Tag Archives: Strategy

On doing the hard stuff

I spent my last weekend before vacation at Princeton University, taking part in the Museum Computer Network’s Board of Directors Strategy Retreat. It was long, it was painful, it sucked at times, and it was great!

Both signs were apt.

Both signs were apt.

A problem that the Board had been grappling with for some time was that we were feeling a bit unfocused, yet too busy with our jobs to really tackle any of the endemic, intractable problems that any long-lived organization faces. It’s a classic work problem; busyness preventing the concentrated effort required to replace busyness with targeted action. Our regular board calls are always full of agenda items, and our twice yearly meetings are great at surfacing issues, but not at digging into them. So we made the decision to convene an extraordinary board retreat at a location as convenient as possible for as  many directors as possible and lock ourselves in a room until we’d come out with a revised vision for the organization, a list of programs we’d like to see MCN undertake in the next three years, and a series of roadmaps that would help us drive the three top priorities forward. A daunting list!

Here are some takeaways from the event.

Hard stuff can be fun
What I took away from the retreat was that it’s good to feel stretched. The exercise was a classic example of Seymour Papert’s idea of hard fun. While we were at it, we were operating near the limits of our ability. Managing to do the job created a particular type of hard fun that Nicole Lazzarro called fiero, “triumphing over adversity”. The joy of successfully taking on the hard work and making progress against it is intoxicating. Nietzsche defined happiness as “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”

Friday, 10:30 PM. Catching up.

Friday, Midnight. Catching up.

Facilitation matters

Carolyn Royston, the Treasurer of MCN and a stellar facilitator, agreed to take on the formal role of facilitator for the retreat, and it was central to our success to have someone who was only looking at the goals for the event, setting the agenda, keeping us honest, reminding us to be respectful of each other, and encouraging us to keep at it. Too often, I’ve been in meetings and groups where its not clear who’s taking care of the meeting. Carolyn also made it quite clear to us that she could not and would not participate in the event, even though she’s an integral part of the group, because she knew we’d need someone dedicated to the task at hand, not another voice trying to participate. That was a big sacrifice for her, because she’s passionate about the work we do and going it better.

Saturday, 7AM. The Executive Committee plots out the day.

Saturday, 7AM. The Executive Committee plots out the day.

The Executive Committee also took it’s role in shaping the conversation very seriously and was able to be a united front, even when things got messy. We all at various times were called on to jump in and lead a conversation, do a job that suddenly needed to be done, and help facilitate when the discussions got hot and heavy. Each morning we got up stupidly early, so we could go over what we wanted to do that day, and assign roles. Even that little bit of extra effort paid off handsomely. It would’ve been easy to lay the burden entirely on the shoulders of our facilitator, but having the job distributed among five people made it much more doable.

Having the right people in the room

We had previously surveyed a number of past presidents of the organization about our plans, and asked two of them to join us to provide their experience. The fact that they were willing to give up a weekend was impressive. They were able to provide the kind of institutional memory that is always bleeding out of volunteer-run organizations, and we needed it several times when we got lost in our own particular circumstances. Rob Lancefield in particular, a long-time MCN member, was great at having a long duration view and helping us contextualize what we doing. There was no other way we could have known the things they did, so bringing them along essential.

Saturday, 9AM. All brightened and bushy-tailed and ready to work.

Saturday, 9AM. Two ex-Presidents, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and ready to work.

Working smart, and small
With such a huge pile of work and a large group (15) it would’ve been unwieldy to try to do all our work in one large discussion. Carolyn did a great job of using the whole group to set agendas, surface issues, and then divided us up to work on pieces in parallel. We would then reconvene to comment on the work of the small groups and refine, argue, and add.

Saturday, Noon. Breaking down big problems into manageable pieces.

Saturday, Noon. Breaking down big problems into manageable pieces.

Working in small groups and then coming together to discuss really helps.

Working in small groups and then coming together to discuss really helps.

Acknowledging that it’s hard and sucks sometimes is important
One thing I’m surprised by is how many people equate hard with bad. Throughout the weekend, Carolyn reminded the group constantly about the difficulty of trying to do what we were doing. “Why wallow in it?” you might ask. I think it’s important to recognize the difficulty of what you’re doing, and communicate that. Especially when it feels like it’s not working out, having that validation that “This is hard, and its going to be harder, but you can do it.” can make the difference between people buckling down and giving up. It also makes getting it easier to acknowledge the accomplishment of getting through it.

Sunday afternoon. Hitting that point in Day 2 when the wheels feel like they're coming off.

Sunday afternoon. Hitting that point in Day 2 when the wheels feel like they’re coming off.

Sunday 2 PM. Pulling it together in the end. From chaos, order emerges.

Sunday 2 PM. Pulling it together in the end. From chaos, order emerges.

Taking the work seriously and taking yourself seriously aren’t the same thing

If you were wondering what fiero looks like in a professional context, I present Exhibit A. Stay tuned for details about what we’ve got in store. 2017 will be MCN’s 50th anniversary, and the Jubilee Year is going to be great!

Feeling giddy with excitement that we did it! This is my kind of Board of Directors.

Feeling giddy with excitement that we did it! This is my kind of Board.

I’ve got a beef with “content”

Mm, mm, good!

Mm, mm, good!

Content (noun)
the substance or material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style.

late Middle English: from medieval Latin contentum (plural contenta ‘things contained’), neuter past participle of continere (see contain).

Earlier in my career when I developed exhibitions, I grew to loathe the word “content”. This was unfortunate since I used it all the time in writing and speech, and later had it added to my job title. Once, a vendor pitching their mobile app development platform actually used the sentence “Just pour in your content here! We take care of the rest.” I didn’t buy their product.

It’s a classic weasel word, so generic it tells you nothing. It’s a term so flavorless that if you like stories and knowledge and stuff and ideas at all, it’ll sap the joy from you. As part of the commentary on The Andy Warhol Museum’s Digital Strategy repository on GitHub, Seb Chan said “when other industries use the term ‘content’ it means something interchangeable and of short-term value.” Jeff Inscho from the Warhol wrote, “The word doesn’t do museum missions justice and it cheapens the integrity of our subject matter.” I think they’re right. “Content” is the spackle of the digital realm; homogenous, bland, and endless. Just add as much as you need to fill any space!

What we talk about when we talk about content

So that’s my beef with a perfectly good word like content. Partly it’s what Seb and Jeff said, the term implies interchangeable stuff of little value and quality. Looking back, I also felt that “content” as a term was a way of privileging other aspects of a product over what I (and many other content creators) thought of as the meat of any project; the ideas, objects, and experiences that made our work valuable. Granted, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but I just can’t shake the sense that there is something pejorative about content in the contexts we tend to use it in. You can almost see the handwaving that occurs when people talk about “content” as a way of acknowledging its existence while dismissing it so they can get onto the good stuff, be it interface, or aesthetics or hardware.

So, what’s the alternative?

Good question. I don’t think there is a one-to-one synonym that’ll allow us to a global “find and replace” of content. And that’s kind of the point. I think as an abstraction, content is just too diffuse to be useful in many of the contexts in which we use it. While I was thinking about this I went back in the Warhol’s Digital Strategy to see how they’d handled it. Sure enough, content was replaced by different phrases in different places, depending on the context. I think that’s the practice I’m probably going to pursue going forward.

Note to self: If a term is so broad that you immediately have to clarify it with examples, don’t use it.

What is the Museum full stack?

“Stacked Pebbles, Spanish Bay” CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Christopher Chan

Following my post about Agile methodologies in museums, I wandered (as one does on the Internet) to adjacent topics. According to my Scrum Master brother, one of the anti-patterns in museums that makes Agile implementation difficult to fathom is the specialization of roles. Whereas software developers are expected to be familiar with all the layers of code that make up modern software “the full stack”, museum expertise is pretty highly differentiated. Curatorial is separate from interpretation which is separate from collections. It allows for great specialization, but makes it harder to see how all the pieces of museum work can and should fit together to make for great visitor engagement. It makes it hard to even see the digital manifestations of our work as belonging to a single stack, which makes it very hard to develop digital experiences that can take advantage of all the affordances the modern internet provides. It’s a classic wicked problem, where even trying to outline the contours of the issue is hard and changeable. But, those are the problems most worth poking at, right? So I started collecting stacks and looking for similarities, and potential applications.

So I tweeted my question into the ether,

and lo! Answers returned.

Other people are wrestling with the same or similar issues. We decided to have a higher-bandwidth conversation than Twitter allows and scheduled a time to hang out and talk. I had a great lunchtime chat the other day with colleagues in Pittsburgh (Jeff Inscho @staticmade), St. Paul (Bryan Kennedy @xbryanx), and San Diego (Chad Weinard @caw_) about the idea of the museum full stack and how and why to build it.

Part of the problem I think, is that the full stack is hard to comprehend and traditionally hasn’t even been thought of (outside of IT circles) as a data ecosystem, but rather as a series of disconnected systems, owned and operated by separate departments, with parochial concerns. Certainly my own experience with developing digital experiences reflects that. This is also partly an historical artifact. A lot of these systems probably can trace their lineages back to when they were separate, discrete systems that possessed little or no ability to interoperate. The Internet has wrecked that isolation, as it has so many other things. Time to build a new perception of the museum data ecosystem and say goodbye to the days when IT owned this piece, and that piece was Collections’ worry. The reality is much more interconnected.

Cooper Hewitt’s stack

A lot of the impetus for me starting this conversation was a post by Seb Chan about the Cooper Hewitt’ API, their stack and it’s centrality to their vision. It starts with the museum’s two “sources of truth”, the repositories of the two kinds of data that the Cooper Hewitt relies on; data about objects, and data about visitors. Go read the whole thing. It’s worth it. I immediately resonated with the graphic on several levels. We use some of the same systems, and have been wrestling with the same kinds of ideas around providing visitors with personalized experiences. I’m particularly interested in representing the abundance of information in collections, and it’s hard to do that in the dominant paradigm of “search”.

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

Mitchell Whitelaw

Cooper Hewitt’s stack, image by Katie Shelly

Cooper Hewitt’s approach of using the full stack approach makes it possible for them to provide visitors with multiple entry points into the collection through interactive experiences, what Mitchell Whitelaw would call more “generous interfaces”.  I find it hard to perceive any other way to do that without stepping back and looking at the full stack, seeing the forest through the trees as it were.

Here are a few of the other things that came up in our chat.

Objects, Experiences, People

Cooper Hewitt’s stack is a great model because it’s suitably specific. Their model would not likely be your model or anybody else’s, for that matter. The systems they rely on, and the staff expertise they bring to bear are unique. So their “two sources of truth” might not be yours. As Bryan pointed at, at his museum, Science Museum of Minnesota, they are as focused on the experiences they build as they are on the objects they use to populate some of those experiences. They are fundamental to the museum’s operation and incorporate content and ideas that don’t neatly fit in either source of truth. They’re not about objects, per se. For them, the experience is a truth that needs its own source. Cooper Hewitt doesn’t, but the Rijksmuseum might classify visitors’ digital creations as a separate source of truth, related to, yet distinct from the CMS or CRM systems. You get the idea?… At its most basic, atomic level, we want to be able to store, retrieve, and connect people, objects, and experiences.

What I find powerful about looking at the full stack of software platforms and services, is that it frees you from the mental constraint of the gallery, or the webpage. When you frame is an exhibition, everything looks like a kiosk. Same for good ole’ Web 1.0. The answer is usually a microsite or a web portal.

Monolithic systems break badly

Another issue that came up was the desire in some parts (often, but not always, administration) to create monolithic systems that will take care of everything. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably run into vendors whose products will take care of all your digital needs. Their systems promise to be flexible, scalable, and easy to use (usually through the use of predefined templates). All your content will be seamlessly pushed to the destination of your choice, be it the exhibit hall or the Web. And though they may perform a lot of these functions, the reality is that they more often than not A) don’t deliver, and B) wind up becoming a straightjacket as the system ages, new systems join the ecosystem, and contracts/service agreements expire. As monolithic systems age, they don’t age gracefully, and when (not if) they break, they break badly.

Loose connections

That’s another place where designing systems and services that use the full stack is useful. The real power in  looking at the entire data ecosystem is that a hierarchy of linked systems can be loosely connected through APIs, assuming your stack layers are built on and use APIs. A break in any one of these loose connections is unlikely to bring your whole ecosystem crashing down, and the fix to one piece need not require an overhaul of the whole system. A stack that relies on APIs can be much more friendly to new platforms being integrated into the stack. The downside is that creating and managing this kind of ecosystem requires staff resources that are different than the resources needed to maintain one monolithic system, or a series of unconnected ones. And museums tend to privilege depth of knowledge over breadth, even in digital roles.

To that end I tried to put together a possible statement of what PEM’s stack looks like/could look like. I invite you  take a look. Add your own stack, too if you feel so inclined. Just make a new tab in the spreadsheet.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1A4al28YCZnpSn4Dl8ew2v2cmffc1ViIcbCWxwE6AVq8/edit#gid=1399901573

Things I loved about MCN 2013

Montreal Panorama Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Nov 24th, YUL-> BOS

I am strangely energized and exhausted, yawning and unable to stop writing. I’ve got just enough money left to get home and hopefully enough juice in the iPad and phone to keep writing this. It seems my resources and energy were just enough to get me through five incredibly fruitful days. Such are the perils of attending the Museum Computer Network conference. If you’re looking for the place where museums, innovation and creativity collide, it seems to be the place to go.

I have been trying to tie up the third part of a series of posts on “issues” that are not the real issue. Part One dealt with “immersion” and Part Two with “experience” and “participation”. The last part of Tilting at Windmills is gonig to deal with picture taking in museums, selfies as likes, and photos as signs of affection and affiliation. But I’m all MCN right now, and there’s a lot to digest and share, so the selfies will have to wait.

The coming year
My first order of business was the annual meeting of the MCN Board of Dircetors, which welcomed aboard a crop of new faces that’s a veritable Who’s Who of digital museum pros. Heady company to keep and a dynamite group of thinkers and doers. Generally I think it’s next to impossible to get anything creative done in groups of more than six, but this bunch of seventeen is an exception. The strategy for the coming year was laid out, issues identified, and volunteers recruited to tackle them with remarkable ease and real thoughtful debate. It was grueling work, but boy was I proud to see how much we got done in our half day together.

MCN's 2014 strategy appears, one Post-It at a time...

MCN’s 2014 strategy appears, one Post-It at a time…

Stay tuned for details in the next few months of MCN’s plans for the year, like the next incarnation of our MCNPro professional development series. Also, I seem to have volunteered to become the conference co-chair for next year in Dallas, with Morgan Holzer. Eep!

Having overcomitted myself (again), I didn’t attend any of the workshops and spent the day polishing my talks, and having long, intense conversations. My first conference event was getting to the Ignite talks, an innovation introudced last year which has quickly become an anchor of the whole conference. If you’re not familiar with the format, look here. It’s short, it requires precision, and you can’t screw up and go back – in short you’re presenting without a net. It’s a sign of how supportive the community is that this kind of event would

Not taking yourself too seriously
One thing I love about the MCN community and the museum digital tribe in general is their ability to ability to take the work seriously without taking themselves seriously. It’s a subtle, but crucial distinction to maintaining a positive, creative output, and it’s often easy to confuse the two. Not here, though. The opening night of Ignite talks, The Herbie Hancock Layer of Chaos, and the official MCN Karaoke night all contribute to a loose, irreverent vibe that makes MCN unlike other conferences.

Don Undeen introduces Suse Cairns to the Digital Humanities Unicorn, official meme of MCN 2013.

Don Undeen introduces Suse Cairns to the Digital Humanities Unicorn, official meme of MCN 2013. Yes, DH Unicorn is wearing Google Glass. Duh…

Ignite talks
Once again, the conference got off to roaring start, thanks to Koven Smith’s work assembling a disparate group of Ignite talks that ranged from farcical to poignant. Watch them all, but particularly Tim Svenonius’s “Hunting, Gathering and Recollecting”, Douglas Hegley’s “Technology: WTF!” and Simone Wicha’s “Does Performance Matter?”. I’m particularly glad to see more senior museum leaders like Simone attending MCN and sharing their insights on our shared endeavor. It gives me hope for our future as a profession. The rock and roll atmosphere, the performative aspect of watching your colleagues, and obvious passion and hard work that speakers put into their presentations is a perfect appetizer for the coming days.

Keynote
Tina Roth Eisenberg, graphic designer and the person behind the Swiss Miss design blog, delivered an amazingly inspiring, funny keynote that was a great opening paean to the power of not being stuck doing one thing. The noted graphic designer spent no time talking about her “main” business, instead telling us about the co-working space she started, her designer temporary tattoo shop, and the importance of having confetti drawers and dress up clothes at work. I totally wanted to quit my job, move to New York and work for Tina by the time she was done.

Video, video, video
After the experience of videoing select sessions last year, we decided to record every session this year, and the results are impressive, I think. MCN’s YouTube video channel is turning into a meaty repository of good thinking. Another great addition to the archive was addition of Museopunks to the mix.  This podcast series, started by Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho, has quickly become a great place to eavesdrop on fascinating discussions about current issues in museums. Check it out. They ran a series of special episodes throughout the conference and these were videoed as well.

Inclusion, engagement, openness
The Board has spent a lot of time over the past year talking about inclusion, and broadening participation in the organization. It was gratifying to see all the ways that played out at the conference.  We were able to offer more scholarships than ever, thanks to sponsorship from Google. Twelve professionals who wouldn’t have made it otherwise were able to attend and that’s worth celebrating. The speed networking event, sort like of like speed dating for professionals, was great fun and a chance to meet people you might not otherwise talk to. Next year, I think it should move to earlier in the conference so you can benefit more from it. I also spent some great time with the chairs of the Special Interest Groups (SIGs), who for years have quietly nurtured their own smaller MCN communities. The Board and the SIG chairs have been working more closely together and the fruits of that could be seen in the creation of three new SIGs right there at the conference.

The power of asking people
Last year I convened a Directors’ Roundtable at MCN as a way to bring new voices into our conversations.  When I proposed it, I was fearful of how much work it was going to be to get busy museum directors to come. It was a bit of shock to find out that it wasn’t really all that hard.  Most of the directors I asked, said either, “I can’t make it at that time, but thanks!” or “Hmm, sounds interesting! OK.” The reason they weren’t at the conference was that they’d never been asked and nobody had ever explained the value proposition to them.  This year, one of the sessions I organized was on immersion, and Robin White Owen and I tried the same tack.  We asked filmmakers, game designers, theatre people, and curators to come talk about what they thought of immersion in their medium.  And again, most of the people we talked to said yes, or no because they couldn’t afford the trip. Despite a couple of last-minute surprises with people not being able to come, it was a great session and a fascinating discussion I wouldn’t get to have at work.  Here’s the video. 

Conferences as classrooms
One practice I’ve developed over the years is to treat conference sessions like classes I want to take that don’t (yet) exist. I identify the topic I’m interested in, and the people I’d like to learn from, and try to figure out how to get them to teach me about their subject.  This year, I was particularly interested in issues of openness and authority around museum digital content, so I put together a session with people who’d already been through successful open projects. I got to take advantage of the combined wisdom of Ryan Dodge, Heidi Quicksilver, and Merete Sanderhoff in one fell swoop. And, as so often happens, Merete taught me a lesson in being the kind of professional I aspire to be. After tentatively agreeing to come, she realized she couldn’t make it. Too many deadlines, too little money. So, she offered to record a video presentation of what she would’ve talked about, and even agreed to be available via Skype during the session if I wanted. In other words, all of the work of presenting, and almost none of the benefit of being at the conference. And her presentation was a high-quality, real video production, not just her sitting at her computer. Generosity is a hallmark of this community , but even for us, this was humbling. Thanks, Merete!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wHPtamoTOc

Being present at the birth of something good
Keeping with the “open” theme, I also emceed a session on “Defining Open Authority” put together by the inimitable Lori Phillips. It was a great of theory and practice, both big picture and very detailed. Lori continues to refine her ideas around “Open Authority” and has put enough of a framework around it to make it a useful tool for anyone considering issues around intellectual access to museum content. Porchia Moore problematized the very definition of authority as it pertains to minorities, and Elizabeth Bollwerk and Jeffrey Inscho added a pile of great case studies of how these concepts actually play out in real museums with real people. It felt a lot like the beginning of something bigger than a conference presentation, and judging from the Q&A afterwards, the audience felt similarly.  I look froward to seeing what happens next. Here’s Lori’s slides. When I find the video, I’ll post that, too.

The sign of a good session: the speakers table is rockin' with folks asking more questions.

The end of a good session: the speakers table is rockin’ with folks asking more questions.

Looking forward:
Dallas 2014 is going to have it’s work cut out for it, and Morgan and I already started the discussions about the program before the conference even ended.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on how we might improve the conference next year!

See you at next year's MCN mega metaselfie?

See you at next year’s MCN mega metaselfie?

BTW, that’s Jeffry Inscho behind me.  Have you read his reflection on MCN2013? “On Professional Spirit Animals” speaks my mind when it comes to how MCN feels to me.

What questions would you ask your director about museums & digital technologies?

It’s almost time for the Museum Computer Network conference to begin and in a few short days, I’ll be on my way to Seattle.

On November 10th, I’ll be moderating a roundtable discussion with four directors, about what they see as the pressing issues for the museum field when it comes to digital technologies and what we all do. We will explore themes that emerge, and open it up to questions from the floor, and hopefully everybody will come away something useful. All the details are here.

The session is an outcome of a long Twitter conversation I blogged about months ago on the need for broadening the scope of the conversation about digital technologies, instead of just talking endlessly in our comfortable peer groups. It’s also a testament to the MCN Program Committee’s flexibility that they found a spot in the program for this session even though it grew up organically outside the session proposal mechanism.

I am very excited to sit down with group and hear what they think. I’m hoping for some lively discussion amongst the panelists and with the audience, but I’d like to include some voices from the wider world. So I have a question for you.

If you could ask a group of forward-thinking museum directors a question about the intersection of digital technologies and museum work, what would that question be?

I will be collecting responses all week, and will try to make sure they get asked in Seattle!