Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Horizontal Media in a Vertical World

Time for another one of those conversations I’ve had about 50 times in the last few months but have yet to blog (at least as far as I can remember). If you’ve heard this spiel already, I apologize.

One of the problems with web sites in corporations is that they don’t play particularly well together. It’s hard to decide who owns what and as a result you often get sites that are all split up into pieces according to corporate structure rather than consumer understanding. In other words, just because sales and marketing are separate parts of the business with separate budgets doesn’t mean the information the two departments produce shouldn’t live together.

Blogs are another great example. Who owns them? Is it marketing? Corporate? Communication? By the time everyone gets done fighting over it the site’s been torn to shreds and there’s no point behind it anymore.

The way I’ve been thinking about the problem (and visualizing it in my head) is that most corporations grew up in an age of analog media (and those that didn’t have modeled themselves after the old guys). Analog media flows one way: Records only play on record players, television signals only play on televisions and paper is, well . . . paper. In those days it was far easier for companies to have silos because information couldn’t move through boundaries anyway.

All of a sudden digital media comes along and starts to screw things up. It doesn’t know boundaries. The figurative and literal walls between departments are of little use when it comes to digital technology (think about the effect of something like email on the way people communicate and share information).

When the web came along and every company decided it needed a website decisions had to be made about who was going to ‘own it.’ Problem was, as I mentioned earlier, it didn’t fit into the nice little boundaries that corporations were built around. If companies are traditionally structured vertically (silos) then the web is a horizontal medium, cutting across the business.

That’s a bit over-simplified (I think in reality it’s a medium that moves in every direction), but at least it gets started at why so many companies are having serious issues grappling with the digital age. Communications no longer belong to a specific channel or silo since nearly all become digitally encoded at some point in their life, allowing them to travel seamlessly around the corporation without worry for the havoc they’re wreaking.

I don’t know that I have the answer, but it seems more and more apparent to me that traditional structures are not the way forward (guess I have written about this in the past). In lieu of killing silos altogether, companies need to find ways to create horizontal units. The team who manages a website, for example, should work and have real say over any number of business decisions within the different silos the site touches. I’m sure there are major stumbling blocks to this kind of idea and I’d love to hear from folks who work in know large corporations well. I guess the bottom line for me is I don’t see any other option: It’s either change or get beaten by the little guys. (Which may or may not be a new idea in and of itself . . . )

April 2, 2007