This blog post was originally published September 9, 2014 and has since been updated by Siteimprove for accuracy and freshness. Author Shane Diffily has written extensively about web governance, operations, and management for more than a decade. Several years ago Diffily partnered with Siteimprove to educate a wider audience about the increasingly vital field of web governance.

People are the most important part of any system of website management. Hire good people and they will generally find clever and innovative ways to provide maximum bang for your buck. As the internet has changed the way virtually every organization does business, however, workplace roles and responsibilities have not always kept pace. A poor understanding of roles can lead to risky gaps in operations, tension among your staff, and confusion about “who does what.”

In this article we’ll explore some of the ways you can restore peace by delivering the clear job descriptions your team needs. On a web team where everyone knows what they should (and should not) be doing, all tasks have a go-to person and nobody has to worry about stepping on a colleague's toes.

On a website with low volumes of activity, this is straightforward because everything can be done by a single web person. Indeed, it is still common to find sites where a "Jack-of-all-trades" webmaster looks after all design, content, code, analytics, marketing, and more.

The only problem is that this "all-in-one" model can’t last forever.

Growing Pains

As a site grows in scale, a single webmaster won’t have the time (or the skills) to do everything. As a result, new staff must be hired and new roles and responsibilities created.

When scale increases, the webmaster begins to step back from day-to-day activity and devolve responsibility to newly created roles. Usually among the first tasks to be handed over are those in core skill areas such as hosting, code, design and content, followed by marketing, analytics, and more.

To keep things running smoothly, it is important you have a clear system for defining boundaries between new positions as change occurs. While the terms “roles” and “responsibilities” are often used interchangeably, they do in fact have quite distinct meanings.

A “role” represents the key competence or activity for which a staff member is hired, while “responsibilities” are a description of the outcomes expected of that person.

For instance, the role of developer may be filled by someone hired for her coding skills, while her responsibilities are to produce code that adheres to best practice and organizational standards.

If the Shoe Fits

Of course, this is not to suggest that responsibilities must always be limited to a staff member’s basic skills. The real world doesn't work like this. Budget restrictions mean that people usually end up doing things that aren’t really within their remit, but nevertheless still need to be done. Most web teams allow for some wiggle room in this area. It is common for the responsibilities of team members to be much wider than suggested by their job titles.

For example, responsibility for analytics on a mid-scale site may be allocated to a content producer or designer even though traffic and data analysis are core to neither. (Happily, many staff have broad enough skills to cope, perhaps with the support of training.)

"Peak Geek" Has Been Passed

The good news is that as a site grows, much of this fuzziness fades away and staff can begin to focus more on their own expertise. Indeed, a notable trend in website management is the ongoing specialization of digital roles. While a decade or more ago you could run a site based on a team with broad code, design, and content skills, this is no longer true.

The arms race to develop ever more sophisticated websites has led almost every skill set to fragment into a series of incredibly niche disciplines. In fact, we have long surpassed the point of “peak geek,” where any one person could have a practical working knowledge of every web specialism. A modern web team requires experts in everything from content marketing to user experience design to universal analytics and technology, an array of skill sets that are just too complex to fall under one umbrella.

This makes it even more essential for roles and responsibilities to be sharply defined, so that existing staff know what is expected of them, and prospective joiners know what they’re getting into.

It’s Always Personal

How you go about defining things is really a matter of choice, with no hard and fast rules. You can see one suggested approach in the document Web Team Job Descriptions available for download on my site. You should note how each description includes a clear summary of the role to be filled, as well as a list of important strategic and tactical responsibilities. A catalogue of expected skills is also included.

An important thing to remember is that however technocratic such job descriptions may become, they are among the most delicate professional documents you will ever author. This is because each one will ultimately be assigned to named individuals, who will take them very personally indeed. Experience shows that whenever a dispute arises on a web team, the first things to be produced are job descriptions. As such, it is in your interest that each one be as clear and up-to-date as possible.

Web People are Humans Too!

The problem on many sites is that this never happens. Scale increases, new activities emerge, new people are hired, but roles and responsibilities remain untouched. It is somehow assumed by senior management that the “web guys” will be able to work it out and fill in any gaps.

But nature abhors a vacuum and web people are as human as anyone else. Before long, staff end up jostling for position along unclear reporting lines as kingdoms are forged and jealousies accumulate. Then one day—perhaps as the result of some minor incident—things fall apart and someone is given the inglorious task of patching things up.

While uncontentious anachronisms may easily be fixed (for example, a developer who has traditionally managed analytics but wants rid of it), it is common to find instances where change is vigorously resisted. Say a longstanding content producer who wants to retain control of design rather than surrender it to a newly hired UX Specialist.

While retraining or incentivization can go a long way to easing governance transformation, in the worst cases it may be necessary to throw everything in the air and start from scratch; perhaps by defining new roles and requiring existing staff to apply for a position.

A Better Future?

Inevitably, this is all quite painful.

Sudden, enforced changes to a web team are as disruptive as any other part of a business, as good people who have worked hard over many years are edged out. We are still in a transitional period as businesses adapt to the new era of online roles and responsibilities. On the bright side this also means that disruptive change is likely to be less common in future, as web management becomes more professional.

Check out other Siteimprove blog posts for more tips and thoughts on website management in a changing world.

Explore the Siteimprove Blog

Shane Diffily has been writing and speaking about web governance, web management, and online operations since the mid-2000s. He created the Web Governance MasterclassWebsite Manager's Handbook, and online advice articles to help web managers solve common problems. Visit diffily.com to read more of his work.