Category Archives: Design process

That Which Is Lost

One of the follow up conversations I had at MCN2015 was with Jeff Inscho about our Content session. It was a wide-ranging one, touching on repositories, the Museum full stack, and more. In my notes, I wrote the quote “Content – That Which is Lost” which was one of the definitions that came out of our session. It’s stuck with me since.

The “digital dark age” is a thing that lots of important people are worrying about.

Google boss warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos at risk

Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?

The digital black hole: will it delete your memories?

You get the idea. It’s a problem. I’ve been thinking a lot about digital ecosystems in museums, and how good they are at some things while being really terrible at others. Ironically, the thing that most digital ecosystems suck at most is preservation, followed closely by findability. This is a huge problem, one that will hobble not only us, but our successors and the posterity we supposedly hope to enrich by saving and interpreting all this stuff we steward. Here’s an illustrative example of what I’m talking about:

 

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New England Habitats

One of the last exhibitions I worked on at the Museum of Science was a renovation project. The New England Habitats hall is a diorama hall built in phases from the 1950s to the early 1960s. Some of the old-timers I worked with when I first started there in the ‘80s had worked on creating them, and they remain a central, unchanging feature of the museum. They were reinterpreted in the early ‘90s by the illustrious Betty Davidson, as part of her seminal research on making accessible, multisensory exhibits. The book that resulted, New Dimensions for Traditional Dioramas, is still relevant.  By 2010, they were in need of another renovation, and I was charged with updating the content and exhibits. My first job was to understand what the original creators had been trying to do and how Betty et al had tried to modernize it. So, off to the Exhibits archives I went looking for what I could find.

For the ’90s renovation, that consisted mainly of Betty’s personal project file, some 3.5in floppies, and a couple of Syquest or Bernoulli cartridges that probably held large (for the time) graphics files. It was pretty skimpy, and missing all the email correspondence aside from those Betty printed out for some reason. A tremendous amount of sleuthing and DIY computer forensics allowed me to extract label copy from old Word and Pagemaker files.

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New England Habitats 

For the original construction, back in the paper days, there were bulging file folders for each diorama, sometimes multiple folders (“Deer diorama” AND “Whitetail Deer”) with probably a couple of linear feet of files which covered everything: meeting notes, internal memos (some pretty intense), incoming and outgoing correspondence, plans, drafts of labels with edits. Along the way, I discovered things that had been lost over the years, like the fact that the dioramas were modeled on real locations in New England, not idealized environments as was more typical of the period. The photo research was all there, in piles of curling B&W prints. I could tell you exactly how much it cost to procure the beavers for the beaver diorama, because the trapper’s bill was there, complete with a description of how he dynamited their dam to get them and the lucky bonus that one of the beavers was pregnant, so the Museum got some bonus specimens. Different times. There was also the account of the poor staff member who had to drive a cooler full of rapidly thawing frozen beavers corpses from Vermont to the taxidermist’s studio in New York on one of the hottest days of the year that was obviously written solely for internal use. I could smell cigarette smoke clinging to papers that had sat on desks for too long. Everybody smoked then. A little more digging turned up originals of the transparencies used in the backlit labels, and other goodies from the stat camera. It was a treasure trove that let me climb inside my predecessors’ minds and understand what they were trying to do.

 

In the end, I knew more about what happened sixty years ago than what happened less than twenty years ago. And it was all because we hadn’t figured out how to save digital information in a way that made it findable and searchable, or anywhere near as easy to use as a manilla folder full of papers. This is not a problem exclusive to the MOS. When I first started at PEM and was snooping around to see what kind of 18th century firearms we had (as one does) I rapidly found out that the CMS’s records were pretty sparse in some areas, and if I really wanted to find out about older parts of the collection I should consult the card catalogue. The card catalogue. And I know that versions of this scenario play out at cultural organizations all over.

We have lost control of our stuff

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Look familiar?  “Messy Desktop” CC-BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Dean Shareski

The proliferation of digital platforms and information has outpaced our ability to corral it and make it usefully findable. In place of the old hanging folder, a container that could hold anything you could cram into it, we now have information scattered across devices and platforms, mostly uninterchangeable and unsearchable. As a test case, I looked at a typical week’s worth of digital content and platforms I interacted with last week, and it consisted of:

  • Emails, chats (corporate Gmail account)
  • Google calendar events
  • Texts (personal phone)
  • Twitter (tweets, and DMs)
  • MS Office docs (.doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt, .pptx)
  • Google docs & sheets
  • PDFs
  • Video (various formats and FCP and AE projects)
  • Audio files (.mp3, .wav, .aiff)
  • Corporate network (five different servers, with varying access permissions)
  • Basecamp messages, tasks, calendars (some turned into email, some not)
  • Slack notifications
  • Image files (All over the map: mostly .jpgs, many taken on the phone and uploaded to Dropbox, then spread across emails, work computer directories, network directories, Basecamp, and SM.
  • Other SM content (Instagram posts, FB updates, and to a lesser extent LinkedIn and Foursquare)

In other words, it’s a mess. And I’ve already made clear my feeling about keyword searching in a previous post, so don’t get me started.

Please note that I am not advocating that we forsake digital technologies and return to paper. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s move on…

What might we do?

The obvious solution is a repository, the museum equivalent of the “single source of truth” that software companies enshrine. But those sources only cover the codebase. If you were a future archaeologist trying to understand how 21st century software companies operated, you’d not find correspondence or financials in the repo. So how to create a digital version of the hanging folder that is as useful and possesses a generous enough interface to allow mere mortals to query it and find gold? That is a big question. Anybody out there having success?

MCN 2015: Bottling the Magic

I’m finally far enough away from the event to try to make sense of my experience of the 48th Museum Computer Network conference in Minneapolis. The tl:dr version is “Holy shit! What a great time!” (pardon the language). It was an exhausting week, full of so many deeply thoughtful presentations and smart smart people that I felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel, trying to make sure I got to at least say “Hello!” to all the people I wanted to talk to or meet. I lost my voice for almost a week afterwards.

Hospitality

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I’ve never experienced a city so welcoming as the Twin Cities. When we were visiting in March trying to sort of out the conference program, we were continually impressed with the collegial generosity of our peers. People bent over backwards to help us, to the extent that we had more offers for venues for evening events than we had nights available to have events. Things that were usually issues, like transport, turned into unexpected gifts like the Minnesota Transportation Museum sending us antique busses from their collection to shuttle attendees back and forth to our evening events. The afternoon workshop that Bruce Wyman, Kate Haley-Goldman, and I ran at Science Museum of Minnesota, was scheduled to conclude with a roundtable discussion with SMM staff about their experience design process. Instead of offering us a couple of volunteers, they turned out their offices and brought over a dozen senior staff to the table to share their philosophy and hear what we had to say about our experiences in the galleries. Way to stay classy, SMM. MIA staff volunteered in large numbers to help ensure the conference ran smoothly. In addition to hosting the major evening event, MIA’s director, Kaywin Feldman, was part of two sessions to discuss Agile leadership and 21st century business models for museums. The Twin Cities were engaged!

The Importance of Culture

Ask anyone who’s been to MCN what makes it different than other conferences, and I’d wager that you’ll get answers that have a lot do with the community being friendly and welcoming. That is because of the people who attend, but it’s also the product of a lot of thought and work on the part of MCN. Culture is important and MCN does a great job of both signaling what their culture is, and making it easy to take part. This year, a new Friendly Space policy was announced that covered the whole conference, and agreeing to abide by it was part of the registration process. The conference organizers and MCN Board were all briefed on how to respond if something came to their attention. This wasn’t in response to an unpleasant event, but a proactive step, and a first in the museum sector, to my knowledge. And it shows a level of care and attention that several people commented on to me during the conference. People like to feel like they’re being looked after.

The crowd at the Pourhouse was great!

The crowd at the Pourhouse was great!

I won’t go into too many details about Ignite, other than to say it ruled, because you can watch them yourselves. Here’s the list. There is no better way to kick off a conference than a high-energy, rapid-fire event like Ignite. Kate Haley Goldman described it as “culture norming” and I think it’s an apt description. If you’re a first timer trying to understand what you’ve gotten yourself into by coming to MCN, then Ignite will show you. MCN’s vision of itself as “a welcoming and candid community of professionals passionate about empowering museums to address challenges and embrace opportunities within the evolving digital landscape” is really evident during the Ignite talks. Go watch.

Bravery and Action

A part of that passion was a strong desire to address social justice issues. There seemed to be a real undercurrent of bravery at the conference. People were putting themselves out there in necessary, uncomfortable ways. The list of people asking hard questions and speaking their truths to power included (but is by no means limited to) Nikhil Trivedi’s and Sina Bahram’s Ignite talks, Adrianne Russell and Porchia Moore’s session on Making the Invisible Visible: Museums & Cultural Agency, and Liz Filardi’s, Brinker Ferguson’s, and Emily Lyle-Painter’s homegrown #MuseWomen mentorship program.  These acts took real guts and their willingness to call out their community (us) to do more and do it better deserves both our praise and action. Respect.

Empathy and Action

Liz Ogbu

Liz Ogbu

I’m not usually a fan of conference keynotes, and had in fact spoken out in favor of ditching the keynote at MCN 2016, only the day before Liz Ogbu got up to talk to us about her work as an architect and designer whose career is built around creating social impact through design. Again, you can watch it for yourselves, so I won’t bore you with details, other than a few tidbits. Her discussion of empathy, how it differs from sympathy, and how vital it is to any kind of work with a social dimension really struck home to me. Her ability to couple deep, thoughtful deliberate design with real, specific outcomes (meaning she not only talks about stuff, but actually does stuff and makes things that people can use) was really inspiring. Check it out. It’s an hour you won’t regret.

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Digital and I

Nice photo of my Ignite talk by Miranda Kerr.

Nice photo of my Ignite talk by Miranda Kerr.

I spent a lot of the conference proper talking about buzzwords. My Ignite talk, available here, was all about the word “digital” and all the ways it gets (mis)used. The one session I presented at was an all-star roundup about buzzwords organized by Jennifer Foley of Cleveland Museum of Art, which included Mr. Jeff Inscho of the Warhol and me. We took on three big buzzwords; engagement, content, and digital, and how they are used and whether they might not be replaced in certain contexts. It was a raucous, energetic event where we broke into groups and took turns trying to define these three terms. The results can be found here for digital, content, and engagement. Good times…

See all y’all in New Orleans next year! #MCN2016!

The MCN2015 Program Co-chairs: Suse

The MCN2015 Program Co-chairs: Suse Cairns, Morgan Holzer, and some guy

Books!

Back in the beginning of 2014, Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I had a series of conversations about blogging, conference presentations, the future, and other things I’m forgetting. The outcome of those talks was an online publishing experiment we decided to call CODE | WORDS. Our dream was pretty straightforward. Could we improve on the models of online and offline discourse we all engaged in? Was there some better way to generate substantive discourse that was better than the blog model of long comment chains, and was faster and more collaborative than the traditional “go sit down in silence and write your article” model of publishing?

You can go to Medium and read the results for yourself. We didn’t hit all our goals, but we did help give birth to thought-provoking essays that might not have been written otherwise. It’s some of the work I’m most proud of in my career. And, as a bonus, one of our hopes – that working in the open would provide greater benefit to the field than other methods – has borne fruit.

Reprogram: We’re big in Brazil!

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Luis Mendes, one of the core CODE | WORDS conspirators and one of the most consistent cheerleaders during the long slog to get the essays published, has been busy in his native Brazil to collect and publish new thinking about museums. To that end, he started a program called Reprogram, which aims to investigate “the changes in museums around the world from a collection of essays, articles and lectures transcripts of some of the most influential museum thinkers of our time. It is a collaborative effort of shared content and publishing made possible by crowdfunding.” He crowdfunded the publication of the first volume of the series, Communication, branding and culture in a new era of museums, available in Portuguese and English, and used many of the CODE | WORDS essays in the second volume, Technology, innovation and culture in a new era of museums. It’s quite humbling to share the contents page with people like Cory Doctorow, Nina Simon, Jane Finnis, Koven Smith, and other great practitioners. Both PDFs are worth the download.

CODE | WORDS: the book!

CW_3Drendered_grande-2While Luis was busy in Brazil, we approached publishers with CODE | WORDS and found in MuseumsEtc a kindred spirit in Graeme Farnell. Despite the questions, concerns, and requirements we threw at him, he never ceased to be an enthusiastic partner. The result is a Creative Commons licensed book, that contains the original essays, with some revised essays, a forward by Seb Chan, and more! I was glad for the chance to rewrite my essay, which I felt never quite got where I wanted it to go. That’s a bonus benefit of the physical book, and speaking of benefits, we will soon have a special ordering link that will send part of the proceeds of book purchases to the Museum Computer Network Scholarship fund. How cool is that? When I get the URL, I’ll post the link!

And there’s more CODE | WORDS news coming, but that’ll have to be a post of its own.

#MCN2015 recap: What does ‘digital’ mean to you?

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MCN2015 was incredible. One of those life-changing, affirming, provoking sorts of days-long affairs that left me hoarse for a week after. No, really. I talked so much in Minneapolis I lost my voice for several days. There’s much unpacking to do, but first I have a promise to fulfill…

Buzzwords: Content, Digital, Engagement
Jennifer Foley, Director of Interpretation, Cleveland Museum of Art, Jeffrey Inscho, Innovation Studio, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and I ran a session called “‘Content’ and its discontents” which investigated questions and issues around the language we use when communicating our work. The panel also examined why talking through the semantics of what we do is more than just semantics, but has real impact on the meaningful subject matter museums create. Specifically, we looked at three rampant buzzwords; content, engagement, and digital.

Given my obvious fixation on the word “digital”, I led the breakouts on coming up with answers to the question, “What does ‘digital’ mean to you?” The 40-odd museum professionals at the session generated a ton of answers and engendered some great conversation. The results covered several sheets of butcher’s paper, and we promised we’d get them typed up and posted for participants to see.

The digital list in process, courtesy of Alli Burness via Twitter

Thanks to my intern, the marvelous Meike Gourley, the ‘digital’ sheets are transcribed and legible. It’s also worth looking at the results of Jeff’s “content” group, and Jennifer’s “engagement” group, to see how differently the three words resonated with people who use them all the time. Discussion follows the list below.

Opposing Binaries
Accessible / Inaccessible
elitist / Populist
invisible / displayable
proprietary / shareable
Superficial / authentic
un/ sustainable
“The Future” / “Legacy”
Permanent/ Temporary
Isolating / Connected
impossibly small / large
$ EXPENSIVE $ / AFFORDABLE
Schrödinger’s cat
Human – made / automatically

Audiences
only for the KIDS
millenial
Community Building
Geek/Popular
democratic
narcissistic and selfish
impersonal
white male
global
trendy

Pejoratives
needs a device
addictive
OVERWHELMING
seductive and shiny
Inorganic
“when you don’t know what else to call it”
DIGITAL (not real)
DISTRACTING
ARTIFICIAL
not real
confusing
anonymous
exposing/ vulnerable
not for a museum
disposable
fleeting
outdated
confusing (still)
fad
scary
hard
loud
Trivial
non-touchable
intangible
things that can break
new-fangled

Complimentary
open
Expansive
Multisensory
Mutable / Mute-able
immediate
useful
the sea we swim in
magic
discoverable
forever changing
copiable
fluid
evergreen
collaborative
interdisciplinary
immersive
Adoptable
Adaptable
Dynamic
Engaging Content
required
modern
infinite
searchable
augmented
interesting
easier to implement
24/7
HYBRID

Descriptive
binary
Organized, a system
Networked
Downloadable
Portable
mobile
electronic
interactive
virtual
Intangible
multimedia
Screenbased
online
it is a medium
platform
tool
(The internet)
i Pads and screens
website
pictures
computer environment
video and rich media
software
infrastructure

Other definitions
separate
not printed
the last thing
duplicating print
anything on a computer
Anything technological

So what does it mean?

Well, a lot, it seems! It was fascinating to see how schizophrenic and polarizing the answers to the question were. The number of answers that contradicted other answers is pretty telling. It will be interesting to see how it stacks up against “content” and “engagement”.

What things strike you about this list?

UPDATE: Here’s Jennifer’s take on the session and “engagement”. Go read it!

Tracing the contours of digital transformation, Part Three

In Part One of this series, I laid out what I see as one of the biggest challenges facing museums in the early 21st century; how to transform themselves into postdigital museums. In Part Two,  we looked at what the MIT/Deloitte report  discovered that digitally mature organizations have in common. Getting there, though, is another thing. What we need is a good roadmap that can help us get from here to there. We’ll look at a couple more reports in this post, and then get into the wicked problem of trying to synthesize.

Putting the pieces together

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Kevin Dooley

A recent McKinsey Digital Labs report called “Six building blocks for creating a high-performing digital enterprise” covers similar ground to the MIT/Deloitte report, and is focused on providing executives with a structure to frame digital transformation efforts.

“Since digital touches so many parts of an organization, any large digital program requires unprecedented coordination of people, processes, and technologies.”

They posit six major building blocks to becoming a high-performing digital enterprise:

Strategy and innovation
“The best digital strategies don’t rely on past analyses, but instead start fresh and carve out a vision based on where they believe value is likely to shift over the next three to five years.”

The customer decision journey
“With so much data available, companies can become much more precise in their outreach to customers. By combining deep data analysis and ethnographic research, digital leaders can identify high-value microsegments… Understanding how these customers make decisions… allows digital leaders to tailor their approaches.”

Process automation
“Digitizing processes has less to do with technology and more with how companies approach development… This is more than just automating an existing process. Becoming digital often requires reinventing the entire business process to cut out steps altogether or reduce the number of documents required.”

Organization
“Successful incumbents become agile by simplifying. They let structure follow strategy and align the organization around their customer objectives with a focus on fast, project-based structures owned by working groups comprising different sets of expertise, from research to marketing to finance.”

Technology
“[T]oday’s fluid marketplace requires technology that can drive innovation, automation, and personalization much more quickly. So, the best are moving to a two-speed IT model that enables rapid development of customer-facing programs while evolving core systems designed for stability and high-quality data management more slowly.”

Data and analytics
“Companies that make extensive use of customer analytics see a 126 percent profit improvement over competitors. [They] are adept at deciding which data to use…, focusing the analytics on delivering on goals with clear and useful insights, and having the right capabilities and processes in place act on them. That requires people with the right kinds of skills—particularly “translators” who can articulate business goals and use cases with respect to analytics requirements and turn data output into business insights.”

Notice that “technology” is near the bottom of the list.

Getting there (more) quickly

“Speed lights 2” CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user jones hanopol

The second recent McKinsey Digital Labs report is titled “Finding the speed to innovate” and provides some good advice on getting from here to there. Though aimed specifically at software companies, many of the lessons apply to museums, especially as they become more and more digitally influenced. Like the MIT/Deloitte report, the McKinsey authors agree that digital transformation is not about technology. As they see it, digital transformation is “a change program requiring an updated culture”.

Their key advices to companies are:

  1. Be clear about the change, and set high aspirations.
  2. Create incentives that are aligned with business outcomes.
  3. Create a ‘single team’ mind-set.
  4. Build a continuous-improvement and data-driven culture.
  5. Build the right capabilities.

Sure, all of those are pretty self-evident, standard “don’t do dumb things” consultant speak. What resonated for me in the report was the stages they identified that organizations go through on their way to becoming digitally transformed.

“In our experience, the companies that are implementing these… approaches most successfully have… adopted a more deliberate approach… —simplify, scale, and sustain—as well as the cultural changes required to reap the most value from these lean approaches.”

Stage 1: Simplify

“Companies need to create a “single source of truth” for all software: one repository for storing, versioning, and tracking all source code. The mainline version of code can then be accessed quickly and reliably.”

Ah, the “single source of truth”! Here we are back at the idea in my Museum Full Stack post; the notion that digital repositories need to be central to the core operation of the business, or in museums’ case, not just a repository accessible only to highly-trained specialists.

Stage 2: Scale

“It can be a long and expensive task to scale up and build out fully automated IT systems that have a mix of modern and legacy technologies. Focusing on the highest-value automation opportunities is the most productive way forward.”

Getting past the one-off model of innovation (“Let’s make an app!” “VR!”) and looking at innovating at scale the way the Brooklyn Museum, Cooper Hewitt, and others have been doing requires a ton of support of all stripes; financial, administrative, spiritual. 

Stage 3: Sustain

“While companies can often gear up to change their software-development processes in one big burst, this all-hands-on-deck approach is rarely sustainable—hence the appeal of continuous delivery. However, the pursuit of continuous delivery needs to be easy for staffers to follow and ingrained in the culture to maintain its value.”

This may be the biggest pain point for museums of the three stages. The notion of continuous delivery (lots of small releases all the time, instead of “all hands on deck” make something ginormous once in a while, model) is what my startup guy, Scrumaster brother would call an “anti pattern”. Creating a sustainable business model that encourages a postdigital workflow will be no mean feat, but I’m confident can be done. 

What I glean from these three reports is that A) There’s a lot of overlap, which gives me confidence that what they’re reporting actually exists and isn’t just consultant-ese, and B) The culture shift needed for a museum to become postdigital will not be easy or trivial.

And then…?

Aurora bridge CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Ryan Healy

Getting from the comfortable here-and-now to the as-yet-unknown is scary, no doubt. It’ll be all too easy to go wrong, make costly mistakes, or not get all the way there.  In my experience, the vast majority of museums, even those that are at the forefront of doing things differently and experimenting with digital technologies still do so from a position of protecting and privileging the status quo, and fencing off “digital” as a way of managing the turmoil it can cause, and frankly, as a way of kicking the can down the road a little further. This is a classic example of wanting to delay having your pain, and I fear that it will have consequences down the road for museums that do so.

So now that we have lots of ideas of what the end state and phasing might look like, next we’ll take a look at what a digital transformation plan might look like.

Tracing the contours of digital transformation, Part Two

In Part One of this series, I laid out what I see as one of the biggest challenges facing museums in the early 21st century; how to transform themselves into postdigital museums. In this post, I’m going to highlight two recent reports that go a long way towards helping us identify how that transformation might occur, and what are the hallmarks of successful efforts.

Digital Transformation Isn’t Really About Technology 

What’s at the core of transformation? CC-BY 3.0 image by Flickr user James Lee

MIT’s Sloan School and Deloitte recently published a report called, “Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation: Becoming a Digitally Mature Enterprise”. If you’re interested in that kind of management study, it’s well worth the read; detailed and non-proscriptive. What really caught my eye when I first read it was the header for the introduction, “Digital Transformation Isn’t Really About Technology”. That pretty much sums up my belief about “digital” in general. I often find myself in the position of being asked a “digital technology” question, and saying something along the lines of “What you’re asking is not that technically challenging. It’s a question of ________ (Select one: time/money/staff resources/strategy/priority)”.

MIT and Deloitte surveyed of 4,800 organizations recently about their state of digital adoption and adaptation. One of their key findings was that digitally maturing organizations are “more comfortable taking risks than their less digitally mature peers. To make their organizations less risk averse, business leaders have to embrace failure as a prerequisite for success. They must also address the likelihood that employees may be just as risk averse as their managers and will need support to become bolder.” This, you may realize, is not an inherently “digital” trait, it’s a mindset. Which fits in with all the other main findings of the report. In fact, the report’s main conclusion was that digital transformation has a lot less to do with technologies than it does with strategy and mindset.

“The strength of digital technologies … doesn’t lie in the technologies individually. Instead, it stems from how companies integrate them to transform their businesses and how they work.”

In other words, the companies best able to stand the discomfort of “doing things differently” as Tucker said, are the ones best poised to benefit from digital technologies. So rather than dive into discussions about how to fix the museum’s website, I’d like us to aim higher and not think of these digital products in isolation just yet. The more fruitful and potentially more transformative discussion we could have is about the mission, vision, and goals. Digital is a dimension of all of these, and can be integral to how we think about everything, if we can be open to re-examining all our workflows and products. They’re all already digitally-influenced, you just might not notice it right now.

Thus far, I’ve yammered, I’ve invoked authorities, I’ve engaged in anecdote. But what is digital transformation?

Briefly put, I’d say that digital transformation is a reflective design process that will result in us becoming what Parry calls a “postdigital museum”; one where digital technology has become so permeated into everyday activities that we no longer reflect upon or feel challenged by its “digital” character. 

Digital transformation is the process by which we get past the old physical/digital dialectic and let the activities and affordances of each realm enrich the other. This is an important point, and one that tends to lost in the polemics that are written by both reactionaries and progressives. A postdigital museum isn’t one where “digital” has triumphed over “physical”. I happen to reject that binary and the dialectical relationship that it fosters. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. One doesn’t doesn’t engulf the other; instead they are joined in ways that ubiquitous computing pioneer Mark Weiser called “beautifully seamed” where the connections between each are both apparent and transparent. Beautiful seams in an object or process make evident the process of their manufacture, and invite the user (in this you, you museum professional!) to both appreciate the object and feel empowered to reach in and reconfigure it to suit their evolving needs and wants. Too much of what we do in the digital realm today is magical, hidden in black boxes and tended by priests who speak arcane tongues. Magic is, well, magical, but I’d prefer to build a beautifully seamed workplace full of tools and processes appropriate for the task at hand and train staff to use those tools in the ways that they deem best, not the software or hardware developers.

So let’s look at some of the hallmarks of digitally mature organizations MIT/Deloitte found and see what we can take away and apply specifically to museums.

The hallmarks of digitally mature organizations

CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user M.G. Kafkas

One of the advantages of not being on the bleeding edge of innovation is the ability to learn from those who’ve gone ahead. We have the benefit of building on the work done by other museums and businesses. The MIT report offer us a clearer view of the contours of how a digitally transformed museum might operate. The study authors tried to understand what were the characteristics that separated more “digitally mature” businesses from less mature ones.  In broad strokes, some of the common characteristics of these organizations are the following:

1. Digital strategy drives digital maturity.

Digitally mature businesses have a clear and coherent digital strategy.

2. The power of a digital transformation strategy lies in its scope and objectives.

Digital strategies in the most mature organizations are developed with an eye on transforming the business, not on specific technologies that are perceived as being de rigeur to be “cutting edge”.

3. Maturing digital organizations build skills to realize the strategy.

Digitally mature businesses provide employees with needed skills.

4. Employees want to work for digital leaders.

Employees will be on the lookout for the best digital opportunities. Digitally mature businesses will do a better job of attracting and retaining the kind of employees they will need to mature further.

5. Taking risks becomes a cultural norm.

Digitally mature businesses are more comfortable taking risks and embrace failure as a prerequisite for success.

6. The digital agenda is led from the top.

Employees in digitally mature businesses are highly confident in their leaders’ digital fluency – the ability to articulate the value of digital technologies to the organization’s future. They don’t need to be technologists themselves.

Digital maturity is the product of strategy, culture and leadership.”

Questions to ask yourself about your institution

Getting from here (predigital) to there (postdigital) is quite a challenge. It’s not an insurmountable one, and as I’ve said above, it’s not really a technical one. The MIT/Deloitte puts it very nicely, “Digital maturity is the product of strategy, culture and leadership.” And to help get there, they pose three questions that get a t the heart of transformative strategy as opposed to a typical strategy.

1. Does our organization have a digital strategy that goes beyond implementing technologies? 

Digital strategies at maturing organizations go beyond the technologies themselves. They target improvements in innovation, decision making and, ultimately, transforming how the business works.

2. Does our organization culture foster digital initiatives? 

Many organizations will have to change their cultural mindsets to increase collaboration and encourage risk taking. Business leaders should also address whether different digital technologies or approaches can help bring about that change. They must also understand what aspects of the current culture could spur greater digital transformation progress.

3. Is our organization confident in its leadership’s digital fluency? 

Although leaders don’t need to be technology wizards, they must understand what can be accomplished at the intersection of business and technology. They should also be prepared to lead the way in conceptualizing how technology can transform the business.

The trends affecting digital strategy

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user GotCredit

The discussions found three key trends that will impact digital strategy going forward as well as the leadership approaches and cultures needed to support them.

1. Greater integration between online and offline experiences 

“Digital strategies will need to address the increasingly blurred distinction between the online and offline worlds.” The report authors use the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an example, specifically their goal to create compelling online experiences that induce people to visit the museum and then stay connected through social and mobile. To that example, I’d add The Dallas Museum of Art and first and foremost, the Cooper Hewitt, whose devotion to tying all their experiences to their information repositories is admirable.

2. Data will be more tightly infused into processes 

“Organizational cultures must be primed to embrace analytics and the use of data in decision making and processes. In last year’s social business report, we found that socially mature organizations integrate social data into decisions and operations.”

3. Business models will reach their sell-by dates more quickly 

“The onus is on leaders to stay ahead of the curve for their industries’ evolving business models.”

[next up: Having looked at hallmarks, we’ll look at roadmaps; how to get from her to there, according to the consultants.]

FURTHER READING

There’s so much great thinking out there about design that it’s hard to do justice to any of them. Some of the articles that kept me company while I was writing this series didn’t necessarily find their way in, but are valuable references. You should check them out:

Johnny Holland, The Democracy of Systems Design

Matt Jones, Gardens and Zoos

Anne Galloway, Seams, Beautiful and Otherwise

ibid, Design in the Parliament of Things (pdf)

Tracing the contours of digital transformation, Part One

I’ve been thinking a lot about transformation since writing about the Museum Full Stack. It’s been a deep rabbit hole and promises to get deeper, since it is so foundational. There have been some interesting reports on organizational change, Janet Carding’s new CODE|WORDS essay on managing change, and essays on the difference between transformation and change. And the steady drumbeat of newspaper articles and opinion pieces on technology in museums. Good times…

By Hanabusa Itchō [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Blind Men and the Elephant” By Hanabusa Itchō [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve titled this series “Tracing the contours of digital transformation” for two reasons. Firstly, because the visceral imagery of tracing contours aptly sums up the process we’re going through:  trying to figure out what digital transformation means for museums.

Like the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, we’re groping after something big, complicated, and unknown, feeling our way around something we can’t yet articulate succinctly. Secondly, it’s a non-technical title because what I’m calling “digital” transformation is, at it’s most fundamental level, not about digital technologies, but about people, mindsets, relationships, and things. I believe that transforming our processes will deliver transformed products more effectively than the brute force method of bleeding all over a bleeding edge product in a traditionally organized institution. Delivering innovative (and even revolutionary) experiences is a lot easier to do from a position of knowing what you are (and aren’t) about.

Koven Smith, in his awesome, infamous “What’s the point of museum websites?” speech from Ignite Smithsonian, compared museum websites to Conestoga wagons, in that each were well-suited to doing their appointed task, but that times had changed and new vehicles were needed. Continuing to build the best Conestoga wagons we could isn’t going to get us there. If you insert “museum” for “museum website”, the analogy still applies. The vehicles we need are museums that have transformed both their people and processes to make use of (not bow down to, or slavishly adopt) digital technologies in every aspect of our work.

The following posts lay out some of my thinking on the subject and should give you a very clear idea of where I stand in late-2015. Hopefully, it will also spur you to share your insights, because that’s one of the ways we get there; by being more transparent in our thinking and exposing the underlying structures of our strategies, frameworks, and processes. Go check out the CMOA’s Innovation Studio if you need an example of what that looks like.

What is digital transformation?

I consider myself blessed to be working in museums during this weird transformational period when museums are starting to change from being pre-digital museums to post-digital museums. It’s a wild ride! It’s also frustrating as hell sometimes. It’s practically a museum rite of passage in some circles; expressing your frustration at your own museums’ lack of progress in digital endeavors, and I’ve can relate to that frustration. It can be hard to see the potential and watch your colleagues taking pioneering, sometimes faltering steps to enter and colonize this strange new realm. These pioneers have now been joined by a host of other museums who have made commitments to digital experimentation and exploration. You can find robots in fashion exhibitions at the Met, and innovative devices like the Pen at the Smithsonian. But as Elaine Gurian laid out in her 2010 paper, “Wanting to Be Third on Your Block”, there is value in not being on the bleeding edge, too. You get to benefit from the pioneers’ and their followers’ knowledge, and learn from their missteps. Being third also makes it easier to skip the “gazing at shiny objects” phase of fascination with new technologies that often result in cultural commentators taking museums to task. This Lee Rosenbaum piece is one of the more balanced examples of the genre.

While there are many innovators out there, there’s still plenty of work to be done to thoughtfully tackle the big issue of digital transformation – how to become what Ross Parry calls a “postdigital museum”, one that has normalized and internalized digital technologies to an extent that they permeate the whole institution and how the institution works. Electricity is critical to our operations, but nobody talks about it anymore. My goal is for us to feel the same way about “digital”.

Electricity CC-BY-NC image by Flickr user Mohammed Hasan

Digital transformation and the post-digital museum

There are currently two schools of thought regarding the merits and pitfalls of having “digital” be a separate entity, given its own departments, heads, and strategy documents. John Stack, formerly at the Tate and now at Science Museum, London is probably the best-known of this group. His Tate Strategy papers, like “Digital as a Dimension of Everything” have been profoundly influential. Others like Ross Parry of UCL have studied the effects of digital adaptation on museums. His paper “The End of the Beginning: Normativity in the Postdigital Museum” (paywall, bleah…) is an instant classic.

On the other hand, there are the people I think of as the Realpolitik group, who argue that as lovely as the vision of being a post-digital museum is, most of us don’t have the resources and wherewithal of the Tate. We just ain’t there yet, and need “digital” as an intermediate step until we reach the promised land and don’t need “digital” people any more. Chad Weinard’s “Digital Strategy, Museum Strategy: On needing both, for now” is probably the most succinct statement of this view. Most of the field falls somewhere in between. The field is full of Chief Digital Officers, Directors of Digital Adaptation, CIOs, CTOs, CXOs, and other change agents who have the unenviable task of trying to remake their museums and deliver transformation. And change is hard.

An illustrative story: When I was a young exhibit developer I had the privilege of having Judy Rand as my first real editor, and one of those mentors who shaped me as a professional. There are few people who have been as profoundly influential in the field of writing for museum audiences as Judy. It’s probably just as well I didn’t know that when Judy was hired to guide us through the process of developing a major international exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci. As part of that process, Judy taught me a great deal about writing in general, and label writing in particular, but the lesson that has been the most useful to me was one about the importance of establishing shared vision of the big idea of the show. She was relentless about making us be clear about what we trying to say, and any time someone would come up with vague, weasely wording that the team could agree on, she’d smack it down hard and make us go back and try again until we had come together enough to embrace a real shared vision, not just an acceptable compromise.

When we’d complain that this was painful (and complain we did), she’d say, “You can have your pain now, or you can have it later, but you can’t not have it. And the longer you put off having that pain, the worse it will be.” And over the succeeding twenty years, I’ve lived out both of those scenarios enough times to know the truth of her words. True transformation is hard, but I am convinced the alternative is worse. Marcia Tucker, the New Museum’s founding director said, “Doing things differently involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”

Give me discomfort now, rather than despair later.

Next up: what have we learned about digital transformation thus far…