Collaboration can be transformative – Take homes from the CILIP executive briefing ‘Beyond Silos of the LAM’s

Beyond Silos of LAMs conference

“Collaboration can be transformative”. This was the opening statement made by Gunter Waibel at the ‘Beyond Silos of the LAM’s’ event at CILIP on 15th September.

He used an analogy for collaboration being like a trapeze artist, swinging from one swing to another. In other words, something that requires an act of faith and a trust in yourself, your fellow flyers and the technology you are using.

Trust and risk were themes of the day. Who was willing to do both? It was clear that in most cases it was getting a mandate for collaboration from senior management that was necessary.

Case studies from V&A, Smithsonian and York Library and Archives all shared the presence of a clear vision, a belief and clarity about purpose and value that drives your ambitions. With this, securing the mandate for collaboration seems easier – as Stuart Dempster so nicely put it“ success breeds success”.

One thing that struck me was the question – What are the incentives to collaborate beyond personal success that so often (if we are honest) can be defined as trumping your partner? Guenter spoke accurately I felt, about the inherent tension in the fact that we are often measured “against each other – not really a natural state for collaboration”!

Maybe a way to deflect this dichotomy might be as Nick Poole suggested in his talk the need to collaborate “beyond our mates”. and consider wider collaboration with perhaps the creative industries, tourism, arts or commercial partners.

This mirrors my personal feelings that by far the biggest threat facing LAM’s is the risk of not collaborating beyond their mates – not to face outwards from the sector to the wider environment and the many places where cultural content could be of value (schools, broadcasters, publishers, bloggers and more).

Nick encapsulated this very well when he said “ we have a collective opportunity, we are all emerging from an ere of mass digitisation into something more nuanced and sophisticated.”

Roy, Nick and Brian
Left to right: Brian Kelly, Fiona Williams, Roy Clare, Nick Poole and Guenter Waibel

I was struck by the fact that within the Smithsonian, they face internally all the same issues that an individual museum, library or archive face in collaborating with others. With their 19 museums, 20 library branches, research facilities, archives and a zoo, they probably have as many objects as a small country! They are singlehandedly their own silo, but with a brand (a bit like the Tate), that needs no introduction.

My own presentation considered the issue of users, their needs and behaviour online. In particular what methodologies and tools are available to us now that could deliver more focussed user friendly services that have a collaborative model at their core.

You can view the presentation of slideshare here.

My essential premise took a specific profile of a 10 year old child sitting down to a computer in a library. It asked “why can’t the library’s online offer, engage the child to the same degree as the physical library?

It’s a very good question and one that is long overdue in asking. For me, the answers are all there for the taking – diverse content feeds, open data sharing, aggregation platforms and interface personalisation.

I would love to see my idea tried out in a library and then track the usage.

Any takers???

Take-homes from btween09 digital media forum, Liverpool

Just spent a great two days in Liverpool with a very interesting mix of creative types (entrepreneurs, developers, thinkers, social media start-ups, agencies and broadcasters) as part of the btween09 digital media forum. Well done to Katz Kiely and her team at just-b.

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I was one of only a handful of people from the public cultural sector and probably one of the only people who doesn’t have the successful monetising of their offer at the heart of what drives their service. Not that I am saying that the task of justifying the spending of public money is not something that should be quantified and considered as ROI but that the mindset of being driven by a remit to promote learning and engagement for its own sake puts you in a different box to commercial companies.

For me there are a number of key take-homes and formation of early ideas.

1. I was struck by how clever commercial agencies are getting in their manipulation of social media. Ogilvy talked about Brands not just using social media, but being social. But the methods within this new marketing 2.0 seems sometimes counter intuitive in some ways to traditional marketing methods. For example, you don’t talk about yourself within networks, you talk about other people or you support networking and ideas shaping events such as this one in order to make sure you are on the right wave. I guess no one would be surprised to hear that I am deeply cynical about agencies in general and about this kind of clever intrusion into the heart of social networking but, as the revenue streams generated support the sector that I hold dear, I have to bite my tongue. Also, hats off to the people at Ogilvy who are seriously smart (love the brainZ internal problem solving solution, read a post from the people that built it here). I would love to see this kind of intelligence applied to arts, heritage and education!

2. Charles Leadbeater’s analysis of the switch between traditional media and what he calls ‘mutual media’ is excellent. It’s a very clear visual image of the shift between mutual media as the moon orbiting around the huge sun of traditional media (the model of the past), and the future trajectory that he predicts will see the positions switch. He talked around many of the ideas present in his books, such as the breakdown of people activities into three categories – Enjoy, Talk, Do. You can get his essay with a lot of other good stuff in the recently published “After the Crunch” book by CCSkills and British Council here).

3. The three speakers from my session (Will Gompertz, Peter Buckingham and me) were presenting and discussing the issues faced by different aspects of cultural sector as funded by three different government funded agencies – Film Council, MLA and Arts Council – three different organisations but all clearly arriving at the same place at the same point in time with regard to the potential of digital services to transform user engagement. All looking for the holy grail of what this should mean in terms of policy development. But the really cool bit was that Leadbeaters introduction couldn’t have provided a better platform or introduction to the issues we were discussing. It was not planned, it was just all true. True and very reassuring that our observations and thoughts about what is possible and the value of real collaboration put us on the right track, Very comforting when weighing up the price of all the blood, sweat and tears or trying to get people to see the links between all these things.

4. It was really inspiring to see FACT thriving as a venue and as an organisation. Looking really good with projects like FACT TV and Abandon Normal Devices. They were contemporaries to the organisation I used to run before Culture24 called Lighthouse, who roots came out of the independent film and video workshop initiatives in the 80’s and who have both blossomed through the careful and clear advocacy of the role of creative activities and industries in economic development and reform at a local level. The original key player in FACT, Eddie Burg, is now at the Southbank and soon to join the Culture24 board. Very nice and looking forward to working with him.

5. I have learned that five and a half hours on a bus that was sold to you as a techbus, but actually lacked much actual ‘tech’, not really enough beer and a huge traffic jam, can actually be really fun if you are travelling with a group of truly free minds (thanks to Alfie Dennen and Adam Gee for the stories). Charlie Leadbeater called the people who are pushing to find the meaning of the new digital spaces (socially and culturally) “pirates and renegades”. I say ‘yes’ to that.

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Check out the little blue buy who blows bubbles when you tweet!

Report from 4th Culturemondo International Roundtable meeting in Taiwan

The theme which framed the conference was ‘how the old feeds the new’ – how cultural heritage, artefacts, collections, objects can shape and nurture meaning in our ever changing online world.

There were 37 participants from 21 countries who split pretty equally into three groups:
– those (like me) running what were in the past called cultural portals
– people from the asia/pacific region who are involved in online cultural projects of various different kinds (some portals, some networks, some new stuff)
– theorists, artists, researches and developers from varies strands of the commercial, academic and creative sectors.

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It was my first meeting as the new Chair and also the first time that we have had the resources to document the proceeding (thanks to our Taiwanise host TELDAP) as well as serious plan to disseminat them over the coming months.

These events are always best for their sociable nature and the inspiration you find in new people with other practices. The group were all wonderfully creative people, who are at the top of their fields and I felt a real honour at being their chair and coordinator for three days.

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What is a cultural portal? It used to be a simple set of links, a kind of directory within which to find information. This model is dead. Search engines have replaced this functionally in ways that are quicker, more sophisticated and free to the public purse. Portals (if the word is to remain) now need to be doorways into an online architecture that is a curated space – much as a real doorway leads you into a building with different rooms, levels and interiors. They need to be published and at their best should allow their data to be filterd by others for republication.

The first generation of cultural portals have now either evolved or died. Those that have survived and grown are faced with the new challenge of how to have their own voice. How to build an architecture that draws people in and lay down ‘desire lines’ to new places.

Portal used to just be just the messenger, with culture itself – the art, the object as the message. The new generation of portals we are now seeing are, at their best, are both messenger and the message.

Portals need publishing and publishing is about curation, opinion, vision, style and content. The more we can publish, curate and integrate content for our audiences, the more meaning we can give it and the more value we add as the publishers.

This means not just knowing and defining our own voice as publishers (the role of the editor or journalist) but also finding ways to integrate both institutional culture (from our museums, archives galleries etc) with people’s own views of culture. This is a real challenge to do well and one I know the mumbers of the Culturemondo netwrok are rising to.

Some of those at the meeting were running a new generation of projects that seem to bypass the institutional view altogether. Things like Global Voices or Dirk Picture Library in Bangladesh are both examples of projects that fundamentally combine the message and the meaning inseparably in their architecture, methodology and delivery.

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It was clear to me personally that the new Culture24 site that we have just spent two years building is already in need of another rebuild before we have even launched it. I am driven, inspired and depressed by this fact. I know that the new site is going to be loved and will generate a level of interest in UK culture not previously seen online but I also know that the best is let to come.

Roll on the next Culturemondo roundtable.

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You can see full info on the participants, agenda and video clips of the roundtable on the Culturemondo website.

Excellence, good practice, failure and the McMasters report (oh yea and audiences as well…) Museums Association conference Liverpool 2008

The debate at the Museums Association Conference, Liverpool 2008 about reactions and issues from Brian McMasters report started to define some of the substantial challenges the DCMS are going to have in implementing the recommendations.

On a panel were Mick Elliott (DCMS), Andrew Whyte (ACE), Mark O’Neill (Culture & Sport Glasgow) and Journalist Maev Kennedy. Unfortunately, Brian McMasters was not able to attend at the last minute but was replaced by a colleague who has worked on the report with him.

As the session went it it became clear that there was an undercurrent of fear coming from some in the Museum sector, articulated best by Mark O’Neill, of this all ending up with a return to the kind of elitism that the Arts Council have been criticised of before. Not so, was the reply from Andrew Whyte, this was about professional judgement and there was a need for the sector to trust those professionals who might be in the peer review process to be just that – professional. He also said that is was up to DCMS to balance judgements with measurements, one providing the context for the other.

As an optimist, I am inclined to give him this trust as my concerns from this debate about how DCMS is going to translate McMasters ideas into reality, lie elsewhere.

1) The focus of the debate was on the user (hopefully) being at the receiving end of some sort of excellence in terms of an experience. But for me its not just about considering the user at the end of a piece of work. You need to start with the user at the beginning. If you don’t start here, with can you know what the user might need or care about? How can you assess the potential? How can you assess impact or reach?

2) Good practice is not just something that falls out of the blue, it is learned. So, if excellence is one step up from good practice then one step down from it is failure. However in this session the debate on the value of failure was missed out and there was no talk about what we can learn from failure. This is a area where I think peer review could play a key part, not just to assess excellence or good practice but also failure (and failure as part of the journey all organisations are on towards excellence). If this kind of shift in thinking could be embraced and the understanding of failure seen as a success, it may also help to counteract the fear of elitism that some feel.

Christopher Frayling at the Museums Association Conference, Liverpool 2008 – the historical and the contemporary.

Liverpool Docks
Liverpool Docks

Sandy Nairn called it an ‘historical moment’ which makes it sound very grand but in one way it was. The chairman of the Arts Council addressing the Museums Association conference for the first time is a bit of a shock for an event whose focus is largely inwards and whose speakers are usually on the same side of the fence. But this was a refreshing change and overdue.

The vision to mix the ‘historical and the contemporary’ (see Arts Council Turning Point strategy) for me is the bleeding obvious. Christopher Frayling puts it very nicely as to view the past through the prism of the present. Something I think most people actually do in their everyday life anyway. When we look back, reflect, remember, investigate it is through the eyes and body of who we are in the ‘now’. That ‘now’ is always shifting, much as a lens has to refocus as you move further away from its subject.

The context of his speech was the much-discussed McMasters report (see my other session notes from the same event) and the commitment from both the Arts Council and MLA to work together more closely.

Much of his speech focussed on some beautiful examples of commissions and interventions that contemporary artists have made into museum and heritage spaces. Stuff like the New Visions programme at National Maritime Museum. Sarah Lucus at Freud Museum, the Science Museums “Listening Post, Carl Clerkin’s “ Short Crawlies” in Derby, or Susie MacMurray at Pallant House.

He drew a comparison between artists and curators calling them both creatures of curiosity. Both brilliant at looking not just seeing, both understanding visual drama and narrative and the powerful effect of the plinth and the frame.

He talked about what he sees as their shared interests and how it results in different approaches and values towards the same things e.g. a curator may handle a thing in white gloves or not at all, but an artist will wants to hold it and feel it..

Obviously this is a generalisation but usefully within the comparison is a real recognition of the comparative value of both, a notion that some may feel is new for the Arts Council who have in the past focussed more on the artist as the only central figure in any work.

Mostly his comments focused on the good stuff that curators have learned from artists and the ways in which artists have brought new interpretations to old stuff. He said “By introducing arts into the equation, the meaning of objects doesn’t end when they enter the museum”. Sadly, there was little reflection on how the meaning of art is influenced by the historic or by the curator. I would have liked him to have gone further into how artists can learn from curators or the museum space. What perhaps you might call looking at the present through the prism of the past perhaps?

Matt Locke & Andy Budd at the MA conference 2008: From Measurement to judgement in the digital world

I chaired a session at the Museums association conference in Liverpool yesterday called ‘From measurement to judgement in the digital world.

My two speakers were Matt Locke and Andy Budd. Matt is a commissioning editor at Channel 4 and their Head of Learning working principally on materials aimed at teenagers and younger audiences. He was previously Head of Innovation at the BBC and before that worked in the cultural sector as a curator. Andy is User Experience Director at Clearleft. His expertise lies in understanding user experience both in terms of building sites but also as consultants.

I asked both of them to talk about what digtial innovation is and to show us examples of things they thought were innovative.

The context for the session was the recent DCMS report by Brain McMasters. The report champions a move away from measurement to judgement. The idea is that arts funders and policy has become overly concerned with quantitative, bean counting type measures. McMasters suggests that it is time to refocus on strategies that embrace innovation, risk-taking and peer review.

However the McMasters report does not explicitly address the digital world and it is to address this gap in his report that my session sought to explore and ask questions.

Matt started by talking about his belief that if you are working creating online stuff now then the real issue is about attention. Where is your audience’s attention? How do you grab that attention and how do you keep it?

“It has never been so easy to be ignored” he said. A mindset away from the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality that often happens in the cultural sector.

His work at Channel 4 is focussed largely on a teenage audience, which means their attention is largely ‘within’ social networks. As a result a lot of Matt’s work is about delivery through these channels. What was interesting about how he described this work was not just what we can all learn about how museums might use social media. He also unpacked the processes he used through the build of a project and explored what lessons can be taken from that which are generic and can be applied to any audience.

His point was the need, before you begin, to define the user experience you are trying to engender and crucially, who you want to have this experience. When you have done this, you can then work backwards to find out how to lead people to this experience (marketing) and how to find out if they liked it (feedback).

A question from the audience unwittingly helped to clarity this approach by wondering if all of Matt’s examples, as they were for teenagers, were not relevant to an appreciation of fine art. The questioner wondered if all this online work was all just too fast and too teenager led and nothing to do with the people that he wanted to reach. He wanted to get people to study a painting, to reflect, dive into an intimacy and depth of consideration about a painting.

What struck me was that this was such a clear vision for an experience for a user and it would be a great place from which to define and build an online experience. How might you do this online? If you could do this, well maybe that would be an example of innovation or excellence? I have never seen an online project that succeeded in doing this (yet) but it is would be a great challenge to try.

Andy suggested that true innovation is a terrible strategy and rarely works outside a handful of companies. He looked the development of the iPod and the Diamond Rio. The Diamond Rio was the first consumer mp3 player in the western world and was hugely innovative. The iPod didn’t come out until 3 years later and it was already a saturated market. It had less storage capacity, less battery life and less features than the majority of its competition. So in reality there is nothing innovative about the iPod. What makes it great is the design, the simplicity and the over all user experience “Best to market almost always trumps first to market.”

Andy’s view is that innovation is a costly exercise and you will fail a lot more times than you’ll succeed, especially if you don’t have a culture of innovation, which few people actually do. So his advice to the museum sector is rather than being innovative, it’s much better (and more cost effective) to learn from others mistakes and aim to create the best experience possible.

Matt’s advice was to be decide to do one of two things: either try and tell a story – or – build a bit of the web. His example of telling a story was Yeardot – teenage narratives and shared experience. His example of trying to create a piece of the web was School of Everything – an architecture that is about connections and a service.

His advise to those without a lot of money was to understand your objects, try and tell a story using your date and make it easy to join and participate.

The epiphany moment for me came when I realised that when thinking about the cultural sector and digital stuff I mix up innovation and good practice and that they are really not the same. Innovation is not just doing something well. I think my confusion comes from the fact that so much of what I see being done digitally is ‘not good’ that when I find something that works well, it feels like innovation.

Time to redefine.

dconstruct ‘Designing The Social Web’ 5th September, Brighton

Designing The Social Web, that was the title of this year’s dconstruct conference in Brighton on 5th September organised by Clearleft. The event was packed and due to the fact the date coincided with the Culturemondo steering committee meeting, I was able to go en-mass with Seb Chan, Ilya Eric Lee and Aleksandra Uzelac who were all over visiting the UK.

I think we were pretty much the only people there from any cultural sector organisation (who are non profit) and obviously bring with us quite different expectations. I think when you sit and listen to the broader changing web issues without the cultural context they often lack a touchpoint for me as ultimately they pursue that successful business model (that is commercial) and prioritises that over the meaning of the stuff/content. Great if you want to make money (something I have never been good at!)

The opening session delved into social history and looked at the Cholera epidemic in London and the tools that were used to made a breakthrough into discovering that the cause was in the water not in the air. The solution was found through a combination of cartography (new ways of mapping), local knowledge (social networks) and free official data (open source). The old feeds into the new its shape and patterns. Social phenomenon repeat and duplicate.

The talk was by Steven Johnson and was based on his book The Ghost Map. Loved the idea of a social network of dead people.

The two presentations by the developers and brains behind Doppler (Matt Biddulph and Matt Jones – a geeks version of the Two Ronnies) and Daniel Burka from DIGG/Pownce were both worth hearing. I always favour stories that use practical experience to communicate ideas and they were open about their successes and failures in a way that was engaging. Both talked about the need to offer more to users. The two Matt’s referred to the need to work in what they called ‘the coral reef’ of the web rather that a walled garden. Daniel looked at how to encourage sign up with real benefits that go beyond just altruism.

The day ended with a really ambitious and poetic presentation by Jeremy Keith whose dry witty style I like very much. He took us on a whirlwind tour of the thinking behind how everything in the universe is connected to everything else and the laws of nature/physics (whatever you prefer to call them) apply to everything, even the web. So long tail is no accident it is a reflection of a scale free network of the power head and tail. Cool stuff, lots of it from other sources (Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point to name one) but well executed and bold. Bold in its lack of geekiness and its nod to the force of nature above commerce. I liked it.

dconstruct is organised by Clearleft where Jeremy Keith is based. Andy Budd who is there Director of user experience is taking part in my session at the MA conference on October 6th 2008 in Liverpool with Matt Locke.