Useful Dialectics, Part One – Transformation vs. Change
Wading by bus, Iceland CC-BY SA 3.0 image by Wikimedia users Chmee2/Valtamer

I’m very excited for MCN2017 in November! The intellectual thrill of beating a session into shape with friends old and new is like a drink of cool water on a hot day. I’ve been thinking a lot about my part of the “Breaking Out of the Rut” session I’m part of, along with Ariana French, Kevin Conley and Frith Williams! We’ll be talking about our experiences of how to introduce and grow innovative thinking within organizations, and if our Skype calls are any indication, it’s going to ROCK! We’ve got four organizations at very different places in their journey towards digital maturity, all trying to make the best work we can.

One of things I’ve been struck by over the past year, has been the way conflicting pairs of ideas keep cropping up in my thinking and discussions whenever the subject of digital transformation comes up. So, I want to unpack five of these a bit more so I can finish my presentation and move on to the next thing. I’d love to know what your experience has been with these concepts.


“Doing things differently involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”
 – Marcia Tucker, the New Museum

I wrote about digital transformation strategies a while ago in a series of posts, and have been reading extensively about it ever since. There are few words I run into more frequently in my reading than “transformation” and “change”. It feels like every other article I see in the business press has latched onto the idea of transformation as the next big thing for business. And in museums, “change” is omnipresent, particularly in the tried-and-true usage of “change agent” to describe anybody whose job it is to come into a museum and stir things up. The last couple of job descriptions I’ve been sent use both, just to be safe.

Though they both can mean something similar, I’ve come to believe that behind “change” and “transformation” are very different motivations. Though I used to be firmly in the change camp , I don’t feel that way any more, fro two reasons. First, in my experience, “change” is often treated like a discrete, time-bounded process; one that is begun, carried out, and completed at the end. It’s  a temporary state. You change, and afterwards you have changed. I don’t think we’re ever done adapting. “Change” is not something to be gotten through, like a river to be forded, which is my second problem with change. The standard model of change assumes a static endpoint one can visualize. On that far shore lies the Promised Land, and all we have to do is get there. And on the far shore we’re still recognizably us, and therefore mostly unchanged. That’s not what I’m after.


Transformational strategies recognize that there is no far shore. The goal should not be to transplant our existing organizations in the new context, but to create continuously evolving, learning institutions that become whatever they need to become to address their missions. I don’t know what that looks like, and that’s not just alright, that’s the point of the kind of transformation that museums will need to undertake to fully participate in the modern world. The challenge I see is how to apply the same rigor we apply to our topic research to our internal organization and work processes. Since attending Alibis for Interaction last year, I’ve been interested in applying experience design principles to workflows and finding all the designable surfaces in the organization, and thoughtfully building on them to meet the needs of the people. Like any disruption, it will be uncomfortable. Which brings us back to that quote I started with. “Doing things differently involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”

Next up: Part Two: Design vs. tradition


  1. I really like this distinction between transformation and change – aside from everything else, the context within which we work continually changes and that alone means that we can never stop examining our efforts to see if they are effective, timely or even appropriate in whatever new arena is unfolding around us.

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  2. Nice post and look forward to reading more. I’m doing quite a bit of work on trying to figure out how to measure transformative learning experiences from the visitor perspective in both the civics space and STEM so will be keenly following your musings!

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  3. Ed, perhaps because I am teaching the material in the next few weeks, I find myself thinking about Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation descriptions about learners. Most of the time, we take on new information, new ideas and just adapt ourselves a bit: assimilation. In fact most of what we do on a day to day basis is assimilate: something like 90 per cent of the time as we learn (but I will have to track down where I got that number).

    With assimilation being the norm, a shocker can come when we reflect about changes and realize that we actually have shifted. Sometimes we are surprised that after many years going by with seemingly no big changes that things have actually changed more than we have been aware. We wonder—just when did that shift happen? More typically the process is not abrupt.

    Accommodation, however, means that we have shifted. Our big life moments: new job, new kid, new love life, etc. are often planned for accommodations and our family and friends help us get through them. The ones that really throw us like divorce and job loss can create resentment when we are forced to accommodate change right there and then. When we are younger we want those dramatic shifts — and why not, growing up means many of them.

    Realistically change is really slow, as we assimilate our way through it. Assimilation is how we deal with our dynamic world hour by hour, day by day.

    Just some thoughts to add to your thinking.

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