Relax vs Rule: Is governance dead?

governance panel at smilelondon

The debate on Governance rumbles on, spiced up by the likes of Martyn Perks, Head of Customer Insight at BrightStarr, who recently made the case for waving goodbye to governance: “When it comes to managing your digital workplace, the worst word you can use is ‘governance.’ The word ‘governance’ speaks of the past, of a time and a way of thinking that is replete with boardroom politics, stuffy decision making, and codifying rules, guidelines, regulations and compliance.” Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with him.

So, at smilelondon this week, we had Martyn Perks on stage with Digital Strategy, Communication and Innovation expert Sharon O’Dea, and Lawrence Clarke, a social strategist and simply communicate consultant, both of whom take a stand that is broadly in favour of (some) rules.

Relax or Rule Panel at smilelondon 2017

“Of course, we need to find ways to lock things down so bad things don’t happen,” Sharon starts, “but surely it’s about providing a framework for saying YES to things!”  And Lawrence builds on this point by explaining: “The point of any framework / governance is to support the objectives of the business and if that includes changing people’s behaviours then it has to be pretty robust and supported at the highest level.”

Against an economic backdrop of productivity that is flatlining, there is certainly no argument that we need to encourage more creativity and greater innovation in organisations. This is indeed the backbone of the case put forward by Martyn Perks in his recent article.  On stage Martyn insisted that: “Over regulation of our social platforms will stifle any desire to contribute. We need more autonomy, not more rules, to encourage people to take some risk.”

Perhaps it’s a question of balance.  Although no one wants to constrain conversations, collaboration and creativity, if there are no rules then ‘noise’ will increase across our organisations, duplication will proliferate, and mistakes will happen. Collaborative tools can get very messy as they scale up and this will certainly have an impact on ongoing adoption and usage levels over time.  However, rules for their own sake are pointless and will be ignored.

Lawrence reinforces his earlier point: “A light-touch framework for engagement is all that’s needed if the social networking technology is supporting ‘business-as-usual’. However, if the genuine (as in actively supported by the CEO) objective is to change people’s behaviour then new technology without an appropriate governance framework will not do it.”

Enable your social intranet to run like clockwork

Sharon O'Dea at smilelondon
Sharon O’Dea at smilelondon

Getting the balance right for your organisation is the key, and this is broadly the stance taken by Lawrence and Sharon, who agree that governance should be the collection of policies, processes, roles and responsibilities, rules and guidelines that enable your social intranet to run like clockwork. It sounds heavy but, in reality, it’s often a light touch approach that works best. Sharon made a useful analogy with musicians jamming whereby, to produce the right outcome, they must agree a few ground rules in advance such as the key, or the genre they are playing in, for example. This is more fully explained in her excellent blog post about creating the best conditions for innovation in the enterprise – it’s well worth a read.

Using the live polling capability on the event app, the smilelondon audience got involved in determining, for six core aspects of a social platform, the right level of governance on our Relax vs Rule slide-o-meter.

Where 1 was strict Rule and 5 was completely Relax, the results were:


GDPR 1.3
User experience 2.4
Naming conventions 2.4
Publishing 3.3
Management of Team Work Groups 3.5
Management of Interest Groups 4.6


GDPR  1.3
On the question of GDPR there was consensus: this is a compliance issue and therefore rules are needed. Ideally these rules can be baked into the system so it’s more a question of good design rather than governance, per se.

User experience  2.4
“There is a cognitive cost of endlessly switching between tools, so a poor user experience does carry some commercial risk. Some controls and a standardised approach makes sense all round,” says Sharon. On the other hand, Martyn sees usability as secondary to content and value, and feels that the user experience cannot be set in stone. Our smilelondon audience clearly felt that more, rather than less, guidance around the user experience was required.

User Experience poll results

Naming conventions  2.4
Lawrence Clarke was keen to set the record straight on this one: “It is critical to look at whether it helps us to get to who or what we want quickly. Some framework is certainly required but the naming convention you come up with is all about usability rather than rules.” And Sharon agrees adding: “We need to make sure we create a useful and helpful environment for users and that means avoiding errors and duplication.”

Standards such as infrastructure or content taxonomy are important. But things are changing. Martyn’s view is that the curation of information is the key here. “Imposing stringent governance on how we manage documents doesn’t seem as relevant today. Previously strict guidelines on metadata descriptions, tagging and more – often with limited results – are no longer required as search technology has advanced sufficiently to relax these rules. Information should be so easy to find that you trip over it!”

Publishing  3.3
In this case the panel agreed that it is necessary to help people understand what is helpful, current and relevant. While over regulation will limit contributions, total freedom will quickly bring chaos.  Find the happy medium for your organisation.

Management of Team Work Groups  3.5
Our poll result certainly indicates a desire to have some sense of regulation around working groups. Again, this is likely to be dictated by your organisational culture and finding the sweet spot for your organisation is the key.  The panel’s advice is to establish a structure within which people are free to work collaboratively and take a certain amount of risk.

Management of Interest Groups  4.6
Social groups provide a fantastic opportunity for people to practise being ‘social’. Unsurprisingly, the panel and our audience agreed that there was very little need for rules here.  As we heard in the Pladis case study, a healthy balance is perhaps in the order of 20% social groups and 80% work related. There is a real sense that businesses benefit from the spontaneity and serendipity that often stem from interest groups.

Encourage not enforce

Perhaps the debate about whether governance is dead is more about the deep-rooted connotations of the word ’governance’. It smacks of a rather outdated authoritarian model of compliance, with consequences when rules are broken. Listening to our panel I don’t think they are as far apart on their thinking as it might at first seem. They all want a framework, a structure, that encourages the right behaviours to enable creativity and progress to flourish. A framework for saying YES YOU CAN, rather than a hefty rule book that says NO YOU CAN’T.

Let’s change our perspective and view governance as the need to sustain a safe environment within which our people feel able to do their best work, and are encouraged to try new things, challenge the status quo, take risks and innovate. Perhaps we will have a better chance at developing a governance framework that will deliver a digital workplace fit for our future ways of working. Perhaps we will improve productivity too.

Your own organisational culture and regulatory landscape will dictate exactly how onerous your governance framework is, but it is important to establish the links between the business strategy and the work habits that your social intranet and broader digital workplace will encourage.

For now, at least, it seems that we are in favour of some rules.

Governance – time to Relax or Rule? from simply-communicate on Vimeo.