Decoding Digital Leadership




In the past few years, leaders at cultural institutions have found themselves navigating a rapidly evolving digital landscape. From building a social media presence to using the platforms as a way to engage and connect with the community; from a listing on TripAdvisor to hosting virtual exhibitions – technology / the digital landscape has offered growing possibilities at a rapid pace. As a result, museums are redefining their strategy and experimenting with digital mediums to seek effective ways to meet their mission and deepen engagement with their audiences. The calibre of leadership required for planning and charting this journey is of layered capabilities. Today’s leaders must be willing to adapt to change; be able to leverage digital technology to create innovative approaches towards fulfilling their institutional mission; fail fast and experiment faster! Are leaders at museums and cultural institutions equipped to drive digital change?

Digital Leadership in the Cultural Sector

Mr. Jan Behrendt, Head of Research and Collections at the Militärhistorisches Museum Berlin; Chair of the Digital working group at CIDOC shares his view of the changing role of a Museum Director and how he can steer the institution and staff towards success with a digital strategy.

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✅ A Museum Director / Leader must have a Digital Vision

Many museums nowadays hop on trends more than they plan what they actually do with their resources and that’s probably one of the main problems – because this leads us into a state where very important tasks that actually define the museum such preservation, do not take place anymore.

A digital vision is not very different from the institution’s vision or mission. It simply means, that museum directors must find appropriate digital solutions or develop approaches to meet the institution’s mission.

A digital strategy is an all-encompassing plan that deals with the digital resources, assets and tasks of a museum, that point-fully brings them together in order to serve a specific institutional goal. This means that you have to think of the very basic functions of a museum that are described in the ethic guidelines for museums and then think about which fields of museum work are actually contributing in the digital work (or digitally) to achieving your goals.

The first steps to take while creating a Digital Strategy

Step 1 : Define your positioning
Clarify how you want to be perceived in the next 5, 10, 15 years; what contributions you want to make to your community, to the museum sector, to research, etc.

Step 2: Assess your resources
Assess what you already have; assess what you want to have. Assess what happens within your museum but also assess your digital universe. Here’s a template to help you!

Step 3 : Talk to your staff!
Understand the role of digital technology across the workflows of your museum. For example, you have to talk to your Curators because maybe you want to do digital collecting – then you will have to think of long-term preservation and you will have to think of digital restoration, which really is a job for a programmer rather than for a traditional conservator or restorator – because you don’t want to lose the digitalifact (digital born artefact) through data corruption in five years. There are plenty of challenges to this that the museum director will not have on his mind and he will only find out about them if he involves his staff.

✅ A Museum Director / Leader must be transparent and use data to drive decisions

Transparency and openness is a key feature of the digital era: digital technology makes it easy to follow up on work processes and see what’s happened where and you exactly see when, which employee has done which action with which effect. This amount of transparency didn’t happen in the non-digital work. Such transparent data helps with making important decisions and even organizing your time in this fast-paced digital landscape. Leaders today must define clear outcomes and make informed decisions based on analytics.

✅ A Museum Director / Leader must foster an Error-Culture

Digital or not, a leader has to respect his employees, the people that he’s working with. He must empower people to handle change.

You need to face that transparency and pace have increased so you will see every little mistake that your employees do, and you will absolutely work probably on the first step on your error culture and and say it’s totally normal to make mistakes and it is a very productive thing to do a mistake because then you can optimize what your institution does. I think that in the non-digital times errors were much more easily hidden and so one has to accept  this normality. One has to accept your employees to be human beings; and to work productively with the problems they cause, and the problems they have. 

For digital transformation and change, the commitment of any institutions’s leadership is critical. To embed a digital culture at your museum, organize a one-day / half-day digital training.

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Medhavi Gandhi
Medhavi Gandhi
Passionate about public access and engagement with cultural heritage. Always looking to learn and collaborate; firm believer in the power of the internet. Digging stories rooted in culture.

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