Photo: Virve Laustela / The Finnish Museum of Photography

In the quest to understand how museums can create value for users/visitors online, IdeK is asking five questions to colleagues around the world. 

Five questions on Digital online offerings

Please tell us about yourself

I’m Risto Sarvas and a professor of practice from Aalto University, Finland. I kind of have three careers: an academic, a design leader, and now a teacher.

I did my PhD and post-doc on camera phones and found myself running a multi-disciplinary research group for a few years. In hindsight, we did some impressive research about social media and photography. Then I moved to the commercial side of things and became a service designer and eventually the head of design at Futurice, a consultancy.

At the end of that career I had seen hundreds of software and design projects, created new business offerings, and I got to facilitate major organization transformation programs for large corporations. As a cherry on the top, I spent half a year at a management consultancy BearingPoint and got to learn the boardroom strategic way of seeing the world.

Currently, my third career is back at the university. I’m the head of both bachelor’s and master’s programmes on Information Networks. The name doesn’t tell much, but the contents of the programme suit me well, because it is a rich blend of everything I have done: software engineering, business management, service design, social sciences, and academic multi-disciplinarity.

And yes, perhaps it is worth mentioning that I have worked with museums as a lead designer and co-curator, and I’ve had the privilege to coach and teach design leadership to directors and decision-makers of theaters, museums, galleries etc. I love working with people in the cultural domain because you are well-educated, very smart and knowledgeable, and you all have a very important job in our society.

 

Today museums are expected to deliver value online, not just use the website as a shop window but engage new as well as loyal audiences, or audiences that might not even visit the museum physically. What should the digital online offerings of a contemporary museum comprise?

The boring answer is that each museum has to find it out for themselves. And the thing to find out is what are the value propositions a museum should offer its audiences that also take the museum towards its own objectives.

In other words, before having a good answer to the original question the museum should have its strategic objectives clear enough, and also a good grasp of what different audiences are relevant for its mission and purpose. Only then these two can be combined into an offering and value propositions that serve both: the audiences and the museum itself. And only then move forward in delivering those offerings and value propositions.

Note that I intentionally say audiences in plural. Cultural institutions seem to have strong legislative pressure to treat everyone as equal and it is “not allowed” to even say aloud that some audiences are more important than others. I do understand that from a legal and equality perspective. A museum should treat everyone equally.

However, from a design and strategic perspective, it is plain stupid, because you simply can’t create anything valuable for your audiences if they are always treated as a single homogenous blob. Of course, this doesn’t happen in practice and it shouldn’t either. Many museums already have different offerings to different groups, for example, to teenagers.

What I’m saying is that you need to group your audiences strategically to help you achieve your own goals, objectives, mission and vision. Even if your museum has the same exhibition for everyone, the reasons for people to come and visit vary quite a lot. Also, the ways in which they experience the same exhibition is different. For example, think about school groups, young adults on a date, and group of senior citizens before their Christmas party.

Therefore, you should have different messages, propositions for different groups. And revise and regroup them for each project, exhibition etc.

 

How can museums deliver value online to younger audiences, considering their online habits and of course privacy and integrity.

The first step is the one I explained above: begin your journey into grouping your audiences based on your own strategy and the audiences’ interests. Note that also a group such as “younger audiences” is very heterogeneous. The same person in one context can have different interests in another. For example, a teenager in a school group probably is in a very different mindset than when online among friends. Which context are you interested as a museum and why?

The next step is what I’m sure many museums are doing: experiment and try out things with younger people. Work with schools, hobby groups etc. Experiment with online advertising and campaigns etc. Collect and analyze the data. Talk and listen to people who are not coming to the museum.

The important thing is to be systematic with all these experiments to make sure you are accumulating your knowledge and sharing it with others. It is very easy to run a workshop and be content with that: “workshop done, people seemed to enjoy it”. That is not enough. You have not really learned anything valuable.

The hard part is to be systematic and strategic in running a collection of workshops, school visits, online campaigns to gradually learn more and more about your audience and your own prejudice and pre-conceptions. For example, what portfolio of actions would accumulate your understanding about the online habits and privacy and integrity related to your offerings?

 

Creating value online long term as a museum will affect traditional work methods and organizational structures. What do you consider is the most important step for museums to take to build capacity for value creation online?

I fully agree with that. I see this happening pretty much in any organization out there. You can call it “digitalization” if you want, but at the end of the day it is about capabilities, skills, and ways of working, which means rethinking organizational structures and leadership.

The current approach (the medication typically subscribed, if you will) to all this seems to be to build a nimble, reflective and independently working organization. The fashionable terms are “agility” and “responsiveness”. “Design thinking” is often thrown around as well.

Behind all these “medications” are the assumptions that to tackle uncertainty the organization has to be able to respond and change course fast when needed. This underlines the need for independent teams and autonomous individuals who can make decisions without consulting a rigid and slow chain of command. You can imagine this being a huge issue in organizations with thousands of people. Museums seldom are that big, which brings me to my next answer.

 

What would you recommend to museums wishing to take the next steps towards creating and delivering online value in the upcoming years?

I’m very optimistic when it comes to organizations such as museums. According to the current “medication”, the key to the change is to have smart, multi-talented, happy people in an organization that values diversity, creativity, and has a clear mission (typically a societal mission).

When I look at cultural institutions and compare them with my experiences with businesses (big and small), I see that many of these requirements are in place. Yes, cultural institutions may have some of the bureaucracy and rigidity of a public sector organisations or large corporations. However, once you just dust the shelves and have a closer look, museums, theaters, cultural centers etc. have enormous internal capabilities to become a very responsive, nimble, and purposeful organization. And like I mentioned above, your advantage is that you are not huge in size.

The one thing I would keep an eye on, however, is the well-being and long-term happiness of the personnel. Autonomy, independence, creativity, and uncertainty are all paths to exhaustion and burnout if not kept under control. I believe that the rising burnout rates among university students and work life are partly due to the rising autonomy and independence in white collar work.

The answer to this problem is partly in educating people on how the mind/brain works and how to recover from, for example, the two stressful weeks before an opening. However, the responsibility for the well-being cannot be given solely to the individual. To make the whole organization sustainable in the long-term, the leadership and organization structures must actively curate and manage the personnel’s well-being. Otherwise the whole autonomous, responsive and creative organization simply falls apart, and that is bad for business.

Therefore, in an organization full of highly educated and creative people, the well-being becomes the center of the long-term strategy. One key to this is to have clear goals, mission, objectives, and strategy, so that smart individuals have a shared goal against which to prioritize their own work.

This was perhaps a bit broad answer to the question. Nevertheless, the groundwork to be done is critical, and I want to push the conversation towards a more long-term strategic thinking, in which the personnel and organization obviously become the key in delivering value to the audiences and the organization itself. At the end of the day, another advantage of museums is that they know that they are there for the long run. The whole purpose of a museum is to be up and running for decades, even centuries. This is a strength among the uncertainty we live in.

I guess my point is that once the personnel is in the center and the groundwork is on the leadership’s agenda, then these smart and talented individuals can pick up any book or online course about web design and analytics and quickly educate themselves on the basics (e.g., there are more and more online courses for free from universities to take).

 

Can you give an example of a museum that you think creates value online and that has taken an extra step to increase their online offerings?

I have had the privilege to work hand-in-hand with two amazing museums. I was a co-curator in the #Snapshot exhibition at the Finnish Museum of photography in 2014 (perhaps my favorite design project ever). And I was the lead designer in concepting the Time Machine for the Helsinki City Museum in 2015 (another favorite of mine: I got to design a time machine!!!!).

For the #Snapshot we planned the whole experience to shift between online and offline. Part of the online was marketing and engaging audiences before the opening. A large part of the online was in the exhibition itself, in which people could take and share photographs, and some of the installations were partly in Twitter and partly there in the physical space. One of the main installations in the space (our privacy invasion experience) was such that the whole online/offline division made no sense any longer. However, we did not really focus on the online offering as such. Our goal was more in getting people into the exhibition and then have then view the whole online world critically after they leave the space.

As for the Time Machine, we also did not design the online offering as such either. The point was the physical exhibition in the museum. However, all we did had a clear understanding that people share, discuss and plan their free time using social media and such. This meant that in understanding our audiences and the value proposition for them, we were very conscious of how people most probably make the decision between visiting a museum and having a glass of red wine at home with Netflix. Now that’s a tough choice to make!

After all that I answered above about the organization’s design, I want to emphasize that both museums emphasized that the projects changed the ways in which they think, plan, and design their projects and work. Especially our service design approach and rapid prototyping opened up their eyes to see that they can do all this themselves, and digital/online/technology is much more about customer understanding than murky and complex technical knowledge.

For me one of the lessons was that when it comes to organizations’ capabilities to adopt and adapt their ways of working, museum people are amazing. Having coached and trained probably a few thousand people from various commercial organizations, the museum people I have worked with are clearly at the top when it comes to learning, creativity, and fun to work with.