Digital Strategy Whisperer

Question: How do you deal with technology in a constantly changing world?

Answer: Embrace technology change as a constant.

Successful technology implementation requires a strategy and a tactical plan. Accepted practice for a digital strategy is three to five years and this works when you think of the trajectory of some salient technologies such as, iPhone (2007), iPad (2010), iPad Air/iPad Mini (2013), which represent some quantum changes in the development of this personal/productivity technology.

This begs the question of which came first, the 3-year strategy or the 3-year technology cycle?

I’ll briefly pause and call out my own abuse of the word quantum. As a physicist, I am predisposed to yell at my Google News Feed (the emerging equivalent of yelling at the television), when a commentator references the word quantum to signify some dramatic change in technology release. Technically, quanta is the smallest, most indivisible, change of state possible. So what they are actually saying is that when released a “quantum change” in user interface design, they actually came up with the most minimally disruptive technological change possible. After yelling, I laugh heartily. Hardly the notion that their over-priced Marketing and PR Executive wanted to convey. But I digress.

Digital strategy suffers from the mark it and park it syndrome, where an institution creates a strategic plan with much pomp and ceremony (mark it) only to have it sit idly on a network drive somewhere (park it), to be trotted out when one of the following events occurs:

  • the three years are up
  • a trustee asks to see it
  • you get money to hire a CIO
  • you get a new director
  • someone posts to a listserv asking to see someone else’s strategic plan

That last point invariably creates a huge amount of anxiety as those who have a digital strategy wonder whether they should share it, and how it will make their institution look? But I’m not sure how useful sharing is, my strategy is not your strategy.

Some institutions have a more informed approach to address this stagnancy problem of parking their digital strategy document, they go through a digital strategic planning process as before, but create a “living, breathing document”.

WTF is a living, breathing document?

Review it once a year… Big whoop. Maybe twice… If you remember. Not good enough.

I’m a big believer in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s fantastically insightful comment on strategy:

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

Insightful because “planning is everything” is the living/breathing part of creating a document. During the process of creating a digital strategic plan, an institution spends a period of time focusing on how technology can improved it, the minds of the institution play out its aspirations and try to figure out how technology can realize those plans. Its like a reality show for digital strategy – The Real Technologists of Orange County. As you read the synopsis for the show from Wikipedia, let’s hope the same reversal of fortune does not play out for your digital strategy.

The series is a voyeuristic look into the wealthy lives of OC housewives, as they shop, get plastic surgery, gossip, fight and live lavishly. The financial crisis, the beginning of which coincided almost exactly with the first season’s broadcast, has since trimmed the housewives’ lifestyles with job losses, evictions, mortgage defaults, foreclosures, and marital stress.

Maybe the better reality show metaphor is The Digital Strategy Whisperer where its never the strategy that is the problem, its the owners.

I have a another favorite quote about strategy from the lesser-appreciated mind of world champion boxer Mike Tyson:

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

This seems much more apropos to the digital strategy playing out in museums and the lives of museum technologists as they are beset with challenges in the battle to establish some elegant, educational and engaging solutions to inspire and create curiosity in our audiences, only to be punched in the face with comments such as, “why is that button on the right”, “can we make that into app” or “I don’t think you need to explain the term sfumato, everybody knows that” – the fact that WordPress Spellcheck doesn’t, might be a clue.

So to address the lack of a truly living, breathing document, an institution might distill its digital strategy down to a phrase or a few choice words, Access and Sustainability are lodestone words that can provide meaningful direction with staff primed to use them to assist in the day-to-day decision-making process:

“Should we start a Twitter page?” Does it provide access and/or sustainability? One out of two ain’t bad, let’s do it.

“Will creating a Filemaker Pro database to manage our wall text provide access and sustainability?” Depends. Personally, I’d try anything to stop a dozen, apparently grown-up, museum professionals arguing incessantly about three lines of text.

So when the living, breathing planning is done and we’re left with a dead document, what’s a museum to do?

I recently stumbled across a strategic plan which has been put into effect in an unprecedentedly (if that’s a word) effective way, which has totally redefined what I think a digital strategy should look like. My moment of realisation was a bit like that scene in Jaws when Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, realises the shark has just attacked a kid and everyone needs to get out of the water. The camera technique is called pulling focus and is performed by a Focus Puller (why aren’t museum job titles as descriptive as this?), but its done on steroids in this particular scene (at the 2:00 mark in this clip). It supremely captures the feeling of those “aha” moments, or “uh oh” in this case.

So, here’s the strategic plan that I’m referring to:

Consitution Behind Glass

And here’s one example of how its being put into effect:


I know right? Deep? The plan is parked, but it lives and breathes.

In yet another shameless act of self-promotion, and an act of unsolicited promotion on behalf of the New Media Consortium, I’ll be talking about what I think a digital strategy should look like at their Summer Conference in Portland, June 17-19. Don’t expect me to be whispering.


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