Concrete, clear & specific: Practical ideas for building digital practices into museums

Posted on March 19, 2012

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The museum blogosphere has lately been enlivened with posts about risk, leadership and incorporating digital into core museum operations – all questions that relate to the problems of dealing with institutional change in museums in response to the changing social/technological environment.

Last week, I had coffee with Janet Carding, Director of the Royal Ontario Museum, and she too mentioned the widespread acknowledgement within the sector that this is a time of paradigmatic shift for museums. The theme of MCN2012 also reflects this. The Museum Unbound: Shifting Perspectives, Evolving Spaces, Disruptive Technologies “focuses on exploring how the quickening pace of technological innovation is expanding the very definition of what it means to be a museum”, and the discussions of the Program Committee certainly revolved around these issues.

As such, I’ve started thinking about the practical steps that institutions can take to build digital practices into core museum practice. This article – A call for leadership: Newspaper execs deserve the blame for not changing the culture (tweeted by Matt Heenan) – has some useful thoughts about the newspaper business that are applicable here. Obviously museums are different to newspapers, but the article by still has some instructive ideas (emphasis mine):

Changing a culture is not a top-down or bottom-up proposition: It’s a dance between leaders and their organizations… Leaders must examine their own actions carefully to determine what they reward and what they punish, what the day-to-day routines of their organization reflect, and how best to create an environment in which open and constant communication is a priority. They must develop concrete reward systems that encourage risk and help employees make digital duties as much a part of their routines as the traditional

…One daily newspaper of less than 50,000 circulation we studied struggled with the change to a web-first organization because, though its leaders acknowledged the importance of the new medium, they did not reinforce that desire through their reward and accountability systems. Print revenue and circulation remained the benchmarks of success, not digital revenue or pageviews. As a result, newsroom staffers struggled to develop the kind of online content needed to expand the web audience…

…[M]any of the people executives dismissed as anti-change curmudgeons were often much more thoughtful and accepting of new digital strategies than expected when asked directly. While they had concerns about change, the root of their trouble was lacking clear, specific goals from on-high. Staffers hungered for specific direction on how to reprioritize their workloads, which had increased substantially as staffs shrunk and responsibilities increased.

The application of these lessons to museums seems straightforward. For digital work to be incorporated into core museum business, staff need clear goals and guidelines for doing so. Museum workers right across the institution – and not merely those working in web/technology focussed departments – need actionable and clear benchmarks for success that include creating digital and online content, pageviews or revenue. And once these benchmarks are set, staff then need guidance for reprioritising their normal workloads to account for the changes.

In Rob Stein’s great MW2012 paper Blow Up Your Digital Strategy: Changing the Conversation about Museums and Technology, he writes:

The key to building trust within the organization is beginning to build internal confidence among staff and to demonstrate the success of metrics that are important to the whole organization…

… If your museum’s strategic plan does not have clear metrics that help you know what success looks like, then a document that describes what they are and how they are measured would be much more useful to the museum than a technology strategy. If your strategic plan talks about reaching new audiences, how will you measure whether or not they are being reached? If the plan seeks to improve access to collections, then the ability to measure that access is crucial. Once those metrics are known and accepted by the staff, creating technology strategies that enhance those metrics is a much clearer task.  Rather than debating whether a particular effort was “worth it”, such metrics can clarify the discussion about how museum resources were spent. The impact of technology then becomes less about opinion and more about whether or not the museum’s goals were met.

He’s right. Having clear metrics is important for defining what success looks like. However, once those metrics are defined at a strategic level, staff right across the institution whose work could (should?) intersect with the digital world need to be given their own benchmarks for digital success, along with specific directions as to how to incorporate these new accountabilities with their already-existing work. Large-scale strategy is important, but so are the individual strategies that are built into it.

Has your museum developed any clear goals and guidelines to help staff incorporate digital work into their routines? Do staff (including curators, marketers, educators etc) across the institution have concrete, actionable and specific benchmarks for digital success, as well as guidance for how to reach those goals? If so, who has driven this process within the museum? And has it made a visible difference to the incorporation and acceptance of digital into core museum business?