Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Web Team Chasm

I work at a professional association. We're a nonprofit, legally, but we're hardly a charitable organization. Dues are quite expensive and because of it we've little incentive to work hard at finding other sources of income. For instance, we have an online catalog, but it's definitely Worst of Breed. It's in Siebel, pound for pound, the worst enterprise software I've ever seen. I'm not even sure if Siebel still makes a catalog product anymore. They really shouldn't have. We have a team of full-time consultants and in-house staff dedicated completely to it which is amazing given that A) We don't do much business with it, and B) We don't have that many products. Yet the catalog sucks away most of our IT budget and labor. And at this point IT believes it has invested too much in this steaming pile to stop using it, so we're stuck with it.

Anyway, the catalog is difficult to navigate, unintuitive, ugly, and products are horribly categorized. One category is actually called "Catalog Products." Obviously, that one's not Siebel's fault, but my point is this catalog is not built to make money, it's built to meet someone's internal goal of being able to say we have an online catalog. And it's managed completely by IT.

I am not part of the team that chose Siebel for the catalog, or implemented it, or maintains it. I am, in fact, not in IT at all. I am part of the non-IT Web team that manages the rest of our Web site. In our organization the online catalog is not considered part of our Web site. To our association members it certainly is, but not to our internal staff. This means that my team is not allowed input into the online catalog. In fact, the online catalog requires a separate login from the rest of our site (also, sidenote, it doesn't work in Firefox. This didn't seem to bother our IT department so we built a redirect page that checks your browser and offers our 1-800 number if you happen to be one of the millions of people who use Firefox. IT thought we were crazy.)

The problem here is largely the structure of our "Web Team." I say "team," but I really mean, "Web Chasm." We have an IT Division and a Communications Division and I am in Communications. Our team in Communications uses a lot of the same skills as our IT counterparts, but, as they often tell us, we're not IT. We design ASP pages and forms, perform Web Analytics, conduct usability testing, develop functional and business requirements for the site, etc. but IT does not consider those things to be "IT." Also they don't believe in things like "usability" or "analytics." These are silly marketing things that have nothing to do with building Web applications and they simply don't have time because they've got Web applications to build.

Frankly I don't think any of us in Communications want to be in IT. They are largely reviled throughout our organization. People find them rude, arrogant, unhelpful, slow, and they make you fill out a Project Request if you ask them to hold the elevator for you. No, we don't want into that club. However, this puts us at their mercy when we need things like database applications built. We're not skilled at building database applications, but even if we learned how, we wouldn't be allowed to build them. That's an IT thing. Hence, we get in line with every other department that wants something from IT. And it's a long line that rarely moves.

But how, you may ask, do you react quickly to the fast-moving, always-changing Web? The answer "rarely." I estimate we stay at a steady 4-5 years behind the curve when it comes to the Web. My team follows current trends and offers up ideas to make us more competitive in the market and more relevant to our young, growing member base, but IT doesn't want to hear it. They don't have the time, the inclination, or the latest skills to help us move forward. Besides, they've got an online catalog to run.