Monument Fellow Jim Andrew mentoring staff at Thinktank science museum

Succession planning in the age of austerity

Julie Nightingale, 16.05.2011
Ensuring specialist knowledge is retained when staff leave should be built into the spirit of an organisation
PLANNING AHEAD

Knowledge is power, as the exceedingly over-worked adage has it. So what happens when the people who know all about your collections retire, move on or are made redundant, taking that expertise with them? A priceless asset could be lost forever if all the know-how (often shaped by decades of experience on the curatorial frontline) is never shared beyond a token crib sheet.

For some time there have been concerns that museums are not doing enough to develop their knowledge and to share it – with the public and among themselves – as the Museums Association’s (MA) 2007 report, Collections for the Future, noted (see further resources).   

THE MONUMENT TOOLKIT

Mindful of the problem of “brain drain” even before the recession hit, the MA has now developed a toolkit to help institutions safeguard their collections knowledge. It distils the findings of the MA’s recently concluded Monument Fellowship programme (which funded retired professionals to share their knowledge with colleagues) for museums to apply to their own circumstances.

Click here to download the toolkit as a PDF

The first thing to recognise is that the issue cannot be tackled by a simple process of downloading knowledge from one senior curator to their replacement in the days leading up to departure – like handing over the password to the computer. Rather, it needs to be built into the spirit of the organisation.

Helen Wilkinson, author of the Monument Fellowship Toolkit, says: “In the evaluations of the fellowship programme, a lot of people were saying it wasn't something you could sit down on a Monday morning and do for two hours. It was much more fundamental and was really about ways of operating within an organisation.

"In some museums, there’s almost a diffidence about curatorial knowledge, so one of the key things is to make sure that organisations value it, sending out a message that developing knowledge is not a luxury – it’s really core to the job.”

Some see a conflict here with museums’ remit to serve the visitor; how can a curator justify devoting their time to research when the great British public is out there waiting to be educated?

But this is a false dichotomy. As the Monument Fellowship Toolkit states, the public are most efficiently served when museums build knowledge about the collections while sharing this knowledge is an essential part of the remit of anyone who works in them.

BUILDING AN ORGANISATIONAL CULTURE

So how do you make knowledge sharing a fundamental element of what your museum is and does? Suggestions include:

  • Establish clear links between collections knowledge and public service.
  • Involve as many people as possible. Some Monument Fellows advocated involving volunteers as they brought different perspectives and asked different questions.
  • Think about the different types of audiences that staff will be serving. For example, a gallery assistant and a fundraiser need to talk about collections in different ways. At Thinktank science museum in Birmingham, front-of-house staff are encouraged to pursue their own research into the collection in order to build up simple fact sheets about key objects.
  • Encourage a culture in which no one is embarrassed to admit to gaps in their knowledge.
  • Ensure that the systems used to share knowledge are accessible to everyone. And, as new technologies such as social media emerge, ensure everyone is up to speed with how they are used in the museum.
COLLECTIONS SHARING RESEARCH

The MA is currently researching how institutions can better share their collections expertise with each other as part of a wider project with other organisations.

Sally Cross, collections coordinator at the MA, says this research is especially relevant at a time when many museums are losing staff and capacity in different areas. “It’s about finding ways to work your resources a bit harder,” she adds.

Museums already have a plethora of ways to share their knowledge and to seek help with developing their collections, from informal contact with colleagues in their region to subject specialist networks and the use of paid consultants. Online forums where people can post queries are especially effective as a cheap and convenient method of seeking out advice.

Caitlin Griffiths, the consultant who is leading the MA’s research into sharing collections expertise, says the museums who have taken part have been keen that any new mechanism for sharing expertise needs to build on the existing work out there.

She adds: “People felt there is a lot of information already available but it is not always easy to find, and it is not always in a format that makes it easy to share. And there is a lack of transparency around what advice or support museums can offer.”

Griffiths says that most of those who took part felt that face-to-face networking with colleagues was valuable but that there would be less and less scope for it in future because of pressure on people’s time and resources.

LESSONS FROM BUSINESS

Andrew Forrest, a management training specialist at the Cass Business School at City University, says all organisations need to plan for key departures – and that the capture and distillation of departing individuals’ knowledge is a business issue.

“It’s very easy to get caught out and panic at the last moment,” he adds. “Someone needs to be in charge of checking perhaps once a year that there is a plan for passing on knowledge and sharing it. Smaller museums, particularly, could be all the more poleaxed if a key person is run over by a bus.”

Forrest urges museums to adopt a position of flexibility when planning future staff needs.

“Rather than being obsessed with positions and seniority, you need to be clear about what the organisation is trying to do, five or 10 years into the future,” he explains.

In the business plan, it’s important to think not only of roles but of the business objectives that trigger those roles. It’s a big mistake to have structure in your head and assume it’s going to last forever.

“If Fred is leaving, for example, do you really need a clone of Fred?” Forrest says. “Or is this an opportunity to look again at what he did, so you are keeping everything fresh?”

Comments

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13.06.2011, 11:40
The MA has a great deal of empathy for colleagues who are suffering from the cuts and redundancies that are currently upon the sector - much of this year's Conference in Brighton is dedicated to thinking about new ways of working - including how we share skills and knowledge to enable us to work through these troubled times.

The MA doesn't have all the solutions by any means, but we can share good practice and practial ideas such as succession planning and ways of capturing knowledge, as outlined in the above article as methodologies for addressing this issue.

As well as coordinating the MA's Diversify scheme I also manage the Monument Fellowship scheme. Part of my work with both schemes, has involved working with many consultants who have been generous with their expertise beyond the requirements of their contracts - in the spirit of the Code of Ethics. Indeed, the Monument Fellows have contributed far more than their project funding asked them to. Whilst I appreciate their circumstances differ drastically from those Anonymous is facing I wonder if once the dust has settled there could be scope for looking at how Anonymous could maximise his/her expertise and turn it into something marketable to the rest of the sector?
Christine
MA Member
08.06.2011, 15:34
Time for a little more empathy?
The information that is in Anonymous's head may have been aquired partly in work time, but is retained in a useful form by Anonymous's own personal intellectual abilities. Workers are not machine parts!
For years, people working in public service have been urged to be more entrepreneurial, to take more risks, to be a flea rather than an elephant. If Anonymous had been a freelance consultant [paid for by public or charitable funding] would Maurice expect them to give away their intellectual capital so freely?
08.06.2011, 13:02
While I understand your anger at being made redundant, Anonymous, I expect you built up your knowledge of the museum's collection paid for with public money (or with tax-exempt charitable money). In this regard the information you hold in your head should be seen as belonging to all, to be shared and passed on. The Code of Ethics makes it very clear that people who work in museums do so on behalf of society. However badly you have been treated, I urge you to try to adopt a more generous attitude.
Anonymous
MA Member
02.06.2011, 20:28
I find it insulting that museums are making people redundant and then lamenting the loss of their knowledge and expertise. I am personally in this situation - if they didn't value me enough to keep me in the restructure, how dare they expect me to comply with this sucession planning? I am an expert in the museum's collections, I hold much information in my head. And that is where it is staying.