two people in the middle of a green maze made of shrubbery
Without a strong governance foundation, a digital workplace can become a hard to navigate maze PHOTO: Tim Green

“Without rules, ping-pong is just sophisticated wafting” — Thom Tuck

Martyn Perks recently wrote, “Goodbye Governance, We Don't Need You Any More.” I’m grateful to Perks for challenging the need for governance in digital workplaces. It can definitely get out of hand when governance becomes endless policies that nobody reads. I’ve often said the only purpose for a 100 page governance document is to hit someone as a means of enforcement.

However policies are only one part of governance. And done right, governance is what takes a generic set of tools and turns them into a digital workplace specific to your organization. 

As I see it, governance is about taking your strategic goals and saying, “when people have multiple ways of doing things on our digital workplace, what’s the option that gets us to where we want to be?”

Governance Is the Day-to Day Realization of Your Strategy

People are too busy to think through the consequences when they use digital tools. 

They shouldn’t have to. 

They should be able to focus on their tasks, and have someone else think through a bigger picture. Your digital workplace strategy is about working out how to meet everyone’s needs in a compatible way, and the governance is then about giving choices within that range.

It’s not the same in our private lives. As consumers, we don’t expect our choices to be constrained because generally they don’t impact others. 

However, in our public lives, we accept this all the time: we all drive on the same side of the road because it is better all round. We submit to one-way systems and traffic lights. We might not like them, but we like the impact of the gridlock we’d have without them even less.

Unless we stop and think, we face a blind spot here: we see traffic jams as being caused by all the cars around us, not our own roles as equal contributors to the jam.

Governance Reduces Friction

It’s hard to do things consistently across hundreds or thousands of people. That’s why it takes a corporation to pull it off and not a loose collective. Without consistency, customer service, product quality and risk-assessment can all suffer. 

Large organizations look to their digital workplace to help them operate at scale, for example by bridging silos that otherwise naturally occur in any organic network and making it easier to collaborate across distances.

Note that I’m not saying we can use governance to make people collaborate. But we can use it to reduce reduce inadvertent barriers. For example, simple things like mixing Dropbox, Box, OneDrive and WeTransfer within a company adds friction to collaboration, yet this outcome is inevitable when people choose the nearest tool at hand to share a file without any guidelines.

Similarly, Perks gives the example of search: 

“Previously you would ask employees to follow strict guidelines on metadata descriptions, tagging and more — often with limited results. But advances in search technology have relaxed these rules.” 

Show me the employee that is happy with their enterprise search! Metadata is more important than ever because search is usually a combination of searching and then browsing results: consistent metadata lets us compare and filter results across disparate sources.

Good Governance Speeds Things Up

“Good governance is like having good brakes on a car — it makes it safer to go faster” — Ralph O’Brien

Governance done poorly can stifle innovation — on this, Perks and I agree. The challenge comes when we're locked into a standard way of doing things when that approach is outdated. Governance can also be viewed as a form of risk management: You anticipate what might happen and decide in advance what course of action to take. That way, when someone asks “Should we do X?” there’s no need to grind things to a halt, convene a steering group and sweat over a PowerPoint deck.

Making this happen fluidly means that part of digital workplace governance is also about defining how and when governance gets updated. That way it can continue to adapt and evolve along with your business.

We need governance in digital workplaces more than ever — it just needs to be done the right way.