Tag Archives: change

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!

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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 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

Vision, Desire, Attitude, and Focus

I’m stuck in them midst of rewrites to my thesis and too preoccupied to write much. But in spite of this I’ve had two competing ideas banging round in my head for the past week, and it seems they might be related.  How does transformation occur? What are the prerequisites necessary for a person or an institution to embrace new ways? I have four suggestions; Vision, Desire, Attitude, and Focus.

As part of the Museum Computer Network’s Program Committee, I’ve been part of some fascinating discussions about what the theme of this year’s conference should be. A constant theme has been the idea of “change” and museums’ response to it. This sense that museums should be doing something they’re not is persistent and I think a bit off the mark.

Change ain’t necessarily a good thing

Minot Light, Blizzard of 1978, from Flickr user cliff1066™

My beef with “change” as the term to define our discourse about the future is that change is value-neutral. The people who embrace it think of it as a positive thing, but to the rest of the world, that connotation is not obvious. Doing our job better or in some new medium obviously is a change. But death is a change, as is going bankrupt, getting fired, or becoming irrelevant. So, what is it that change agents mean when they say “change”? Is it evolution, moving from one adaptation to an environment to a newer, hopefully better adaptation to a new environment? I tend to think it is a desire to embrace the possibilities offered by new modalities, with the related desire to express our enduring values in new ways as well as in the traditional ones.

Seeing new ways forward
One way that change could express itself is in rethinknig our notion of temporality.  There’s a great article Allison Arieff wrote for the New York Times blog called “It’s Time to Rethink ‘Temporary’” that focuses on “temporary” architecture, but is easily applicable to museums with very little alteration. Liz Neely pointed out that if you change “buildings” to “museums” in the following quote, you get a pretty powerful statement about another way museums might act in this century.

“Kronenburg made a compelling argument that the experimentation inherent in such structures challenges preconceived notions about what buildings can and should be. The strategy of temporality, he explained, ‘adapts to unpredictable demands, provides more for less, and encourages innovation.’”

Embracing impermanence is one way we might approach our work differently.  There are obviously many more examples. But in order for any of them to be more than just “change” – doing something different – they need to be deliberate. In order to know how to adapt, you need to first understand what’s going on, and second, what you value – what are those things that you will carry forward with you. Then you can embrace whatever new methods you choose and do it deliberately.

Bushwhacking your desire path

Desire path, by Flickr user Kake Pugh

The future is unknown territory so how do you see a way forward, institutionally or personally, knowing it’ll follow an unpredictable path? In my post on the New Media Consortium retreat I mentioned Susan Metros’ Six minute talk on leadership and career paths. Check it out here.  All of the videos are worth watching.

What I found valuable about her talk was her advice us to think about leadership not in abstract terms but in very concrete ones. She encouraged us to ask two questions, “What do you value?” and “What influences you?” and find answers to those questions. Knowing these things gives you the ability to look at the lay of the land with its constructed paths, and see where you want to go and how you might plot a straighter course to it and blaze a trail or bushwhack your way to it. The question becomes how to learn to see not only what’s there, but what’s not there that might be desirable, and then to embrace that.

As I was thinking about those two questions, it became clear that one thing that absolutely influences me is my professional network. While I was turning this question of change over in my head, two people I am often influenced by posted about eerily similar topics.  Both of them expressed, in their own ways, many of the traits and attitudes I value.

The attitudes of innovators
Jasper Visser just put out an interesting post on the attitudes of innovative people and organizations, and it’s worth reading and seeing how you and your institution stack up. He ends with the following;

“Even if you don’t want to be at the forefront of your industry (all the time), your organisation and its people need to have the right attitude towards changes in the environment, such as a new social network suddenly popping up.”

And what are some of those attitudes? His beginning list includes:

  • Readiness to experiment. Even though not always actively innovating an entire industry, they are at least regularly trying new things and testing ideas.
  • Sharing. Almost all keep blogs or write regular guest posts about their work, and talk about it at conferences, opening up their work to constructive criticism.
  • Changing partnerships. Working together with completely different partners on different projects ensures a constant stream of fresh ideas.
  • Great people. Quite often the great stuff happens when a number of great people get together, “great” meaning people who are open to ideas of others, passionate and full of creativity and energy.
  • Focus on the customer. Every single great museum focused at least as much on the experience of the visitor, reaching and engaging them, as on their collection or stories.”

What does it take to be that person?
Lynda Kelly was apparently having a stimulating time at the “21st Century Learning in Natural History Settings” conference in D.C. because she wrote about her concept of a “guerilla-in-residence” – a more appealing vision of what we used to hear referred to as “change agents”. She posited a list of qualities, which include;

a guerilla-in-residence should:

  • Ask “Where’s the data?”
  • Have evidence-based discussions
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Look at absurdities
  • Hang on like a dog with a bone, be tenacious
  • Look for opportunities to mentor.
  • Be able to both follow and lead
  • Surround oneself with young people or positive people!
  • Show respect – be a thanker, get back to others

The full list is worth the read. It’s short.

The Internet is an incurable condition

Plugs, by Flickr user Brad.K

So how does this relate to digital media? Janet Carding pointed me at a piece Alexandra Samuel wrote for The Atlantic recently called “’Plug In Better’: A Manifesto” that states that “The trick isn’t to unplug from our devices — it’s to unplug from the distractions, information overload, and trash that make us unhappy.”

I wrote earlier about dealing with cognitive loads, and her article is dead on. Particualrly where it comes to new media and how museums respond to it, we seem to still be very fear-based. Most of the people I encounter react to technological change, and grudgingly. What I like about Samuel’s article is that she proposes four attitudes to adopt to counter this and approach the digital not from a place of fear. Her main advice is to unplug from four things;

  • Fear of Missing Out,
  • Disconnection,
  • Information overload,
  • The shallows.

You’ll have to read the whole thing to see her reasoning, but it’s worth it.  Her statement at the end is pretty brilliant.

“The Internet is an incurable condition — but we can’t recognize that as good news until we find a way to treat the various aches and pains of life online.

“We plug back in because this new online world offers extraordinary opportunities for creation, discovery, and connection. We plug back in because we don’t actually want to escape the online world: We want to help create it.”

Which brought back around to a quote used to keep taped to my monitor from Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, “Creating culture is always more rewarding than consuming it.”  And how do we create that new world? Vision, Desire, Attitude, and Focus.