What is your water? A resource management approach for digital

A 4 minute read written by Paul August 5, 2016

An illustration of a water drop with measurements inside

I had the opportunity to sit down for coffee with Daniel Watson, one of the most interesting leaders in the Canadian federal government. Daniel is the CEO of Parks Canada, the oldest national park organization on the planet, and he has a reputation for creating positive organizational change wherever he goes.

During our coffee conversations, I asked Daniel what management meant to him, and he responded with a great story, which I’ll paraphrase here.

Imagine that you are a water-testing technician, and your job is to stand in a stream every day and test the water for drinking quality. You are disciplined and well-trained for the job and you have a great work ethic, so you are eventually promoted to manage four separate water sources. By carefully managing your time and improving your processes, you can get to every water source each day, run your tests, and confidently sign off that the water is safe to drink.

After several years of outstanding performance, you are promoted to a management position. Now you are responsible for multiple employees who each test their designated water supply. You have never been more responsible for the health and wellbeing of citizens, and yet the difference in your new position is that you never actually see the water.

Daniel suggested that great management comes from the systems and activities that ensure you can sign off on the water quality with as much certainty as when you stood next to the water and ran your own tests. I don’t know anyone in management who has heard that story and responded with anything other than a knowing nod.

When talking to those responsible for an organization’s digital platform, I ask this follow up question: when it comes to digital, what is your water? The digital channel is no longer just a website. It’s third party platforms, back-office systems, social channels, email, and search marketing. Because it’s hard to describe exactly what the water is in a digital practice, it’s hard to know what we’re measuring and managing.

Resource management for digital

This question came up during a recent consulting engagement, and to help illustrate the problem for the client, I came up with the following model. I suggest that digital managers need to concern themselves with four categories of resources and the promising practices for managing each:

  1. Information
  2. Process
  3. Code
  4. Experience

Thinking about your digital channel in terms of these four resources will help you to map back to the organizational structures, capabilities, and roles that you need – as well as what external partnerships you’ll need in order to be successful. Digital management is understanding these four materials and then thinking about what systems and activities need to be in place to ensure that they are all well cared for, like the checks and balances that allow you to sign off that the water is safe to drink.


Information has many facets: big data, video, social content, metadata, editorial content, office documents, and creative copy. Managing information requires roles like information architect, copywriter, subject matter expert, records manager, legal/compliance, marketer, photographer, and designer. Each type of information has an established practice for effective management. Someone in your organization needs to be ultimately responsible for information and how you manage it, and it’s rare that a CIO is set up with the right skill sets; we tend to hire CIOs as Chief Infrastructure Officers, rather than information management experts.


While Service Design is an emerging field, everyone in your organization likely has some experience in process improvement and process mapping: How do we do this? How do others? What can we measure? These are familiar questions, but when it comes to digital, the issue for most organizations is that these questions leave the bounds of traditional business units, and start to impact your entire organization. The web forces a single point of interaction with your organization. Asking and answering process questions across business units may be unfamiliar, and it may not be clear who owns process and service design in most organizations today.


If you carry on business of any kind through a digital platform, then you are in the software business. The industry is full of companies preaching “out of the box” and “configuration only”, but until you fully own that you are a software company you will not be able to realize the differentiators, opportunities, and competitive advantages that the digital channel provides. Yes, you can procure commercial or open source software “products”, but in order to deliver a seamless, optimized customer experience that is as good as talking to your best salesperson or service agent, you need to create and manage code. The word “custom development” has become unfashionable in many circles lately, but it’s at the heart of a thriving digital channel.


Experience design is not a new field. Any sales organization, city manager, banker, consultant, or window washer who thinks competitively should have asked themselves the question: “what do I want the experience of being my customer to be like?” The primary difference when it comes to digital is that these experiences are all mediated by technology. Rather than training a sales team and listening in to calls, you are now building digital interfaces that need to go out into an uncertain world of tablets, watches, laptops and assistive technology and behave predictably for customers. Plain language, image choice, button colour, negative space, content priority, error messages, and navigation systems are just some of the drivers of great customer experience and all of these and more need consideration as well as care and feeding. Your customer will not distinguish between who your organization is and the digital experience that you deliver. Who is ultimately responsible for that experience?

All together now

Organizations that thrive digitally will have a plan to manage these resources, and roles with clear accountability for each. They will have created business priorities that ensure each owner or manager of a material is accountable. Great code with bad experience, or effective processes wrapped around unfriendly information can never reach their potential.

A great digital channel is the result of each of these resources being measured, managed, and generally well cared for. If you’d like to talk about our experience, I look forward to a conversation. Phone calls, emails, and comments are welcome.