Tactics and Decision Making for Successful Museum Digital Projects
Andrew Lewis, United Kingdom
This paper discusses what tactics and decision-making mean in practise within museum digital technology projects. It offers practical suggestion for tactical approaches drawn from the author’s twelve years of experience managing digital projects and services. Museum culture is compared against digital trends, and tensions discussed. This is followed by a more detailed review of potential tactics for real-life museum environments, to address typical organisational culture and scenarios. Field Analysis is discussed as a practical technique to consider project barriers and to identify where tactical decisions can reduce their impact. Finally, there is a review of the common phases of projects and where different types of challenge tend to occur within them.
Keywords: Tactics, organisational change, digital, project management, decision-making
1. Audience and scope
This paper is intended as a practical aide. It is aimed at medium- to senior-level staff working in museums, who have responsibility for management of digital public services, typically including Web, digital media, mobile, and in-gallery digital.
This paper offers reflections on the specific practical experience of developing tactics and employing them to move your project forward. It is based on personal experience in a wide range of digital projects, including website redevelopment, content migration, public-access computer services, technical procurement, implementation of websites, interactives, self-service systems, and smart cards, including collaborative projects with multiple organizations and live personal and transactional user data.
Tactics are about getting the actual work done and may occasionally involve dealing with difficult behavior, potentially cultural dysfunction, and compromise. However, for the purposes of discussion, no real people or scenarios are identified here.
In this discussion, the term “tactics” means the choice of taking specific actions to deliver a strategy.
Figure 1 shows, in simple terms, how the hierarchy of organizational planning is typically intended to flow.
While an organization’s strategy is about adopting and implementing broad and generic approaches to achieve its mission, tactics are about choosing the best action or behavior within a given situation, with the intention of achieving a particular outcome needed to proceed.
To make informed tactical decisions, it is important to fully understand the environment within which the project will be implemented. Two practical ways to do this include:
- Study your organization, its governing processes, the real sources of power, the ways it communicates, and how to gain access to key influential people, enablers, and gatekeepers
- Research the tactics used by others in similar situations to yours, to identify transferable ideas that you can use
This paper offers some reflections from twelve years of experience with these issues. It considers the following areas:
- Institutional cultures that occur in museums, and how they compare with digital technology cultures
- The specific cultural challenges that need to be addressed to enact permanent change and realize the benefits of digital technology
- Drivers for and against projects
- The phases that occur within projects in general, with some reflection on the specifics of technology projects
3. Museums and technology
To develop practical useable tactics, your approach must pay attention to the local organizational environment. For this reason, it is worth comparing the nature of museums with that of digital technology.
Museums are about selecting and preserving objects, records, and ideas that are deemed culturally important, and enabling access to them. They extend the value of culture beyond the present time. Collection-development processes are authoritative in nature, with considerable commitment to long-term maintenance and preservation.
There can appear to be an introspective culture within the museum profession. Evidence can commonly be found that shows a lack of awareness of the dramatic impact of digital in society. For example, a UK Museums Association (2013) consultation on workforce development makes no mention of digital beyond providing online development resources and information, and refers to a Cultural Heritage Blueprint (Museums Association, 2012) that only mentions digital technology in an appendix as a “potential priority area for skills development.”
It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the sociological and political issues of cultural value and museum collections, who controls the choices, and why. It is sufficient to simply note the inherently conservative characteristic of all museums in their core activities of collecting and curation (while acknowledging this is a broad generalization).
About digital technology
In contrast, the advancement of digital technologies is led by a broad range of drivers. These may include economics and politics, advances in technology itself, the success or otherwise of consumer products, and rapid changes in how digital affects social communication, such as the trend towards simultaneous social interaction with entertainment content across Web, mobile phone, and TV (Locke, 2013) and many other factors. The need for short, focused development cycles in digital technology has led to the widespread adoption of Agile (Beedle et al., 2001) project methodologies (Wikipedia.org, 2013).
Digital possibilities change rapidly and at a rate that museums cannot keep up with. The term disruptive technology, proposed and developed by Christensen (1995, 1997) has evolved from being regarded as a new theoretical proposal to acceptance as a mainstream concept in management discussion, as illustrated by Phillips’ (2012) consideration of how to balance the rate of innovation in the product development cycle. In digital, unpredictability has become established as normal.
A summary of the characteristics of museums:
- Conservative role of preserving culture and stability
- Authority-led role as selective owners of knowledge
- Tradition of top-down communication of information
A summary of the characteristics of digital technologies:
- Rapidly changing, with a tendency to disrupt and change social behavior
- Competitive consumer- and business-driven impetus steering development and investment
- Communally driven and quite transient channels of communication and information sharing based on Web, mobile, and increasingly by direct data connections including physical objects
There are clearly some tensions between the conservative aspects of museums and the fast-changing nature of digital. The job of the museum technology specialist is to get the two cultures to operate effectively without conflict or confusion.
4. Know your organization
Successful tactics require you to negotiate current situations and circumstances. The better you understand your organization, the more effectively you can make tactical decisions. However, organizations are complex, so it can be helpful to focus on some general areas.
Some significant areas include:
- Reviewing who initiates technical projects, and why
- Understanding the existing technical platforms and integration issues
- Understanding resources, both technology and expertise
- Working with governance, formal and unofficial power
- Understanding official and informal communication channels
- Understanding culture and leadership
These are analyzed in more detail below. Obviously, in any real organization, there may or may not be challenges in each of these areas at any one time, but it is likely that over time you may encounter issues in any one of them.
Who initiates technical projects, and why?
Digital projects may be proposed in your organization for a variety of reasons, and these can be initiated by many different people. It is worth taking the time to review the motivations that drive these, because they can be revealing about the culture of your organization.
Museums obviously want to use technology to introduce better services or products for end users. Knowing what users want is not easy to predict or measure. Proposals that claim user improvements may also not always be driven by strategy.
For example, in museums there is frequently likely to be a significant number of senior curatorial and research staff whose preferences are not representative of the majority of the museum’s visitors. The risk is that a collectively large number of similar opinions may form a strong internal consensus that skews the balance, leading to services that do not serve strategic audiences or real business priorities.
There can also be demand for projects based on personal preferences of people in powerful positions. There can sometimes simply be a desire to be seen to be using new and exciting technology. This is a danger area, as are ideas that have been seen elsewhere.
Some staff may have access to third-party funds and resources that seem attractive, but they should still be assessed strategically. Donors and sponsors may make demands upon your organization. External funding can have conditions that can be difficult to align with organizational objectives.
Proposed projects may aim to make business efficiencies, increase income-generation, or provide clearer management information and reporting. With digital projects, the risk is that up-front and one-off project costs may be the only information used to assess the potential savings. Technical expertise is needed to scope out the additional integration impact costs (for example, data held in different formats) or hidden risks, like assuming developers of products will support them.
It is not uncommon for proposals to cite your mission to support them. This is not sufficient. Missions are general ideals. Be suspicious of such proposals if they cannot also demonstrate alignment to current strategies, or aim to meet specific strategic objectives.
Project proposals should be aligned to organizational strategies. If they are not, then they are potentially diverting resources and reducing the ability to fulfill the mission.
Some simple tests for checking for potentially risky project proposals include:
- Is the project driven by external funding?
- Are the users it is aimed at representative of your current priority audiences?
- Does the proposal appear to be driven by an attempt to copy something a rival museum has launched?
- Can proposers really demonstrate how the project supports your current strategies (either digital or more generally)?
Existing technical platforms and integration
It may seem obvious, but new technology must integrate with that which is already in place, or ideally change it permanently for the better in some way. The complexity of technology means that no digital project should really be allowed to proceed unless it has been reviewed against the current platforms and the overall IT strategy.
This does assume of course that there is a policy and strategy. If you are directly responsible for this strategy, then the issue becomes one of achieving organizational buy-in and effective communication. If you are not, then your project should be seen as an opportunity to engage in the formation of such strategy. If you have clear, sound reasons for your approach, then you have a chance to influence others with direct responsibility.
You should take time to:
- Develop close relationships with IT staff and especially those with responsibility for technical platforms and strategy
- Understand the overall technical platforms, business systems, support arrangements, and processes
- Know what is done in house and what is provided by third parties as a managed service
All projects need resources. In theory, when developing a project plan, the required tasks are identified, and the resources (e.g., equipment, license costs, and staff time) are then estimated. It’s rarely this straightforward.
The project will change processes permanently. You will need to determine how this will affect ongoing revenue costs, especially staffing. This will involve negotiation and agreement, which is dependent upon on others. This is always more complex to plan for than simple purchase costs.
Digital services and products also invariably involve delivering content or information. You may not directly control commissioning or production. This can require the knowledge of curators, access to external experts, ongoing service information for events, visitor information, and so on. Expert time is a crucial resource to identify. It is in high demand and not always easily accessible.
Ideally, your project should result in changes of processes that allow other staff to own their local work processes, and for their outputs to be fed automatically into your digital products. This ideally means building data-driven services, which will pass the content from them to you without manual intervention.
Some things to consider about managing resources:
- Start by differentiating the one-off costs (capital) from any ongoing costs (revenue). Really, this is something to be done at the proposal stage to allow assessment by those whose job it is to approve projects.
- Identify simple fixed or easily calculated costs first (e.g., software licenses, equipment purchase).
- Be wary of modelling costs on existing technology without researching alternatives thoroughly. New solutions can supersede existing ones quite rapidly. Keep up to date.
- Be wary of long-term agreements. Services such as cloud hosting, storage, and many others may drop dramatically over time. Shop around and avoid getting locked into potentially expensive choices.
- Beware of too much commitment to one technology or vendor. There can be significant hidden costs in support or development.
- You should assume you may eventually change all your technology and that there may be migration costs later, as well as contractual penalties.
- Identify the parts of your project that require internal collaboration and commitment. Allow for both direct staff costs and negotiation time to secure agreement.
- Use your project to introduce data-driven models that are flexible to cope with future increases or decreases in staffing resources. In your scoping, do an assessment of how flexibly your solution can cope with future variations.
- Be wary of over-optimistic dependency on access to extremely in-demand staff resources such as expert curators.
5. Governance and power
Governance is the formal ways your organization manages processes, and defines policies or procedures, and how these are monitored and policed to support the strategies and ultimately the mission.
When these are clear, you can see what is required of you for submission of proposals and plans, and know who you need to get approval from and the lead times involved. This makes it easier to prepare plans with a reasonable chance of predictability.
It is a given that you should be familiar with all the governance processes in your museum. Whilst it is especially important to be familiar with technology governance processes, other museum activities such as exhibition programing or research may have significant impact on digital either directly or through competing for certain resources.
Of course, there may not actually be any overall strategic technology governance. Over time this leads to unsustainable diversity of systems and support demands. This is especially common if systems have developed separately in different departments over time without communication.
Quite apart from the formal governance, there are also always hidden power factors at play. It is extremely important to know who all the non-formal holders of power are in your organization. This is often not obvious.
Figure 2 shows a modified version of the five bases of power model proposed by French and Raven (1959). These are legitimate (formal role-related authority), coercive (using threats of sanctions), reward (offering incentives), expert (knowing more about something than others), and referent (power gained by trust, respect, and personal relationship).
Also shown here is gatekeeper power, a crucial power that people gain by being in control of a key resource. In a digital project, this might be the network administrator, or a person with access to servers for installation.
Formal governance is an example of legitimate power. In museums, as with most organizations, coercive and reward forms of power are most obvious in formal processes (such as disciplinary procedures or bonus schemes), although it is not unheard of for donors and sponsors to use their financial influence to exercise either type.
Referent power and expert power are the forms most likely to have an unpredictable impact on technology projects. In museums, the authoritative status of senior staff, or respect for esteemed partners or partner organizations, can have a dramatically powerful influence. In extreme cases, this can lead to having to undertake a project because of the status of a single individual, who while rightly revered as an expert in their subject, may have little or no knowledge of either the potential audience for, nor overall technical impact of, their proposal.
On a more positive note, you can exercise referent power by building good working relationships and trust with others. Similarly, as a technical manager you will have knowledge, experience, and understanding that others do not. This may give you expert power, as long as you are able to demonstrate this clearly to the right people.
Digital technologies are also fast-changing, which makes governance more difficult. The sudden rise of new technological possibilities, especially Web-based services, frequently can grant power to members of staff right across the organization to unilaterally bring uncontrolled technology into the museum outside of official strategic governance.
Tactics for managing power issues include:
- Knowing all the formal governance processes to judge their potential impact on your project
- Making your expertise visible: for example, by helping key members of staff or by serving on working groups that influence policies and processes
- Taking the time to map out who really has power in the organization, and how this affects your project
- Forming positive relations with key movers and gatekeepers such as personal assistants of senior staff, or controllers of critical processes
- Identifying people with strong unofficial influence, and developing strong arguments for what you are doing: if possible to get them to help you, or in worst cases and if they have negative influence, to be prepared to counter with factual arguments
Understanding communication in your organization is a powerful way to reduce risk and confusion in your project. As with power, there are official communication channels and informal ones, which can be inaccessible or even hidden.
The most obvious formal channels to look at initially are those that communicate decisions. Do not just look at those that control technical or data decisions. Check others that appear not to. They can prove to have significant implications for you.
There are hierarchies within decision making. At each level, look at who is formally responsible for communicating decisions and form good working relations with them. Check how information is documented, especially how sign-off on decisions is recorded and how agreed actions and responsibilities are recorded, then followed up.
Different individuals, meetings, and committees will have varying levels of clarity. In meetings, routinely check that the actions are minuted correctly before leaving. It is wise to develop relationships with administrative colleagues, even if just by helping them with technical terms. It decreases the chances of misunderstanding later, which can lead to project delays.
Informal communication is much more subtle. There is no quick way to identify channels. How people communicate with each other over lunch, in corridors, at meetings, and so on is just as significant as any formal channels and often much faster and more influential.
There can be a big difference in understanding of technical terminology in museums. Curatorial staff will use different professional language than technical staff. It pays to take time to understand what drives and/or annoys staff in different specialisms.
Some approaches for addressing communication matters include:
- Keep up to date with the formal reporting processes you will have to follow.
- Consider how difficult changes caused by your project will be perceived by others and how they are best communicated. This may require supportive people within the areas affected.
- Get familiar with how language is used by different people in the organization, and adapt communication to suit.
- Be wary of assuming that others understand what you mean by technical terms. Simple words like “digital” can have wildly different and ambiguous meanings.
- Take time to get to know staff across the organization.
Culture and leadership
All of the previous discussion about subtleties of power and communication are aspects that together form the culture of your organization.
Projects create and require change. You may be lucky enough to work in a culture that embraces change, but of course the true culture of an organization is never the same as the official brand it presents, and culture can be very resistant to change, even when that change is mandated.
Successful projects permanently change the culture, even if sometimes only in small ways.
If you are responsible for project management, you are effectively being asked to be responsible for managing a change in culture. This is a daunting task. Organizational culture can be linked to personal identity and a sense of belonging, and when it is perceived as being challenged this can cause anxiety and hidden motivations. Your tactics for approaching this need to be thought through carefully and may vary for different people.
Cultural nuances are complex. Understanding the real culture(s) of your organization can be a long-term process. Some possible approaches include:
- Taking time to get out into your organization. Treat meetings, training, and other internal events as opportunities to meet others and understand the ways in which different teams operate.
- Observe behavior and the dynamics of others, and especially note who the influential individuals are who lead behavior.
- Ideas can change behavior: lead by example, and be prepared to speak up and explain how your technical work affects others and how it benefits the strategic aims.
6. About projects
Projects are special programs of work outside normal working practice, designed to effect change.
A useful way to develop tactics is to consider the characteristics of projects in two simple ways:
- The nature of change: what are the drivers for projects and the forces that impede them?
- The flow of projects: what are the typical phases within them, and what should you look out for in each?
This gives a simplified reference framework to identify the issues that must be addressed within the local environment of an individual organization.
7. The nature of change
All projects are about making change.
Figure 3 is a simple diagram showing how change is usually represented within project plans. That is, the current state is to be changed to a new future state by the project.
However, this model is too simplistic. It fails to represent the subtleties of what will actually occur in practice, and therefore is not a good one to base tactical decisions upon.
Another better way of looking at change is to use Force Field Analysis, a method originally proposed by the sociologist Kurt Lewin (1951) and later widely adapted within business studies (e.g., Google, 2013). Force Field Analysis is a powerful tool to help you scope and manage your project in an informed and realistic way.
In brief, Force Field Analysis proposes that at any one moment in time, the current state of an organization (originally of a person’s sense of identity) is caused by the difference between forces that support it and ones that resist it. This is illustrated in figure 4.
In an ideal managed process, the modelling process would start off looking more like figure 5. Here the central organizational state represents your project objectives.
Your project plan will identify tasks and actions needed to achieve the project successfully. These will be represented on the left pushing it forward. There will be also be other independent forces that may be driving it forward. These can include factors like current political goodwill, a healthy financial position, a sympathetic advocate with a position of influence within your organization, or even social trends. All of these should be drawn on the left.
On the right, opposing forces can be drawn that will tend to prevent the project happening. Obvious factors will include known technical limitations, old systems, a current lack of resources, no existing in-house expertise in crucial areas, and so on. Less tangible factors might be cultural inertia, long-winded decision-making processes, distracting non-strategic digital projects that occur purely due to personal interests, or a lack of a managed governance process. Finally, there will also be other external factors such as a poor economic environment, unplanned disruption from building problems, and so on.
By adding in all these factors, the diagram will end up looking something like figure 6. It is usually recommended that the arrows are drawn to reflect the scale of the force depicted.
The advantage this method has is that it explicitly acknowledges and includes the subtle organization factors that will require tactical decisions. Traditional planning models tend just to look at resources for driving things forward. This method also encourages you to consider opposing forces, which allows you to devise an approach to reduce the negative effects.
Phases of projects
As well as considering tactics within organizational framework, it can be useful to look at different phases of your project.
Figure 7 represents, in very simple terms, typical phases that occur in projects.
Table 1 summarizes typical issues that may arise within these phases with some possible tactics.
|Project Phase||Potential Barriers or Challenges||Possible Tactical Approaches|
|Identifying the need||
|Researching solutions and selecting an approach||
|Defining the scope and remit of the project, and setting project objectives/success criteria||
|Creating a project plan||
|Identifying and allocating project resources||
|Undertaking the planned works and organizational changes needed||
|Testing and signing off the project products (e.g., new customer service or new business process)||
|Launching the new service or business process and bedding it down||
|Post-launch monitoring and assessment of project success||
|Signing off the new service or process (formally defining it as business as usual)||
|Closing down the project and redistributing or reallocating remaining project resources||
8. Concluding Summary
The issues discussed in this paper can only be taken as one person’s perspective and are offered as an aide to the pragmatic development of working tactics. No two museums are exactly the same, and while there may be some value in considering such generalized analysis, your tactics will by necessity require you to gain knowledge and understanding of your local museum environment.
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