Why Decentralization Doesn’t Work

Many traditional universities (most? all?) take a decentralized approach toward their websites, both in terms of creation and maintenance. It’s thought that a decentralized structure where each division, school, college, department and administrative unit effectively controls their space and content on the web is the best way to manage the overall site. Core web teams tend to be small given the size of a university’s online presence so why not shift maintenance of each section of the site to their respective owners? With a content management system in place, this becomes a matter of simplicity and smart workflow. The core web team creates the initial site based on each unit’s needs and wishes, the site is developed within the CMS, each unit gets trained on how to make updates through the CMS, and then the web team is freed up to go through the same process for the next unit on campus. Conventional wisdom would say this is a rational and reasoned approach, right?

Maybe, but I think the opposite approach — centralization — reaps greater rewards. I’m not against decentralization completely, however. There’s a place and time for it, but to revolve your web efforts around the promises of decentralization will only lead to trouble. There is a happy medium. I’ll cover the benefits to centralization in a future post (UPDATE: here’s that promised post), but first, here’s a list of issues decentralization wittingly and unwittingly creates:

  • Inconsistent experience: With so many different units within the organization, the umbrella website amounts to a consortium of marginally related sub-sites. Each unit independently decides what their needs and wants are and isn’t required to consider other units or the overall experience of the umbrella site.
  • Little focus: When a site communicates to a diverse range of audiences within the same space, it becomes schizophrenic at best, confusing and frustrating at worst. Does information for one group need to be right next to information for a totally different group? Separation along audience lines could clarify an organization’s message and offer a better visitor experience.
  • Poor navigation, Part I:  Since every unit gets a tailor made site, consistency of navigation isn’t ensured. Decentralization allows even similar units to offer completely different sets of links even though their audiences’ needs are relatively homogenous. Take a centralized view of audience needs, build a navigation system that speaks to it (and do it only once) and then roll it out to the necessary sites.
  • Poor navigation, Part II: The kind of navigational inconsistency above can be remedied relatively easily. What’s harder for the organization is to break away from the idea that navigation should mimic its org chart. Our research has found that students largely don’t know and don’t care that psychology is to be found via the Psychology Department’s site which is itself found via the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences site. Furthermore, why would we expect them to know the difference between the Psychology Department and the Professional School of Psychology? People think in terms of subject areas, so let’s use a navigation scheme that works with that in mind.
  • Disjointed marketing efforts: In effect, a decentralized world creates barriers between internal groups. Since units are largely independent from one another, it’s difficult to see, let alone create, symbiotic relationships. The web offers an alternative where all internal groups can cross promote events, programs, people, research, etc. to maximize the impact of communications. Some level of centralization is needed, however.
  • Reactionary processes: If the web team is utilized as a simple vendor who delivers websites for each unit of the larger organization, then the team’s expertise is never fully brought to bear on the broader, umbrella site. Centralization allows a web team to proactively make the site better for all since it’s the only group that’s cognizant of the overall experience.
  • No accountability: A decentralized structure spreads accountability of the site’s overall success or failure among a large number of people- so many that the site is effectively unaccountable to anyone or any group. Global decisions or mandates that would introduce economies of scale (as outlined in this very list) are impossible to enact in this climate. Centralization places control and responsibility in the hands of a few. It’s not a power grab, it’s efficient (see the next point). Accountability creates the motivation to continually create high quality work.
  • Inefficient use of resources: Content might be needed in several places on the site. In a decentralized world, that content is likely duplicated in the system as people in different units post the information to their independent sites. Duplicated content = duplicated efforts to maintain = inefficient use of people’s time.
  • Slow turnaround time: To create and maintain independent sites causes longer timelines than necessary compared to a centralized world where there is only a single visitor experience to manage. Build it once and then reuse. If you make a change, it’s globally deployed.
  • Unsustainable, Part I: As internal groups begin to harness the web’s power beyond static pages, the web team becomes ever more strained to keep up with individual, unit level requests. Centralized efforts allow the web team to prioritize requests and projects based on institutional goals and customer input. The most important projects with the greatest overall impact get the attention they deserve, while less important projects are accomplished as time allows, if at all.
  • Unsustainable, Part II: Another aspect to consider are the ongoing costs of maintenance. As sites grow, so to does the effort to keep them up-to-date. The big advantage to decentralization revolves around just this problem — allowing the masses to create and maintain sites after the web team gets it launched. But it’s not without pitfalls in terms of ensuring consistency of content, keeping links from breaking, ensuring new content is created often enough and so on. Are the resources in place to realistically accomplish this?
  • Decades of expertise go untapped: The web team, in aggregate, probably has decades of web experience. Decentralization empowers relatively unskilled web workers to affect the site’s overall visitor experience in potentially negative ways. While it makes sense to decentralize some aspects of a site’s maintenance, why not tap the breadth and depth of the team’s skills and knowledge for major decisions?

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