Just a quick post, here, because I couldn’t quite get this out in 140 characters. I want to quickly address this idea, which was re-aired during the “digital strategy” session at the recent Museums and the Web conference but which has been floating around the museum technology space for a long time, of “taking technology out of the conversation.” It’s something that I hear a lot at conferences (with variations like, “learn to speak curator” or “think like an educator/scholar/conservator/etc.”). It’s a concept that sounds great in the abstract (“technology people shouldn’t focus on the technology–they should focus on the content!”), but which over the long term creates serious institutional liabilities. Continue reading Leave tech in the conversation
“It’s not about the technology.”
I hear this meme invoked all the time at “museum tech” conferences nowadays. Indeed, I myself have said this a bunch of times when developing (or at least contemplating) a new content-based technology project at the Museum. A big drive in my work at the Met has always been to get constituents talking about the content first and foremost, and worrying about the technology platform(s) later. (Aside: Nancy Proctor makes this point better than I do in her recent Museums and the Web paper The Museum Is Mobile.) This hasn’t always been an easy task, as often it’s excitement about the technology that has caused the constituent to contact me in the first place, but I have nevertheless always endeavored to put content first and tech second in any discussions about a possible project.
This approach only goes so far, and we need to be careful about where and when we apply it, lest our thinking become too prejudiced. My concern is that thinking this way causes us to act as if content is always inherently platform agnostic, which is rarely true.
I think the issue here really is context, which is unique for each technology platform, even when the content is similar. A kiosk has the context of a museum around it, a mobile device has the context of location, the web has the context of (possibly) no context at all. Each of these situations demand different approaches to developing, filtering, and presenting content.
I don’t mean to say that the “it’s not about the technology” idea has no value–it’s still a bad idea to jump into a project with no reason for being other than exciting technology. However, we do need to be cautious about understanding the nuances of each platform, and adapting our content strategies accordingly.
“If your organization requires success before commitment, it will never have either.”
-Seth Godin, Tribes
So first, a confession. I’ve done pilot projects before. As recently as April of this year, I said that museums should be doing “better pilot projects.” It’s an idea with powerful appeal—you’re having trouble getting a technology project off the ground, so you propose a fact-finding pilot project as a way to convince the powers that be of the merits of your proposed idea. But after seeing more and more museums stumbling through their own pilot projects, I realize now that I should never do another pilot project again, ever. And neither should you.
First off, the whole concept of the “pilot project” itself is a fantasy. It’s rarely a project in the conventional sense; it’s a hedge. More often than not, a pilot project is undertaken as a way for technologists to slide a potentially controversial (and yet often technologically mundane) idea past museum administration. It’s a way to fail without actually incurring the costs or benefits of actual failure.
But of course, real failure is built into most pilot projects from the beginning, for one or both of the following reasons:
- Pilots usually take place in rarefied “test” environments that bear so little resemblance to actual use as to make the “findings” of the pilot project virtually useless.
- Because the pilot project usually has a short engagement period, museums typically will not commit enough resources to the project to sustain it should it turn out to be successful (as described—heartbreakingly—in this recent post by Nina K. Simon about a successful crowdsourced library cataloguing project in the Netherlands).
So this is the problem in a nutshell. Because pilots are rarely given the resources necessary to succeed, they are doomed to failure (or at least some sort of permanent beta status) from the beginning.
And what are these pilot programs designed to prove, anyway? At least as far as museums go, technology is one of the few areas in which pilot projects are ever undertaken. We rarely, if ever, see pilot publications, pilot exhibitions, or pilot educational programs. That alone tells me that we do pilot projects not because we truly need to prove out the technology, but rather because our institutions aren’t as comfortable with technology as they are with exhibitions, publications, etc.
This just seems like bad practice to me. I’m sure there are plenty of successful projects that have arisen from pilot projects, but looking at the evidence from my own experience, I tend to think that this is despite their previous status as pilots, rather than because of that.
We need to stop this hedging, and own up to our failures when they occur. If you’re pushing a technology project at your museum, make the case for it at the beginning, rather than hoping that a successful pilot will make the case for you. If you’re proposing the project in the first place, it’s probably because you already have some faith that it will be successful. Don’t ensure that project’s death by committing it to the pilot project graveyard.