Planning multi-region websites – centralized or decentralized approach

Recently we had a meeting with a client with divisions across several countries and we were discussing how to plan the website architecture. This client has chosen a centralized integrated approach i.e. all site updations for all regions will be done from a single head office. This will be done through a customized hub content management system which allows seamless updates to any region.

Centralized versus distributed website management – a debate.

Business gurus and planners have been debating the merits of centralized versus distributed systems for years. Of course there is no single solution and it all depends on the business and it’s decision processes. Now this debate has come to website design. This decision has to be taken early in the design process when the website architecture is being planned.

Shifting from one model to another after the site has been setup can be time consuming, costly and disruptive. It can also lead to ego clashes and silo mentality if not planned and executed well. No one likes to lose power or control.

Factors to consider when planning a multi-region website are

  • How to maintain uniformity and brand continuity across all regions?
  • Who decides what information goes online for each region?
  • How much customization can be allowed for each region?
  • What are the common functionalities we can leverage  to avoid redundancy and duplicated effort?
  • Is language a factor in this decision?
  • How can we keep regional employees motivated and interested in their own region’s website or section?

Advantages and disadavantages of a  centralized web site operation

Advantages

  • Better control and version tracking
  • Quick decisions process with minimum oversight
  • Uniformity in branding can be maintained
  • Minimal duplication of resources and effort.
  • Customers find all information at one location easily.
  • Data is more secure from disgruntled employees or other malcontents.
Disadvantages

  • Discourages initiatives taken at a local level to be put on the site due to chain of command issues.
  • Difficult to tailor content for idionsyncracies of the particular region
  • Regional employees might not feel very vested in the website

Advantages and disadvantages of a distributed website operation.

Advantages

  • Each region can take advantage of local competitive factors
  • Faster updates as the information does not have to be vetted by a central office
  • Employees feel better ownership of the website
Disadvantages

  • Difficult to control branding uniformity
  • Duplication of resources and efforts.
  • Might lead to unnecssary information or unauthorized information going online
  • Scope for disgruntled employees to steal or tamper with the information.

Size of the organization and number of regional offices play an important part.

It is easier to have a centralized website development centre when you have limited number of hubs and the information and requests flowing in can be controlled and action. But having too many regions requesting too many things can derail the whole process. Building up of pending website change requests can lead to frustration and later indifference. The best approach is to judge the number of reasons and the changes requests versus resources available at the central office to make an intelligent decision.

Languages can be an important factor in deciding on the model.

Sometimes it is just not feasible to have language experts in the central office just for website updates. In such cases it makes more sense to localize the website updates with proper controls in place. Language optimization brings with it challenges such as translation, transcription and proofing which needs a language expert as well as technical people who are able to support languages.

A hybrid model can work but in the long term it might get messy if boundaries are not set properly.

A good idea is to give partial control to local or regional offices and retain some of the control at the central website office. This requires some clever programming setup and clear delinienation of responsibilities. Any ambuiguity in this regard will lead to paralysis as people will not be sure who has to actually update the information.

What happens with long term models is that responsiblities are easily switched between local and central staffs as per convenience. This throws uniformity out of the window and creates a ‘you scratch my back ill scratch yours’ kind of setup. This is not conducive to a good website operation.

Geographic targeting should allow customers / visitors to reach the right regional site nearest to them.

IP address based redirection of visitors can allow customers / visitors to be redirected the nearest regional website or section. This helps them to get localized information fast and easily and avoids a top down approach which has to be filtered through layers. Of course an option should be given to switch regions in case a customer / visitor wants information about another region. Geo-targeting allows for localized results while still maintaining global branding.

 At the end of the day it has to be about the customer

Centralized or decentralized, at the end of the day it has to be for the customer. The customer should be able to find relevant information, whether it is general or regional, without having to jump through hoops. The entire website system should be fast, efficient and useful for the customer no matter how many systems have to be put in place at the back. After all its the customer who pays the bills.

As more and more companies are expanding globally thier web operations are getting stretched and the marketing messages are getting garbled. Sites remain stale and no one knows who’s responsible for what. This can be avoided with proper command and control systems and technologically smart websites.

Cheers,
Ron

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