Corporate Standards: For the Greater Good

In this “Seven Keys to Creating a Data-Driven Organization” series, I’ve covered different aspects such as securing an executive sponsor, ensuring you have a measurement strategy, and having adequate staffing and training in place. Now we’re going to focus on the next key principle: establishing and maintaining corporate standards.

In the past, I’ve compared having corporate standards to the rules of the school playground. Whether you were playing soccer, football, or some other game at recess or lunch break, if everyone adheres to the agreed upon rules of the game, all of the students playing have fun. However, when one or more of the students decide to do their own thing and ignore the rules or cheat, the game can be quickly ruined for everyone.

As web analytics was beginning to take off, early-adopter teams often operated independently from other groups at their company. They took full advantage of the flexibility and features of the tools for their specific needs, and they tracked whatever they wanted in whatever manner they felt was appropriate. However, as the usage of web analytics has spread within these companies, they have come to realize it makes sense to coordinate or standardize what is measured for the greater good of the organization.

Are we playing the same game?

Standards are easier to introduce and maintain within your part of the organization. However, if you need to report on business performance across different business units or groups, how confident are you in the numbers? When you say “pass me the ball”, will you receive the anticipated ball in your baseball glove or might they just as easily pass you a soccer ball, football, or golf ball instead? When you say “what’s the score?” will you hear vastly different scores from various parts of the business (e.g., “298”, “30-Love”, “4-3”). In other words, if you ask for a specific report or metric, will you get what you expected? Can you trust the data across your business?

What level of corporate oversight is required?

In general, larger organizations (e.g., large multinationals = multiple websites + multiple teams) require more coordination and standardization than smaller companies (e.g., small online retailer = one website + one team). The organizational structure of your company will be a key factor in determining how much corporate oversight is required.

Typically, companies have geographic- (e.g., country, region, etc.) and product/function-based sites (e.g., brand sites, partner sites, online store, support, etc.). Oversight can get fairly complex when various geographic and product/function structures converge. For example, Electronic Arts’ web analytics team has to navigate and manage several different structures:

Another factor in determining the right level of oversight is corporate culture. If your company has a more decentralized structure where individual business units are more autonomous, a rigid set of standards may not fly. However, even decentralized companies like to compare and benchmark different parts of the business, and this can only happen with some level of implementation and reporting standardization. As a result, it can become a delicate balance between the needs of individual business units and those of the overall organization. The more standardization there is, the more the overall enterprise benefits. However, too much standardization can limit the value of web analytics to individual parts of the business, which are often the key stakeholders in creating a data-driven organization.

Going back to the schoolyard analogy, just like ignoring the rules ruins the fun, having too many rules can also ruin the fun and overall participation. When people aren’t enjoying the game (i.e., not seeing enough benefits for their team), they’ll walk away from the game and do their own thing. On the other hand, the individual players may need to recognize who organized the game and understand that a few extra rules won’t necessarily ruin all their fun.

A more centralized organization might be able to more easily standardize its implementations and reporting, but it is still important to balance the needs of the overall organization with the needs of the individual business units. In some cases, your company may settle on being coordinated rather than completely standardized. The appropriate level of standardization will depend on the company’s organizational structure, corporate culture, web analytics maturity level, and level of effort the company is willing to invest.

Five reasons why corporate standards are important

Introducing corporate standards can face some internal resistance and can be difficult to maintain. Why is it worth all the effort? I’ve identified five reasons:

  1. Creates a shared set of KPIs and reports: Organizations need a common currency of metrics and reports in order to benchmark and compare different parts of the business. Without shared KPIs, no useful comparisons are possible.
  2. Enhances data integrity: When data is measured and collected in the same manner, management and users are more confident that metrics can be accurately compared across countries, divisions, or products.
  3. Reduces support time and costs: When the reporting and metrics are more standardized, then support materials and resources can be shared across more business units. In addition, the web analytics community within the company can support individuals more readily because they have more in common.
  4. Facilitates best practices sharing: When the internal web analytics community have more in common, it can facilitate more data discussions and best practices sharing between different teams, which raises the bar throughout the business.
  5. Accelerates user adoption: Corporate standards will help to ensure the reports are clean and more user friendly, which will accelerate user adoption of the tools and reporting.

“Build-it-and-they-will-come” fallacy

One final thought on corporate standards is the misconception that once they have been introduced, everything will take care of itself. In terms of the famous quote “Build it and they will come” from the 1989 Kevin Costner film “The Field of Dreams”, it doesn’t work that way with corporate standards. Organizations are no better off if corporate standards are communicated and initially adopted, but then later on not followed.

Ongoing monitoring and compliance is just as important as establishing workable corporate standards. In order to make sure that standards are being followed, a number of the previously discussed key areas come into play:

  1. An executive sponsor can emphasize and reinforce the importance of adhering to the standards.
  2. A measurement strategy serves as an ongoing guideline and reference for what needs to be measured and how.
  3. Adequate staffing is important when you need a centralized core team of analysts to monitor and manage ongoing standards compliance throughout the organization.
  4. Training reinforces the corporate standards and ensures they are more readily understood and followed.

All of these factors are intertwined in supporting the maintenance of corporate standards. Build it and they will come. Maintain it and they will come again.

In my next blog post, I’ll cover the importance of delivering quick wins to the organization.