Museum of London’s adoption of new digital practices and processes

This case study by Dr Lauren Vargas forms part of the University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums. Lauren worked with the Museum of London for a year to spark the development of digital content skills.

Jump to: What were you trying to achieve? | What was your solution? | Why was this important to your organisation? | What were the challenges you faced? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | How did it come together? | What did you learn? | What next? | How did a CALM leadership approach help? | What’s next?

What were you trying to achieve?

The museum’s ambition was to go from a handful of digital editors planning exclusive digital content (with a reactive or last-minute planning approach) to a group representing the majority of functions across the museum, all working towards a central content theme for proactive, consistent and cohesive content guiding the majority of the museum’s digital content.

Specifically, the museum wanted to answer the question: How might we ensure all museum people encourage and influence the flourishing of digital skills across the whole organisation?

What was your solution?

We used management techniques called Work-Out-Loud and agile methods (described in more detail below) to create a content strategy outlining the museum’s long-term content opportunities and content themes. This was to allow all museum staff to set priorities appropriately and openly and to break the content planning, creation, publishing and analysis into small steps.

Why was this important to your organisation?

In July 2019, the Museum of London (MoL) unveiled designs for its new West Smithfield location. Increased engagement of underserved London boroughs is one of the many new goals of the museum space and programming. The museum recognised that to meet this and other visitor-oriented goals in the new space, the work to prepare and engage new museum visitors had to start immediately to ensure there were no missed opportunities during the transition.

As part of the One by One project, MoL appointed me as a digital fellow at the museum for a year to spark innovative digital content skills development with the hope that these new digital competencies, capabilities, and literacies would take hold and help staff prepare for and meet new museum visitor engagement goals. The practice-based research I initiated and facilitated, focused on how the museum could identify and develop digital leadership by exploring the value of a digital hub, or working group, as a site for shared skills development specific to content strategy and management.

What were the challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge was figuring out where to start and how fast and far to go when crafting a centralised content theme that is not related to a major exhibition or event. We had to decide which functions could and should be converted to use for proactive planning and collaboration activity and prevent slow-moving bureaucracies from impeding those who converted to a new way of working. This was achieved by clearly defining scope, responsibilities and methods for reporting concerns to managers (escalation processes).

The action-research phase of the project began with an in-depth ‘listening tour’ with museum staff to discover more about:

  • How the current digital content landscape of the museum was structured.
  • The kinds of content and messages developed.
  • The processes, tools and talent required to produce and distribute the content.
  • How this content was analysed.

The museum had no shortage of digital content ideas, opportunities and staff who wanted to find a way to communicate with a diverse set of audiences. Staff members were accomplishing existing and new museum goals separately. What came to the surface during the discovery process was there were many people creating a lot of successful digital content within their own departments without a shared content vision, strategy, or planning practices and processes. If this digital content was to achieve greater success, senior managers recognised the need to create a shared space to address new ways of working. This needed to bring together all areas of the museum to develop a careful and considered content approach, encompassing the current strategies and information about visitors as well as taking account of aspirations for the new museum.

What did you do to implement this?

The practice-based research, devised to address findings from staff interviews, was designed to challenge the museum to rethink how staff members collaborate across an ever-changing digital workplace. They needed to do this while maintaining existing technologies or experiences alongside the design, build and activation of new, streamlined internal and external experiences (specific to digital content).

As a means to develop centralised digital content planning in a museum with distributed creation, production and analysis responsibilities, the museum’s digital steering group decided to devise and test new ways of developing content with existing digital forum members. The forum met monthly and consisted of staff with various digital roles and responsibilities or interests. The forum meetings, while consistent, did not have regular attendance from senior leadership or invited staff, or a set agenda to share information and reporting.

The One by One project, focusing on digital content skills development, was the chance to reboot the digital forum to educate relevant staff consistently about new digital content trends. This included a review of upcoming digital activities to determine if there was overlap, duplication, or opportunities to build on others’ content; and time to collaborate and exchange ideas, skills, and explore new technology opportunities together.

This group was renamed as the digital hub and was designed to be an internal community with resources and agreement to design and manage co-operative ways of delivering digital activities. The invited participants included many originally invited to participate in the former digital forum, as well as new members such as the Digital Curator, the Head of Engagement and members of senior management belonging to the digital steering group. I facilitated monthly meetings of the digital hub, with a set-agenda, throughout 2019.

Holding regular meetings among museum staff responsible for digital content and activities was only the first step towards developing a more cohesive digital content plan. The monthly digital hub meetings became a forum for structured discussion. However, learning from the previous digital forum, there were more questions about strategic development and activity that could not be answered in a single one-hour meeting without all necessary museum staff and leadership at the table. We needed to work out how the discussions and activity could become part of the daily collaboration routine.

The digital steering group decided to test the use of Microsoft collaboration technology, Teams, to increase daily, dynamic conversation. Microsoft Teams is part of Office 365 and is an organisational space for group chat, online meetings, document collaboration and web conferencing. The museum was already using Teams sporadically across the museum for project management, so new or additional technology was not an issue that needed to be addressed with the museum’s IT department. However, simply having this technology available did not mean people were knowledgeable about how to use it in the most effective way. While there were new technical competencies to be learned, the capability of digital internal communication, which didn’t rely on everyone being present at the same time, was unfamiliar to many digital hub participants.

To build and strengthen internal communications, I used a method called ‘Working-Out-Loud’ to draw out and facilitate online communication between meetings. This is defined by John Stepper as:

“A way to build relationships that help you achieve a goal, develop a skill, or explore a new topic. Instead of networking to get something, you invest in relationships by making contributions over time, including your work and experiences that you make visible.”

John Stepper, Working Out Loud

These methods were adapted from John Stepper’s programmes originally developed to create stronger in-person relationships.

The Microsoft Teams space for the digital hub was designed as a place to discuss and answer questions about current digital content activities, discuss and document the museum’s content creation and management practices and processes (a One by One project output which collectively became the Content Management Playbook, coming soon) and share internal and external examples of how MoL and other organisations understand, create, use, and manage digital content.

Using the Community Roundtable Engagement Framework (see A ‘CALM’ approach to leadership in the digital age: how can we measure success?) the digital steering group assessed how digital hub participants engaged with each other.

We used the Community Roundtable Engagement Framework to assess how Digital Hub participants engaged with each other.

What happened?

During the initial four months of the One by One project’s practice-based research, digital hub participants shared 288 posts, reacted to 190 conversation threads, and asked 52 questions of each other. Participants were initially reluctant to use this space instead of, or in-between, meetings. Collaboration is not necessarily intuitive; it is a digital skill that needs to be taught. Using prompts such as ‘Work Out Loud Wednesdays’ where digital hub participants share achievements, plans and obstacles to success, is one way to establish constructive online conversation. We found that participants need easy and psychologically safe ways and spaces to communicate with each other.

How did it come together?

To ensure there were multiple opportunities for people to engage, I posted exercises three times a week during various times of the workday. Most of the exercises were designed to be ‘snackable’ and completed in-between work duties, meetings and email responses. The Work-Out-Loud prompts were often aligned with the topics, practices and processes being discussed and drafted as part of the Content Management Playbook (coming soon).

These exercises helped build a common language and space for staff members to act and reflect on who is responsible, accountable and needed to be consulted and informed of digital content creation and management decisions. Not all digital hub participants completed these exercises, but many found watching others complete the exercises a useful way to glean new information and model communication and collaboration to instil confidence for future participation.

The first test of the new collaboration environment and Content Management Playbook practices and processes was in the planning of Black History Month activities taking place October 2019. While the museum recognised and offered Black History Month content and activities in previous years, 2019 was the first time this work was collectively and proactively developed by a cross-departmental team of museum staff at all levels of the organisation.

“The CALM approach and use of the content planning tool empowered staff to work more honestly and creatively across hierarchies. It unlocked a joyful spirit of collaboration across teams who were previously unaware of each others’ plans and agendas. Crucially the framework also enabled reflection, evaluation and creation of benchmarking data which is now being taken forward for BHM 2020 and enabled distributed leadership behaviour. Previously difficult conversation hampered by lack of confidence around the topic were surfaced in a ‘no-blame’ environment as we were all learning together.”

Sara Wajid, Head of Engagement at the Museum of London

This team met monthly to brainstorm and work out any pressing issues, but primarily they coordinated museum activity and made decisions on conversation threads in Microsoft Teams and Trello (a free online calendar and activity board tracking system). Rather than those involved in each area of work keeping an exclusive calendar or spreadsheet of activity, the group listed and tracked all physical and digital museum activity related to Black History Month on Trello. Trello acted as the single reference point for all activity. This calendar was shared on multiple, relevant Microsoft Teams channels and all museum members were able to view, edit, add content, comment or ask questions about specific activity or work progress status. In this way, staff members could easily identify where there were gaps in activity or questions and address these areas to ensure the best possible product and outcome.

The conversation threads on Microsoft Teams and Trello also offered a window into how planning and decision making does or does not happen across the museum – this would be a valuable test and set of lessons learned for the cross-functional planning group and members of the digital steering group.

What did you learn?

The Black History Month example led not only to lessons learned in terms of collaboration and planning, but also beneficial observations and recommendations for how the museum’s digital content could improve. Just as there were many calendars and disconnected workflow processes prior to the One by One project and Black History Month focus, content topics and distribution methods were also disjointed and often created as stand-alone content.

As museum staff developed Black History Month digital content, they identified the need to recreate, reimagine and recycle digital content processes to achieve the following:

  • No random acts of content: We must stop reactive or one-off content and have a plan to create less, but better content. How can we give our audience / visitor community chance to find our content in their preferred channel and format and deliver it to them consistently?
  • Serial content: We must influence our audience and visitor community to tune-in consistently by creating content targeted to certain people at certain times. How do we start thinking about content development like a television network?
  • Break activity into smaller units in terms of content and habits: We must take key pieces of existing content and repackage them as edited or updated content to fill out our publishing calendar. How do we establish a strong content platform and thematic schedule and distribute content that is strategically sound, ‘snackable’ (easily consumed) and ‘sticky’ (resulting in in-person physical or digital engagement)?
  • Dynamic calendar and resources: We must increase relevant content planning and production. How do we produce more content by centralising all key information like dates, owners, relevant digital assets and marketing or communication campaigns, as well as any information required for reporting?

“I think this project has made us all more aware of what each other are doing, which is a huge step in the right direction. And I think that also – certainly from my point of view – I find it a little bit more freeing in terms of possibilities that we can imagine for digital content production. I think that it’s quite easy to get stuck in quite a kind of a rut when you are producing the same content often, but with minor tweaks – particularly something successful, it’s very easy to kind of reproduce that and not try and push boundaries. So something I found really effective over the last nine months is the way that there’s been this collaborative. And I think that’s been very much enabled by things like Teams. This collaborative process across the museum has meant that we are now producing digital content that is much richer and in different format for different audiences.”

Alwyn Collinson, Digital Editor of Content at the Museum of London

The Museum of London leadership and staff made content workflow improvements and continued to enhance their digital content practices and processes with resources that were already available within the museum’s digital infrastructure or were free to use. For example, MoL’s Content Management Playbook exists as OneNote Notebook that may be edited or added to by digital hub members.

This is an ideal way for museum staff to learn, and regularly use, the resources to develop mature digital content substance, structure, workflow and governance. This is happening by integrating practices and processes into the daily routine. The techniques for collaboration and planning developed as part of the One by One project created a positive dynamic when resources and activities were easily accessible, rather than additional to already busy schedules, and when I, or other key members of staff and management, modelled them.

Digital hub members identified that there was no perfect time to begin the improvement of content planning or learning of new digital content skills. The best way to adapt and adopt new ways of working is to actively practise and trial these methods.

Rallying around shared goals, such as the Black History Month activity, was the ideal time for staff to trial and improve practices and processes. The exercises gave staff members the time and space to reflect on which default behaviours and methods needed to give way to news ways of working.

What next?

While a member of senior management initiated the collective Black History Month activity, this new way of working highlighted that leaders are found at all levels and in all areas of the organisation. During project planning, actions need to be taken and decisions made, and most of these activities do not require senior management sign-off. Rather, these activities needed knowledgeable people to step up, act and pass the baton to the next person or group responsible for the next action in the process. The use of open and transparent collaboration tools and conversations meant the museum was able to locate leadership at all levels of the organisation and at all stages of the content planning, creation, distribution and analysis processes.

Museum staff discovered you do not always need to wait to be told what to do or how to act. When working collaboratively, digital hub participants had a better understanding of how digital activity and content in the museum was understood and how it was being created, used and managed. This meant they knew when gaps needed to be filled and who was the right person with the right skills to answer the right question at the right time. During Black History Month, a cross-functional team could accomplish specific activities and goals, while keeping leadership and general staff informed at every stage.

How did a CALM leadership approach help?

The One by One project, specifically the work around Black History Month, demonstrated how the museum took a CALM approach to digital leadership. (See A ‘CALM’ approach to leadership in the digital age.), This meant leaders and teams developed a project planning environment that is:

  • C – Collaborative: engaging openly and transparently with other staff to plan and develop (internal or external) work products.
  • A – Anticipatory: planning effectively using agile methods, being aware of relevant data (through analysis and reporting) and building in a process for feedback.
  • L – Letting go of Command and Control Leadership and Embracing Collective Leadership: locating and enabling leaders at all levels whilst developing a shared sense of decision-making and accountability.
  • M – Mindful: making time and space to reflect on information and decisions.

A collaborative environment was established using Microsoft Teams and Trello instead of email messaging, which is not open or transparent to all project stakeholders and participants. Museum staff members were encouraged to begin their days by opening Microsoft Teams and Trello and skim, respond and add to conversations.

An agile environment was established by:

  • listing all activity on Trello and indicating important dates
  • Stating who was responsible, accountable, consulted and informed for all listed activity
  • Defining success
  • Explicitly identifying activity as in-progress, ready for test or review and completed.
  • Having consistent meetings with the cross-functional team and stakeholders to plan and review activity.

The cross-functional group let go of command-and-control leadership and embraced collective leadership by encouraging MoL staff to lead at various stages of the project. Generally, staff members knew what decisions needed to be made and who was responsible for acting at any given time. There wasn’t exclusively waterfall, or top-down, communication. Instead, most information was being shared openly in meetings, Microsoft Teams and using Trello.

A mindful environment was established as we started the project by reviewing what had been done in the past and discussing what the cross-departmental team needed to know to inform the present and help plan for future activity. This environment was reinforced by consistently reviewing meeting notes and online conversation for action items to prevent any tasks or decisions from being overlooked. At the end of Black History Month, the cross-departmental team convened with stakeholders for an in-depth retrospective to discuss what went well and what to stop doing, improve or continue for similar projects in the future.

What’s next?

The new ways of working actively practised in the planning and execution of Black History Month content and activities, resulted in the highest visit and engagement numbers recorded across the museum’s ‘discovery’ blog and social media channels. With this success, staff acknowledged the planning process should have started earlier to allow for more time to create and review content. The cross-functional team also found that while the new ways of working improved what activity was carried out and how it was accomplished, museum staff underestimated the required time to understand ‘agile’ and Work-Out-Loud methods before actively practising them.

“When I’ve got a content question, how can I answer it if I don’t even know who to speak to or who is doing what? So you sit there alone and try and figure out yourself. You’re probably doubling up when the answer is right there in the office next door. But you haven’t met that person yet. When you get everyone using Teams and knowing how to share a document and work on it at the same time – you can bring people along and do skill sessions every week. Some people are probably really frightened of using digital. I’m a digital native – a social media native. I’ve worked at a social media agency. These things got scary for me. I have empathy that they are for some people and they don’t understand them. And that’s fine.”

The museum was able to use the digital hub to cultivate fresh digital content management skills and a CALM approach to digital leadership to lay the groundwork for a more open and balanced workplace.  Collaboration is an inter-personal and digital skill to be learned. How to communicate in an online forum is not implicitly understood, despite the amount of social media a person may engage with in their personal lives. Collaboration is not achieved if the burden of update and action is taken on by a few people alone. When all members of the team are actively engaged, asking questions, sharing information, validating and praising each other for victories big and small, and exploring and learning from other organisations, the result is a positive team dynamic and improved outputs and outcomes.