For a sector temperamentally opposed to moving fast and breaking things, the challenges of the past two years have made it particularly difficult to make clear, firm plans and stick to them. We’re beginning to see the effects of that now.
Since April, digital consultancy One Further and management consultancy Cultural Associates Oxford have been working on a project commissioned by the Museums Association and Art Fund – Digital Impact in Museums. We have been looking at the impact of digital projects in the sector and, crucially, barriers to realising that potential.
The project has involved more than 50 hours of facilitated discussions with recipients of grant funding, alongside a sector survey, desk research and analysis of grant application and award data from these two bodies over the past two years.
One of the most significant findings from this work has been that many cultural professionals have low confidence in their organisation’s ability to develop a strong digital strategy. This is something we heard time and again during our research – and it showed up in previous studies too.
Insufficient confidence in creating a digital strategy has significant implications. A lack of strategic prioritisation makes it more difficult for museums to articulate why they do what they do and what purpose they serve to various audiences. Without a clear sense of priorities in the tasks they’re taking on, staff can feel overworked and burnt out.
Those working in digital have been at the sharp end of creating content and systems to meet the changes of the past two years. In 2020, we heard stories of hundreds of people applying for a handful of digital posts, but in 2022, the rumble is more of tumbleweed. Digital talent is leaving the sector. Burnout, connected to lack of strategy, has a cost.
Where we go from here isn’t clear. The road to strategic effectiveness is beset by wider societal and economic uncertainty. The days of having a five-year plan and sticking to it are an anachronism today.
Steve Gardam, the chief executive of the Roald Dahl Museum in Buckinghamshire, who was invited to give a provocation on the topic of strategy during our research project, said: “Strategy is about making choices. It’s about trying to see the world as it is – not just how you’d like it to be – and doing as much as you can to make it make the most sense. Do that one thing that makes the most sense – and do it well.”
Despite my downbeat tone, compiling the research has reminded me of the breadth, creativity and potential of the digital professionals in the sector when they are given the tools, space and strategic direction to support those aims.
Digital activity that tries to deliver all things to all people is not strategic. The best digital projects are those that have had the confidence to focus on the digital activity that would result in the greatest impact for the organisation, and so create the best conditions for it to be successful.
Georgina Brooke is a content strategist at One Further