Why good organisations make bad digital decisions

Do people leave their digital brains at home when they go to work?

Okay, I can hear the muttering from here. All you digital experts telling me to get back in my box. Fair enough.

But my audience for this particular question isn’t content strategists and web content creators; or usability consultants, taxonomists, web designers and builders, social media gurus or other email experts from various disciplines.

It’s you Mr.Businessman, Mr.Organisational Head Honcho. It’s the c-suite and serried ranks of senior managers, budget holders and strategic decision makers. Pardon my temerity – but you need to be told.

What I’m thinking about at the moment is why there seems to be a disconnect, to me at least, between the digital confidence levels and decision making capabilities we exhibit as individuals and those we deploy collectively at the office. I’m thinking specifically about digital decisions – that new company website, that social media initiative, app idea, or new mobile campaign…

In our personal lives the vast majority of us embrace digital change. We transition from book to Kindle, desk top to tablet, and from a real to virtual shopping basket… confident in our abilities as consumers of digital content and purchasers of its technologies.

It’s less about smart phones and more about smart, highly adaptive people.

But while our consumer selves are constantly evolving and making confident decisions, our business selves appear far less confident when it comes to making digital choices. The result is organisations can make poor, or slow-paced decisions in what is a fast-paced and constantly changing digital world.

Yet the same people who are out in the high street buying mobile phones, downloading apps and arranging their social lives using Facebook are sitting behind desks in offices where millions can be spent poorly.

How come, if…

  • 79% of the UK population use the internet – 20% more than 5 years ago
  • 67% of the population use a social networking site daily – 37% more than 4 years ago
  • 44% use a smart phone – 14% more than 1 year ago


  • 21% of online projects fail to meet stakeholder requirements
  • 25% of online projects fail or are severely curtailed due to poor planning
  • 30% of online projects are delivered late or over budget

How come?

What doesn’t seem to be the cause is the way collective decision making operates per se. After all, organisations have sophisticated, well-established processes for corporate decision making – from the board room down through (or up through) line management.

In ‘ye old days’, one argument might have been that people were often promoted beyond their competencies: to get them out of the way, or because promotion was their due; having worked through X number of roles and Y number of years. So called ‘Buggins’ turn’. This has become less and less likely as organisations become sharper and more demanding and the environments within which they operate become more competitive. With the exception of the odd highly placed banker, few businesses can afford to employ Buggins these days.

But there is some question that while business experience may admirably equip someone to take on more and more senior roles, they won’t necessarily have or even care about digital experience. We’ve previously discussed the fact that online engagement is not a boardroom or director level topic in The dawn of digital governance and Content is king – sort of.

So the skillsets that equip us to choose this smartphone or Like that viral campaign don’t get to shine in a business setting. Of course there will be digitally savvy marketeers and excellent creative agencies – but they work for the big bucks decision makers. And what they say and who they say it to may be motivated (or modified) by career advancement or career survival. There seems to be inhibition when it comes to talking about digital decisions in a rigorous, strategic and top level way. Sod the governance. Just get that new website up. Certainly sir.

So, what do we do about it?

To deal with this bit I started to think of other examples when organisations have changed in order to allow a new form of excellence to shine through. The one I had just finished reading about (thanks Amanda) was the PepsiCo academy approach to building skills within its global finance workforce.

The result was the PepsiCo Finance University, an academy-based learning model. Instead of traditional enterprise learning for the finance function, with the emphasis on division-specific, on-the-job experience and individualized coaching, the university packages scalable, online offerings organised into “colleges”.

The case study is highlight in an Accenture article – High Performance. Delivered. The article states: “One of the most distinguishing features of the university is its focus on applying course learning to real business issues. Groups come together, in person or virtually, to talk about problems facing the business and they work to solve local business challenges.”

I also tried to think of organisations that practiced some form of digital inclusion.

When it came to digital good practice (and by ‘good’ I mean ‘good enough to prove the point I wanted to make’) the one that actually came to mind was the UK government  and a project that is, on the face of it, demonstrating the complete opposite of the point I want to make.

There the digital team wield a power that the rest of us can only wonder at. In part this seems to reflect the celebrity and ‘pull’ of the government’s Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox.

But the team work to clearly articulated and communicated principles and have the ability to override head honchos and subject matter experts as required in order to deliver simple, well thought out, user-centre digital content. Take a look at their beta site

But the more I thought about it the more I decided that the stronger the core digital team the more likely you are to create an environment that encourages strong digital opinions throughout an organisation. If you want to argue with a strong digital team you need to speak with confidence and from experience. The PepsiCo example is also about creating the right environment.

Another example I’ve come across recently involves schools and the question of mobile use by pupils. While banning phones from the classroom may seem  like the solution, some of the brightest educational establishments have been looking about ‘above the desk’ policies. Bringing the phone and its functionality into the lesson,  to enable internet search for example.

Another factor?

Another factor may be the nature of personal skill development. If we train as an accountant it is a business self decision. We go into the work place equipped with a skill we are expected and determined to use. But when our personal self learns a skill it’s less likely to be shown off in the workplace. Okay, there are few opportunities to use your golf swing in the office, but your digital skillsets and understanding? That’s a different matter.

Back in 1785 a Frenchman called Condorcet come up with his “jury theorem” that groups were more likely to be right than wrong and the bigger the group the more likely to be right it was. This theorem is consistently proven to be correct. But there is a qualification where members of a group are denied enough right information. The group is more likely to be wrong than right and that wrongness increases as the size of the group increases. It makes you think doesn’t it?




Information entropy – ah, hmmm, huh?

A friend of mine recently reviewed a book chapter for me, in which I examined what lies behind the concept of information overload. She asked why I’d chosen not to touch on information entropy. My answer was simple and somewhere along the lines of: “Duh?”

In the physics lab “entropy” is used to described certain states in thermodynamics. I’m no physicist, so bear with me on this one; the lab rats have been doing their best to explain things to me. So, in lay terms, entropy is used to describe

  1. Energy that is no longer available (an example of this would be a car where the brakes have been applied and where energy has been lost in road friction / heat).
  2. The amount of disorder or randomness in a system. Gas, as it whooshes about, being more random / disordered than a solid. (Or a group of adults who get up from the dinner table on New Year’s Eve and start dancing to Jeff Beck and Hi Ho Silver Lining being more random than the same group when sitting and eating.)

Okay, that’s the end of Thermodynamics 101.

But there’s also Information Entropy. This is very different but you need to know about the physics one  (entropy as the second law of thermodynamics) so you can ignore it completely (for the time being).

Anyway, you can trace Information Entropy back to the 1940s and Claude.E.Shannon (1916-2001), known as the father of modern digital communications and information theory and his paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (1948, Bell System Technical Journal), which looked at the engineering challenges involved in getting a message from one point to another.

The information content of a message, he theorized, could be reduced to the number of ‘1’s and ‘0’s it took to transmit it. This idea was gradually adopted by communications engineers and stimulated the technology which led to the binary language that underpins the digital information age. Shannon also coined the term “bit” for a binary digit.

Shannon Entropy, sits within Information Theory, the mathematical discipline that looks at how information is stored, transmitted and reproduced. It measures it, accounting for the possible variables eg a flipping a coin (2 sides) will have less entropy than rolling a dice (6 sides). While Shannon Entropy is strictly applied to the the minimum amount of binary code required to transmit a message from A to B it is also being deployed by non-mathematicians as a way of showing how much information is unequivocally captured within a message (its meaning to the recipient). Shannon himself didn’t get sidetracked by the semantic value (language comprehension and connotation) in the message, just the engineering challenge of transmitting it from A to B intact. In fact, the application of entropy to wider semantic issues of meaning hacked Shannon off quite a bit, apparently.

Time for a joke I think…

Back in the days before email. Way, way, back. People used to send messages via telegram. Such communications were expensive and often charged by the word, so people became very economic with their phraseology. This was particularly evident among professionals who used telegrams regularly – ie journalists.

Back in the 1960s a journalist sent a telegram to the home of veteran Hollywood star Cary Grant. It was a simple question, in theory, designed to establish the actor’s exact age. The telegram read: “How old Cary Grant.” The reply that came back was: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”  The joke, I believe, establishes the potential difference between the minimum character / bit count for information delivery and minimum required for accurate message comprehension / connotation. It would have been worth paying for the “is”.

You can also argue, well, I do, that the journalist was also applying data compression – the minimum number of words / bits required to convey the information. They fact that the journo failed shouldn’t prevent us acknowledging that they tried. You can also argue, well, I do, that the problem wasn’t the data compression but in its decompression by Cary Grant and what was probably a very knowing attempt to sidestep the sensitive subject of age.

Data compression is useful because it reduces space in information transmission and storage. But, at a language and messaging comprehension and connotation level, we ‘re also trying to apply reduction (compression) techniques so that we can dispense meaning the the minimum space / time possible. On one level this may be a practical desire to reduce issues around “information overload” but that doesn’t explain the phenomenal success of Twitter where the 140 character limit is almost winsome. Data compression at a semantic level is becoming more important if we believe that one key to resolving information overload is to reduce the amount of information people have to deal with. I have an alternative view about this which relates to how we feel about information and this was the subject of a recent survey on this blog. But I’ll save that for another day.

Okay – back into the physics lab

You remember I told you to forget all about the second law of thermodynamics for a bit? Now’s the time to start thinking about it again. What happened with Information Entropy was actually a bit of a hijack. The mathematicians kinda stole the word entropy and messed with it’s meaning a bit, on the basis that most of the population wouldn’t notice or understand. But there are aspects of thermodynamic entropy that are interestingly applicable for information and how it becomes more random / disordered as changes take place. In thermodynamics the classic example involves the ordered structure of sugar crystals compared with the disordered / random nature of sugar dissolved in water.

If you think about information and how it changes, it’s remarkably like the sugar dissolved in water. Over time, different bits of information get de-structured and mixed with other bits. It can become impossible to disentangle this information and restore it to the order of its original components. Looked at one way, this could result in knowledge. High quality information brought together, some bits lost / discarded along the way, but resulting in something different but useful. (It’s also entirely possible that there is a negative outcome possible where poor information is brought together resulting in dissatisfaction and misinformation.)

This makes for a slightly more refined version of the basic knowledge pyramid, which CDA used as the starting point for its Hierarchy of Mutuality and which is loosely modelled on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs*.

* Maslow argued that human beings required basic needs to be met in a hierarchy before they were free to realise themselves creatively and intellectually.

Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs

Knowledge Pyramid

» CDA’s Heirarchy of Mutuality

The question is, where are we going with all this? CDA is currently actively engage in development measurement systems for online engagement. We believe that these have to be a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data to be truly meaningful and that there comes a point where you have to park interpretation of the metrics; dwell times, page views, bounce rates and simply ask “How was it for you?”

Contribute to the debate

I’m currently working on a second part to the article above which will also cover The Triangle of Truth (thanks Clodagh). I’d been interested in any feedback on the argument so far.

» Email me at the lab cdacontentlab@webwordsworking.co.uk

How do you 'feel' about information

Do me a huge favour and complete this simple survey. It will only take a 5 minutes. Work your way through the questions in the order they’re presented (don’t you dare peak ahead). Let your intuition take over. Simply opt for the answers that comes closest to your own views. And always go with your first choice.

As with so much online – there is no right and wrong.

I’ll share my findings with you, so watch this space.

» Take the lab rats’ questionnaire

The 'face' of online delivery

Increasingly organisations understand the importance of creating the right Tone of Voice (ToV) for their communications. That tone needs to be ‘modulated’ for online delivery, where communications must be conversational and reply-focussed. Organisations are beginning to understand even that these days.

But when we converse with people face-to-face so much of what we infer and derive is based on visual cues rather than verbal ones. Online, what’s the equivalent of maintaining eye contact? As well as tone of voice think – the face of delivery.

This came to me this week when Mark Tyrrell, a very talented hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy teacher (I was lucky enough to attend one of his courses a couple of year’s back) Tweeted a New Scientist article about how we’re more likely to think other people are attractive if they’re looking straight at us and smiling.

A study at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, UK, paired nearly identical photos of computer-generated faces, with smiling or disgusted expressions. The pairs only differed in where the irises were pointed: straight at the viewer, or off to the side.

Hundreds of participants then rated the faces for sexual attractiveness, and (what I’d like to focus on) for ‘likeability’. Both men and women found faces looking straight at them to be more attractive and more likeable, even if the faces looked disgusted (though smiling faces were preferred). I think we’ll leave the sexual attractiveness of websites for another day.

I think this face of delivery is very important online because of the conversational and even intimate nature of the communication.

  • We know that a brochure is not an exclusive communication (even if our name is lasered at the top).
  • A letter may be personal but it isn’t (generally) intimate.
  • Online communication is an intimate space because of the way we engage with the delivery system – leaning in to our computer, cradling our Blackberry in the palm of our hand…

Reviewing web content against the above – starting with the visuals

So, online, how do you give your tone of voice eye contact and a smiley face? And, when you’re reviewing web content, what measures might you use to determine the face of your current online delivery?

One place to start might appear to be the visuals you use. Ideally they should be of things and people who ‘connect’ in some way with your business. Be aware of simply purchasing shiny toothed  smiley faces from an image catalogue. There is something about model poses and a trick they use, pointing their eyes at the camera but allowing their gaze to soften. This widens the iris – in theory more attractive – but reduces the intensity of the eye-to-eye engagement.

I’m also very grateful to Richard Sedley at cScape for drawing my attention to a study that looked at how web users attention could be drawn to different parts of the screen by using the eyeline of the person in a photograph. Eg if you wanted somebody to look at a product / product offer, have someone else in the ad’ looking in the direction of the offer.

The question here is: do you want to engage with the user (in which case do you want the eyes on the screen to connect with the eyes of the user), or do you want them to be drawn to a product or service offered on the screen (in which case should the eyes on the screen connect with the product or service)? Something to ponder

But don’t stop with the visuals

But the more I thought about it the more that focusing on the visuals alone seemed to be missing the point. When we port a concept online we have to rework it for the new space. It pays not to be to literal in your interpretation of offline best practice for online. All of which begs the question… what is the ‘face’ of your website and who is it focusing on?

Welcome to my hypothesis…

I reckon the face of your website is your Home page. And in the case of larger sites, you may have several web personalities grouped together, so you might also have ‘faces’ on primary landing pages – such as the start of a big section. I’m a great believer in treating your website with the same respect and governance you would any other member of your organisation, so logic dictates that the Home page is the face. (What do you think?)

So, above and beyond the basics of a good Home page; clear layout, clear and consistent labelling, easy to follow nav, good tone of voice… how do you assess the eye contact?

Here are the basic proportions of a human face:

  • traditional rules of proportion (Disagree? Take it up with Vitruvious) show the face divided into six equal squares, two by three
  • the upper horizontal section ends at mid-forehead
  • the lower at the base of the nose
  • the eyes rest on the horizontal centre, the mouth on the centre of the lower third.


Just for fun I then overlaid these proportions on some web Home pages I liked or solicited from others who didn’t know what I planned to do. I situated the top of each Home page at the forehead line.


What I find interesting is just how much important stuff is going on in the mid-face section, around the eyes . And much of the very practical information – including links, T & Cs etc – lines up with the mouth area.


So, lab rats, where are you going with all this?

Firstly, check out how much interesting stuff is going on in and around the eyes above (about the only exception is Philips).

The lab rats are still working on this one but I strikes us that, in terms of the way you evaluate your web (and particularly, Home) page real estate, you might want to draw a smiley face on your wire frames.

1. Is there something your users can make ‘eye contact’ with – a responding human face, other strong visual, focusing information?

2. Is there a face-like quality to the page? (Keep in mind that faces are not totally symmetrical.)

3. How do you ‘feel’ when you engage with your Home page?

Not only is very engaging information concentrated around important facial elements on our examples above, but this content is written and displayed in a very ‘likeable’ way. I don’t think you should disregard the basics, including the role of the F Pattern.

But… it makes you think.

Useful links – each one takes you away from the lab, so we’ve opened them in new windows for you

>> New Scientist article

>> The eyeline of models

>> The F Pattern

>> The cScape Customer Engagement Unit blog (CDA are CEU members)

>> Mark Tyrrell’s new website – Uncommon Help

Useful links within this blog (we want to keep you here, so they open in the same window)

>> Reply-focussed communication

PS I’d be very interested to hear about the role of ‘eye contact’ and conversational tone in Asia where the rules for appropriate interaction are different.

To draw the human head accurately, first become familiar with the basic proportions. Traditional rules of proportion show the face divided into six equal squares, two by three. The upper horizontal division is roughly at the ‘third eye’ level mid-forehead, the lower at the base of the nose. The eyes sit on the horizontal centre, the mouth on the centre of the lower third.

Are you a warden or a prisoner online?

stanford cartoon

The Stanford Prison Experiment looked at what happened psychologically when you placed some people in positions of power and other’s in positions of vulnerability (wardens and prisoners). Irrespective of their previous internal moral ‘clock’ – how would they behave?

The simulation carried out by Stanford University in the summer of 1971 was ended prematurely because of the impact it had on its university participants. Those students who were given the role of prison guards showed themselves capable of brutality. The students consigned to prisoner roles became stressed and depressed (as if their confinement were real).

Stanford, and the earlier Milgram experiment conducted at Yale University, opened up interesting questions, not just about the deeper, darker side of human nature but how we behave when we assume a role, or are put into a certain situation. As psychology professor Phil Zimbardo, who led the Stanford research team, puts it: “Situational variables can exert powerful influences over human behaviour, more so that we recognize or acknowledge.”

Okay, now the digital communication segue…

While I’m not suggesting that digital content ‘controllers’ will ever resort to beatings and electric shocks, there is often a divide between those who police the content and those who do not. These schisms can exist between online content commissioners / editors and content producers / authors. Or between active members of the content team and ‘the rest’. The rest being anybody in an organisation that doesn’t take an active role in web, email, digital messaging strategy, development and delivery. It can also exist between on and offline teams (marketing, editorial, brand…).

The Stanford experiment didn’t end prematurely because the research team had learnt everything there was to know, but because they became alarmed at how quickly the abuse of roles and situations occurred.

So in any situation where there is authority and lack of authority there is the opportunity for abuse.

I can’t make over entire organisational hierarchies on the basis of the above premise, but I can suggest discreet changes to the way online content oligarchies are handled. That may seem a small change but just think about the influence your online content has on your brand and therefore on how wider audiences perceive your organisation. Plus online is relatively young and still relatively fluid. In-house content processes are not set in stone. Change them while you still can.

Where to start?

Who are the content controllers and what power do they have? A healthy content process has checks and balances in place reflecting different content steers. This shouldn’t be a cumbersome process but a light matrix approach to ensure that core organisational values, the needs of marketing and sales, corporate information, plus the rigours of online execution and presentation are held in balance.

When changes are made to online process and / or presentation – a new website, extensions to email campaigns etc – who is consulted (and who isn’t)? It’s hard for people to be all fired up about the company website if the only time they’re consulted about it is retrospectively: “Oh, the new website launches in 3 weeks. We need your new page content ASAP. Did you not get the email?)

How do you regularly test the water in terms of existing content processes and how they are viewed internally? Zimbardo points out that at some stage there is a shift from what’s reasonable to what isn’t. How would you know if this shift happened within your organisation’s digital content process?

If existing online content processes and manifestations aren’t working, do people (outside any content claque) feel empowered to say ‘this isn’t working’ or ‘our new website is rubbish’? If the emperor is in the buff you need to know quickly. Online is everybody’s business.

Checks and balances

A qualitative content audit can throw up weaknesses is existing systems. It needs to be carried out by an external team (but this could involve different departments or areas of online activity critiquing each other’s work).

Content should be reviewed against organisational values and Tone of Voice, online ambition and audiences. You may want to read an earlier post on personas (I’ve popped the link at the bottom of this post). I’ll work up a personality for any site I’m reviewing (as if it was a flesh and blood member of the team). If your website sat at the next desk, would you share your sandwiches with it?

I also came up with this acronym. I think you should be answering ‘yes’ to 6 out of 9 points.

1. Can a wide range of people within your organisation suggest a digital change and / or refinement and know someone will take notice?

2. Have they got a clear idea about who to approach if something isn’t working right – broken website links, poorly coded emails, spelling mistakes online… (or know where to find out)?

3. Are new digital projects only embarked upon after a well-rounded opinion-seeking process and shared collective understanding?

4. Little digital errors (page not found, spelling errors, broken links…) rarely happen.

5. Large digital errors (website down, email campaigns producing little or no response…) rarely happen.

6. Everyone takes an interest in what rour company is doing digitally, even if they’re not actively involved.

7. No faction, department, skillset, business unit, or organisational activity feels excluded (frozen out).

8. Guards need walls. Are the processes and decisions made about how your brand is communicated online done in clear view?

9. Eyes (2), ears (2) mouth (1). Is your organisation watching and listening to what’s been done and said online rather than simply talking about it. You should watch and listen more than you speak.

Internal link

>> More about personas

>> The 7 ages of content maturity table (towards the end of this post)

Find out more about the Stanford and Milgram experiments (I’ll open these links in a new window):

>> Stanford Prison experiment website

>> The Stanley Milgram Experiment