Small, medium and large sized organizations are finally arriving at a stage in which the Web represents for them a critical communication, PR/PA, marketing and commercial venue essential to their survival.
It is during this realization phase, that most organizations evaluate the restructuring, improvement and reconsideration of their typical patched-up online communication effort which they have been building with great care up until now.
The cure first sought is invariably the least effective one: cosmetic make-up. If it doesn't work, make it look different so that, for a while, the evidence of that issue is not manifested anymore in the eyes of the users.
In reality, online communication is much like a living system in which, all components must be balanced and in harmony while being properly nurtured and fed.
As for our health, injecting vaccines or taking pharmaceutical remedies may only alleviate or temporarily sooth our pains but, in general, it does not work at bringing greater balance, harmony and proper nutrition to the vital components of your communication system.
Though I understand that the issue of personal health maybe a strongly debatable one, at least in respect to the fact of who should be responsible for it, I am sure that most of you will convene that working toward health from the foundations (good food, sports, psychological well being, etc.) is certainly more effective than trying to "fix" or cure a disease without creating further damage.
With the same view, I believe that the online communication strategy of an organization should be established on well defined core values and goals that address the actual well-being of the organization in the long term and that work at creating an integrated and deeply shared communication framework engaging all people involved.
I like to call this approach to communication "holistic" and I have found it to be of extreme effectiveness in:
a) achieving clearly defined communication goals while
b) building a strong sense of ownership among all stakeholders.
To further ease your task of understanding the importance of this matter, let me summarize here below the differences between the two most typical approaches to online communication strategy: the holistic vs. the allopathic one.
a) Web Allopathic (cure for the symptoms)
In this approach online communication issues are analysed by a team of qualified communication and technology specialists and individual solutions are proposed for each one of the problems.
Page design, information architecture, usability, search engine marketing, traffic analysis, technology, content management, editorial style, navigation design are addressed mostly as water tight compartments.
Allopathic solutions appear to have an advantage over other approaches as they can often be deployed in the very short term, cost less, and generally provide some form of immediate relief (for who has commissioned the job, infrequently for the final user) to the problems addressed.
This approach does not normally take into account the possible interactions of the different solutions adopted, as it relays on specialists that address problems in their area of competence (designers, database specialists, information architects, content management system specialists, usability engineers, etc.).
Through this path it is also very hard to leverage any type of possible synergy between complementary teams and stakeholders, and each group maintains its positions and ideas without coming to a direct open confrontation that would allow growth and greater understanding for all.
By taking the allopathic approach the "patient" is also kept in a complete state of dependency to its "doctors" (suppliers), as the paradigm under which they both work is the one that the organization has not enough skill, competence and experience to solve those issues by itself. Through this evident process the organization wishing to improve its effectiveness is continuously enslaved by those who should be actually liberating and empowering it.
As in real life, allopathic doctors do not train, educate and help their patients learn and become capable self-healers, as in their limited view, its consequence would be the loss of their "business".
For our health and our online communications do we want to relay our need to understand and our capability to find personal solutions completely to "institutionalised" professionals, or would we be all better off if the mandate of those very professionals was rather more focussed on facilitating:
a) a deeper understanding of the actual issues at hand
b) the clarification of your communication goals
c) buy-in from all stakeholders
d) listening of actual users needs and opening up to possible solutions that they indicate
e) the provision of some form of ownership to all stakeholders in the project
f) the identification of alternative solutions and priorities with which the organization feels in tune and ready to move toward to.
g) the helping of others learn and acquire the critical skills needed to self-maneuver in the future.
Overall the allopathic approach to optimising online communications has limited value as it fails to address the actual goals and developments the organization wants to achieve.
Identifying lists of problems and addressing them as separate units causes management failure in identifying common causes of those issues and prevents it from effectively integrating purpose, actions and stakeholder involvement under the same umbrella.
Allopathic solutions prove to be more costly in the medium to long term as they frequently need adjustments and revisions to be made to adjust and integrate themselves with other solutions and technologies adopted in the process.
As mentioned above, allopathic solutions tend to maintain the "patient" in the same communication paradigm the "patient" has fallen into while providing immediate relief to the immediate issues at stake.
Little effort is made in analysing why the issues and problems came to be in the first place and in how to intelligently direct adoption of new cures that will not create a new breed of problems down the road.
b) Web Holistic (cure for the causes)
The holistic approach is interested in properly defining the actual mission, goals and success criteria of an online communication project in order to design strategies and actions that are strongly rooted in the core foundations of the official communication strategy of that organization.
In many cases this requires a serious and engaging exercise in reviewing the institutional mission, stated goals and strategy and to extract from them the essence of it in a way that is simple, easily understandable and, more than anything, shareable by all.
Too often, the official Web communication strategy is part of a long set of documents that no-one among the actual stakeholders fully understands, is aware of or can easily summarize at once.
The holistic approach questions the need to maintain communication strategies that are unclear, not easily understood and of which actual stakeholders do not feel any ownership for.
The holistic approach works empathically at creating an effective synergy between the official institutional goals and the actual necessities, wants and needs of all the key stakeholders involved in this Web communication process.
This approach lays down a healthy foundation for the adoption of any subsequent solution, be it priority or long-term, and a set of objectives that can soundly inspire action and facilitate decision-making on all sides.
So before you plunge your next remaining budget on "revamping" your Web site design, consider seriously to devote a short time (and a some of that budget) to bring to the table the real key issues of where you/your organization wants to get at.
Start asking some questions.
Some real ones, like:
How much do you know about our users that can be shown in a court?
How much have you pleased yourselves with design choices that have nothing to do with accessibility, usability, compatibility and speed?
Who decides the organization of content on your Web site? Why?
How do you address the needs, expectations and different communication formats your varied and multiple audiences await from you?
How easily can your mom find a book, research paper or article existing on your site with no help from you and only Google to support her?
How long have you been forgetting that users around the world do not all have the magnificient monitor, processor speed and connection you have been enjoying for a while now?
How long have you been thinking that by now everyone is at least on 56K modems and using Windows XP?
What is the reason that prevents your organization from really listening to its users, and learn from their preferences?
Why are you still concerned with graphic design of your Web site when everyone else knows that today any Web site is displayed in hundreds of different ways due to different size monitors, devices, color gamuts, operating systems, browsers, video cards and choice of display of the end user?
Isn't it time that your organization rather concerns itself with how information is perceived, organized, and made accessible to all?
Shouldn't issues of legibility, consistency, organization, access speed, usability, and adaptability to different displays and electronic devices be your main concern?
Now evaluate which of the two approaches (allopathic vs. holistic) would best serve your desire to answer positively a good part of the questions above.
To conclude, my simple recipe before you dive into any serious "revamping" of your site is to engage yourself, your communication and technical team, and maybe some external advisor capable of this into this small but highly effective three-step process:
a) Three brainstorming sessions.
The first session is devoted to have all of the stakeholders contribute specific issues in a way that allows simple collection of all major problems identified, reported and yet to be discussed.
The second session focuses on refining, completing and summarizing the process initiated in the first session. Following this the group works around simplifying, redefining in simpler terms and clarifying the mission and key communication goals of your organization Web site so that all communication stakeholders involved can fully share and own such mission and objectives. Finally the session addresses the definition of the success criteria to be used in evaluating progress and effective results in the future.
The third session goal finally addresses the prioritisation of issues and problems relative to the key communication goals identified and
b) A final review and detailed written analysis of what has emerged at a).
c) Preparation of a shared Plan of Action including a detailed a Times and Cost Estimates.
Whatever comes out of the above it will place you in the best position to assess and evaluate the best course of action for your organization in view of all variables and stakeholders wants and needs.
Now you are effectively ready to take whatever remedies or long term cures you may like... and without asking the doctor.