Digital Strategy

I’m participating in a series of conversations on the relationship between information architecture and digital strategy. Participants include Bob Royce (convener), Dan Klyn (facilitator), Erik Dahl, and Heidi Musser. I’m posting notes hoping y’all may chime in.

I kicked things off with a walk down memory lane, reviewing The Tail Wags The Dog by Lou Rosenfeld, my Y2K piece on IA & Business Strategy, and the chapter on business strategy in the second edition of the polar bear book.

Tail Wags The Dog

Sketch by Linda Silvestri

Our safari included books on strategy by Henry Mintzberg and Michael Porter and books on strategic design by Dan Hill and Peter Merholz & Kristin Skinner.

Since I see strategy as holistic (not split into physical and digital), I ended with a provocation: “does digital strategy exist?”

Heidi Musser

Heidi responded in the affirmative, arguing “in the 21st century, the ability to rapidly adapt to constant change is the single biggest competitive advantage,” and “digital strategy is the essence of business strategy.” Heidi referenced The Simplicity Cycle by Dan Ward, noting organizations must respond to complexity without complicatedness. And she framed IA as “digital placemaking” and therefore essential to success at scale.

Erik Dahl

Erik referenced Nathan Shedroff and Bill Verplank, noting product strategy and a vision of the desired user experience enables designers to work without being micromanaged, similar to commander’s intent in the military. In his design practice, Erik often sees an absence of strategy in client organizations, and uses “problem framing” to help them respond.

Bob Royce

Bob went even deeper into history than I by invoking Claude Shannon, Ronald Coase, and The Mother of All Demos. Bob argued that “digital is a medium” and increasingly we are “leveraging bits about bits.” He referenced Understanding Context by Andrew Hinton, noting “language is our most important technology,” and “language is literally part of the architecture of business.”

Mental Models

At this point, we shifted from presentation to conversation. Inspired by Edgar Schein’s book on Helping we talked about “architects as enablers” who might help uncover and sketch the mental models that already exist in an organization, so that strategy can be informed by the memories, insights, and predictions of the people who do the work.

All in all, it was a fascinating conversation, and I look forward to its continuation. In the meantime, if you have questions or suggestions or provocations about the relationship between information architecture and digital strategy, please let me know.

Upon Reflection

After mulling this over, here’s my take. Folks who help with strategic design often encounter an absence of strategy or an inability to connect business strategy with digital plans. I run into this on information architecture projects, and I know Lisa Welchman has similar experiences in digital governance. So we help as best we can, but our position is tenuous. As Edgar Schein explains, one of the cardinal sins of consultants is overstepping their mandate. If we’re not hired for strategy, it’s nearly impossible to help. We haven’t been granted the authority.

This is the problem with the tail that wags the dog. And this is why strategic designers and information architects must step up and sell strategy. This does not mean we tell our clients what to do. It means we engage in humble inquiry, sketching, modeling, and facilitation, in order to enable our clients to articulate and shape their strategy, digital and otherwise. As information architects, we get to see and sketch the connectedness of the enterprise in ways few others do. With respect to strategy, that’s our competitive advantage. We should use it.