Hold Onto That Turf

The battle for control of the company’s Web site has begun, and information services organizations that don’t make themselves indispensable fast, risk being pushed to the sidelines.

A quiet tapping at the doors of industry revealed a small, cute, Trojan bunny-rabbit named e-mail. E-mail was friendly, helpful, courteous and was let in for the night.

By the next morning, e-mail had produced an off-spring. Gopher had arrived on the scene without much more noise than a slight “ftp!” As the information systems department endeavored in its dutiful way to provide for these creatures, it was blind-sided by a horde of marketing managers fostering a colossal craving for something called the World Wide Web.

While you were sleeping, the world was engulfed by the Internet.

Let me tell you a story. This is your story. It relates the discovery of the Internet and the World Wide Web by your own staff. It tells of the gleeful creation of home pages by engineers who haven’t had this much fun since the original Adventure game showed its command line interface on CP/M systems everywhere.

This tale describes the marketing department greeting your engineers’ wizardry with awe and delight. This was followed swiftly by the shock of realization that the whole world could see the engineering department making a mockery of Marketing Communications and Corporate Identity and Product Positioning. Some of these marketing executives had actually spent years in school learning the difference between marketing communications, public relations and advertising. They were upset.

They selected blind-siding as their corporate maneuver of choice due to the immediacy of their need. They began the battle over ownership and they won. They can’t configure a Windows machine, much less understand the requirements of a TCP connection, but they now own the company’s World Wide Web site.

Those who fought to keep control discovered an interesting problem. They weren’t needed anymore. The marketing department has its own budget and were able to go out into the world and find third party vendors to house a server and run a Web site.

How then, do you keep this new, exciting technology in your department? How do you reassure your best and brightest that they can continue being the keepers of the keys of technology? Much more important, how do you prove (once again and everyday) that your department is the heart and soul of the corporation? How do you prove your department is full of the spirit of teamsmanship?

First, remember that you are a service organization. What did you do when accounting discovered spreadsheets? When product design discovered CAD/CAM? When the marketing department discovered desktop publishing? You offered help, advice and support for the technology, not the content. Time to do it again.

Here’s how you can actually help the marauding marketing mob and earn their gratitude, their affection and their budget.

1. Explain the Internet

If these folks are going to create corporate-sized Web sites and ask you to maintain them, they had better have some understanding of what they’re up against. They are going to go out on the Web and see thousands of other Web sites and expect you to accomplish overnight what others have taken months to create.

They don’t need to know a win-socket from an X.25, nor a router from an Ethernet transceiver. But they do need to understand the basic limitations of bandwidth. “The people whom you wish to visit this Web site,” you might well ask, “at what speed are they connected?” If you get blank stares in reply simply ingest two more aspirin and encourage them to survey their current customer base for the answer. Then outline the difference a user would perceive between a multi-megabit fiber connection and a 14.4 dial up modem.

Make sure they understand enough about client/server computing and the limitations of HTTP to keep the outrageous requests to a minimum. Help them grasp the fact that people surfing the World Wide Web today are interested in content and feedback, not electronic brochures with lots of pretty pictures and a video of the CEO welcoming the world to your site.

2. Give Them the Tools

The Internet generates new tools faster than a seven year old brings home colds. There is a variety of software readily available for free or on trial. Those in marketing who deem themselves technosavvy will download new versions of editors and image converters on a daily basis and blame you when you can’t make them work. In this case the best defense is a good offense.

Assemble a suite of HTML tools and WYSIWYG page tools and create a few classes in their use. Become the purveyor of the technology and the font of wisdom regarding its use. This way, you might be able to assert control over which should and which should not be used.

3. Help Them Create a Style Guide

They probably understand the need to have a stylistically integrated Web site. Participate in the establishment of the principles of content development. This will give you a chance to influence how the resulting megabytes of content are formatted before they are handed to you. It shouldn’t be your job to convert an MPEG frame to a GIF file. Teach them how and stick to your style guide. In the long run it will mean more content can be mounted faster.

4. Create a Procedure to Follow

Content will need to be analyzed for format, technical accuracy, spelling and feasibility. While this, too, should not be the responsibility of the IS department, you should lend a hand in the creation of the review process. What are the steps of approval? Who are the gatekeepers? What committees must sanction the content prior to submission for server staging? No need for Machiavellian constraints. Just a nice, logical flow to assure others have checked the i’s for dots and the t’s for crosses.

As a result, the IS department can stand firm as a printer as opposed to a publisher. A printer’s job is to faithfully reproduce whatever the client desires. A publisher is responsible for content from concept and format to spelling and grammar. It is the editorial task that marketing people live for, and you should leave it in their hands.

5. Establish a Test Suite

Creators of content may not understand the need to test their creation on a routine basis. Software configuration management is not a concept common to those who write brochures and plan trade shows. They will depend on you to know that links between pages must be tested after every update. (Only in a perfect world would we expect them to be tested before an update.)

Automate where you can to insure your server is on-line, links are still legitimate and data collection is working as expected. Should your Web pages point to outside sources (cooperative marketing business partners, third party value added resellers, or even the automatic stock charting system at MIT’s AI Lab), be sure they are checked on a daily basis. Yes, you are now responsible for change tracking on other people’s servers. Page has been removed? Company bought out and the server has been renamed? Anything that gives back a 404 – File Not Found is now your problem.

6. Get Ready for Tomorrow

When all of this is done, you might actually be prepared for the day (tomorrow?) when this infant technology hits adolescence. That time when the hormones kick in, the clothes no longer fit and the demands have less and less to do with sound reasoning.

You will know that time has come when the CEO agrees with the head of marketing about giving customers access to back office information.

CLIENT/SERVER COMPUTING ON THE RAMPAGE!
MILLIONS OF CUSTOMERS GAIN DIRECT ACCESS
TO CORPORATE COMPUTING!!

Yes, the World Wide Web is in its infancy. It will mutate frequently, but it can be extrapolated to it’s logical extreme. In the competitive world of tomorrow, your customers will demand instantaneous intelligence re: the status of their order, the amount of stock on hand and the estimated time of delivery.

Ubiquitous EDI and a terminal on every desk. The company with the most freely available data wins.

As you contemplate building a relationship with the VP of Marketing that is on par with your relationship with the CFO, remember that they’re going to need you and yours more and more in the days to come to stay ahead of the international competitive game. Be ready for them.