What governance structure works best for collaborative sites?

Technology enabling users to contribute content began in the 1990s with bulletin boards and then intranets and extranets (which are distinguished by their internal audience). Today anybody can contribute and distribute content through social media, Wikipedia, and news sites; but the question is how wide participation can be encouraged without sacrificing consistency, searchability and content verity?

This paper explores different types of governance structures and their impact on enabling or inhibiting collaboration.

Types of governance structures

Four distinct governance structures can be applied to the deployment of IT systems:

  • Centralised – control is centralised.  All contributions must come to the central team.  This structure is not scalable and hence total unsuitable for user generated content sites and not discussed further in this paper.
  • Decentralised – control is still centralised but content publishing is devolved to component satellites [1] (by geographic area, product line, subject area or other division).
  • Federated – satellites take responsibility for monitoring content and supporting users/ contributors in their area.
  • Distributed – all users have the capability to contribute to the site directly. 

Decentralised vs Federated

The decentralised structure puts the onus on the satellites to generate content.  Content can become inconsistent and chaotic between satellites unless the central body manages it well.  Support must be given to the satellites in the form of training, mentoring and standards.

The federated structure requires the same support but also requires tools to audit and detect non-compliance. The advantage of the federated structure is the devolution of expertise to the satellites and the reduction in workload for the central body. 

Decentralised structures do not scale as well as federated structures, due to its reliance on the controlling central body.  Decentralised structures also only allow limited user participation, whilst a federated structure enables anyone to contribute.

Either structure may incorporate content review before publication, however bear in mind that this will hamper contributions and delay publication.


A distributed structure is self-governing, most famously used by Wikipedia and the Internet.  As with the federated structure, it allows anyone to contribute but requires a highly engaged community to moderate and edit content on a voluntary basis. Wikipedia, the largest online encyclopaedia has a strong governance model [2] to deal with disputes, vandalism and the like.  It also has in place policies, guidelines and rules for engagement.

A distributed structure is actually not unlike that of a federated structure, except that it is more organic and relies on interested parties volunteering to police content for the common good.


Which Governance Structure?

The answer is “it depends”.  For websites with internal audiences such as intranets and extranets, the organisational culture comes into play.  A highly hierarchical organisation (for example the military, police or emergency services) will have in place a chain of command is more likely to choose a structure offering tighter control.  On the other hand, if the site is devoted to discussions on a programming language or reviewing smartphones with a highly engaged community, a distributed structure is a good fit.

[1] The term satellite is used here to mean business unit for organisations.  Where the community contributes to the site, a satellite is in charge of a subject area, geographic area, or other classification.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Administration


Digital, StrategyMeng Woo