyer says. Still, he believes many companies push security down on their list of priorities.

Gossels recommends that companies empower workers “to blow the whistle when something isn’t being built securely. The ownership of securing the firm is shared by everybody in the firm.

“Everybody’s reputation suffers if the cargo goes out without shutting the door.”

Side bar 2: Reaching consensus

Web site operations are a never-ending series of upgrades and revisions, a process that invites input from every department under the sun.

Despite the various and sometimes conflicting orders that IT might receive from these stakeholders, experts say consensus is achievable. Here’s how:

– Define a high-level, primary purpose for your corporate Web site. This will help guide decisions and serve as a reference point for resolving conflicts.

– Name an entity — an individual, a steering committee or a new department — responsible for mapping the company’s overall strategic objectives onto the Web channel and resolving conflicts.

– Invest in personnel who understand both marketing and technology, the two divisions most likely to dominate corporate Web site planning.

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