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?