Author Archives: Ed Rodley

Useful Dialectics, Part Five: Culture vs. Values

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Values. CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Nichole Burrows

Values
Museums love to talk about their values. A quick Google search of “museum values” will turn up a long list of worthy-sounding concepts like Cooperation, Courage, Determination, Generosity, Integrity, Optimism, Positive Approach, Respect, Self-Discipline, Teamwork, Trust, Sacrifice, Volunteerism and many, many more.  Over the past twenty years or so, “values” has crept into the sanctum sanctorum of museum master planning. You can’t be a self-respecting museum without a values statement. It’s even part of the American Alliance of Museums how-to guide for developing mission statements. According to AAM, mission is purpose; vision is future; and values are beliefs.”  If you’ve ever doubted the power of standards, just go Google how many museums in the U.S. use this Mission-Vision-Values formulation.

This is part of the problem I have with values. They’re easy to copy, write and forget.  Jeanne Vergeront wrote an excellent dissection of museum values statements that concludes, “If values are to be authentic and effective, effort, tested [emphasis mine] beliefs, and even sacrifice are required. That doesn’t seem to be too much to expect of the beliefs for a museum that wants to matter or, perhaps, to be indispensable.” And yet…

Every values statement I’ve looked at fails to give staff any guide for how to embody them. Maybe it’s the archaeologist in me, but the clear gap between the lived realities of museum employees and the grand pronouncements of the vision and values statements seems to cry out for the equivalent of a middle-range theory to fill that ideological/philosophical gap. The size of that gap is clearly stated in the photo from Jan Gunnarson’s presentation at Alibis for Interaction 2016. He neatly summed up the trouble with values statements for me. “Values have a tendency to be bullshit. Translating them into a culture, actually acting on those values, is the really challenging part.” Or, as a good friend once said, “You can say the truth, but sometimes you can’t live it.” Like Gunnarson, I believe that culture is the manifestation of values, and that as a field, we need to spend a lot more effort manifesting.

Gunnarson

“Values have a tendency to be bullshit.” – Jan Gunnarson

Culture
The famous Peter Drucker line, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” is a mainstay of business school teaching for a reason. Substitute “mission statement” or “values” and the line still holds true. Many museums have great-sounding visions and missions, but workplace cultures that do little to deliver those values and mostly maintain the traditional way of being a museum. Harking back to the post on design vs tradition, it’s hard to evolve without reflecting on why we do what we do, and evaluate it’s efficacy constantly, and do something differently if we’re not getting closer to our goals.

This reflecting in action and reflecting on action goes back not only to Schön, but all the way back to Dewey and his conception of intelligent action. Dewey called it dogma rather than tradition, but the idea is similar, the unquestioned assumptions that have authority over our actions. For Gillie Bolton, reflective practice requires us practitioners to pay “critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight”. Does how you spend your workdays reflect the values of your organization. If so, how? If not, why?

Building a digital culture

“A digital culture will get you through a time without a digital strategy much more than a digital strategy will get you through a time without a digital culture”

–  Nick Poole

Since my current position is in digital media, I tend to focus on all things digital. Hence the fixation on digital transformation as a desirable outcome for museums. All the digitally-inspired examples I use are not meant to indicate that what I’m talking about only applies to the digital realm. Insert your own specific interests and I think you’ll see that the examples still hold up. Let me know if they don’t.

For me, having goals like “digital transformation” and values like “digitally literate” aren’t sufficient in and of themselves. Figuring out how we concretely act on those values, is the part requiring conscious effort and labor. Janet Carding, in her CODE|WORDS essay on change, wroteI think that we won’t create museums that are appropriate for the digital age without changing our organizational cultures and how we work.” Our culture, the manifestation of those values, is everywhere; in our org charts, how we hold our meetings, the schema behind our repositories, our labels.

All of these are the designable surfaces upon which managers can design new processes and ways of doing business that consciously attempt to reach up towards the values and missions of our institutions.

Conclusion

When I started on this series of posts, I was trying to understand the forces that seemed to tug at me when thinking about new projects and work. These dialectics I’d been collecting for awhile reflect the opposing forces that are always at play. If you’re designing a project to be more network-oriented, it will be less hierarchical and therefore probably create issues within your hierarchy. If you’re using a traditional model, it’ll be a challenge to try to design it differently.

When Ariana French first asked me to join her panel on “Breaking out of the Rut” I had this clear idea that there was a dimension of thinking around scoping new projects that I did half-consciously at best and wanted to be more explicit about. In addition to getting work done efficiently, there were a crop of considerations that could apply to any project to make it more reflective and productive in terms of creating what Nick Poole calls “a culture that is biased towards doing new things rather than towards the past.”

So for project managers looking to incorporate innovation into their teams, I’ve boiled down my ramblings about dialectics is into five questions you might ask yourself at the launch of any new project:

  • Should this project aim to be transformational or bring about more discrete change?
  • To what extent should this project design its own process, or use traditional ones?
  • Does this project derive its value from creating a network of actors, or as a hierarchy?
  • How should this project increase professional literacy, fluency, or both?
  • How should this project create culture that actually manifests (or creates) values we support?

I’ll try it out on the crowd at MCN and see how it goes over. Fingers crossed!

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On being in the midst of it all

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Hands after Working. CC-BY-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user W H

I’m scrambling to get the last post of the Useful Dialectics series done, before I leave for China next week, and MCN the week after. It’s been a hard slog, the first concerted blogging I’ve done in over a year, and I’m out of practice. Luckily, Paul Ford’s reflection on 20 years of keeping a personal public record of his writing and thoughts came along at the right time. It’s brilliant writing; a difficult dance of unsparing honesty that’s neither self-righteous nor maudlin. And with a couple of paragraphs that are downright German in the number of clauses they barely manage to contain. Great stuff! Read it already! It’s short.

It feels rarer than hen’s teeth these days to encounter such powerful, smart stuff that doesn’t pull any punches and doesn’t sink into despair. As he says at end, “Anyway, how can one be wistful with a TODO list that unrolls forever.” It was both a real tonic for my soul and a reminder of what matters. I have struggled mightily to regain some kind of regularity and rigor in my reflective practice, and finding time to read and write is hard. I guess what resonated with me about Paul’s piece was it’s frankness in facing the reality that it never, ever gets easier. No matter how many times you pick it up, the weight is still heavy. And easy to put down.

So I’ve been back at it, getting reacquainted with the pleasure of thinking I knew what I was about, only to discover through the acts of reading and writing that my initial thoughts were shallow, or ill-informed, or the tip of a much bigger iceberg that I could slowly uncover. It’s a very Nietzschean kind of happiness, the feeling that your efforts increase your ability, that troubling resistance is overcome. The motivating force behind the Useful Dialectics posts was my difficulty sorting out a presentation I’m giving in a couple of weeks at MCN. Turning those chaotic slide notes into a series of posts, not only made the final presentation much tighter than it might have been otherwise, it also got the work done in pretty short order. Looking back over them so far also reminds me of the truth of an old post of Seth Godin’s, called “The quickest way to get things done and make change”.

Don’t demand authority.

Eagerly take responsibility.

Relentlessly give credit.

The worst part of blogging for me is getting something wrong, especially misattributing or not attributing something. I’ve done both more than once with this series and the community has corrected me each time. It is terribly embarrassing to forget to cite someone or spell their name wrong, especially in a tight-knit community where you actually know many of the people whose work you reference. But it feels great to be able to say, “Gah! Sorry about that. I’ll go fix it. “ and make it right.

Ditto for actually naming your sources of inspiration. I can’t count the number of times I’ve referenced someone’s work, only to have them contact me, weeks or months or years later, to thank me, correct me, or point me at new work or other thinkers I should pay attention to. Being transparent and explicit about where you get your ideas is essential to nurturing and growing the kind of community of practice that the web can still be. It just takes work. As Voltaire said in Candide, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”  One should cultivate one’s own garden.

Useful Dialectics, Part Four – Literacy vs. fluency

Digital literacy “..is essential to improving technical infrastructure and workflows. Digital literacy needs to be achieved across the board, especially in the context of museum leadership.”  

The New Media Consortium “Horizon Report: 2016 Museum Edition

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Muse reading a volumen (scroll) by the Klügmann Painter. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Here we are now, four post into this series, with another dialectic to ponder. I started off looking at change and transformation, design and tradition, and hierarchy and network. In this post, I want to explore the tension between literacy and fluency, and how confusing them shackles museums and perpetuates an unhealthy perception of digital skills as “other” and therefore not central to museums’ operation in the 21st century. And for extra points, we won’t just stay in the cozy realm of digital literacy, but wander a bit into museum literacy.

Literacy 

One challenge that I often hear executives mention is the mismatch between their current staff and their digital ambitions. “It’ll cost too much to hire a shedload of programmers!” they say, and that’s usually the end of that. Implicit in that statement is the mindset that “digital” is a domain that needs to be understood at least as well as any curatorial domain if anything is to be done. Since museums derive their authority from the expertise of their staff, it follows that without that same level of digital expertise, they’re helpless.

According to Wikipedia,

“Digital literacy is the set of competencies required for full participation in a knowledge society. It includes knowledge, skills, and behaviors involving the effective use of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs for purposes of communication, expression, collaboration and advocacy. While digital literacy initially focused on digital skills and stand-alone computers, the focus has shifted from stand-alone to network devices including the Internet and social media. The term digital literacy was simplified by Paul Gilster in his 1997 book Digital Literacy. Gilster described digital literacy as the usage and comprehension of information in the digital age. He also emphasized the importance of digital technologies as an “essential life skill.””

Notice that nowhere in there does it say anything about becoming a programmer or learning PHP.  In the same way that you don’t need to be an automotive mechanic to drive a car, you don’t need to be computer scientist or engineer to use digital tools. When she was Director of the ROM, Janet Carding told me that one of her goals for her staff was that they be able to perform their own basic AV troubleshooting without requiring dedicated AV staff to turn on projectors in meeting rooms, plug in laptops, and the other digital minutia of the modern workplace. When I expressed surprise, she reminded me that typing used to be a specialized skill restricted to “typists”. They went to special schools to learn how to do it well and very quickly. Big organizations had whole offices full of these specialists. Sending out a letter was next to impossible without them. Now, everybody types their own damned letters (or emails) and the typist has gone the way of the lamplighter. Figuring out to plug your laptop into the screen in the meeting room shouldn’t be any different. The postdigital workplace doesn’t require a staff brimming with digital specialists. It requires a staff with enough confidence and training to use the tools at hand. The next step, building new tools to solve museums’ specific challenges, also requires staff who deeply understand those tools and can build new ones. It’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and situation.

Stop kicking the can down the road

I often hear senior executives talk about the lack of skills their staff have and how they need to wait until more “digital natives” enter the workforce, and a new generation of leaders arise. First off, that’s bullshit, and second, I have little patience with this kind of kicking the can down the road. Digital maturity is not really a generational issue, it’s a cultural one. Designing a work culture where continuous staff development is part of the landscape is the only way to escape the dilemma of having staff who don’t know how to use use the latest tools. Today’s 25-year-olds will be just as ill-equipped to deal with the technologies developed five years hence unless we design a culture that “bakes in” staff development as something we all do, all the time, as a regular part of being alive in an age of digital abundance. Among the many smart things he says, Robert Weisberg recently wrote about The Event Horizon of Digital Skills and Museum Staff, where he summed up the dilemma, writing, “The growth of digital initiatives requires the continuous development of digital literacy … . This shift involves staff becoming more aware of the museum’s collection of systems, cultures, values, and processes holistically in order to move an organization beyond silo-based, project-oriented thinking.”  I discussed some of different museums’ efforts to understand their digital ecosystems in my post on the Museum Stack, which is worth a peek, especially the different kinds of stacks people have proposed.  Finally,  the latest edition of The New Media Consortium’s “Horizon Report: 2016 Museum Edition”, suggests that this kind of literacy, not fluency, “..is essential to improving technical infrastructure and workflows. Digital literacy needs to be achieved across the board, especially in the context of museum leadership.” The skill dilemma is not a storm museums can wait out.

Building literacy takes a village…

Continuous professional development may sound great to some, but how does it happen in age of busyness and distraction? It happens because somebody decides it needs to start somewhere, and they start. Greg Albers and Annalisa Stephen detailed the Getty’s staff efforts to increase their own literacy in Making the Workplace We Want. Among their efforts, they introduced,

  • a series of 10-minute peer-to-peer technology classes,
  • new communications tools and meeting formats,
  • a 100-person on-site retreat for staff working on digital projects, among other drinks things.

Among the things I admire about this (and all the other grassroots efforts out there) is that Greg, Annalisa, and their colleagues figured out processes and topics that appealed to the Getty’s staff, and addressed the needs they identified. Their model might not adapt well to any other museum, but it doesn’t have to. They built the program the Getty needed. More importantly, I think, was their recognition that this kind of development is not someone else’s job, but everybody’s. I am very inspired by their willingness to embrace the idea that “individuals like us, at any spot in the org chart (we’re each sort of in the middle of ours) can and should strive to make meaningful cultural change where and when they can.”

…and some guile

There is often a stealthy/subversive element to digital literacy efforts. Max Evjen recently detailed conversations at Museums and the Web 2017 in a professional forum titled “Strategy 3.0: What is Digital Strategy Now” that brought up the idea of using the language of strategic planning as a tool to boost digital literacy efforts. For Evjen, “digital strategy” was a useful subversive technique in museums, because the word “strategy” is traditional museum language, whereas digital is not the traditional way of doing museum work. “The main challenge that our group identified was that in order to achieve digital literacy across the organization, cultural change is required, and that culture is dictated by museum leadership.” So, adding “digital” to the pile of things requiring strategic thinking is a way to bring it in from the frosty hinterlands of Specialistland to the heart of the museum endeavor. “More than anyone, we need to describe how the work of digital in the museum points back to the institution’s core mission.” 

At the Peabody Essex Museum, we’ve been engaged on a multi-year process of developing professional development programs for our colleagues and ourselves. I am continually reminded how much teaching involves learning as much it involves knowledge transfer. Professional development is a tide that lifts all boats. I can already see how the efforts are starting to pay off, in terms of colleagues trying new tools, new ways of collaborating, and looking at their practices more reflectively. And it’s not in the job descriptions of any of the people who have developed the program. Aside from me, the rest of the people on that team are not digitally focused. Which is as it should be, I think. This is too important an issue to leave to any one group of people in any organization.

And, because the universe is an endlessly surprising place, I can enlist a very unlikely ally, Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an eminence grise straight out of Central Casting. In a wide-ranging recent conversation with ArtNet, he said, “The digital tools have to be handled by wise and intelligent people.” He ruined it in the next sentence, though, by saying, “They cannot be left into the hands of techies, who will focus on the latest craze.” So, I agree and disagree with Mr. De Montebello. My experience has been that it is more often desperate senior leaders who leap on QR codes, robot guides, apps, AR, and VR. The important thing we can agree on is that digital technologies require careful consideration by the highest levels of museum leadership.

Increasing digital literacy should be a non-negotiable goal for any institution.

Fluency 

Literacy, though, will only get you so far. Digitally literate professionals can say, “There must be a way for us to do _______.” With some degree of certainty. Actually doing ________, though, requires professionals who are actually fluent with the tools. Pick a museum that has adopted an ambitious digital project in the past decade (Cooper Hewitt, Cleveland Museum of Art, SFMOMA, Te Papa, etc) and without fail, you’ll find people who are software developers, coders, UX and UI devs, database administrators, and so on… It is very, very hard to build complicated digital things without actual digital specialists on staff. How many museums have that kind of digital capability? Not many, though it’ not just a museum problem. A recent report in VentureBeat highlighted how far all organizations have to go. “Altimeter: When it comes to digital transformation, companies are still way behind” stated that “A lack of digital talent and expertise is one issue, according to 31.4 percent of respondents. And the perception that digital transformation is a cost center and not an investment is reported by another 31 percent.” Sound familiar? That a shedload of programmers I opened this post with will cost a lot of money, because they possess deep domain knowledge that translates into money. Solving the fluency gap is not nearly as thorny as the literacy gap. It will just require the will to pay for it.

Literacy, literacy. Which Literacy?

Digital literacy efforts as they’re usually portrayed are all about skill building; understanding how to manage data, intellectual property rights, etc. But there is also a need for domain knowledge, and that usually means bringing in specialists who possess those skills. Until museum studies departments start doing things very differently, those people will come with little to no understanding of how museums work. Where things start to get interesting is in institutions that have already taken those first steps and brought in digital specialists. They face two different literacy gaps they need to close. All their staff require ongoing professional development around digital literacy. And their digital staff require tremendous amounts of professional development around museum literacy.

Museums are not like for-profits, and people used to working in startups, or in the tech sector, come with a huge amount of baggage about how work gets done in “the real world” and when people are brought in because they possess specialist knowledge that the organization covets, it can be easy for them to assume that anything they did in their last workplace can and should be done at their museum. And that way lies madness, and lots of museum people hating on Agile, Lean Canvas, Kanban, and any of the other standard ways of structuring work that high-tech companies employ. Luckily, if the museum has already started working on ongoing professional development, the solution is pretty straightforward. The need for digital specialists to receive ongoing museum literacy training can run just like digital literacy training, and the colleagues who are students in one session can be leaders in another. And eventually, I think those museums will be the ones that get to the point where the distinction no longer means anything.

If you know of any good examples of professional development models, I’d love to hear about them!

UPDATE: I somehow missed the final paragraph in my cutting and pasting haste. Here it is.

Either/Or vs. Both/And

This dialectic, unlike the others I’ve laid out thus far, turns out to be more a confusion of related issues, rather than a real conflict. Museums that want to do well in the digital era need to address *both* the digital literacy challenge, *and* the lack of digitally fluent staff. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other will produce results, but won’t achieve the kind of transformation possible by doing both. My strong feeling is that building a workplace culture that values continuous professional development will be the most straightforward to achieve that goal and mitigate the inevitable tensions that arise when you put groups of diverse specialists together and tell them to collaborate.

Next up, our final installment: Values vs. Culture.

 

UPDATE 2: I misattributed Max Evjen’s words to Rob Stein, but Emily Lytle-Painter straightened me out. Thanks Emily!

Dialogues About Useful Dialectics

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Detail from title page of Galileo’s Dialogue, by Giovanni Battista Landini, Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

MCN2017 is less than a month away, and I’m in crunch mode trying to finish preparing from my two sessions. If you’re going to be in Pittsburgh, check out Breaking Out of the Rut and the MCN Green Room. If you can’t join us in person, you should follow along via Twitter using the session hashtags, #MCN2017-W23 and #MCN2017-Green Room. For the Breaking out of the Rut session, I’ve been thinking about a series of dialectics I keep running into in my thinking about transformational strategies and how we structure work. The latest series of posts were a way for me to cut down my bloated slide deck to just the hard shiny nuggets, and thus far it’s helped crystalize my thinking. Blogging has always been an incredibly useful tool to force me to do my thinking right. It’s also been invaluable in hearing from colleagues I’d never encounter otherwise. Your thoughts, critiques and insights are a real gift. As an example, I’ve had some interesting side conversations about the first posts that all offer interesting overlaps with the dialectics I’ve been studying.

What Would Piaget Say?

The first one was pointed out to me by Susan Spero, who left a very insightful observation about the change vs transformation dialectic, and how it related to Piaget’s distinction between assimilation and accommodation in learners. Like change (as I framed it) assimilation involves us remaining mostly the same with the addition a new bit of knowledge. Accommodation, for Piaget, is an admission and understanding that we have changed, not unlike transformation. The metacoginitive aspect of it, understanding and recognizing that it happened, is almost as essential as it happening.

Interestingly, for Piaget (and Susan) this means assimilation is the norm, and accommodation the occasional. Does the same apply for change and transformation? Is finite small innovation the norm and sweeping reimagination always the exception? I would say yes, but I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or a similarity. Thoughts?

The Big Picture

Bob Beatty’s new book, “An AASLH Guide to Making Public History” (and 30% off if you use the discount code RLFANDF30) is coming out in a few weeks and he has been thinking about the change vs transformation dialectic at the largest scales, institutionally and for the field as a whole. If you’re interested in seeing how transformation plays out in historical organizations, then it’s worth checking out. Aside from calling change “very much weak tea” which is about the worst thing this Irish-American boy can imagine, he said that in his experience, it was the transformational strategies that scaled best from the individual to the departmental to the institutional level.

One key factor he has seen repeatedly in the success of these strategies is strong, committed leadership. He singled out Nina Simon’s work at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz as an example of a transformation not only of an institution, but also its leader. Bob is particularly inspired by how Nina very publicly grapples with the issues of change and transformation of her own thinking and her institution. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I already hold Nina in pretty high esteem. If you’re not familiar with her work, and want an example of what it looks like to practice being a leader in public, then her Museum 2.0 blog  is essential reading.

Growth Mindsets

Carter Gillies saw clear parallels between the design vs tradition dialectic (particularly the reflective vs non-reflective practice mindset) with psychologist Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed vs growth mindsets. Maria Popova provides a good primer on Dweck’s work at Brain Pickings.

Carter was particularly struck by the parallels between how people with fixed and growth mindsets face challenges. People with a fixed mindset tend to view failure as an indictment of themselves while people with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. He saw a probable connection between being fixed in one way of thinking (tradition) and between the design process (growth).

What similarities/overlaps/synergies have you noticed? Don’t be shy!

Useful Dialectics, Part Three – Hierarchy vs. Network

“The shift from hierarchical organizational structures to networked ones is the dominant theme of the current era.”

– Catherine Bracy

In the first post in this series, I explored the differences between change and transformation. In the last post, I made some claims about design and tradition, and tried to drag some experience design principles into thinking about designing workflows; designing how we design. It was really a call for more reflective practice. In this post, I want to explore the current tension between ways of thinking about power relationships; the established hierarchical model, versus the emergent network model.

Hierarchy

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The original hierarchy. Detail from “The Assumption of the Virgin” by Francesco Botticini. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.”

– Saint Ignatius

Hierarchy is an interesting word, and oft-maligned, I imagine because of the word’s religious origins. In the overwhelmingly secular West, anything smacking of religiosity is suspect, and “hierarchy”, “the sacred order of things”, originally applied in Catholic doctrine to the heavenly order of angels who oversaw all of God’s creation. Over time, the term has literally been been brought down to Earth to mean any entrenched system where people are ranked according to authority or power or status. The apparatus of control is very clear and explicit, and the relative positions of actors in a hierarchy is apparent to both. That can be a real boon to efficiency, in that it saves time. In the same way that traditions can short circuit the need for negotiation, “Why do we do things this way?”, a hierarchy makes it really clear who’s in charge. In this system, increasing one’s power is tied inextricably to increasing one’s rank in the hierarchy.

The downside of any hierarchy of course, is that the people most often deeply invested in preserving it are also the people who have the most agency and power. Paired with strong traditions, a strong hierarchy can be almost impossible to influence, let alone change, or transform.  James McAnally summed it up nicely in his Hyperallergic essay, “A Call for a Collective Reexamination of Our Art Institutions, “When dismantling a hierarchy, those with real power always want to settle for plucking out a brick when it’s the foundation at fault, something in the water that was mixed in with the cement.”  

So how to tangle productively with hierarchies to effect improvement in our museums?

Network

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Detail of a map of the Internet in 2005, by The Opte Project, CC BY 2.5 image, via Wikimedia Commons

The most important thing to bear in mind is how the ground has shifted under us. Traditional hierarchies, like everything else, have been profoundly affected by the advent of the digital era and the transformations it has wrought. We are now connected through networks of networks, and it has changed how we can organize. This was effectively described at MCN 2016 by the keynote speaker, Catherine Bracy, a former Obama campaign official in charge of the massive online efforts to elect and re-elect Barack Obama. It was a galvanizing speech, coming on the cusp of the presidential election and it seems even more prescient now. After bleakly detailing the American public’s waning trust in institutions in the 21st century, she called the root cause a failure of the elites (i.e., us) to manage our institutions effectively and fairly.

Her discussion of how modern political campaigns have evolved from hierarchical models to more distributed, “snowflake” structures that push authority out to edges, both mirrors the modern Internet, and gave hope to many in the audience who work in 20th  (or 19th, or even 18th) century hierarchies. The Obama campaigns ability to use a network organizational model allowed to scale rapidly and effectively, without the need for a strong central hierarchy making all the decisions. Bracy’s description of the online campaigns reminded me of how online communities operate nowadays. Power resides in the density of connections at a given node, not the level of that node in a hierarchy. In “The Wealth of Networks”, Yochai Benkler describes how different power dynamics are in a networked environment, using the example of Linux inventor Linus Torvald’s relationship with the network of developers working on Linux,

“Torvalds’s authority is persuasive, not legal or technical, and certainly not determinative. He can do nothing except persuade others to prevent them from developing anything they want and add it to their kernel, or to distribute that alternative version of the kernel. There is nothing he can do to prevent the entire community of users, or some subsection of it, from rejecting his judgment about what ought to be included in the kernel. Anyone is legally free to do as they please. So these projects are based on a hierarchy of meritocratic respect, on social norms, and, to a great extent, on the mutual recognition by most players in this game that it is to everybody’s advantage to have someone overlay a peer review system with some leadership.” 

It is interesting to note that the distributed community of Linux developers is both a network in some ways, and a hierarchy in others. I imagine the Obama campaigns also had features of hierarchy alongside their networked structure. Maybe the shift is not so much networks supplanting hierarchies. Maybe it’s more a case of networks cohabiting alongside hierarchies.

The idea that museums can (and should) be thinking more like networks is already a decade old.  For me, my understanding of museums as networks rests on two influential papers. The first is Nancy Proctor’s “The Museum as Distributed Network”. Proctor, one of the most relentlessly curious intellects I’ve encountered, has been advocating a network model for years. For her,

“Notions of authority and hierarchy are not very helpful in describing relationships and processes that work together more like mash-ups than pronouncements. Truth, rather than being disseminated outwards from a center point, is discovered in its intersections and interstices, through the (sometimes surprising) juxtapositions that can happen when experiences are assembled collaboratively along the many-branched paths of a rhizome. In the museum as distributed network, content and experience creation resembles atoms coming together and reforming on new platforms to create new molecules, or ‘choose your own ending’ adventure stories.”

Like Bracy, Proctor’s conception of the network model privileges relationships over status, particularly outward relationships.  Note that she refers to the network as a rhizome. This will be important in a little while.

The second essay, “Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture”, by Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo, laid in a lot of theoretical underpinning for understanding how non-hierarchical organizations operate and why. They posit the transition from place to space being a metaphor for understanding the museum-as-network.

“It is undergoing yet another transformation from an early place-based cultural institution to a more dispersed (post)modern space. As sociologist Michel de Certeau argues, the concept of place has been used by the dominant orders to organize and control society through urban planning and architecture. Space, on the other hand, is constructed by people through the practice of living and walking. Place implies stability, “an instantaneous configuration of positions,” while space considers “vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements” (de Certeau,117). As de Certeau asserts: “space is a practiced place” (117).”

Again, going from “places” to “spaces” involves a lot of interpersonal communication. It’s an idea that’s certainly got appeal. Thinking about organizations as networks rather than hierarchies is widespread in the business community and has been making it’s way into museums. Patrick Greene’s discussion of Museum Victoria’s new org structure explicitly describes the museum as “the networked museum” and applies Lipnack’s and Stamps’ idea of a networked organization as one where “independent people and groups act as independent nodes, link across boundaries, to work together for a common purpose; it has multiple leaders, lots of voluntary links and interacting levels.” So the future is here, it’s just been unevenly applied thus far.

I still wasn’t entirely sure I bought the “networks will eat hierarchies” idea, even though I agree with almost everything I’ve read or heard about the power of networks. This blog post titled “Frankenstacks and Rhizomes” by Venkatesh Rao neatly summed up why my network/hierarchy dialectic was unsatisfying to me. It turns out there is a better dialectic; rhizome vs arboresence!

Rhizome vs arboresence

R&A

Left, Ginger root. CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Frank C. Müller, via Wikimedia Commons. Right, Onion. CC0 Public Domain image by Rajesh Misra

 

Here are some of Rao’s points about rhizomes and arboresences:

  1. Consider the difference between an onion and a piece of ginger. The ginger root is the motif for what philosophers call a rhizome. The onion for what they call an arborescence.
  2. With an onion, you can always tell which way is up, and can distinguish horizontal sections apart from vertical sections easily by visual inspection.
    With a piece of ginger, there is no clear absolute orientation around an up, and no clear distinction between horizontal and vertical.
  3. According to the linked Wikipedia entry (worth reading), a rhizome “allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.”
  4. If you tend to use the cliched “hierarchies versus networks” metaphor for talking about old versus new IT, you would do well to shift to the rhizomatic/arborescent distinction.
  5. Both onions and ginger roots show some signs of both hierarchical structure and network-like internal connections.
  6. The difference is that one has no default orientation, direction of change, or defining internal symmetries. Rhizomes are disorderly and messy in architectural terms.

Numbers 4 and 5, of course, leapt out at me. Interestingly, Rao’s example is focused much more on platforms and products that on people. I don’t know if that makes a difference, but it does stand out for me. And he’s far from the only one interested in the rhizome metaphor. Nancy Proctor has been advocating for a rhizomatic mindset for at least 10 years. Rhizome.org is also a response to this realization. Maybe I’m just prone to wanting to sidestep either/or situations, but there is a utility to the rhizomatic approach that addresses most of my concerns with “the network will save us” philosophies. I never understood why Nancy was so insistent about the rhizome analogy until now. As Sansa Stark said, “I’m a slow learner, it’s true. But I learn.” 

Next Up: Literacy vs. fluency

Useful Dialectics, Part Two – Design vs. Tradition

“The opposite of design is tradition.”

– Johanna Koljonen

Jean Le Tavernier, "Portrait of Jean Miélot." Public domain image from Wikimedia user Leinad-Z~commonswiki

Doing it the old fashioned way.

In the last post, I talked about the distinction between change and transformation, and how the former feels more finite and time-bound while the latter is bigger in scope and more ongoing. In this post, I want to explore and refine the dialectical relationship between design and tradition. What I mean by that is that design and tradition can be seen as the distinctions between reflective and non-reflective practice, as Donald Schön and his ilk would say.

Tradition

I would argue that one of the greatest challenges of working in an institution of any longevity is the burden of tradition, the things we do because “That’s how we do things here.” These usually unspoken ways of doing work get transmitted via a kind of social osmosis, and often at an an almost unconscious level. If you’ve ever started a job, you know what I’m talking about; those things you “just kinda pick up” as you go about learning the job. They make implementing real transformation a daunting task. The unwritten and the informal are hard to overcome precisely because of their lack of specificity and mutability.

Tradition is not exclusively the realm of the informal. Plenty of processes and workflows outlive the situations they were designed for. And even moreso than the informal, these can become pernicious because they have the weight of the institution explicitly behind them. “Our process was developed over a long period of time and has been used here for ____ years.” “We’ve used this process to develop big projects.” The difference between reflective and non-reflective practice, I think, is that the burden of designing your processes should be a never-ending one. Just because somebody else designed a process once, that doesn’t make it right for the current situation. If the only tools in the box are hammers, even though they might be high-quality, expensive ones, the temptation will be to treat every challenge like a nail.

Design

I took the quote at the top from a talk be the experience designer Johanna Koljonen. It was only one of many truth bombs she dropped that day, and in this context (reflective vs non-reflective practice) it really gets right to the heart of so much that is frustrating and broken about museum work processes. They often don’t respond to the current players and challenge. They were a response to a previous challenge that has been passed on and replicated. Obviously, not every process can be redesigned every time, but the amount of tradition we tolerate is impressive. Resisting this tendency motivates a slew of methodologies that aim to help us work smarter. That is the whole motivation behind Lean approaches; looking for places in processes where there are inefficiencies and removing or reworking them. It’s really a very formalized way of trying to encourage reflective practice.

For Johanna, challenging elements of traditions to solve a problem is a crucial part of thinking like an experience designer, which was an identity I never assumed until then. Innovation happens through making active choices, from looking at a situation and asking “What are the designable surfaces here?” and recognizing that answer is EVERYTHING. For me, this resonates strongly with Schön’s idea of reflection as knowing-in-action. 

The Magic Circle

The other part of her presentation that made a strong impact on me was her assertion that “the magic circle” idea that I previously thought of as something exclusive to game design, was in fact a broadly applicable tool to think about any kind of experience design.

magic circle

The magic circle of experience design. Do your meetings look like this?

For the deep divers, the term “magic circle” first appears in Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”. It’s current vogue though, is due to Katie Salen’s and Eric Zimmerman’s influential 2003 book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals”. For them “the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.”

The idea of the magic circle is straightforward enough. When people enter into a game, they take on a distinct role, different from their default identity; they become players. And while they are playing, they accept new rules and way of interacting with the other players and the game. In good games, that’s where the fun happens; the learning and mastery of rules, the meaningful wearing of the persona of “player”, and maybe even winning. That’s what happens inside the “magic circle” of a game. Once the game is over, the players cease being players and resume their old roles and life goes on.

Project teams and meetings can be magic circles, if you approach them as opportunities to design. Everyone comes to the table with all their expectations in tow. In the team, or meeting, they take on a role (like “You’re here because of your expertise in x, y, or z.”) and can (and should) be empowered to temporarily try on new roles and reflect in action.

“The opposite of design is tradition.” I think there’s great truth in that. For our needs, though, I’d turn it around and say, “The opposite of tradition is design” because design is the tool that is going to allow us to replace traditions with processes that serve the needs of the time.

Next up: Network vs. Hierarchy

Useful Dialectics, Part One – Transformation vs. Change

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bus_crossing_river_(3).jpg

Wading by bus, Iceland CC-BY SA 3.0 image by Wikimedia users Chmee2/Valtamer

I’m very excited for MCN2017 in November! The intellectual thrill of beating a session into shape with friends old and new is like a drink of cool water on a hot day. I’ve been thinking a lot about my part of the “Breaking Out of the Rut” session I’m part of, along with Ariana French, Kevin Conley and Frith Williams! We’ll be talking about our experiences of how to introduce and grow innovative thinking within organizations, and if our Skype calls are any indication, it’s going to ROCK! We’ve got four organizations at very different places in their journey towards digital maturity, all trying to make the best work we can.

One of things I’ve been struck by over the past year, has been the way conflicting pairs of ideas keep cropping up in my thinking and discussions whenever the subject of digital transformation comes up. So, I want to unpack five of these a bit more so I can finish my presentation and move on to the next thing. I’d love to know what your experience has been with these concepts.

Change

“Doing things differently involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”
 – Marcia Tucker, the New Museum

I wrote about digital transformation strategies a while ago in a series of posts, and have been reading extensively about it ever since. There are few words I run into more frequently in my reading than “transformation” and “change”. It feels like every other article I see in the business press has latched onto the idea of transformation as the next big thing for business. And in museums, “change” is omnipresent, particularly in the tried-and-true usage of “change agent” to describe anybody whose job it is to come into a museum and stir things up. The last couple of job descriptions I’ve been sent use both, just to be safe.

Though they both can mean something similar, I’ve come to believe that behind “change” and “transformation” are very different motivations. Though I used to be firmly in the change camp , I don’t feel that way any more, fro two reasons. First, in my experience, “change” is often treated like a discrete, time-bounded process; one that is begun, carried out, and completed at the end. It’s  a temporary state. You change, and afterwards you have changed. I don’t think we’re ever done adapting. “Change” is not something to be gotten through, like a river to be forded, which is my second problem with change. The standard model of change assumes a static endpoint one can visualize. On that far shore lies the Promised Land, and all we have to do is get there. And on the far shore we’re still recognizably us, and therefore mostly unchanged. That’s not what I’m after.

Transformation

Transformational strategies recognize that there is no far shore. The goal should not be to transplant our existing organizations in the new context, but to create continuously evolving, learning institutions that become whatever they need to become to address their missions. I don’t know what that looks like, and that’s not just alright, that’s the point of the kind of transformation that museums will need to undertake to fully participate in the modern world. The challenge I see is how to apply the same rigor we apply to our topic research to our internal organization and work processes. Since attending Alibis for Interaction last year, I’ve been interested in applying experience design principles to workflows and finding all the designable surfaces in the organization, and thoughtfully building on them to meet the needs of the people. Like any disruption, it will be uncomfortable. Which brings us back to that quote I started with. “Doing things differently involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”

Next up: Part Two: Design vs. tradition