Organizational Structure and IA

Large (transnational) organizations would be prime candidates for the “Most Benefit Derived From the Web” Award, if such a thing existed. The sprawling nature of these enterprises makes communications technologies essential, and the Web is a particularly apt medium for the sort of internal and external transactions that make up these organizations’ day-to-day activities.

Different organizations have different philosophies on how to structure their teams; some allow their regional offices a great deal of flexibility, while others prefer a more centralized, controlled approach. These opposing strategies have a direct impact on the teams responsible for the creation and upkeep of the organization’s websites and extranets. While one organization may have a large, centralized team of highly focused professionals, with only a minimal presence (say, content authors) in the field offices, another may have smaller teams of generalists deployed in each location and a small team at headquarters that dictates a set of guidelines for the folks on the field to follow.

The results of both approaches are vastly different. The centralized approach tends to result in more shared content and integration between the different regions’ sites, at the expense of more customization at the region-specific level. The decentralized approach yields sites that may be more targeted at each regions’ specific audiences, at the expense of brand consistency and cross-region integration.

These structural differences also have an influence on the technological implementation of the sites. Centralized efforts will usually produce larger CMS-based solutions with better integration and tools, including cross-enterprise search engines and content versioning capabilities. These platforms are usually very complex and comprehensive, and can be difficult to manage when different content encodings are required. Decentralized approaches tend to be more tactical, and tend to result in the deployment of a myriad different technologies: some regions will invest in commercial CMS-based solutions or portal servers, and others (those with smaller budgets) will make do with either open-source solutions or “plain vanilla” HTML-based sites. The end product is a scattershot network of sites that show little consistency and are difficult to integrate, but that more adequately serve the needs of local users.

Each strategy has advantages and disadvantages. Where more variations will be necessary between each region’s sites, and where more region-specific content will be maintained, a decentralized approach should be evaluated. Where more global transactional functionality or branding consistency are required, a centralized approach should be studied. Unfortunately, the decision of which approach to undertake is usually not made with the websites in mind: it comes down to either cost or politics, or both, with the web strategy following in tow.

As an information architect, I consider it a part of my duties to offer informed opinions to decision makers on the impact their organizational decisions will have on their websites’ stated goals. These opinions will usually not be solicited by the decision makers (“they don’t know what they don’t know”), and therefore approaches must be sought that enable this communication to happen in an effective manner. This is a great challenge, but one that yields equally great rewards when done correctly.