Digital goes horizontal: challenges in the cultural sector

As educational and cultural institutions fight for relevance in an attention economy against a backdrop of an increasingly distrustful environment, taking digital horizontal is a C-suite imperative.

By General

Loic Tallon, Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes a compelling case that digital is a horizontal function — a collective responsibility that transcends the work of any single, dedicated department. While a digital department can serve a purpose — as umbrella or at times a bunker for those charged with stewarding net new digital projects or institution-wide initiatives — the responsibility for digital transformation is shared with leadership and the many strategic and operational departments. My work in educational and cultural institutions puts me in violent agreement with these observations; the more digital can be shrugged off or delegated to a single team, the less success the enterprise will have with genuine transformation.

Loic refers to the Drucker quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” which I interpret as all the fancy PowerPoint decks in the world won’t save you if you’ve failed to bring the lifeblood of an institution — its people — along in a substantive and not superficial way. In my experience, the biggest misstep institutions make while embarking on digital transformation is excessive focus on technology. Choosing the right platform and application stack is important, but far more initiatives have failed from underinvestment in people. And that’s not recruiting in digital rockstars or social media gurus — instead, it’s equipping people in your own organization everywhere from procurement to fundraising. Digital transformation is not an obvious or overnight journey; it requires significant investment in education for people at every level. And creating a cultural expectation of constant learning is a practice that will serve not only the institution but all its staff well.

Secondly, the role of leadership can’t be overstated. Explicit and implicit support for digital initiatives has to be signaled, and best way to do this is optimizing for a return on failure. Any organization claiming a 100% digital initiative success rate is either a operating from a playbook a decade behind or burying the bodies. Leadership that encourages smart experimentation and embraces “fail forward” thinking will show the organization both their determination and their support. The resulting attitudinal shift will end up being as or more important as the enterprise obsession with formulating the right org chart.

Finally, I’d add a sixth question for all cultural organizations to ask as they consider how to move forward with digital: how will engagement with external constituents continuously inform strategy? We live in an era of declining trust in all institutions, including higher education and the cultural sector. What are the ways institutions will empower employees to engage externally substantively and broadly? What quantitative and qualitative mechanisms can be put in place to derive insights in to inform progress?

The challenges for facilitating true digital advancement across an educational or cultural institution are enormous, and Loic’s thoughtful analysis identifies seminal issues to be tackled along the way. As these institutions fight for relevance in an attention economy against a backdrop of an increasingly distrustful environment, taking digital horizontal is a C-suite imperative.

Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick

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