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Digital Is More Than a Department, It Is a Collective Responsibility

Collage of images of public-domain artworks in The Met collection

As the digital demands of both external users and internal colleagues continue to grow, digital departments are trapped in an institutional tension: Should institutions scale their departments to meet that ever-growing need, or should digital responsibilities be cultivated and distributed across the organization?

This question has been a key topic in my first year as chief digital officer at The Met. Although The Met is already (partly) on that path, we're not proactively talking about it, nor are we discussing the opportunities, needs, and impacts of walking that path.

My aim in writing this piece is to contribute to a common understanding of digital practices in cultural institutions today, and to help frame discussions about a more sustainable, scalable, and mission-serving direction for digital practices at The Met.

It is telling that little is shared across digital departments in cultural institutions; their scope, organisational design, job titling, reporting structure, and even their name vary greatly (table 1). This variance is the result of a myriad of converging factors present in institutions when their digital departments were formed, or later (perhaps repeatedly) re-structured. These factors include strategic vision, funding, Human Resources issues, middle-management tensions, leadership preferences, or the recommendations of an external consultant. This variance continues today; there is no standard or set of best practices for digital departments within cultural institutions.

Table 1. Department name, department head, and reporting structure for digital departments across 12 large art museums in the United States*

Table 1. Department name, department head, and reporting structure for digital departments across 12 large art museums in the United States*

What these digital departments do share is that they were established in response to a new external factor: the digital age. At various points over the last 20 years, cultural institutions recognized that digital was having a transformative effect on the delivery of their mission. Forming a digital department—and centralizing expertise and accountability for the digital-related functions of an organization—was the common strategic response.

Digital departments became centralized teams responsible for developing and delivering digital practices and functions within a sector and workplace culture that was overwhelmingly not digital. Whether it was formally acknowledged or not, from the outset, these departments were agents of change; they were leading the digital transformation of their non-digital institutions.

This was true at The Met, where the Digital Media Department, as it was initially named, was established in November 2009. The new department brought together existing staff for whom digital was deemed the distinguishing factor in their role, and who, up until then, had been part of Education, Web Group, Information Systems and Technology, and Collections Management. At the new department's launch, the director announced:

By bringing you all together under the roof of one department and by linking your complimentary skills and professional and technological expertise, we intend to streamline workflow, create new synergies, and open the Museum to new digital opportunities.

In many ways, this approach worked—both at The Met and at other cultural institutions. Websites were built, collections were digitized, apps were launched, digital content was produced, social media accounts multiplied, and Webby Awards were won. But today, as new technologies, opportunities, and challenges emerge at an accelerating pace, and in an age where digital is critical to how cultural institutions build relevance and participate in society, the strategy of centralizing responsibility for digital transformation within a single, distinct department is reaching its limits. Now a broader institutional approach is needed.

Digital as a Horizontal (and Not a Vertical) across the Organization

Centralized digital departments place inherent operational, organizational, and cultural limits on their institutions. These include not having the bandwidth to respond to their audience's and institution's growing range of digital-related needs, or that the knowledge and expertise to best respond to these needs lives elsewhere in the organization. Additionally, with digital technologies impacting a growing range of verticals within the organization, departments across the organization are required to adapt to digital, and not just a single department. The end goal is not to have a digital department, but for an institution to use digital effectively to achieve its mission.

Today's digital departments house a number of different digital-related functions (table 2). These range from product management to digital imaging, and from management of the collections database to email. Some institutions have centralized many functions in larger digital departments, while other institutions have created smaller, single-function departments. No matter which digital-related functions have been centralized in a department, though, the other functions still exist in the organization. Already, digital is not limited to those functions housed in a digital department.

Table 2. Functions within the digital department across 12 large art museums in the United States*

Table 2. Functions within the digital department across 12 large art museums in the United States*

A reasonable argument could be made that those institutions that have centralized many functions within their digital departments—and hence were able to prioritize a specific initiative across those functions—have delivered more significant digital projects than those with a smaller, more focused digital department. Less evident is whether those same institutions have been more successful at delivering sustainable digital transformation across the organization. The opposite may even be true: The highly centralized Digital Department at The Met created a tension where digital was often perceived as the role of that "well-resourced" department, and not a shared responsibility.

At The Met, the Digital Department is composed of three teams:

  • Collections Information: Stewards of the Museum's collections data and digital assets, continuing a 120-year-old discipline that existed well before digital or the Digital Department. The team's functions are: managing the collections information system, managing of digital assets, and rights and permissions for digital content.
  • Content: Digital storytellers and editors skilled at telling The Met's stories online and through time-based media (audio, video, 360-degree video, etc.). The team's functions are: production of multimedia content, management of website content, and editorial services for online and in-gallery digital content.
  • Product Development: Product managers, UX designers, and developers who design, develop, and maintain The Met's portfolio of digital products created to meet the institution's needs. Product development is a relatively new discipline, and at cultural institutions is the digital twin of a buildings department. The team's function is: product management—the design, development, and management—of all public facing digital platforms.

Although the three teams reside within a single department and are stakeholders in one another's work, the workflow, cadence, and skill set of each team—those characteristics one expects to be similar within a department—are very different. The only thing they share is a recognition that the institution's success in a digital age is contingent on changes to existing practices and workflows.

Across all three teams, their responsibilities are two-fold:

  • collaborate with stakeholders across the Museum to identify and advocate for changes that that would better enable the Museum to harness the opportunities of digital; and
  • deliver activities, projects, and programing specific to their team's functions.

We have also learned that the institution benefits by recognizing these three teams as distinct, with each fulfilling a specific function, as opposed to referring to them as one amorphous Digital Department. This distinction makes life easier for our colleagues, too: "Spotted a bug on the website? Talk to Product Development." "Want to explore web features for an upcoming temporary exhibition? Your partner is the Content team." "Interested in how best to catalogue the collection? That is one for Collections Information."

To emphasize the longer-term value of this approach, it is worth highlighting that whether a digital department exists or not, the functions that these teams fulfil will continue to be needed—the teams will outlive the department. In some ways, these teams are the departments; the term "digital" in our department name is already relatively meaningless.

Putting a Name to Something We Are Already Doing

While the three teams in The Met's Digital Department are stakeholders in one another's work, they are not the only stakeholders; there are other departments across the Museum that are equally invested, whose success is tied to the successful use of digital technologies. This is apparent at The Met, where digital-related activities are already wider-spread than just the Digital Department. Examples include:

  • Imaging Department, and the development of a new program for advanced imagery of The Met collection, including three-dimensional scanning and photogrammetry
  • Merchandising and Retail, and their re-think of The Met Store online, its integration with the institutional website, and shift towards a product-management mentality
  • Department of Greek and Roman Art, and their dedication to digitizing and cataloguing the 13,000-plus fragments of the Dietrich von Bothmer Collection
  • Department of European Paintings, and their commitment to developing content-rich records for the objects in the online collection
  • Education Department, and the livestreaming, recording, and online presentation of their public-facing events
  • Marketing and External Relations, and the integration of digital channels—social media and email—with traditional media channels to promote The Met

Each of these departments is involved in transforming their existing practices in response to the opportunities presented by digital technologies, and each is completing work that is better housed within their functional teams than within a centralized Digital Department. Even now, to focus only on the work of the Digital Department ignores the full story of digital at The Met. Digital is not a department of 50 staff members—it is a collective of 200 colleagues and growing. We would be well served to formally recognize, support, and develop this reality. Digital at The Met was never just about one department or the functions therein.

Transitioning the institution to better recognise, support, and strategically align this collective responsibility will require shifts in mentality and organization. For departments, it will require supporting the development of digital skill sets across the organization, starting with recruitment through to ongoing professional-development courses. The digital responsibilities of departments ranging from curatorial to visitor services, and from design to education would need to be defined and the relevant skill sets developed. At the leadership level, it will place responsibility for smart decision making with digital on leaders across the institution. A framework will be needed to match the overall digital transformation of the institution—the tactics, internal process development, skills development, trade-offs, culture, business alignment—with the institution's strategic goals.

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast." —Peter Drucker

Although their lifespans may end up being short-lived, the successes of digital departments can largely be attributed to the team cultures they have succeeded in developing. Work with digital involves either the creation of something new or the transformation of something existing, be it a workflow, practice, project, or product. Digital transformation places existing practices under the microscope, questions long-standing "truths," and disrupts traditional hierarchies. Discomfort is inevitable; it is also very difficult to navigate. To successfully deliver digital transformation, teams need to work creatively within a zone of psychological safety where discomfort is safe, permitted, and even encouraged.

Those successful companies that were "born" digital—Google, Twitter, Netflix—attribute their successes to the team cultures they have developed. Their cultural values speak to impact, moving fast, having courage, and transparency. Providing their teams with the psychological safety to deliver transformation is rooted in their culture.

Herein lies a tension (table 3). The values commonly associated with digital work are different from those of a century-old cultural institution; the ability to transform or pivot are not characteristics one often hears in relation to a cultural institution. Delivering change—which is what those departments that are working with digital have been doing—is inherently risky, but cultural institutions are relatively risk averse.

Table 3. Cultural values of Twitter, Netflix, and the Scrum process, alongside the results of a 'digital values' poll of 18 current and former heads of digital department in large cultural institutions in the United States, who noted the cultural values they believe best foster a cohesive and effective digital department.

Table 3. Cultural values of Twitter, Netflix, and the Scrum process, alongside the results of a "digital values" poll of 18 current and former heads of digital department in large cultural institutions in the United States, who noted the cultural values they believe best foster a cohesive and effective digital department.

Digital departments have therefore succeeded by providing a psychological umbrella (and sometimes a fortress) under which teams can successfully steer their institutions through "digital discomfort." Under this umbrella (or within that fortress), digital departments have incubated a team culture that enabled digital transformation, where agile ways of working, failing forward, minimum viable products, iteration, launching early and often—all characteristics of a successful digital operation—could be expressed. Digital departments have created an undocumented subculture within the existing culture of their institution.

The incubation of this subculture is probably the most significant contribution digital departments have made to their institutions; it needs also to be their most enduring. If the underlying success of a digital department is delivering transformation, then as transformation is formally expanded across an institution, that institution would do well to recognize the benefits of that subculture and proactively marry it—or a derivative therein—to the cultural values of the institution. It is then incumbent upon institutional leadership to support and protect that marriage of cultures, establish the success indicators for digital transformation at an institutional level, and ensure the organization is focused on achieving that transformation collaboratively.

Five Questions We Will Be Asking about Digital at The Met

  1. Vision: How can we better articulate the importance of digital technologies to The Met's future success, and what does successful digital transformation look like given the strategic goals of The Met? The latter will cover agreement around the mission-serving value of The Met's online users and our foci in cultivating that community.
  2. Roles and Responsibilities: What are the digital tasks and functions of each department, and how can we de-emphasize the role of the Digital Department in order to create greater clarity around the functional teams it houses?
  3. Leadership: What are the responsibilities of the leadership team for integrating digital as a horizontal within the institution, and what decision-making framework is required—prioritization, internal process development, skills building, trade-offs, culture, business alignment—to best meets the institution's strategic goals?
  4. Culture: What type of institutional environment is necessary to enable our teams to succeed in the digital transformation of The Met's practices, and how can we successfully nurture and protect that environment?
  5. Human Resources: How can we raise digital literacy and skill levels across the organization, both at the department and senior leadership levels?

*Data as of September 28, 2017, with exception of LACMA, which is noted as of October 1, 2016.

This paper brings together ideas from countless discussions, articles, and strategy documents generously shared by colleagues across the cultural sector, and particularly among the Museum Computer Network and Museums and the Web communities. I am grateful and indebted to our sector's generous approach to knowledge sharing.

Further Reading

Goran, Julie, Laura LeBarge, and Ramesh Srinivasan. "Culture for a Digital Age." McKinsey Quarterly. Accessed July 27, 2017.

Hegley, Douglas, and Brad Dunn. "What and Where Is Digital? Conversations between Douglas Hegley (Chief Digital Officer at the Minneapolis Institute of Art) and Brad Dunn (Web and Digital Communications Director at the Field Museum)." thought/s/parked. Accessed September 22, 2017.

Ludden, Jack. "An Introduction to Digital Strategies for Museums." Museums and the Web Asia 2014, edited by N. Proctor and R. Cherry. Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web, 2014. Accessed July 16, 2017.

Parry, Ross. "The End of the Beginning: Normativity in the Postdigital Museum." Museum Worlds 1 (2013): 24–39.

Stack, John. "Tate Digital Strategy 2013–15: Digital as a Dimension of Everything." Tate Papers 19 (Spring 2013). Accessed July 16, 2017.

Stein, Rob. "Museums and Digital Strategy Today." Alliance Labs. Accessed July 16, 2017.

Department: Digital

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