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Five levers of governance for your digital workplace


Five levers of governance for your digital workplace

Picture a busy road junction. In theory if everyone is a skilled driver and considers others, then you don’t need road markings, lights, signs or traffic police. In practice, you need all of these. I’ve previously argued that governance is still necessary for a digital workplace, but that going heavy on policy isn’t the answer;  I’m now going to recommend five ways you can make governance happen.

In our street scene, there are of course rules, made explicit as road markings and signs. But they are also implicit in driver skills and knowledge; there are physical barriers like the central reservation; there are direction signs that are purely informational; and there are probably cameras keeping watch over it all. All of these are mechanisms of governance.

The five levers of governance

People tend to resent governance because they equate it to a rule book, an oppressive list of ‘thou shalt nots’. But what if we focused on the behavioral outcomes we desire instead? This encourages people to think of ways to get those outcomes that rely not just on rules but on positive examples, subtle nudges, and making the right option the easy option. These are our ‘levers’ as follows:

  • Policy – rules and standards
  • Communication and training – education and awareness about how to do things right
  • Constraints – settings that block some actions, such as administrator rights
  • Monitoring – checks to ensure governance is followed
  • Steering – a body that decides what the governance should be and how to interpret it.
Five levers of governance

The best chance of getting adherence to governance is to plan across all five of these levers, which will let the policy element slim right down.


Policy covers the rules and standards. It tends to be a big document. People tend not to read that big document. I once got very deep into creating  governance document that even I didn’t want to read anymore.  I decided we should scrap the whole thing and just come up with a short set of ‘golden rules’ – the seven principles that expressed ‘What we’re trying to achieve’ that would fit on a single page and everyone could read. Incidentally, there are just two golden rules for driving:

  • Don’t hit anything
  • Try not to get hit.

Everything else is just detail.

Secondly, governance often gets portly when people get carried way with preventing ‘what if…’ scenarios. In Singapore there are signs on the subway saying ‘No durians’. Durians are a large, stinky fruit, unwelcome in closed carriages. In principle, every city subway should ban them, but they don’t because it’s not a likely event. Go through your governance policy and ask ‘does this happen often enough for us to keep it?’.

No Durians

Communication and training

Just like passing a driving test, people need to be aware of governance and have the right skills if you expect them to follow it. It’s much better to embed what you can in training material instead of policy.  We often create short ‘how to’ guides for content publishers and add tips for how to write links and subheadings that sound like helpful advice rather than mandates.

You can trim things further by segmenting content by audience, so that only people with publishing rights see brand guidelines for example. If you do anything after reading this article, at least break your governance into small, linked sections on your intranet with a role-based index, rather than a PDF you could jack a car with.


Constraints can be a good way to nudge people into doing the right thing by making it the easiest option, just as road barriers channel people into the right position for a turn. Constraints can frustrate though, so they need to be used selectively. The bigger the audience or the bigger the risk of getting it wrong, the more constraints are justified. For example, use lots of mandatory metadata and version control on legal contracts, but none at all on the office party menu.

One thing I did to make dozens of intranet sites look more consistent was to give the editors a gallery of ready-made icons for their links within the publishing environment. They could still use any hideous gif they wanted, but it would have been more work to upload.


Nothing makes people drive well like being followed by a police car. But monitoring doesn’t have to be oppressive. One approach is to take your golden rules and turn them into a scorecard of 12 to 15 items for the major components of your digital workplace (intranet, social network, collaboration sites etc.). Go through the scorecard with each owner and treat is as a coaching opportunity, or direct them to training material to address any issues.


Whatever your governance says, there will be times when there is a sound business case for ignoring it. Rather than try to document all the exceptions, just have a process to manage the exceptions. Your steering group should agree the high-level governance, and be the escalation point when rules need to be bent.

Finally, be a legend

Legend has it that some companies have an employee handbook that just says ‘Do the right thing’. If people do the right thing in practice on your digital workplace, leave it there. If they don’t then gently adjust the levers.

A version of this article originally appeared over at CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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