Documenting the digital strategy unconference session @ MW2012

Digital and strategy are two themes that keep emerging in all of my conversations around musetech issues at the moment, and with this morning’s great session on Digital Strategy as context, I proposed an unconference session on those questions. The basic parameters we wanted to explore were how do you act as an internal translator to others in your institution (ie advocacy and communication); how do we collaborate with internal/external stakeholders, and where does digital sit in your institution, and where should it sit?

I’m going to discuss this in more depth later, but for now I thought I’d do a very quick post that captures the documentation of the event.

The discussion on where those at MW2012 sit within their institution, and where they feel they should sit has also prompted a poll asking what department you are in. It would be great if you wanted to answer it over the next day or two before Keir Winesmith posts the results.

Thanks to all those who participated in the session, and to Erica Gangsei for being note-taker.

Museum technologists + organisational digital literacy

Just a quick post whilst sitting in the digital strategy session of MW2012. Is it the responsibility of musetech staff to help push the digital literacy of the broader institution? We often talk about the expectation that other staff in the organisation need to learn how digital works in order that they understand the value of digital, but is it our place to be teaching this? If not us, how will staff with existing low digital proficiency learn about how to negotiate the tech landscape? Do they even need to? If you want a curator to blog or participate on Twitter, digital proficiency is clearly important, but is it up to us to enable their movement into this space?

On curatorial voice and the web

Well, this is going to be an interesting week. Although I have only been in San Diego for Museums and the Web 2012 for about 24 hours now, I have already had more stimulating conversations than in recent months put together. Where time allows, I will shoot to capture a few of these emerging ideas as they come (although time to digest might be hard to come by until the conference ends).

So, first up. I’ve had a couple of parallel discussions with Dafydd James from the National Museum of Wales, and with Ed Rodley (finally, we meet!), about the importance of voice and pitch for different audiences, and it got me thinking of what we are asking of curators (amongst others) when we want them to blog/make public their research or make it open and accessible.

My PhD writing is very different from my blog writing. It is far more dry, academic and formal. The tone and the content are both different, because I am writing for a different audience. Similarly, my early misgivings about the Museums Association UK republishing Can a technologist get ahead in museums? was because the writing had been done for the context of museumgeek, and not for a broader and more general audience. In each case, I am tailoring my pitch to the people I expect to be reading my work.

Frequently curators, and other researchers, are used to writing for a very specific group of other researchers (ie research papers, formal publications). Much as we in the musetech community know each other and speak using particular terminology etc, so do they. This community of passion has a shared understanding of context, and a shared vocabulary, and can talk to the nuance and detail of an issue, because they all have a broad understanding of that issue.

However, when we ask curators to write for the web, we are asking them to write for a completely different audience – and an undefined one at that. The type of language to use, the expectation of existing knowledge – all that is gone. Instead, there is an expectation that the curator can instantly repitch their work, but without a particular focus. Of course, most curators are competent writers, and the change in voice might not prove a problem, but it does likely require additional work and different approach.

Even beyond this, however, by having to simplify their work into a pitch that can be more broadly understood, the nuance of the issue, too, is at risk of being lost, and that changes the nature of the discussion. Maybe some curators could even gently harbour a concern of actually eroding some of their professional standing and reputation by publishing work that is generalist, rather than specialised. (This point is entirely speculative, but it’s something to consider.)

This simplifying of content does already occur in the context of museum exhibition text, but because it is often limited by space, it is also expected to by short and simplistic. The expectation is already pre-set, and this writing exists in the clear context of the exhibition. The open nature of online research is different.

This also threatens the idea we often hear in musetech conversations that we simply need better workloads and content management systems. It’s not so simple as just ‘producing content’ and making that content available, because all content requires repurposing for audience.

When, in my last post, I spoke about breaking musetech conversations out of the bubble, my closing question was How can we as musetech professionals become better translators, and better speak the language that others in the field are using? The question is at least in part about pitch. How can we repitch our conversations so that they are meaningful outside our own bubble? It strikes me that when we argue for curators etc to engage online, we are expecting that they will do the same. But it’s a lot easier to talk to those who already understand your subject than those who don’t, and maybe that adds a layer of complexity.

What do you think? Do you think that this idea of reframing content adds complexity to the question of curatorial voice online? Or, if you are a curator, do you feel there is an expectation to publish different online than you would offline?

MW2012 + breaking musetech conversations out of the bubble

The other day, when following up on the responses to misconceptions about museum technologists, I happened upon on a 2009 post by Nina Simon regarding what she termed the ‘participatory ghetto’. She wrote (emphasis mine):

…In most museums, technologists are still seen as service providers, not experience developers. They live in well-defined (and self-protected) silos. There are stereotypes flying in many directions—that curators won’t give up authority, that technologists don’t respect traditional museum practice, that educators are too preachy, that marketers just want to get more live bodies in the door.

How are we going to bridge this divide? Many of the technologists I met at Museums and the Web never go to regional or national museum conferences. When I asked why, people said, “no one there understand what we’re doing,” or “it just reminds me of how far behind the rest of this field is.” I understand the desire to learn from and spend time with people in your part of the field, but I was surprised at the extent to which people had no interest in cross-industry discussions. I’m teaching a graduate course at University of Washington right now on social technology and museums. Four of my students were at Museums and the Web. None are attending AAM (the American Association of Museums). They don’t see it as relevant to their future careers. This worries me.

We need to do a lot more talking across the aisle, working hard to adapt our specialized vocabularies to a common discussion about institutional mission and change.

So after attending MW three years ago, Simon’s takeaway was that people in musetech had no interest in cross-industry discussions. This is precisely opposite the sentiment I’ve been picking up on lately, as right now this question seems to be at the heart of what many musetech people are interested in. How do we bridge the divide and communicate the value of what we do to the museum community more broadly?

In the comments on misconceptions about museum technologists, Bruce Wyman offered this thought:

Technologists need to leave their home turf and talk to other disciplines in their language and with their needs in mind. They need to show understand of the goals and how to improve those *specific* core needs not only through technology but also the overall program.

This could be an interesting unconference discussion for Museums and the Web 2012 (this week!). What can we – as individuals and a sector – do right now to start bridging the divide between musetech and the rest of the museum?

I’d really love to explore this idea whilst at the conference this week, so if you are at MW2012, come and find me. I am giving a demonstration on Saturday (although I am demonstrating a conceptual art piece, so there isn’t all that much to see… this means it’s a good opportunity to work through the ideas behind the project, and seeing where such conversations might lead.). Otherwise I am likely to be around where ever there is karaoke or good conversation.

How can we break museum technology conversations out of the bubble? How can we as musetech professionals become better translators, and better speak the language that others in the field are using?

I’d love your thoughts.

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

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?

What is your favourite museum tech idea or project?

I’ve just been asked to give a guest lecture at my university next week, which I am super-excited about. The talk will be a casual lunchtime lecture pitched primarily at Fine Art students, but will also include others from around the University. Because the talk isn’t for a particular subject, I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about all the interesting projects and ideas that are emerging out of the museum tech field.

Obviously I have my own favourite projects, ideas, blog posts, talks etc that I will be discussing, but this seemed like a really lovely opportunity to ask for your favourites too. Which muse tech projects are rocking your world right now? What is your favourite use of mobiles in museums, or your favourite website? Which blog posts should I direct people to, so as to inspire them to think further about the issues? Which talks/youtube videos have left you thinking and rewatching them time and again for inspiration? Whose work are you loving? Which books/journals etc are you reading?

With the nominations for Best of the Web closing last week, many of you will have already been thinking about some of these questions anyway, but if not, now is a great time. And although recent projects are great, I’d also love to hear about any older projects that inspired you and led you to rethink your work practices or your next project. Where have you drawn inspiration from? What work in other fields has influenced you?

I’d love to hear exactly what inspired you, in the hope that it can inspire other people to be excited about this field too. My hope is that by catching the interest of these hapless young university students early, I can convert them into being totally pro-tech museum-lovers, goers or workers.

So… What is your favourite museum tech idea or project? And what do you love about it?