A digital workplace leader atop a stage giving direction through a bullhorn

Sound digital governance is all about clear organizational accountability for strategy, policy and standards. Strategy, policy and standards each have a critical role in ensuring online integrity, but digital policies are the ones that allow an organization to fully exploit digital in appropriate ways. The best digital policies balance the opportunities with the risks. And where would strategy, policy and standards be in a company without someone to guide them?

Traditionally, the job of stewarding policy has fallen to the legal or regulatory and compliance departments. In the digital world, that should also apply, but too often those departments are still headed by those in their late 50s and early 60s for whom digital is anything but native. With a strong understanding of the business and vast experience in the industry, these “policy wonks” do a great job of spearheading policies around disciplinary action, equal opportunity or financial reporting. However, they often fail to deliver on the digital front when topics such as social media listening, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), chatbots or digital analytics arise. In very small organizations, policy may have no direction as legal is generally outsourced and used only for very crucial needs.

The digital policy stewardship landscape will likely change in the next 10-15 years as digital natives move into managerial roles and provide a fine balance between business (including legal, compliance, finance) and digital. Waiting that long is not an option as that job needs to be filled today. Increasingly in smaller organizations — using SBA’s definition that means a business with less than $35.5 million in sales or 1,500 employees — I see marketing specialists that can step into that stewardship role and fill the void. If you have the digital operations background and think this is a role you might be willing to step into, now is the time. But you better understand what you are in for and arm yourself with the necessary resources.

Why You?

It can be hard to find someone with willing to volunteer for the digital policy steward role mostly because it isn’t well defined and most organizations don’t know they need one until it is staring them in the face. I have no illusions that as a marketing specialist or digital manager, digital policy stewardship comes natively. You are unlikely to have a turnkey toolkit to perform the function from day one. 

However, it is a mistake to feel intimidated by the word “policy” (read on), as I continually meet marketing specialists that have the ample expertise required and can augment themselves with resources to rise and meet the challenge. This has never been truer, especially in B2B and highly specialized small establishments.

Are You Right For The Gig?

If you are inclined to raise your hand for the role of a digital policy steward, you should be plan to:

  • Leverage an understanding of your organization’s business objectives.
  • Tap into your sound knowledge of digital, including opportunities and failures that can come with its use.
  • Understand or (more likely) learn the legal/regulatory requirements of the industry in which you operate.
  • Employ good diplomacy and facilitation skills, since the digital policy steward must solicit perspectives from subject matter experts who have deep skills in these areas as well as specific policy aspects and meld them into a sound organizational stance on a particular topic.

Perhaps one of the most critical requirements is the ability to educate those working on digital within the organization on policy considerations. Namely this means how to use creativity to execute digital within the risk/reward framework that the organization has defined. Let’s face it, this quality is more native to marketers than any lawyer I have ever met.

Positioning Yourself Correctly

If you think that being a digital policy steward means policing or authoritatively asking people to execute digital operations in one way or another, you might want to alter your views. The policy steward is a facilitator and an enabler to those working with digital, relaying the outer reaches of what is acceptable in digital development and operations, holding training and information sharing sessions, and collaborating with the digital producers to achieve online marketing and communications.

Unlike with midsize and large enterprises, in small organizations the digital policy steward usually also authors digital policy. As this function is likely to only be a part of your job, don’t make it larger than it needs to be. The intimate size of your organization should allow you to be less formal about policies, creating instead a playbook or central resource that can easily be socialized to those who need to know.

Beyond that, the role of the digital policy steward tends to be focused on working with leadership to translate the businesses’ needs into what will be done in digital to support marketing, communications, sales or lines business and geographies if the organization operates in different locales. Even for your size, you should look to adopt good practices around measuring the effectiveness of digital policy, although that too, should be rightsized to your purpose. It is unlikely that management will want detailed statistics and reports on each aspect of policy. Instead, you might consider a readout of key risks that the business is concerned about, or conversely, choose several business performance metrics that the policies support (e.g., cause-related clicks and donation ratio, days to conversion between web prospect to customer purchase, visits per search to customer satisfaction, etc.).

Go For It!

As you gear up for this additional responsibility, make sure you grab some necessary resources for your toolkit.

  1. Authority: Creating digital policies — which, in essence, comes down to telling people how to do their jobs — isn’t something you can just take on by yourself. You need official authority from above, and that authority must be clearly and repeatedly communicated.
  2. Mandate for participation: Without a mandate, it can be next to impossible to get the necessary stakeholders to make time for a digital policy initiative. Management needs to make it crystal clear that creation of digital policies is a top priority and you will need engagement from select members throughout the organization.
  3. Mentorship/Peer Support: It is hard to know what you don’t know. But chances are that others have either been in your spot or are currently going through the same type of digital journey. Seek out a mentor or a peer group to ask questions of or touch base with to ask expert questions. (If you are having a hard time finding someone, feel free to reach out and I can make a recommendation.)

Most of all, recognize that this is an evolving area and starting a digital policy stewardship role within your organization will bring with it a unique business advantage over industry peers. It will also position you well — or even as a thought leader — to share lessons learned and best practices for balancing digital opportunities with inherent risks, and making it all work in the context of a small business. I hope that you rise to the occasion.