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Developing digital strategies

People work best when they have a common sense of purpose or mission, a clear programme of work and a definition of success, value or impact that they can work towards. This is particularly true of ‘digital’ work, which touches on many different roles and skill sets across the museum.

Over the past 10 years, most museums around the world have taken the plunge and started to develop digital projects and programmes. These might include photographing the collections and putting them online, developing mobile applications or in-gallery interactives to promote engagement. While many of these projects have succeeded in opening up the organisation to new and existing audiences, many museums find themselves thinking ‘we have a few successful digital projects under our belt, but where do we go next?’

To address this question, many museums are in the process of developing digital strategies which embed mobile, social and web technologies at the heart of their forward planning. So what is a digital strategy, and how do you go about developing one?

Think Big, Start Small

‘Digital’ is a big word. It can refer to the software you use, how you will use the web to engage audiences, how you will digitise your collections, how you will raise funds or store information. Because of this, developing a ‘digital’ culture in your museum can sometimes seem like an all-encompassing task. As a result, people are sometimes tempted to go straight to the big, unifying digital strategy covering every single role and department in the museum.

While this can sometimes work, more often it simply creates too much change, too many ideas and too much discussion, which can result in nothing actually happening. For this reason, it is often useful to come at the digital development of your museum from two distinct, but connected perspectives:

  • The big, big picture – where does your museum want to be in, say, 20 years time and how can technology help you get there?
  • Simple first-steps and quick wins – what can you achieve today that will start you off on the journey toward achieving the big ambition?

If you try and map out every step along the way toward your grand ambition, you will find yourself either dogged by an ongoing sense of under-achievement or sticking slavishly to a plan which becomes less relevant or appropriate as the landscape changes underneath your feet. The big ambition will motivate and focus you, while the small steps will sustain your enthusiasm!

Culture change

In the long-run, ‘going digital’ is all about achieving a lasting change in the working culture of your organisation. It means moving away from departmental silos and promoting a culture of collaboration between different competencies across the museum. It involves working towards a try-it-and-see culture in which people feel trusted and empowered to explore their own creativity and develop their own digital skills.

The process of going digital can deliver real benefits across the whole museum, not just in the ‘digital’ projects. It helps senior managers adjust the museum’s appetite for risk, encourages a more user-centred way of thinking, and connects the front-of-house team with the back office to open up new and interesting dynamics and relationships.

The risk, however, is always that digital remains an external, or separate idea in your museum. You might run fantastic digital projects, and create beautiful pictures of your collection, but without a culture shift that really values the underlying change in attitudes and values, none of those digital outputs will be sustainable in the long-term.

Learning organisations

A ‘learning organisation’ is constantly seeking to develop and adapt, encouraging people to challenge existing behaviours, to look outside the organisation and adapt solutions from elsewhere into their own working practice the better to achieve the overall mission.

For lots of valid reasons, many museums find it difficult to be learning organisations. This is partly because our established values and behaviours have been designed to fulfill the mission of protecting our collections. This is one of the reasons why ‘digital’ can often be seen as a challenge to the core of the museum, and why it is sometimes kept at arms-length – not because people are put off by the technology itself, but because the organisational and cultural changes that trail in its wake can seem like they are disrupting some of the things which have allowed museums to retain their role as trusted institutions for hundreds of years.

Again, though, becoming a learning organisation is healthy not just in ‘digital’ terms, but also in ensuring that your museum’s services continue to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of your audiences. The process of ‘going digital’ is partly one of opening up, exploring established values and being prepared to be more agile and open to new ideas.

Digital strategies in practice: ideas for small museums

SHARE Museums East have produced an excellent short video setting out ideas for smaller museums in approaching their digital strategy. The video is a really useful introduction for any museum, and can be a great way to get non-technical colleagues to see the potential value of developing a strategy for your own museum.

Benchmark your progress

The Collections Trust’s Digital Benchmarks toolkit has been developed with the support of the Arts Council England to provide a free, low-tech tool for museums to use in benchmarking their digital development. Focusing on 8 key areas from strategy to digitisation and revenue-generation, the tool encourages museum professionals to work together across departments or teams to create a simple visualisation of your strengths and weaknesses.

If you are in the process of developing a digtal strategy, the Digital Benchmarks tool can be an excellent place to start, by helping you both celebrate your existing achievements and identify opportunities for future development.

A ‘digital strategy’ or a ‘Strategy that includes digital’?

One of the key questions you will face when approaching your digital strategy is whether it is, in fact, a separate strategic document or plan, or whether it is more effective to embed digital across your existing forward plan.

In practice, most museums end up defining a long-term ambition to have an inherently ‘digital’ approach to their overall forward planning, but using the short-term development of a separate digital strategy as the spark which ignites this long-term integration.

Great examples of this two-stage approach include the excellent Tate digital strategy ‘Digital as a Dimension of Everything’ by @stacker and the Digital Engagement Strategy developed by Rippleffect with Derby Museums. In both cases, the Digital Strategy is a separate document, but one that is fundamentally linked to the overall forward plans, audiences and focus of the museum.

What goes into a ‘digital strategy’?

There is no standard or template for what should go into a digital strategy – every museum is different, and if it is to succeed, your strategy needs to reflect the unique aspects of your audiences and collections, your brand and the story you want to tell. You could look at Cogapp’s Digital Strategy for Museums Guide as a great starting point.

Another excellent way to begin is by looking at digital strategies from other museums – either via Google or by making contact with people in your network. People are often willing to share (particularly if you are happy to share your own work with them!).

Many museum digital strategies cover some or all of the following elements:

  • An overall statement of vision or mission – what the museum is trying to achieve with its digital strategy and the change or impact you want to create.
  • Characterising the main audiences for your digital work, whether they are children or adults, tourists or volunteers.
  • Identifying problems or challenges to be overcome (eg inefficiency, lack of impact or duplication of effort).
  • Identifying the people within the museum (as well as any external partners or stakeholders) involved in developing & implementing the digital strategy.
  • Setting out the short, medium and long-term ambitions for the museum’s digital work.
  • Looking at developing content and technology that can be repurposed and re-used for different projects (see also ‘Create Once, Publish Everywhere’).
  • Updating, improvng or upgrading systems (such as collections management and IT systems) to support the delivery of the strategy.
  • Addressing resources, budgets and capacity.
  • Identifying short-term quick-wins or pilot projects.
  • Identifying success criteria and metrics by which the museum will track the value and impact of its digital work.

The first step – how to get started

There are as many different ways of developing your museum’s digital strategy as there are different types of museum. The way you go about it will depend on the people you have on board, the resources you have available and how ‘ready’ your museum is to take the plunge.

Most successful digital strategies in museums begin as a series of conversations. Usually, there is someone (it often doesn’t matter what level of the museum or specialism they’re working in) who gets excited about the possibilities and uses their enthusiasm to open up the discussion about whether the museum is ready to develop a digital strategy. The more people that can be involved in this initial conversation, the more likely it is that they will support the strategy as it emerges.

Really great digital strategies can be lead from the top down, but more often they emerge from the people working at the coalface with the collections and visitor services. The best thing senior managers can do is create an environment in which this conversaton is allowed (even encouraged) to happen, and provide benign engagement and support as it emerges. Great digital leadership, such as the approach Di Lees has taken at the Imperial War Museum, often means acknowledging the fundamental role of digital in peoples’ daily lives and setting the broad ambition to ‘go digital’ to which the staff and volunteers can then respond.

Have fun!

Museums, like every industry, are being transformed by technology. Whether it is in the material we collect, the way it is managed, the needs and expectations of audiences or the way we generate revenue, there is almost no aspect of the museum experience that is not already fundamentally digital. Following on from the technical revolution, though, are equally significant shifts in social and economic behaviour which will come to define the world for the current and future generations that museums aim to serve.

‘Going digital’ can seem like a big step, but it is a critical one for every museum to take to ensure that your museums remain relevant, findable and exciting for your audiences. The development of a digital strategy is a great opportunity to look up and outward at the world outside the museum, and to engage with some really important questions about the story you want to tell and the people you want to reach.

Date created: 2014