Your Web Site As Sandbox

Planning a military operation has always been a tricky business.

Rather than standing around scratching diagrams in the dirt with a stick, commanders favoured a rather large sandbox raised to tabletop height. The terrain of the sandbox was formed to represent the major features of the combat zone and various symbols were deployed to represent friendly and enemy forces.

The sandbox gave those leading the operation a way of participating in the planning and an opportunity to see clearly how things were supposed to proceed. Getting things right in the sandbox went a long way towards getting things right in the field.

Sometimes management teams could use a sandbox. This is particularly true when large, complex companies want to test this or that option for change. Such companies need a means of representing or portraying different scenarios of their organization and its business models in a way that supports critical debate and discussion. One candidate is a cluster of off-site virtual Web sites. With a little technology magic, the company can build a sandbox of private Web sites and use these sites as a test-bed for discussion among members of the management team.

Where did this come from? Well, it’s nothing more than a bit of reverse engineering.

You can tell an awful lot about a company from its Web site. Does the site reflect a company that is product-focused or one that is customer-focused? Is the content of the Web site organized along business-unit lines? Or does the content reflect an information model based upon broad core competencies, customer needs or product lines? Does the site reflect a company that considers the Internet an afterthought or does it reflect a company that is aggressive in exploiting its technology to business advantage?

Of course, smart companies can have dumb Web sites, and dumb companies can have smart ones. This isn’t science, but you get the picture.

So let’s suppose you’d like to move your information model a little further along the evolutionary curve. Right now it’s still anchored in individual business units in all the regions. There’s lots of duplication, lots of idiosyncratic stuff and a wide variety of (let’s be kind here) unique collection and retention protocols. Information is an asset and you really need some serious asset management here.

The classic approach is to work up an information management plan during the planning cycle. That’s the theory. What usually happens is that executive input to such plans rarely takes place and they wither on the vine for lack of interest. No one in management can get interested or is willing to prioritize top-of-mind issues to focus on something quite so arcane. I know that the development of a new model is central to effective knowledge management. I know it will save the company millions by getting rid of duplication in collection and storage. So do they. You need a way of making it all real.

One of the things you can do in trying to bring this initiative along is to create virtual Web sites off-line that are access-limited to some or all of your managers. On these sites you can create some alternative scenarios to the way content is organized on your current site. The first site could organize information against the two or three core competencies of the company. The second site could organize the same information against a mix of the company’s strategic objectives and some of its business priorities. And so on.

What you’re doing here is throwing the company’s current Web site (which we’ll suppose reflects the current information model) and a number of other virtual sites into a sandbox to let management see and discuss these alternatives. Forget the theory. Give management a taste and feel of some alternatives. On each site, identify the cost saving and efficiency gains that will derive from this particular approach. Hyperlink each site to a very short questionnaire to get them thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative. Run a chat group if you think that’ll help.

Let them play in the sandbox.

Chuck Belford is president of Management Smarts Inc., a Nepean, Ont.-based management consulting and training company. He can be reached at