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Museums and the Web

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Blow Up Your Digital Strategy: Changing the Conversation about Museums and Technology

Robert Stein, Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA


How much storage will your museum need in the next five years? What is the best way to leverage electronic media and social networks to engage new museum audiences? When should we invest in a new online collection or a new website?  These questions and many more plague museum technology professionals who are struggling to justify the investments in technology and staff that leverage these tools for the best purposes of the museum. The creation of Digital Strategy documents for museums seems to be a common approach to addressing these concerns, attempting to insert thoughtful planning and strategic thinking about technology into the conversation at a senior management level. While it’s hard to argue with the logic of developing a step-by-step plan for technology investment, is it possible that by ghettoizing technology strategy to a realm apart from the larger strategy of the museum, we will only succeed in highlighting the perceived gaps that exist between technology issues and those of real importance and permanence for the future of museums?

Keywords: digital strategy, technology strategy, museum administration, professional development, mission, strategic planning, metrics

How much storage will your museum need in the next five years? What is the best way to leverage electronic media and social networks to engage new museum audiences? When should we invest in a new online collection or a new website?  These questions and many more plague museum technology professionals who are struggling to justify the investments in technology and staff that leverage these tools for the best purposes of the museum.

At the same time, many report that museum directors are often unreceptive to embracing new technology projects and slow to adapt to changing practices in contemporary online culture. The job of a museum technologist has become increasingly challenging in the past several years as more and more museums adopt any number of technologies, and with them, new methodologies to enhance their operations and the experiences of their visitors. All the while, the pace of technology continues on a relentless march forward with no end in sight. In the face of this pressure, and with a desire to make a difference in our museums, many museum technologists are put in an awkward spot. While the status quo may be changing, communications are further complicated by the fact that most museum technologists are not represented among the senior management in their museums.

The creation of Digital Strategy documents for museums seems to be a common approach to addressing these concerns, attempting to insert thoughtful planning and strategic thinking about technology into the conversation at a senior management level. While it’s hard to argue with the logic of developing a step-by-step plan for technology investment, is it possible that by ghettoizing technology-strategy to a realm apart from the larger strategy of the museum and conversations at the senior leadership level, we will only succeed in highlighting the perceived gaps that exist between technology issues and those of real importance and permanence for the future of museums? What makes us think that the digital strategy is even worth the paper it’s printed on?  Although it may be heresy to ask, should we consider that museums don’t need a digital strategy at all?

1.     An all-too-familiar tale

Let’s start from first principles. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that by “digital strategy,” we refer to a permanent document, created by the technology staff of a museum, that is intended to act as a strategic guide for how technology will be acquired and planned for over the course of several years. There are a number of valid reasons why museum technologists feel the need to create such a document. But does such a document meet the needs of museums, and how can it serve the underlying goals of the museum technologist? To make the discussion a bit more concrete, it might be helpful to center our discussion on a fictional example.

The Fairport Art Museum is a mid-sized museum in the lovely seaside town of Fairport. Founded in 1923 by generous members of the community, the Fairport has grown to become an important cultural institution in its region.  Ensconced in a thriving mid-Atlantic metropolitan area, the museum’s membership and attendance have remained steady in the recent past, and through thoughtful management of their fiscal resources, the Fairport has managed to escape the recent economic downturn relatively unscathed. Although visited by only 10% of its surrounding population each year, the Fairport has a robust schedule of classes and public programs that are well loved by the people who attend them.

Chip Bitman has been the Fairport’s Director of Technology since 2002. Since then, Chip has seen a lot of changes inside the museum and in the technology he’s called on to manage. Like most IT directors, Chip’s background is not in museums. Rather, he started his career as a network support engineer at a local insurance company. After moving up the ranks at the insurance company, Chip began to feel that a career helping to sell insurance was starting to feel a little hollow. Imagine his delight when he saw the Fairport Art Museum’s listing for a director of Technology! 

Since 2002, Chip has done a good job modernizing the museum’s IT systems. He maintains a solid email platform, has a working backup and retention policy for the museum’s important data, and even managed to get the museum’s collection management system to connect to its website. Still, Chip feels that the Fairport could do much more with technology. He longs for the support and enthusiasm of the museum’s director for the projects he proposes, but is frequently met by skepticism and a lack of funding for what are inevitably expensive endeavors.

In an effort to try and build support for these efforts, and to help the rest of the museum understand why these technology projects are important for the Fairport, Chip decides that a Digital Technology Strategy is just what he needs. Armed with fresh determination and hopeful optimism, Chip begins writing his magnum opus. After several weeks of work, the finished document is a thing of beauty. Graphs and charts illustrate the rate at which the museum is consuming digital storage. Diagrams show how his small team can successfully install a wireless network in every gallery of the museum.  To top it off, Chip cites a slew of reports from technology brain-trusts that illustrate for senior management how quickly technology is changing and why—without a digital strategy—the Fairport is doomed to the technical equivalent of the dark ages. With a spring in his step and a hopeful heart, Chip walks upstairs from his office next to the machine room and hand-delivers the report to the museum’s chief finance officer, his boss, and representative to the senior management.

Meanwhile, in the administrative suite near the entrance of the museum, John Shepherd, the Fairport’s director and CEO, has just gotten off the phone with members of the museum’s Board of Governors. John has been director of the Fairport since 2008. He replaced a long-serving predecessor who was well-loved by the community and the board. As a curator of European decorative arts, John’s decision to leave New York for a position at the Fairport had been difficult, but the opportunity was a good one, and the Fairport has an amazing collection of Chinese export porcelain that had really captured his attention.

Since his arrival, John has been successful at beginning to build an appreciation for the museum among the local community. He has built strong relationships with the Board and local city government. He’s managed to weather a tough economy and still retain most of the museum’s modest endowment. He has a talented staff, and most days he feels that he’s doing a good job.  Although he won’t admit it, there are days he wonders if leaving New York was a mistake. He wishes again for the opportunity to write, research, and focus on building a fine collection.  That being said, John really does believe in the Fairport Art Museum as an important place in the community and thinks that there must be better ways to build an appreciation for the museum’s collection among residents of the city.

John appreciates Chip and the job he does to keep information flowing in the museum, but he is sometimes confused by Chip’s enthusiasm for new gadgets. Every once in a while, when Chip begins to explain the newest project of the IT department, John feels himself beginning to glaze over. It’s not that he doesn’t value technology or the hard work that Chip and team are devoting to the museum, but rather he has a nagging feeling that somewhere between acronyms he must be missing some important nuance about why this all really matters.  John reads about peers in other museums who are having important successes using technology and wonders why the Fairport can’t manage to do the same.  Maybe if they just tried something new and innovative, they could begin to gain a little traction in the community and perhaps even garner a little press attention themselves!

Joan Goodpenny was returning to her office from a meeting with the museum’s chief development officer about contributed revenue projections for the next fiscal year when she met Chip in the hallway.  Joan has served as chief finance officer for the Fairport since 2002. She hired Chip soon after she arrived at the museum and is glad to have him at the helm of the museum’s technology efforts for two reasons. First, Chip is a solid guy and has been a reliable advocate for IT since he started. Second, if Chip wasn’t around, the day-to-day operations of IT would fall to her, and adding one more spinning plate to the mix would likely result in disaster!

Joan knew that Chip had been up to something lately, so she wasn’t surprised when he delivered a draft of his technology strategy on her desk. She knows that the museum’s director is itching to see some dynamic technology advancements made in the museum, and so she’s eager to see what Chip has come up with. As she thumbs through the plan, it’s evident that Chip has put a lot of work into the document.  His graphs and charts carefully outline the need to invest in IT resources to carry the museum forward. His reasoning certainly seems impressive. Joan has seen reports like this before, and this one certainly looks thorough and complete. As Chip’s direct supervisor, it’s Joan’s responsibility to bring this strategy to senior management and to advocate for Chip’s work within the museum.

It’s certainly a good plan—clear, well documented, and appropriately detailed—but Joan still feels a little bit unsure of how it will fly with the larger group. While she understands the basics of the plan, Joan would never claim to be a technology expert. Given the state of the museum’s budget, it’s hard to see how they could ever come up with enough money to fund the strategy in the way Chip has envisioned. The bus is already full. All the seats are taken. In order to move forward with technology, Joan and John will need to decide what they need to stop doing. She cringes at the thought of presenting that idea to the management team. How on earth will she convince them to give up their own initiatives for the sake of a technology plan?

The story about John, Chip, and Joan might be just that—a story. But, it echoes a situation talked about annually at museum technology conferences. Certainly, the situation for each technology director will be slightly different, but there are some important corollaries and approaches to digital strategy to consider here that apply to each of us.

2.     Anchor technology within the larger strategies of the museum

Each of us who works in technology could choose with relative ease a career path outside of museums. However, we choose to be a part of an organization with a mission that’s different than the variety of commercial options we might have.  Rather than creating a strategy for technology adoption that stands on its own apart from the larger strategies of the museum, we should be among the first to see how technology can yield results for the museums’ larger goals. It’s all too easy, however, to get caught up in what museum technology should look like and what efforts must be a part of a successful museum.

Many museum technologists feel that our museums can make better use of the technical resources available to us, but at the same time they fail to win support for those plans as part of a larger budgeting process.  Creating a separate plan for technology—apart from the larger strategy of the museum—only serves to ghettoize those efforts from the truly mission-critical efforts of the museum. Technology for its own sake is like a hammer: a wonderful tool capable of building great things, but at the end of the day, just a hammer. It is better to identify how technology plans and efforts can add fuel to the fires already burning inside the museum. A technology cost that is indispensable to collections, content, research, or education is no longer only a technology expense, but one that enhances and supports the larger goals of the museum.

3.     Communication barriers exist between museum administrators and technologists

It was clear from our story that Chip, Joan, and John each have a very different set of professional experiences. While they share an appreciation for each other’s roles in the museum, they’re not quite on the same page. They would each agree that communication barriers exist between them. Such an obvious statement might be easy to overlook, but recognizing that communication barriers do exist between the decision makers in museums and their technology staff is a critical point to consider. Since most senior administrators in museums do not have a background in technology management, explaining the concepts and strategy in a detailed technology document becomes all the more difficult.  Consider at the same time that most technology professionals didn’t enter that profession because they were great communicators.  The all-too-familiar stereotype of the computer nerd buried in the basement next to the server room is sometimes uncomfortably close to the truth. Even so, the barrier that exists is self-evident, and the responsibility falls on the museum technologist to communicate technical concepts clearly and without the professional jargon that we so easily fall into.

Again, an honest effort to explain how technology can result in tangible benefits for the museum’s core strategies will help align what you’re proposing with the deliverables those senior executives are responsible for delivering.  The key is skipping the technical details and focusing on what will change as a result. Communication in layers will help keep attention focused on the crucial reasons why what you’re proposing is required.  Explain the high-level concept first, plan for how your audience can ask questions, go a little deeper, and repeat.

“The really important reason why we need to plan for more storage now is …”

“If you’re interested, I can tell you more about how we’re currently storing data or about how we test our backups …”

“If we choose not to do this, then the following will likely happen…”

4.     The pace of technology change is misaligned with the fiscal cycles of museums

In a climate in which new technology platforms emerge on a weekly basis, there is a dramatic mismatch between the cycle of technology and the annual fiscal planning cycles that exist for most museums. While Chip realizes that the pace of technology change is a crucial challenge for him to address in order to be successful at his job, a hefty digital technology plan is not the solution to that problem.

In most museums, every little bit of fat has already been trimmed from the budget, and the list of potential projects for which to fundraise is a long one. The costs associated with many technology projects mean that in most cases they will need to displace an existing effort in order to be funded. The clever IT director will need to build support and acceptance of such projects with a diverse set of stakeholders who may not share his or her opinions. Sponsorship is always an option, but those sponsorships tend towards projects with a significant public-facing presence.  Infrastructure-heavy projects, or those that require extended annual funding, tend to make poor candidates for sponsorship.

Because the technology cycle turns several times within each budget cycle, attempts to plan and budget for specific projects are prone to be outdated by the time funds are available to accomplish them. Rather than creating technology plans that target particular solutions, technology leaders should instead plan for a more sustained investment in emerging trends.  Planning to the trends rather than the present technical reality allows the technology team to be more agile in responding to emerging opportunities, but it means that specific numbers and costs associated with projects are more difficult to estimate. The key to building trust within the organization is beginning to build internal confidence among staff and to demonstrate the success of metrics that are important to the whole organization. This trust is required before budgeting, for chance can really be effective.  Estimation based on past performance and best guesses about “what we would do today” are helpful tools in providing a target for budgeting, but strict documents that lock down a specific approach 18 months ahead of time are a recipe for disappointment.

5.     The allure of flashy technology is short lived

It is easy to fall into the trap of being envious of the success of others. Seeing peers launch a sexy new website or mobile application makes us wonder why we can’t do the same thing in our organization.  Museum directors like John at the Fairport are under pressure to demonstrate to stakeholders that the museum is being successful, and good public relations is a wonderful tool for doing so.  However, long-term success in technology tends to be more elusive than the quick-hits of today’s techno wonder drug.  While any museum can purchase hot new toys and generate significant PR in the process, a determination of the return on investment of those efforts is hardly ever done.  Consistent progress that builds on previous success takes discipline and focus, but can result in a robust technology effort that’s anchored to the museum’s core interests. Such an incremental approach to technology can deliver significant visibility in the press and at the same time build a solid foundation for future projects. There’s nothing wrong with good PR, but when the flash-in-the-pan burns out, the museum’s technology staff is left to answer the hard questions about mission and value.

Starting with value first is a better plan. If your museum’s strategic plan does not have clear metrics that help you know what success looks like, then a document that describes what they are and how they are measured would be much more useful to the museum than a technology strategy. If your strategic plan talks about reaching new audiences, how will you measure whether or not they are being reached? If the plan seeks to improve access to collections, then the ability to measure that access is crucial. Once those metrics are known and accepted by the staff, creating technology strategies that enhance those metrics is a much clearer task.  Rather than debating whether a particular effort was “worth it”, such metrics can clarify the discussion about how museum resources were spent. The impact of technology then becomes less about opinion and more about whether or not the museum’s goals were met.

6.     Conclusion

The impulse to create a strategy for digital technology is a good one.  IT directors and staff want to ensure that they are planning effectively and bringing value to the museum.  Our formal training in IT and our examples from the commercial sector tell us that such a strategy is a necessity. However, the nuances of working in a museum mean that those rules don’t always apply in the same way.  The key, it seems, is to change the way we think about our role in museums.  Rather than simply being cast as the technology guy or gal, successful museum technologists often find themselves advocating against technology rather than for it.  A consistent focus on the mission of the museum, and the tools required to achieve that mission, is critical to see the impact we all desire.  Blowing up the expectations and stereotypes about technology can help to bridge the gap between professions within the museum and demonstrate a clear understanding of what really matters.

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