I suspect this is a few posts in one, but bear with me as I think aloud…
There can be only one…
I'm fascinated with the idea that digital channels are the point where the various functions of a museum – marketing, research, collections, outreach, education, fundraising, etc – meet. (If you've worked in a museum for a while you've probably witnessed heated internal discussions about which departments can have prominent spots on the front page of a museum website, or about who runs the $MuseumName Twitter or Facebook accounts.) This confluence in digital channels hopefully encourages organisations to think about what content (and who) best represents them to the world – but I suspect that often it's less about the public engagement strategy and more about organisational history and politics.
Similarly, building websites, apps and social media entails a series of decisions that operationalise a museum's big 'vision' statements; but as these decisions are made on the fly, they're often again less strategic and more subject to the vagaries of the organisation. For technologists, there's often also a tension between wanting to ensure sensible digital decisions are made and not wanting to be a bottleneck in the long line of sign-off documents and meetings involved in museum projects (and I'm still not sure how best to resolve that, especially when it's easy to make the wrong choice but technology changes more quickly than most museums can train staff).
Museums seem to struggle when the quality of those decisions, and therefore the quality of the final product, rests in part on whether audience-focused experts in technology, content, and graphic and experience design are present and heard at critical points, even when their recommendations contradict those of more established voices.
Why websites suck (or suck more than they should)
Building digital products means challenging 'the way things have always been done', and while museums-as-organisations are notoriously resistant to change, these definitional issues around the role of a digital team – technical delivery, content strategy, experience design, or some combination of the three – aren't unique to heritage organisations. Analytics guru Avinash Kaushik wrote: "I believe most websites suck because HiPPOs create them. HiPPO is an acronym for the 'Highest Paid Person's Opinion'. … The HiPPO is a poor stand-in for what customers want". That's possibly putting it too strongly, but it seems that potentially interesting digital projects do fail to deliver on that potential more often than they should, and it's not only because museums are generally a long way from thinking 'digital first'.
So who can stand up to 'the way things have always been done' and inter-departmental bun fights and represent the needs of our audiences in technology projects? In museums there's often a perception that digital teams are a service department (perhaps because of their roots in IT departments) while digital teams see themselves as creative departments, commissioning content and design, producing innovative experiences and consulting within the museum on digital projects and audience needs as well as delivering technical solutions. Coming down on the side of web teams in 'Web teams need real authority' Paul Boag pronounced: "web teams should have the final say about what appears on the website. They should have the authority to reject content, remove out of date content and maintain editorial control". His post got such a huge response that he expanded on this in another article, 'Paul Boag: give web teams more authority', where he called for organisations to break out of entrenched working methods and "establish a separate web strategy that defines who owns the website, how it will be operated and how editorial decisions are made". He noted that successful websites aren't just about code, "it's also about helping bring about cultural change to allow better management of sites". While Claire Ross' experience with digital R&D in museums might be more intense than the usual museum digital project, it bears out my experience that (in the words of one senior digital manager) 'organisational change is one of the most important things about what we do' and that this changes needs to be supported by senior management to be truly effective.
The call for strategic decision-making about organisational websites (and by extension, other digital channels) isn't new but it might be getting to the point where we can't ignore it. In 2011 Jonathan Kahn wrote A List Apart article on 'Web Governance: Becoming an Agent of Change, noting that the "the website is now the digital manifestation of the organization" but that "the user experiences we deliver don’t meet our expectations [because] when it comes to the web, organizations are broken". The article proposes 'web governance' as a combination of web strategy, web governance, web execution, and web measurement. And it's not all doom and gloom – many organisations (museums included) are resolving issues around web governance and thriving in a digital environment. But what happens to museums that rely on old models and don't sort out web governance until it's too late?
As Kahn says:
"The internet revolution has created huge social change: it’s changed the way people relate to organizations and it’s already destroyed several once-mighty industries, like newspapers, travel agents, and music publishing. Although we’re comfortable with the idea that the web is critical to organizations, we often miss the corollary: the web has changed the way organizations operate, and in many cases it’s changed their business models, too. When executives can’t see that, it causes a crisis. Welcome to your daily web-making reality."
[Edit to add: the Museums Computer Group has a call for papers for UK Museums on the Web 2012 on the theme of 'strategically digital' and you might want to submit a proposal soon if you've been working on these kinds of issues. Disclosure: I'm the MCG's Chair.]
And therefore, museum technologists need to step up…
A while ago, I had one of those epiphanies that occur in random conversations when I realised that my views as a technologists are informed more by my experience as a business analyst and user experience researcher than my time as a programmer: for me, being a technologist is not (only) about knowing how to cut code, it's about years of sitting in a room listening to people describe their problems, abstracting and analysing them to understand the problem space and thinking about how technology-driven change fits in that particular context.
I'm wondering if a better definition of museum technologist is someone who can appropriately apply a range of digital solutions to help meet the goals of a particular museum project. Even better, a museum technologist should be able to empathise with stakeholders enough to explain the implications of their technology choices for established internal work patterns and to contextualise them in relation to audience expectations. I guess this is also a reflection of the social changes the internet has brought – we geeks aren't immune from the need to change and adapt.
[Update, April 2013: I wonder what the answer would be if we asked other museum staff what they think a technologist should be? The role of 'translator' is valued by some project teams, but is the technologist always the best person for the job? If you're reading this before April 12 2013, you might want to take the survey 'What is a Museum Technologist anyway?' that Rob Stein and Rich Cherry have put together.]
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen? (21 November 2010) and A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto) (10 March 2009).