Category Archives: Tracing the contours of digital transformation

Useful Dialectics, Part One – Transformation vs. Change

 

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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

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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?

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…