Digital literacy “..is essential to improving technical infrastructure and workflows. Digital literacy needs to be achieved across the board, especially in the context of museum leadership.”
The New Media Consortium “Horizon Report: 2016 Museum Edition”
Here we are now, four post into this series, with another dialectic to ponder. I started off looking at change and transformation, design and tradition, and hierarchy and network. In this post, I want to explore the tension between literacy and fluency, and how confusing them shackles museums and perpetuates an unhealthy perception of digital skills as “other” and therefore not central to museums’ operation in the 21st century. And for extra points, we won’t just stay in the cozy realm of digital literacy, but wander a bit into museum literacy.
One challenge that I often hear executives mention is the mismatch between their current staff and their digital ambitions. “It’ll cost too much to hire a shedload of programmers!” they say, and that’s usually the end of that. Implicit in that statement is the mindset that “digital” is a domain that needs to be understood at least as well as any curatorial domain if anything is to be done. Since museums derive their authority from the expertise of their staff, it follows that without that same level of digital expertise, they’re helpless.
According to Wikipedia,
“Digital literacy is the set of competencies required for full participation in a knowledge society. It includes knowledge, skills, and behaviors involving the effective use of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs for purposes of communication, expression, collaboration and advocacy. While digital literacy initially focused on digital skills and stand-alone computers, the focus has shifted from stand-alone to network devices including the Internet and social media. The term digital literacy was simplified by Paul Gilster in his 1997 book Digital Literacy. Gilster described digital literacy as the usage and comprehension of information in the digital age. He also emphasized the importance of digital technologies as an “essential life skill.””
Notice that nowhere in there does it say anything about becoming a programmer or learning PHP. In the same way that you don’t need to be an automotive mechanic to drive a car, you don’t need to be computer scientist or engineer to use digital tools. When she was Director of the ROM, Janet Carding told me that one of her goals for her staff was that they be able to perform their own basic AV troubleshooting without requiring dedicated AV staff to turn on projectors in meeting rooms, plug in laptops, and the other digital minutia of the modern workplace. When I expressed surprise, she reminded me that typing used to be a specialized skill restricted to “typists”. They went to special schools to learn how to do it well and very quickly. Big organizations had whole offices full of these specialists. Sending out a letter was next to impossible without them. Now, everybody types their own damned letters (or emails) and the typist has gone the way of the lamplighter. Figuring out to plug your laptop into the screen in the meeting room shouldn’t be any different. The postdigital workplace doesn’t require a staff brimming with digital specialists. It requires a staff with enough confidence and training to use the tools at hand. The next step, building new tools to solve museums’ specific challenges, also requires staff who deeply understand those tools and can build new ones. It’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and situation.
Stop kicking the can down the road
I often hear senior executives talk about the lack of skills their staff have and how they need to wait until more “digital natives” enter the workforce, and a new generation of leaders arise. First off, that’s bullshit, and second, I have little patience with this kind of kicking the can down the road. Digital maturity is not really a generational issue, it’s a cultural one. Designing a work culture where continuous staff development is part of the landscape is the only way to escape the dilemma of having staff who don’t know how to use use the latest tools. Today’s 25-year-olds will be just as ill-equipped to deal with the technologies developed five years hence unless we design a culture that “bakes in” staff development as something we all do, all the time, as a regular part of being alive in an age of digital abundance. Among the many smart things he says, Robert Weisberg recently wrote about The Event Horizon of Digital Skills and Museum Staff, where he summed up the dilemma, writing, “The growth of digital initiatives requires the continuous development of digital literacy … . This shift involves staff becoming more aware of the museum’s collection of systems, cultures, values, and processes holistically in order to move an organization beyond silo-based, project-oriented thinking.” I discussed some of different museums’ efforts to understand their digital ecosystems in my post on the Museum Stack, which is worth a peek, especially the different kinds of stacks people have proposed. Finally, the latest edition of The New Media Consortium’s “Horizon Report: 2016 Museum Edition”, suggests that this kind of literacy, not fluency, “..is essential to improving technical infrastructure and workflows. Digital literacy needs to be achieved across the board, especially in the context of museum leadership.” The skill dilemma is not a storm museums can wait out.
Building literacy takes a village…
Continuous professional development may sound great to some, but how does it happen in age of busyness and distraction? It happens because somebody decides it needs to start somewhere, and they start. Greg Albers and Annalisa Stephen detailed the Getty’s staff efforts to increase their own literacy in Making the Workplace We Want. Among their efforts, they introduced,
- a series of 10-minute peer-to-peer technology classes,
- new communications tools and meeting formats,
- a 100-person on-site retreat for staff working on digital projects, among other drinks things.
Among the things I admire about this (and all the other grassroots efforts out there) is that Greg, Annalisa, and their colleagues figured out processes and topics that appealed to the Getty’s staff, and addressed the needs they identified. Their model might not adapt well to any other museum, but it doesn’t have to. They built the program the Getty needed. More importantly, I think, was their recognition that this kind of development is not someone else’s job, but everybody’s. I am very inspired by their willingness to embrace the idea that “individuals like us, at any spot in the org chart (we’re each sort of in the middle of ours) can and should strive to make meaningful cultural change where and when they can.”
…and some guile
There is often a stealthy/subversive element to digital literacy efforts. Max Evjen recently detailed conversations at Museums and the Web 2017 in a professional forum titled “Strategy 3.0: What is Digital Strategy Now” that brought up the idea of using the language of strategic planning as a tool to boost digital literacy efforts. For Evjen, “digital strategy” was a useful subversive technique in museums, because the word “strategy” is traditional museum language, whereas digital is not the traditional way of doing museum work. “The main challenge that our group identified was that in order to achieve digital literacy across the organization, cultural change is required, and that culture is dictated by museum leadership.” So, adding “digital” to the pile of things requiring strategic thinking is a way to bring it in from the frosty hinterlands of Specialistland to the heart of the museum endeavor. “More than anyone, we need to describe how the work of digital in the museum points back to the institution’s core mission.”
At the Peabody Essex Museum, we’ve been engaged on a multi-year process of developing professional development programs for our colleagues and ourselves. I am continually reminded how much teaching involves learning as much it involves knowledge transfer. Professional development is a tide that lifts all boats. I can already see how the efforts are starting to pay off, in terms of colleagues trying new tools, new ways of collaborating, and looking at their practices more reflectively. And it’s not in the job descriptions of any of the people who have developed the program. Aside from me, the rest of the people on that team are not digitally focused. Which is as it should be, I think. This is too important an issue to leave to any one group of people in any organization.
And, because the universe is an endlessly surprising place, I can enlist a very unlikely ally, Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an eminence grise straight out of Central Casting. In a wide-ranging recent conversation with ArtNet, he said, “The digital tools have to be handled by wise and intelligent people.” He ruined it in the next sentence, though, by saying, “They cannot be left into the hands of techies, who will focus on the latest craze.” So, I agree and disagree with Mr. De Montebello. My experience has been that it is more often desperate senior leaders who leap on QR codes, robot guides, apps, AR, and VR. The important thing we can agree on is that digital technologies require careful consideration by the highest levels of museum leadership.
Increasing digital literacy should be a non-negotiable goal for any institution.
Literacy, though, will only get you so far. Digitally literate professionals can say, “There must be a way for us to do _______.” With some degree of certainty. Actually doing ________, though, requires professionals who are actually fluent with the tools. Pick a museum that has adopted an ambitious digital project in the past decade (Cooper Hewitt, Cleveland Museum of Art, SFMOMA, Te Papa, etc) and without fail, you’ll find people who are software developers, coders, UX and UI devs, database administrators, and so on… It is very, very hard to build complicated digital things without actual digital specialists on staff. How many museums have that kind of digital capability? Not many, though it’ not just a museum problem. A recent report in VentureBeat highlighted how far all organizations have to go. “Altimeter: When it comes to digital transformation, companies are still way behind” stated that “A lack of digital talent and expertise is one issue, according to 31.4 percent of respondents. And the perception that digital transformation is a cost center and not an investment is reported by another 31 percent.” Sound familiar? That a shedload of programmers I opened this post with will cost a lot of money, because they possess deep domain knowledge that translates into money. Solving the fluency gap is not nearly as thorny as the literacy gap. It will just require the will to pay for it.
Literacy, literacy. Which Literacy?
Digital literacy efforts as they’re usually portrayed are all about skill building; understanding how to manage data, intellectual property rights, etc. But there is also a need for domain knowledge, and that usually means bringing in specialists who possess those skills. Until museum studies departments start doing things very differently, those people will come with little to no understanding of how museums work. Where things start to get interesting is in institutions that have already taken those first steps and brought in digital specialists. They face two different literacy gaps they need to close. All their staff require ongoing professional development around digital literacy. And their digital staff require tremendous amounts of professional development around museum literacy.
Museums are not like for-profits, and people used to working in startups, or in the tech sector, come with a huge amount of baggage about how work gets done in “the real world” and when people are brought in because they possess specialist knowledge that the organization covets, it can be easy for them to assume that anything they did in their last workplace can and should be done at their museum. And that way lies madness, and lots of museum people hating on Agile, Lean Canvas, Kanban, and any of the other standard ways of structuring work that high-tech companies employ. Luckily, if the museum has already started working on ongoing professional development, the solution is pretty straightforward. The need for digital specialists to receive ongoing museum literacy training can run just like digital literacy training, and the colleagues who are students in one session can be leaders in another. And eventually, I think those museums will be the ones that get to the point where the distinction no longer means anything.
If you know of any good examples of professional development models, I’d love to hear about them!
UPDATE: I somehow missed the final paragraph in my cutting and pasting haste. Here it is.
Either/Or vs. Both/And
This dialectic, unlike the others I’ve laid out thus far, turns out to be more a confusion of related issues, rather than a real conflict. Museums that want to do well in the digital era need to address *both* the digital literacy challenge, *and* the lack of digitally fluent staff. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other will produce results, but won’t achieve the kind of transformation possible by doing both. My strong feeling is that building a workplace culture that values continuous professional development will be the most straightforward to achieve that goal and mitigate the inevitable tensions that arise when you put groups of diverse specialists together and tell them to collaborate.
Next up, our final installment: Values vs. Culture.
UPDATE 2: I misattributed Max Evjen’s words to Rob Stein, but Emily Lytle-Painter straightened me out. Thanks Emily!