Some personal highlights from UKMW12: Strategically Digital

#ukmw12 trended over 'Christmas'
#UKMW12 trended above Christmas!

There are a few reports about UKMW12, the Museums Computer Group’s Museums on the Web 2012 conference out there already and I’ve already written about the themes for UKMW12, but as I wanted to note some things I wanted to remember or follow up on later, I might as well share them. But be warned, these notes are very sketchy because I was keeping an eye on lots of other things on the day (and preparing for my first ever AGM as Chair). It’s amazing how quickly one day can go by when you’ve spent so long preparing for it.

The keynotes
Andy Dobson talked about the incredible new energy that ‘creative technology’ is bringing to digital work. He remember going to a show on London’s South Bank and seeing Mosaic, Myst on a mac and Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, all for the first time. My first experiences with the potential of the web were different, but I remember that sense of exciting things being in the very near future, and of the web being something you could do as well as something you used.

I loved that he turned the proliferation of web technologies and the number of acronyms in the standard developer’s toolkit into a positive – ‘it’s exciting, it’s like the early days again’. His broader description of ‘hackers’ as people who apply technology to the creative process was inspiring, and perhaps particularly apt for museums. They’re people who circumvent standard practices, and while hack days can be technology-led they can also be about hacking internal processes.

He emphasised that digital is inherently multi-disciplinary work, encompassing technology, user experience design, sociology, etc and that it doesn’t work if any one discipline hogs the process. If I were to pull out one thread from the day, it might be the idea that ‘digital’ is too big to stay in technology departments while also being too important to deliver without taking seriously the expertise of technologists and related disciplines. As Tate’s John Stack put it, ‘digital doesn’t respect organisational boundaries’, a theme that was echoed by the V&A’s Rich Barrett-Small who called on developers to ‘flex within the scope of the museum’ and not just be ‘grumpy developers in the basement’ while pointing out they also need to be ‘a strong and credible voice’ within the museum. Perhaps as Andrew said, ‘organisational hacking’ is the answer, though ‘change management’ and new forms of collaboration might be a less scary description to use within a museum.
Speaking of ‘makers’, Andrew gave some great examples of artworks and the migration of the web ethos into the physical world. The thought that a Maker Faire can draw in 100,000 people is mind-blowing. I loved his description of the ‘creative gene pool’, partly because museums can play that role in others lives, but sometimes we need a reminder to go and hang out and be inspired by our collections. And to close, a tweet from @Sarah_Fellows that brought Andy’s points right into the sector: ‘#ukmw12 Access, community, sharing, collaboration, learning; interesting that the words which describe digital creatives = heritage ideals’. There was a great question from the audience about ‘how do you get inspiration when recommendation systems are geared at giving you things you already like?’, which doubles as a great challenge for online collections sites.

Metrics, Channels, Engagement, Re-use, Transparency, ContentPaul Rowe introduced us to the ‘online collection hamburger‘ in which metrics and content surround channels, engagement, re-use and transparency. He pointed out that ‘Collection content is internet gold – it’s unique, interesting, has an emotional connection with people, places and times’ but also that a museum website is ‘no longer the final destination for publishing online content’. I loved his solution to the fact that a single museum can’t always answer a user’s query: ‘show related content from other museums if you don’t have an object for a search term’. His statement that ‘We shouldn’t be leading people into a dead end just for the sake of keeping them on our website’ should be made into t-shirts and sold outside digital project planning meetings, and his advocacy for ‘wonder’ and surfacing interesting things from your collections made me wish I was working on a museum website again. Paul provided examples from museums across the world, and was a brilliant advocate for both collections and audiences.

Mobile
One of the surprising highlights of the day was the general realisation of the importance of mobile traffic to museum websites. As Andrew Lewis said of the V&A’s digital strategy: ”If it doesn’t work on mobile it’s probably not going to happen’. I suppose I’ve been immersed in research on mobile devices and behaviours (not least for the Culture24-led action research project ‘Let’s Get Real’) so I forget that not everyone is aware of how many of their visitors are on mobile devices. One figure quoted on the day on an ‘increase of 170% in mobile access in last 12 months’ came from some analysis I did for the Let’s Get Real project, so I thought I’d share some more information about that. I was reviewing analytics from the partner websites to see how many had reached the ‘tipping point’ of 20% or more visits on mobiles, and thought I’d compare that to the same period for the previous year (Jan-Aug 2011 and Jan-Aug 2012) to see how fast mobile visits were increasing. It turns out that in general there was a 170% increase in mobile visits to cultural websites. So even if you’re getting less than 20% mobile visits now, it won’t be long before mobile is important for you too. But a caveat – there’s a lot of variation across different organisations (and regions) so as ever, your milage may vary.  The project report will contain lots more detail, but at least now there’s some context for that stat.

Put visitors at the heart of what you do
Whether it’s through data analytics or digital R&D, this was a theme of Tom Grinsted’s talk on making data-based decisions, and lay behind Nick Poole asking how and why museums are sharing their content online (and asking for help in building on his research into different options for sharing collections online) and Katy Beale asking us to prioritise people over products. Claire Ross and Jane Audas talked about the impact of stakeholder management on agile, iterative projects but looked beyond organisational issues to focus on their key positive finding about trusting audiences when moderating social media.

The lesson of the day may be that the whole point of a digital strategy is to help balance the internal needs of a large, often conservative organisation like a museum with the changing needs of our audiences.  It’s clear that the best strategies are a framework for decision-making rather than a static document, but perhaps they’re also a reminder of why we’re doing it in the first place: to connect audiences with knowledge and collections.

And just in case that’s not enough UKMW12 for you, I’ve made a storify of the day:

‘Go digital’ at Museums Association 2012 Conference

Some people who couldn’t make the Museums Association conference (or #museums2012) asked for more information on the session on digital strategies, so here are my introductory remarks and some scribbled highlights of the speakers’ papers and discussion with the audience.

Update: a year later, I’ve thought of a ‘too long, didn’t read’ version: digital strategies are like puberty. Everyone has to go through it, but life’s better on the other side when you’ve figured things out. Digital should be incorporated into engagement, collections, venue etc strategies – it’s not a thing on its own.

The speakers were Carolyn Royston (@caro_ft), Head of New Media at Imperial War Museum; Hugh Wallace (@tumshie), Head of Digital Media at National Museums Scotland; Michael Woodward (@michael1665), Commercial Director at York Museums Trust, and I chaired the session in my role as Chair of the Museums Computer Group. From the conference programme: ‘This session explores the importance of developing a digital strategy. It will provide insight into how organisations can incorporate digital into a holistic approach that meets wider organisational and public engagement objectives and look at how to use digital engagement as a catalyst to drive organisational change.’

After various conversations about digital and museums with people who were interested in the session, I updated my introduction so that overall the challenge of embracing the impact of digital technologies, platforms and audiences on museums was put in a positive light.  The edited title that appeared in the programme had a different emphasis (‘Go digital’ rather than the ‘Getting strategic about digital’ we submitted) so I wanted it to be clear that we weren’t pushing a digital agenda for the sake of technology itself. Or as I apparently said at the time, “it’s not about making everything digital, it’s about dealing with the fact that digital is everywhere”.

I started by asking people to raise their hands if their museum had a digital strategy, and I’d say well over half the room responded, which surprised me. Perhaps a third were in the process of planning for a digital strategy and just a few were yet to start at all.

My notes were something like this: “we probably all know by now that digital technologies bring wonderful opportunities for museums and their audiences, but you might also be worried about the impact of technology on audiences and your museum. ‘Digital’ varies in organisations – it might encompass social media, collections, mobile, marketing, in-gallery interactives, broadcast and content production. It touches every public-facing output of the museum as well as back-office functions and infrastructure.

You can’t avoid the impact of digital on your organisation, so it’s about how you deal with it, how you integrate it into the fabric of your museum. As you’ll hear in the case studies, implementing digital strategy itself changes the organisation, so from the moment you start talking to people about devising a digital strategy, you’ll be making progress. For some of our presenters, their digital strategy ultimately took the form of a digital vision document – the strategy itself is embedded in the process and in the resulting framework for working across the organisation. A digital strategy framework allows you to explore options in conversation with the whole organisation, it’s not about making everything digital.

Our case studies come from three very different organisations working with different collections in different contexts. Mike, Commercial Director at York Museums Trust will talk about planning the journey, moving from ad hoc work to making digital integral to how the organisation works; Hugh, Head of Digital Media at National Museums Scotland will discuss the process they went through to develop digital strategy, what’s worked and what hasn’t’; Carolyn Royston, Head of Digital Media at Imperial War Museums, who comes from a learning background, will talk from IWM’s digital adventure, from where they started to where they are now. They’re each at different stages of the process of implementing and living with a digital strategy.

Based on our discussions as we planned this session, the life cycle of a digital strategy in a museum seems to be: aspiration, design, education and internal outreach, integration with other strategies (particularly public engagement) and sign off… then take a deep breath, look at what the ripple effect has been and start updating your strategies as everything will have changed since you started. And with that, over to Mike…”

Mike talked about working out when digital delivery really makes sense, whether for inaccessible objects (like a rock on Mars) or a delicate book; the major role that outreach and communication play in the process of creating a digital strategy; appointing the staff that would deliver it based on eagerness, enthusiasm and teamwork rather than pure tech skills; where digital teams should sit in the organisation; and about the possibility of using digital volunteers (or ‘armchair experts’) to get content online.

Hugh went for ‘frameworks, not fireworks’, pointing out that what happens after the strategy is written is important so you need to create a flexible framework to manage the inevitable change.  He discussed the importance of asking the right-sized question (as in one case, where ‘we didn’t know at the start that an app would be the answer’) and working on getting digital into ‘business as usual’ rather than an add-on team with specialist skills.  Or as one tweeter summarised, ‘work across depts, don’t get hung up on the latest tech, define users realistically and keep it simple’.

Carolyn covered the different forms of digital engagement and social media the IWM have been trying and the role of creating their digital vision in helping overcome their fears; the benefits of partnerships with other organisations for piggybacking on their technology, networks and audiences, and the fact that their collections sales have gone up as a result of opening up their collections.  In the questions, someone described intellectual property restrictions to try to monetise collections as ‘fool’s gold’ – great term!  I think we should have a whole conference session on this sometime soon.

When reviewing our discussions beforehand I’d found a note from a planning call which summed up how much the process should change the organisation: ‘if you’re not embarrassed by your digital strategy six months after sign-off you probably haven’t done it right’, and on the day the speakers reinforced my impression that ultimately, devising and implementing a digital strategy is (probably) a necessary process to go through but it’s not a goal in its own right.  The IWM and NMS examples show that the internal education and conversations can both create a bigger appetite for digital engagement and change organisational expectations around digital to the point where it has to be more widely integrated.  The best place for a digital strategy is within a public engagement strategy that integrates the use of digital platforms and working methods into the overall public-facing work of the museum.

Listening to the speakers, a new metaphor occurred to me: is implementing a digital strategy like gardening? It needs constant care and feeding after the big job of sowing seeds is over. And much like gardening for pleasure (in the UK, anyway), the process may have more impact than the product.

And something I didn’t articulate at the time – if the whole museum is going to be doing some digital work, we technologists are going to have to be patient and generous in sharing our knowledge and helping everyone learn how to make sensible decisions about digital content and experiences.  If we don’t, we risk being a bottleneck or forcing people to proceed based on guesswork and neither are good for museums or their audiences.

So much awesomeness! #GODIGITAL #Museums2012 twitter.com/dannybirchall/…
— Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) November 9, 2012

Huge thanks for Carolyn, Hugh and Michael for making the whole thing such a pleasure and to the Museum Association conference organisers for the opportunity to share our thoughts and experiences.

And finally, if you’re interested in digital strategies in heritage organisations, the Museums Computer Groups annual Museums on the Web conference is all about being ‘strategically digital’ (which as you might have guessed from the above, sometimes might mean not using technology at all) but UKMW12 tickets are selling out fast, so don’t delay.

‘Behind-the-themes’ at the UK Museums on the Web conference – UKMW12 ‘Strategica​lly Digital’

Full disclosure: I’m the Chair of the Museums Computer Group, and in this case I also chaired the Programme Committee, but I think we’ve put together a really strong programme.  I thought I’d provide some background here about where the themes came from.  (Also, I’ll take any excuse for a punning title.)

When putting together the themes, I reviewed reports from a number of international conferences and went through the archives of the MCG’s mailing list to get a sense of the issues that were both bugging our members on a daily basis and having an impact on museums more generally.  I’ve also spent time talking to staff in museums in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, the US and (of course) the UK and those conversations also informed the themes.  I also referred back to the MCG Committee‘s discussions about our vision for ‘MCG@30’, which included supporting our members by advocating for their work at higher levels of the museum sector. Hopefully this event is part of this process, as is a session on ‘digital strategy’ at the Museums Association conference.

For me, being ‘strategically digital’ means the best solution for a project might not involve technology.  Being ‘strategically digital’ offers some solutions to the organisational change issues raised by the mismatch between web speed and museum speed, and it means technology decisions should always refer back to a museum’s public engagement strategy (or infrastructure plans for background ICT services).

Like our ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ Spring meeting that aimed to get museum technologists and educators talking and learning from each other, UKMW12 is about breaking out of our comfortable technology-focused bubble and making sure the goals and language of web and digital teams relate to the rest of the organisation; it’s also about helping the rest of the museum understand your work.  We’ve seen a range of people sign up for tickets so far, so hopefully the day will provide a chance for staff to understand more about the workings of their own museum as well as the museums presenting on the day.  The conference is grounded in reality: our speakers address both successes and failures in digital strategies and organisational change.  You can get a sneak preview of the range of discussion on the day at Andrew Dobson’s post on ‘10 things I have learned working for Sky‘, Tate’s Online Strategy or Caper on Happenstance, Simon Tanner’s ‘Balanced Value Impact Model‘ and of course through the talk abstracts in the programme.   Some of our best Museums on the Web conferences have featured a similar mix of fresh voices from outside the sector and hard-won wisdom from within the sector, so I have high hopes for this event.

After some thought, a call for papers and the input of the wonderful 2012 Programme Committee (Ross Parry, Melissa Terras, Carolyn Royston and Stuart Dunn), this is the result:

Logo that says: 'museums computer group: connect me, support me, inspire me'

The Museums Computer Group’s annual Museums on the Web conference – UKMW12 – will be held at the Wellcome Collection in London on 30 November 2012.

UKMW12 is about being ‘strategically digital’. Responding to the issues faced by museums today, it’s an opportunity to take a step back from the everyday and think strategically about the impact of the digital revolution on your museum and on the sector as a whole, including themes such as: digitally enabling the modern museum and its staff; sustaining the digital agenda and the realities of digital strategies and organisational change; and the complexities of digital engagement and the impact of social media on audience expectations. 

UKMW12 brings together speakers from organisations including the Tate, the V&A, UCL, King’s College, the Guardian, Strategic Content Alliance, Collections Trust and Caper. 

As always, UK Museums on the Web is a day for being inspired by the latest ideas, for learning from case studies grounded in organisations like yours, and for networking with other technologists, curators, managers, academics, learning and marketing specialists in the museum and heritage sector. 

Don’t miss out! Book your ticket now at http://ukmw12.eventbrite.co.uk
Find out more about the conference at http://bit.ly/ukmw12.

If you’ve never been (or haven’t been for a while) to an MCG event, these posts link to several event reports from attendees and should give you an idea of who goes and what’s discussed: Your blog posts and tweets about ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ (Spring 2012); UKMW11 Blog Posts (theme: The innovative museum: creating a brighter future); UK Museums on the Web 2010.

On a personal note, this event will mark 30 years since the first ever Museums Computer Group event, and eight years since the first UK Museums on the Web conference – a milestone worth celebrating!  If you’d like to be an active part of the MCG’s future, we’ll be electing new committee members in the lunchtime AGM on November 30.  Get in touch if you’re curious about how you could contribute…