Developing a digital community of practice

This case study by Yoti Goudas forms part of the University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums. Yoti worked with Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales to explore ways to develop a digital community of practice within the museum.

Jump to: What was the thinking that got you started? | Why was this important to your organisation? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | What did you learn? | What next? | Find out more

What was the thinking that got you started?

How could we get people within the museum to share digital knowledge, increase dialogue and break down departmental barriers?

Why was this important to your organisation?

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (AC-NMW) comprises seven museums spread across the various geographic areas of Wales. Throughout all AC-NMW sites, there are departments and teams that excel in using different digital tools, produce excellent digital content and follow digital best practices.

However, like many organisations, teams are often so busy with their daily work that they do not have regular contact with or awareness of what other individuals or departments within NMW are doing with digital.

What did you do to implement this?

We needed to bring people together from all disciplines and areas throughout the museum’s different sites and create opportunities for them to learn from one another in an informal, friendly and collaborative way.  We also wanted a way for different departments and business areas within the museum to showcase and share knowledge of the various digital initiatives that they are leading or best practices they are employing.

A community of practice, according to Etienne and Beverly Wenger Trayner, is “a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. In this case, the shared activity is digital work in a museum setting, so we decided to create a digital community of practice (DCoP)

By allowing staff to come together from across the museum to participate in this forum, we hoped that we could:

  • Increase transparency around who is leading and creating digital change within the museum.
  • Encourage collaboration and sharing amongst departments and teams.
  • Promote curiosity and awareness of what is happening outside the museum sector and how these trends and practices could apply to their work within the museum.

A cross-disciplinary, museum-wide group like this hadn’t been tried before at AC-NMW.  Museum staff did not know how to approach the process or how to run it and didn’t have the confidence or know-how to make a start.

We began by approaching each department with a quick baseline questionnaire to get a comprehensive picture of the digital skills within the museum.  This helped identify the areas of strength and weakness in each department and helped us understand where certain staff could provide knowledge and guidance as well as the staff who could benefit from such guidance and knowledge.

From these areas of strength, we identified the digital leaders in the museum who had skills and knowledge and who might be willing to act as presenters to the community of practice in order to share their knowledge and best practices with fellow staff.  From this we were also able to determine the topics of interests for each meeting:

  • The first meeting would have three presenters talking about augmented reality, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance, and creating digital learning.
  • The second would deal with social media.
  • The third meeting covered digital tools to help staff in supporting Welsh language compliance.

Based on the feedback from staff, we also determined that our meetings would be held every two months. This was preferred as it meant that meetings were not too frequent and too much of a time commitment, but not too far apart to lose momentum.

What happened?

After each meeting, we sent out surveys to participants in order to evaluate how they felt the meeting went and its value to them.

The surveys measured how engaged and interested the participants were in the subject matter as well as how relevant and valuable they felt the topic was to their jobs and to the strategic goals of the museum.

The surveys also provided valuable input as to what went well and what areas needed to be improved from an operational or content perspective.

What did you learn?

The feedback from staff and presenters showed that having an ongoing forum such as the digital community of practice not only allowed staff to have a better awareness of what was happening with the museum but also gave them the opportunity to learn, share and collaborate in an informal and approachable manner. It also helped engage staff in the area of digital technology in a relaxed and safe space.

Feedback we received included:

  • “I knew of all of the different people/departments present, but I have never met them or had a meeting with them. It’s clear that everyone has different skills and knowledge and it was very useful to see the museum’s digital work from a number of viewpoints. I think this joined-up approach could make digital projects much easier going forward.”
  • “I feel that there is a network of support and expertise across the museums that will help when designing digital projects and resources. It has always been there, but the meeting helped highlight those links and hopefully started conversations that will lead to bigger things in the future.”
  • “An understanding of other areas of work in the museum helps with developing ideas for the project and work across the rest of the organisation. Also, it’s great to see other approaches and solutions to some of our challenges that I’d not considered.”
  • “I have attended 2 out of the 3 sessions and learnt something new on both occasions. Either in terms of the software available to staff, or facilities offered by the Museum. It has been very interesting.”

What next?

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales is planning to continue to run the digital community of practice and has a roster of topics that have been identified by staff as areas of interest for future meetings.

Find out more:

If you’re interested in setting up your own digital community of practice, the following documents are designed to help:

Further reading: How can I adapt this idea for my museum?

Time to allow to implement: Around six months to a year, to establish and then ongoing.

Meetings: Every one to two months, or at an interval to ensure continuity but not overload participants. If regular physical meetings are difficult to implement, digital conferencing or other ways of meeting online are worth exploring.

Toolkit: Access to ‘digital leaders’ and those with expertise in the areas you wish to explore. Access to video conferencing software (such as Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts etc.) to connect participants if physical meetings are hard to achieve.

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales is made up of seven sites across the country. Staff members have varying levels of access to a common intranet (with file storage, access to central services such as personnel and IT support and internal email communications), with one overarching website and a range of social media accounts. The museum is already very engaged in digital practice and undertakes a number of digital projects.

Creating a digital community of practice doesn’t need to happen within one museum, it may bring together cultural institutions in a particular geographical area, museums across a region or home nation or museums that share a common subject specialism.

If you are working in a smaller museum, think about who you might link up with? Would subject specialist networks or museums in your area be an option? Does it make sense to work with libraries, theatres or arts organisations nearby to explore digital practice? You’ll also need to work out who will be involved. That could just be one person in your museum or, ideally, a combination of trustees, volunteers, managers and curators.  

If you are working in a local authority museum, which departments are relevant to your digital work? Joining forces with those people in arts, education, archives or libraries who are creating digital content within the same authority, may help you to find common areas of strength and topics of interest. Creating a digital community of practice with other local authority museums may also help you to share skills and tackle gaps in your knowledge.

If you have a limited budget consider ways in which you can share skills without having to travel to meetings too often (impacting on staff time and budgets). It may be that a local organisation has video-conferencing facilities you can use, if your museum doesn’t, or it may be as simple as setting up an email group or social media network to communicate with each other if regular meetings aren’t feasible.

If you and your team are complete digital beginners it’s still worth embarking on this process. You may prefer to work with other museums or organisations at the same digital level and ‘buy-in’ expertise or you may wish to set up a community you can learn from: if you are prepared to coordinate meetings, speakers and follow-up information, other members of the community may be willing to share skills in exchange.