A maturity model for web communications (aka getting good at web)

A 4 minute read written by Paul June 5, 2014

hopscotch board sketch to speak to maturity

One of the biggest challenges of owning a web agency is trying to figure out everything by yourself. Building a business for 18 years in northern Canada, you don’t get a lot of opportunity to meet peers and learn about how others work. It wasn’t until I attended my first OwnerCamp in 2013 that I met the founders of other digital agencies, and learned that others wrestle with the same issues that I do.

The two most important lessons I learned:

  1. None of us started our business with a blueprint for success in this ever-changing industry. We had to forge our own way through trial and error.
  2. There are effective patterns and practices that we all need to adopt in order to be successful, and they can be learned (even by me).

There is actually a right way to run a digital agency, but it’s how you adopt these patterns and practices and bring your unique world view and vision that will make you successful.

This realization made me think about my customers: you manage web communications for large, complex organizations. You operate in an industry without any blueprint for success. How do you plan for the future if you have no model for what the future should look like?

How good are you at what you should be good at?

Ever heard of the Capability and Maturity Model Integration (CMMI)? Yeah, neither had I. It was originally developed at the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute. It’s a process improvement model that “can be adapted to solve any performance issue at any level of the organization in any industry”. That’s a big promise, but it’s a proven model for over 5000 organizations globally.

CMMI is a model for:

  1. Defining the core capabilities that an organization must possess to deliver a service or product,
  2. Assessing the organization’s maturity within that capability, and
  3. Planning a roadmap to become more mature.

Maturity is generally rated on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being “I’m just getting started” and 5 being “I am basically the Sting of this capability.”

So, let’s say our organization is an ice cream shop. One of our core capabilities could be sanitizing ice cream scoops – very important. We’ve self-assessed that we’re a 2 out of 5 in sanitizing ice cream scoops. We know we could become a 3 out of 5 by implementing the best practice of storing our scoops in a sterilizing solution overnight, which we don’t do currently.

Except that instead of scooping ice cream, we’re probably talking about something like risk management or causal analysis. But I’m writing this before lunch so I’m hungry for ice cream.

CMMI has been adapted by many organizations

CMMI asks these questions:

  1. Are you good at what you do?
  2. Are you good at what matters?
  3. How do you know?

CMMI has been successful enough in the IT world that other industries have started to adapt maturity models. These maturity models help organizations map out the capabilities that they must be “good at”, analyze their current performance, and develop a roadmap to improve.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission, for example, has created a Human Rights Maturity Model. It helps organizations improve human rights culture in the workplace. Employers can use the model to identify what they should be good at when it comes to human rights best practices, set a baseline for how good they are, and then develop plans and programs to improve in each area.

I want to define a maturity model for web communications. Our web customers usually work in an environment where the two primary drivers are:

  1. External expectations from customers or business areas (why aren’t you on Twitter yet, and why can’t I buy your product with an app?)
  2. Externally set capabilities of the platforms, people, and relationships the organization has invested in (we don’t know how to do e-commerce because it’s not in our skills and apps).

Most web managers are caught between these two forces. They spend their days racing to keep up with expectations while dragging the weight of their capabilities behind them. It’s a rare thing for a web manager to have an opportunity to step back and define:

  • What are the best organizations in my industry doing online?
  • What is a comprehensive skill set for doing what my team and I do?
  • How good are we at what we do and how do we get better?

A maturity model for web communications would help a web manager understand how good their organization is at delivering information and services online, and what is most important to be good at. It would give them a baseline to compare themselves against peers.

What’s our starting point?

At Yellow Pencil, we evaluate our clients’ needs through what we call the four facets of web channel management:

Each of these areas must be in balance to achieve sustainability, where the sum of what you get out of your web channel is greater than the time, resources, and funds that you invest into it.

Today, we break each of these areas as follows:

  1. Governance: skill sets, budgets, policies, decision-making, roles and responsibilities, performance management, risk management…
  2. Content: metadata, voice and tone, workflow, branding, digital media, data, document management, training…
  3. Audience: analytics, social, user testing, content marketing, search engine optimization, needs analysis…
  4. Technology: architecture, platforms (CMS, email, CRM, etc), accessibility, delivery (device/browser), redundancy (backup/failover), requirements management…

My next task is to break down a more defined list of core capabilities that would live within each of these four broader categories. From there we’ll begin to work on a measurement framework.

Help us help you: get involved

We use this framework with each new client. It helps us decide where to prioritize our work based on where each client most needs to grow. Of course, like any service-based company, we’re always looking for new clients. (Really. Call me.) 

But we’re also looking for organizations who want to work on our maturity model with us. You might be an agency, a customer, or a product vendor, but if you want to collaborate, we want to improve the model beyond what we could do on our own.

So in the spirit of learning, I want to hear from you. Send me an email at paul@yellowpencil.com and let’s start a conversation.