1. What do ‘digital’ and ‘digitally literate leadership’ mean for my organisation?

‘Possibly my most important takeaway from the LTS programme: how being ‘digitally literate’, confidently and capably so, can help turn an organisation around, by providing enough language and shape to foster a collective vision of what is digitally possible and how it contributes to our success.’ Giovanna Vitelli, Head of Collections and Curatorial, The Hunterian – University of Glasgow   

Leadership within the heritage sector needs to shift from the prevalent, current starting point of thinking about technology and how to use it, to think instead about how we value digital and how we use, manage, create and understand it in the widest sense. Our leaders need to be more informed, active, responsive and reflective around digital if we are to build a more digitally fluent workforce.  This starts with understanding what we’re talking about, but the language around all things digital can be daunting and unclear. To this end, we begin with terminology and definitions.

The framings of digital activity, skills and maturity below are drawn from One by One, a multi-stakeholder, University of Leicester-led, international initiative working to build digital confidence in museums, of which Culture24 is a founding partner. 

What does ‘digital’ mean for a heritage organisation? Digital encompasses many things including services, experiences, behaviours, content, data, processes, systems and technologies. Public Digital’s definition of digital is useful: ‘applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations’. 

What does that mean in practice? All digital activities and all analogue activities supported by digital within a cultural organisation can be usefully approached by asking, in every instance:  what needs to be used, to be managed, to be created and to be understood? 

Those four prompts (expanded in this resource) give leaders and practitioners a clear and effective framing when planning, delivering or evaluating any aspect of the organisation’s practice that touches digital, from writing a single social media post or analysing website traffic to planning a funding bid or creating a new five year business plan. 

How about digital literacy and skills? One by One’s framing is useful here as it breaks digital skills down into three elements:  ‘competency’, the ability to use a digital tool; ‘capability’, how that ability is then applied successfully to a task; and ‘literacy’, being able to evaluate the appropriateness of those competencies and capabilities. 

The way we encourage leaders to understand ‘digital maturity’ builds on those definitions of digital activity and skills.  We think of digital maturity as an individual’s or an organisation’s ability to use, manage, create and understand digital, in a way that is contextual (fit for their unique setting and needs), holistic (involving vision, leadership, process, culture and people) and purposeful (always aligned to the institution’s social mission). 

Digital transformation’, another overarching and potentially daunting term, is defined by the team at Public Digital as ‘the act of radically changing how your organisation works, so that it can survive and thrive in the internet era.’ Another take, this time a ‘shared, working definition’ specifically created for the cultural heritage sector, was published by Europeana in early 2021: ‘Digital transformation is both the process and the result of using digital technology to transform how an organisation operates and delivers value. It helps an organisation to thrive, fulfil its mission and meet the needs of its stakeholders.’

These definitions and terminology around digital need to flex according to context and will develop as time goes on. None of them are set in stone. Getting to know them, understanding and living with them day-to-day when discussing, planning and making decisions about all aspects of digital is a crucial foundation in developing your digitally literate leadership

A digitally literate leader doesn’t need to be able to code, to interrogate a database, to scan an object in 3D or edit a video. They don’t need to be a technical whizz and to have every competency and capability their organisation needs. They do need to understand who needs to know what, when and why. They need to be able to reflect upon digital practice, activity and skills in their organisation in an informed way,  within the wider contexts of their communities, networks, sector and society.

‘It took time to understand what ‘digitally literate’ looked like, and whether I could stand up in front of my staff and lead on this. I needed to talk to LTS colleagues and mentors a great deal, just to ease into this, and normalise digital thinking. I had to run with this in the leadership team and found the most challenging part to be translating our digital ‘needs’ into language that could be understood and accepted.’ Giovanna Vitelli, Head of Collections and Curatorial, The Hunterian – University of Glasgow

Understanding and mapping digital activity: 

Understand what digital really means for your role, a project, a strand of work or for the whole organisation. Whatever the focus or area of work, whether it has digital at its core or not, think about where the digital touch points or activities lie by asking:

–   what digital elements (tools, systems etc) will we/they need to use?

–   what digital elements (processes, resources, capacity etc) will we/they need to manage?

–   what digital elements (content, experiences, services, products etc) will we/they need to create?

–    what digital elements (audiences, behaviours, data, culture etc) will we/they need to understand?

Take a look at our understanding and mapping digital activity for more detail and ideas.  

Go deeper: 

Check in on your organisation’s overall approach to digital with the Digital Culture Charter.  This set of guiding principles was designed with and for cultural organisations. The Charter is split into three themes – people-centred, values-driven and purposeful – and is a great starting point for discussion. Can you see how the principles relate to your organisation’s digital activities and infrastructure? Is your organisation working along those lines yet? If so, how? If not, could you be? What would your priorities be – which areas feel most important to focus on?

Read more about the value of digitally literate leadership and the way cultural organisations across Europe and beyond are tackling digital transformation. This report, written by Culture24 in 2020, summarises the challenges (pages 11 to 30) facing leaders and gives recommendations (pages 47 to 50) of ways to develop your digital leadership in personal, organisational and sector-wide contexts.

Return to Developing digitally literate leadership in heritage organisations

This Pathway is also available, as a PDF, in Welsh: Fersiwn Gymraeg

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence. Please attribute as “Digital Pathway: Developing digitally literate leadership in heritage organisations (2021) by Culture24 supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0