Tag Archives: Greg Albers

Useful Dialectics, Part Four – Literacy vs. fluency

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

The New Media Consortium “Horizon Report: 2016 Museum Edition

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

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

Literacy 

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

According to Wikipedia,

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

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

Stop kicking the can down the road

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

Building literacy takes a village…

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

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

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

…and some guile

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

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

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

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

Fluency 

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

Literacy, literacy. Which Literacy?

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

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

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

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

Either/Or vs. Both/And

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

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

 

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

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Highlights from MCN 2014

I’ve been meaning to write up a recap of my experience at MCN 2014 for some time, but am only now getting around to unearthing my notes and pictures.

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I was one of the conference program co-chairs, along with Morgan Holzer from NYPL, and had spent the better part of 2014 getting ready for this party to start. And one of the biggest takeaways I had was that I find it harder to be in the moment when I’ve had a hand in setting up the program. Like the host at a party worrying if the guests are having a good time, I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between sessions, poking into workshops, and constantly taking the pulse of the conference to see if there was anything that needed doing. And it felt good to have care of the event in that way, but it was very different than just being there as an attendee. In many ways, this was the perfect bookend to my visit to MW 2012, when I didn’t go to any sessions and just sat in the lobby of the conference hotel for a day. So, what was the 30,000 foot view like?

Conference Highlights

If you want a quick promo for the conference, check out this snazzy highlight video.

For the Record…

MCN has been getting more and more into capturing and disseminating video of presentations and I actually find myself going back to them in ways I didn’t think I would a couple of years ago. The MCN YouTube channel is worth a visit. Papers rarely capture the performative aspects of a public reading, slide decks are usually woefully incomplete, and neither capture the dialogue that occurs. So I’m glad that the investment in video continues to grow and hope you find it useful to your work.

Ignite on-site

The first night Ignite talks have become one of the cornerstones of the MCN conference. They deliver a jolt of energy to the proceedings that is hard to beat. The format is a tough one, and the hardy souls who volunteer to do it are inspirations to us all. Normally, we’ve had to go off-site to find a venue that is set up with a stage, the right AV system, booze, and the ability to accommodate a couple hundred people. Luckily, this year we didn’t have to pile into buses and go to a bar.  One of the most unusual features of the Fairmont Dallas hotel as a conference venue was the Venetian Room. Think early 1970s glitz, and you’ve got it.

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

Robert Goulet was the first performer to grace the stage, Sonny and Cher played there, Ike and Tina Turner, etc. And it was right in the building!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

Two presentations really stood out for me. Max Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art (you should follow him on Twitter if you don’t already) delivered a no-holds-barred talk on how art museum directors think. It was full of insight into the issues directors are faced with, and especially cutting in regard to how they view digital technologies and staff who want to innovate. If you’ve wondered “What does my director really think about?” check it out.

Greb Albers from the Getty had the unenviable job of batting cleanup (going last for you non-baseball fans) and not only gave a great performance, but gave the conference it’s first (and most inspirational) meme. For the rest of the conference, I heard people exhorting each other to “be tugboats”. Watch the talk, you’ll get it.

The Keynote

 Lance Weiler, filmaker, writer, teacher, and incredibly promiscuous collaborator gave a great, provoking keynote on storytelling and technology, drawn almost entirely from his own impressive body of work. If you haven’t seen works like Bear 71, you really should. Incredible stuff. The whole talk is worth a watch.

One of the most interesting parts of his talk was the “Five Times Why” exercise he made all 400 people do. Everyone was given cards, pencils and told to find a partner they didn’t know. They would then ask them the question “Why are you here?” five times, record each answer and then write a summary of why that person had come. Then they’d switch roles. It was a great ice breaker! As an unintended bonus, we collected all the cards and spent part of the last day coding the responses. Some very interesting insights will help us with next year’s conference.

The Layer of Chaos and the joy of HOMAGO

One of the things I like most about museum technology events is that they tend to be HOMAGO kinds of affairs.If you’re not familiar with the term, HOMAGO stands for Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, and is an experiential learning theory expounded by Mimi Ito, and popular in digital media and learning circles. It’s social, peer-oriented, and interest-driven. HOMAGO is generally used in youth experience contexts to describe the ways they make sense out of the constantly evolving sea of new ways to be and create that digital media present. I think that same spirit underlies both the formal *and* informal making opportunities that MCN provides to attendees. Our demographic may be a bit older, but the phenomenon feels the same to me.

The energy in the workshops was great to see. People learned to use microontrollers and sensors and actually make physical stuff.

The Arduino workshop

The Arduino workshop

The conference workshops certainly had that spirit, but the Layer of Chaos, MCN’s three year-old collaboration with New Mexico Highlands University and the Parachute Factory makerspace, really embodies that spirit and runs with it. Part artist residency, part drop-in program, part adult fun night, the Layer of Chaos has it all. Great peer-to-peer opportunities to engage with new technologies, lots of alcohol-aided socializing, and can-do experimentation that is a great creative lubricant. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for Minneapolis this November. This year’s theme, the MuseTech Shipwreck, was partly my fault, so I got the task of welcoming attendees to the opening of the Layer of Chaos. There were interactive light and sound installations, an visitor-operated barrel of rum (you had to hit a target with retrofitted light guns fr old consoles) and a dancing skeleton made from a pico projector, ultrasonic humidifier and a bunch of drinking straws.

The High and the Low Tech

William Gibson wrote that “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” And that was in evidence at MCN. There were the obligatory high tech devices, like the Beam telepresence robot I got to test drive around the Exhibit Hall. But there were also great examples of low tech solutions. Google Cardboard, their “turn your Android phone into a 1970s Viewmaster” was a surprisingly successful product. Even with an iPhone, I was able to enjoy most of the experience, and get a sense of the kinds of things we can expect to see from the Google Cultural Institute Lab in Paris.

Look, ma! I'm a robot!

Look, ma! I’m a robot!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet.  Genius!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet. Genius!

It’s the future in here!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

 Most random moment

I was in the Exhibit Hall and turned around to see Leo, Douglas, Loic, and Don talking. Nothing unusual there, except Don was actually in France, not Dallas, and was using a telepresence robot to hang out with us. That kinda stuff happens at MCN. You should come this year. It’ll be a blast!

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

3 folks in Dallas, one in France