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Making sense of the shifting normal: how might cultural organizations use this period to reflect and build a combined physical and digital strategy

Lauren Vargas schreef voor DEN een artikel over hoe je als instelling kritisch na kunt denken over de stabiliteit van je bedrijfsmodellen in het 'veranderend normaal' dat we nu, vanwege de coronapandemie, zien ontstaan.

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Viktor Frankl

Welcome to what Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, a research professor at the University of Houston studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, calls “the messy middle.” When we rang in 2020, no one could have foreseen the struggles we would be presented with this year. At the start of the pandemic, organizations rallied to share content and activities via their social media channels and websites. These signals told our physical visitors that we were present and eager to be part of their lives even if our physical doors were not open.

Some cultural organizations chose this time to experiment with new digital ideas and activities, while others brought what had been happening in their physical environments to their digital properties. However, in the midst of reacting to rapidly changing conditions, some organizations have not taken this time to critically reflect upon the stability of our business models and consider how we might survive and thrive in a “shifting normal.” When facing the unknown, the time after the messy middle, it is easier to desire the familiar, what we knew and understood before, rather than risk limited time, energy, and people to explore uncharted territory.

As we write our future histories of cultural organization’s use of technology, this – now – will be remembered as the moment everything changed. At a time of crisis, cultural organizations are making decisive turns towards digital in their structure, workforce, and communications. But how well are we understanding these unprecedented challenges, and leading this accelerated decision-making?

Making space to understand audience engagement

As our organizations work with national and local governments to make sense of the ever-changing guidelines for closing and re-opening our cultural spaces, we might use this time to become better acquainted with the communities we serve.

What we can determine from studies like 'A Special Edition of Culture Track: Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis' is that audiences want to have a relationship with cultural organizations, and we may begin to cultivate those relationships now through digital means. But audience intent can be difficult to ascertain. According to the Culture Track Study, respondents are looking for creative ways to learn and express themselves. One respondent said, “Almost all [of the online activities I tried] provided a sense of community and a strange kind of intimacy. There was a sense of being connected with the world outside my house and grocery store.” Now is the opportune time to gather deep data or understanding about our audiences, so that we may go beyond broadcasting one-size-fits-all content and activity and begin creating engaging moments or experiences that speak to the direct and specific needs and desires of our audiences. The objective is not to move to 100% digital engagement or even a digital-first experience, but to calibrate the right balance of physical and digital audience understanding and engagement specific to an organization’s conditions and contexts for maximum impact.

As cultural consultant, Andrew McIntyre, states in his Part 1 of his 'Culture in Lockdown' Medium post series: “A quick consensus is emerging that the ‘winning formula’ will be vision-led organizations producing content that is authentic and human, in an attempt to engage and build their communities. In short, the organizations best placed to succeed are those that are unequivocally Vision-led and relentlessly Audience-focused.” Do we know enough about where our cultural organization’s fit into the daily lives of our audiences to claim to be vision-led by placing the needs of our audiences at the heart of all our processes?

Regardless of the effort and expense your organization might have invested in the past to understand your audiences, between the pandemic and candid conversations about social justice, the rhythm of your audience’s lives – and the way they interact with your organization – have been fundamentally altered. It is time to get re-acquainted with how your audience thinks and feels, what they say and do, and discover who influences their decisions. Your organization needs to walk in their shoes to better understand how their world and behavior have changed with the travel restrictions, health and safety concerns, and the toll of assisting children in remote school situations.

Making space to understand our relationship with digital in our hyper local environment

The organizations best prepared to pivot during a crisis are those who have already considered the contexts and conditions that would disrupt their business. The messy middle feels a little less messy when you’ve already imagined it could happen. Business recovery in the cultural sector will take considerable time. It is not too late to begin cultivating the art of the long view and considering various short- to long-term scenarios that move your organization from delivering the same level of service expected before the crisis to exploring ways to leapfrog your offering through new business models.

Meta Knol, Director of Leiden European City of Science 2022, advocates for a hyper-local approach, saying: “Companies that are already committed to sustainability will soon have a head start, especially when the economy picks up again. In the future, people, including those who work for multinationals, will spend more time, more often in their own local environment. They will travel less, but in the meantime their world will become hyper-digital. This is the blueprint for the first post-corona wave of de-globalization, after decades of being at the mercy of the vagaries of an ever-expanding global market.” How might cultural organizations use this time of closure or reduced operations to identify and prioritize drivers, uncertainties, trends, cycles, and the multiple choices for their potential future so as to plan the best next actions to aid their local growth and development?

By undertaking an exercise in scenario planning, organizations learn from the past in order to better inform the present and plan for a more resilient future. Scenario planning encourages outside-in thinking, meaning a focus on external forces that will impact your organization and where it is situated in the context of your community. The act of better understanding our audiences and how they may feature as heroes in our scenario narratives help cultural organizations forge stronger connections with their hyper-local communities – the audiences who will support our cultural spaces if and when they feel the physical and digital space was made intentionally by, with, and for them.

As long as the gathering is intentional and audiences feel as if they are being listened to and made part of an on-going dialogue, community may take shape and be cultivated in digital environments before being fully realized in our physical spaces.

Making space to understand how we confidently engage in a digital workplace

It is difficult to become excited or engaged in digital dialogue or activities, if our workforce (including volunteers) does not feel confident participating or creating space in digital environments. Practicing a ‘CALM’ approach to digital literacy may help the entire organization feel more confident about how it adopts new ways of working as well as emerging technologies.

‘CALM’ is an acronym for the key attributes needed when practicing digital in museums: ‘Collaborative’, ‘Anticipatory’, the need to ‘Let go’ of command and control leadership and ‘Mindful’. ‘CALM’ accompanies ‘CARE’ in the digital space, which refers to the need to Communicate, Adapt, to be Resilient and Empathetic. The ‘Take CARE to be CALM.’ approach was developed in the midst of the pandemic and social justice conversations during research conducted as part of the ‘One by One’ Project – a multi-partner international initiative, bringing together cultural organizations, policy makers, academics, professional bodies, support agencies, and communities of practice, to build digitally confident museums. ‘One by One’ helps museums of any size better define, improve, measure and embed the digital literacy of their staff and volunteers in all roles and at all .

We may look to the resources that are being developed by projects like ‘One by One’ and across the globe and consider how we might reframe, reimagine, and repurpose these materials for cultural organizations in the Netherlands. When in ‘the messy middle,’ it is not realistic to think we can reinvent the wheel. Rather, we may consider other frameworks with our specific conditions and contexts to develop a deeper internal digital confidence resulting in rich, relevant, remarkable experiences for our audiences.

Making space to develop a practical approach

Digital collaboration and communication practices can scale decision-making across the organization and enable the necessary scaffolding for the development of relevant skills needed to support the ‘cultural organization of the future’. How might cultural organizations use this time to create more open and collaborative workplaces so that we may be aware of, acknowledge, and adapt workloads to ensure work is equally distributed and aligned to strategic goals and objectives? Levelling-up digital skills enables a more connected and engaged workforce while enhancing consumer and visitor experiences. Getting curious about how audiences navigate a digital journey or experience, how and when to collect and store audience data, ensure continuous innovation (in the digital space), and accessibility enhance audience research methods and help cultural organizations build the foundation for stronger audience relationships that may weather future crises.

Here are five activities that you as a digital leader could do today to begin developing a digitally curious and confident mind-set:

  1. Conduct a scenario planning exercise with your organization to determine how you resource and invest in digital and plan for the future in an uncertain world.
  2. Facilitate a digital experience and journey mapping session, so your organization develops a common language and understanding of what is needed for the right audience at the right time.
  3. Consider completing a digital maturity assessment, share your scores and discuss with colleagues, perhaps in a team meeting or a workshop-style session. Consider what preparation or support would make this discussion most effective. Invite a ‘critical friend’ to be a sounding board or facilitator, someone who understands your context.  
  4. Make time to reflect on your personal digital literacy and understanding. Reach out to your peers to find out how they are developing their digital leadership and make a personal development plan.
  5. Complete the ‘CALM’ prompts and canvas to assess how your organization communicates and collaborates internally and with external communities. Use the insights to forge open and transparent communication and new ways of working.

Making space to identify many future paths

We have the power to choose to use this time of unknowns to become better acquainted with what has been and what will be and for whom we serve. We can choose to take stock of our digital maturity and focus on key opportunities to amplify our visions through digital experiences. Let us take time to future proof our organizations by identifying the paths that are right for our organizations and audience needs. Guiding our audiences and workforce along a digital adoption curve enhances – not replaces – our physical spaces and analogue activities.

We can make sense of the ‘messy middle’ if we cultivate a sense of belonging that fits into the lives of our audiences no matter the circumstances. It is time to reimagine our digital strategy and navigate a “shifting normal” by recognizing our cultural organization’s unique contexts and conditions. We have the power to choose to shift from a digital reaction-mode to a digital-strategy mode where there is room in the overarching mission, vision, purpose, and strategy for the physical and digital visitor experience to be recognized and continuously resourced.

 

DEN Academie

De thema’s die in dit artikel worden besproken zijn relevant bij het ontwikkelen van digitaal leiderschap. Ze komen aan bod tijdens het driedaagse managementprogramma Digitale Strategie & Innovatie van de DEN Academie. Het programma is er voor directeuren en senior managers in de cultuursector die de ambitie hebben om digitaal te innoveren en hun digitaal leiderschap verder te ontwikkelen. 

De inschrijvingen voor deelname in het voorjaar 2021 zijn geopend.

 

Dit artikel is geschreven door Lauren Vargas, één van de sprekers van het managementprogramma Digitale Strategie & Innovatie.

Lauren Vargas

Lauren Vargas

Your Digital Tattoo | Independent Researcher and Consultant

By day, Dr. Lauren 'L' Vargas is a digital dragon wrangler with 20 years experience assisting organizations with their community and communication strategies. Vargas is an independent researcher and consultant of Your Digital Tattoo, as well as, a 'One by One' Research Associate with the University of Leicester - delivering a "practical approach to building digital literacies within specific museum contexts" for UK and US museums.

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