Slides (with notes) from Keynote address delivered July 20, 2018 to the 2018-19 National Digital Stewardship Art Cohort at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Framing digital transformation and positive disruption through the lens of digital stewardship, systems thinking and The Innovator's Dilemma.
Keynote Address: Digital Transformation & Cultural Heritage, A provocation in four parts
My goal today is to put forth an idea or two – perhaps at times challenging
conventional “wisdom” - for further exploration. Artists do this all the time (this
is not a pipe) - but of course I’m not an artist, and neither will I claim to be an
expert from whom you must soak up my special and unique wisdom. Instead,
let’s hold something up to the light and examine it, together.
I propose: The theory and practice of Digital Stewardship can serve as a lens
through which the transformation of long-held business practices may be
But first, a little background – actually my formal path wasn’t supposed to lead
to digital technology, nor even museums. Instead, it was psychology - which at
it’s core is about people and change. Frankly, I apply that knowledge daily, as I
do my best to be a decent leader, finding and empowering the best PEOPLE
so that they - and by extension our organization - will thrive. Even – and
maybe especially – in times of disruptive and transformational change.
Because the only constant is change.
I promise that this predator/prey paradigm does NOT represent my
perspective. I regret that so many businesses have a tendency to think FEAR
is an effective way to drive change. I’m not here to scare you, but I will be
honest. Together, we can find the best path forward.
I have been at the Minneapolis Institute of Art since 2011. Mia is a 103 year old
fine art museum. its collection includes approx. 89,000 objects, spanning all types
of art across all cultures, continents and human history. We have ~250 full time
staff, our annual operating budget is $35 million, and we are averaging over 700k
visits per year over the past few years. I hope you will come!
Before that, I worked at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for
14 years. Back in 1997 when I started, the term “digital transformation” didn’t
exist - but that’s essentially the work that I have been doing in the sector for
more than 20 years now. Helping the organizations change, slowly and
patiently, so that they can take advantage of the opportunities provided by
If there is a central connection that ties together what I’ve done during my
career, it’s PEOPLE. I am a tireless advocate for people, in all of our wonderful
variety and potential.
Now I’d like to set the stage for the rest of my presentation – to frame the
Like so many of you, I work in the nonprofit sector, which is not only larger than
almost anyone thinks and a generator of significant revenues, it is also a provider of
essential (and life-changing or even life-saving) services – and our sector has some
unique needs. When it comes to digital assets, we need the same capabilities as
most other industries, but in addition we hold a responsibility for making the world a
better place and for preserving and sharing humankind’s greatest achievements.
The very nature of work itself has evolved and continues to do so – from
purely analog, generally solo, linear and deliberate (not to mention 100% white
male) to dynamic, digital, diverse, fast-paced - and often non-linear and
And the world continues to change around us, particularly when it comes to
innovations in technology – the pace of which has accelerated in ways that are
unprecedented in history.
Here is a slide that I used recently during a presentation to a digital asset
management conference. I’m attempting to illustrate how our progression in
the nonprofit world is basically the same as most other sectors (if slightly
behind the pace): from paper copies and card catalogs, through the early
stages of making digital stuff to the implementation of software, and eventually
to maximizing the value of the assets we produce with the latest technologies
(well, at least that’s an objective - call it our North Star).
There are going to be terms thrown around today and in your careers which
intersect and overlap (and perhaps occasionally collide). Know that this is
common in any rapidly changing ecosystem. There are differences in these
terms of course, some that are clear and some rather nuanced - along with
some that can even be in conflict. But there is also a great deal of overlap –
and far more detail in all of this than I can cover today.
So let’s hone in on two: Digital asset management (DAM) and Digital
DAM is keenly focused on dealing with the production, storage and use of
digital files. It’s powerful, flexible, and typically workflow-based.
When we layer in the concept of Digital Stewardship, we first see that there is
a huge amount of overlap – more on that later. We do see a slight difference in
that digital stewardship leans more toward long-term preservation, while DAM
leans toward deployment and publishing. But in truth, the differences are
rather minor and probably shrinking year-over-year.
As part of framing my provocation today, I will DARE to present the Credo of
digital stewardship and asset management, to an audience that likely knows
more about all of this than I do. I’ll ask you to bear with me. And I do note that
this is vastly oversimplified!
Part 2: Let’s spend a little time looking at digital in cultural heritage, and some of the
unique needs of our niche. I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, so I’ll move fast.
We have digital stuff! At Mia, our time-based and digital media art collection is
relatively modest in size, but that’s changing: it is frequently supplemented by loaned
works and it is on the verge of significant growth as we collect more contemporary
work of this type.
Most collecting institutions are facing this issue: a growing body of digital works (or
works that include digital or time-based elements) but a lack of tools and practices to
help manage, maintain and preserve them.
As our digital collections grow, the need for improved processes and systems is
becoming more urgent. It’s vital that we set up systems and practices ahead of that
need (to get ahead of the curve, be proactive).
The entire field of archival practice has had an upheaval, as the traditional filing of
paper methods simply no longer apply, and yet the flood of digital files is daunting.
Digital stewardship has never been more necessary. Thank goodness for the NDSR
program, and for you! Then again, it’s very hard to nail down in simple terms just what
digital stewardship actually is.
But even if we can’t perfectly define the role, we can see the need for
concentrated efforts in this regard. You are the community of professionals
who will guide us into the future challenges of preserving what we make.
And look: Erin graduated! Just two days ago back in MN we celebrated her
successful one year NDSR Art residency at Mia, with this suitable-for-
In practical teams, we need to effectively preserve our precious – and expensive -
digital works. That has a long list of needs, including: (see text on slide)
Now let’s go for a very sharp segue – because I am going to touch upon
Systems Thinking. This is an entire arena of professional research and
practice – I do not pretend to understand all of it, but I think that scratching the
surface will be illuminating. Plus, I’m curious to see if any of this sounds a bit
familiar to you …
Systems Thinking sees parts as inter-related, together forming a system – and
often multiple smaller systems are linked to form a larger ecosystem. While
each part has its own intrinsic value, the whole of those parts working together
is greater than the sum.
Changes to any part within a system will have ramifications across the system
(positive and/or negative). If anything touches the web, the entire thing reacts.
It is vitally important NOT to have siloes – in an organization, those would be
structures put in place to try to isolate systems and people and authority and
power. The trouble with siloes boils down to: disconnected and isolated
systems create MYSTERY in those system-wide ramifications - because
across they are intrinsically inter-connected (whether the powers-that-be see it
or not). You know, the old “right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing”
The practice of digital asset management & stewardship is rooted in systems
When a system includes PEOPLE, it’s even MORE complex, because now
you’ve got motivations, emotions, unconscious processes, multiple/unique
frames of reference, interpersonal conflict and irrationality. Communication is
so very essential, using a common vocabulary. When that’s working, all oars
are more likely to be rowing in the same direction
Systems and systems thinking, for all of their potential power, also have a
tendency to become calcified, frozen in time. This usually arises from a
misguided attempt to maintain control as organizations scale up.
Frozen or calcified systems are ripe for disruptive innovation. A positive
disruption is GOOD for a system, because it displaces the old and worn-out
Think about the decades-old business model of urban taxi systems and how
they are being destroyed by ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. New
ideas, iterated rapidly based on actual use, until they were clearly better, at
which point everything changed.
Disruption is driven by people - knowledge workers - who can combine
disciplined methodology with agility. Success is even more likely when those
people have a framework that enables innovation and success.
Here's an idea for such a framework: Let’s turn our lens onto knowledge
workers – and start seeing PEOPLE as our greatest assets.
Let’s take a deeper dive into this idea of disruption
I’d like to start with the Innovator’s Dilemma. I'm am going to attempt to
combine concepts from Clayton Christensen’s famous business book with
what we know about DAM and Digital Stewardship and Systems Thinking to
form a perspective on positive disruption.
I will try to summarize the innovator’s dilemma, breaking it down into
beginning, middle and end. Here's the beginning ...
The risk is that this approach tends to stifle innovation.
Most of us are familiar with the curious case of Blockbuster. They
DOMINATED the video rental market, until they didn't. They literally refused to
believe that things could change. In 2010, the once multi-billion dollar company
Let’s start with looking at our approach to systems – and in this case, I’m
thinking primarily of computer-based systems (although this paradigm can
apply across other types of systems as well).
The bad old days of digital production: Idiosyncratic network folder structures
and detailed file naming specs that no one really followed properly.
And IT – usually for perfectly good reasons - was always yelling at us about
For year we have not been addressing the unique requirements of born-digital
assets. Instead, they get treated the same way as physical objects (DVDs,
videotape, a hard drive, etc.) which are catalogued in the collections
management system (TMS). There are no procedures in place for capturing
complete ‘understanding’ of an asset (In our case, works of art – no artist
interviews, forms, etc.) to help us understand how to sustain the work over
time (emulation vs. migration? What was the artist’s intent for how a work
should be experienced, etc.)
Today: sleek interfaces, complex metadata schemes, multiple file types, visual
browsing, comprehensive search. What will tomorrow bring? I can't wait to
see, because I don't think we are anywhere near to completing this journey.
Back to disruption. Let’s start with the way that organizations are structured.
Traditional, hierarchical organizational models are very hard to shake. They
look something like this. The power relationships are clearly expressed by
vertical position - and size matters.
In a another representation, it’s a classic pyramid configuration, with levels of
management stacked upon the strong backs of the hard-working staff.
But please tell me, how is that different from this, really? And thus what does
this all say about power and authority?
Even at Mia, where we are working hard to change our models and empower
our staff by distributing authority, we’ve STILL got one of these (you probably
Again, please tell me how that is really any different than this?
Small world networks are the future of the workplace. These arise organically
in any connected system. What matters most in this model are clustering
(small groups of individuals working together closely and focused on a goal)
and path length (the distance, or number of links, between clusters). Shorter
path length increases communication and enables alignment and productivity.
This is a very simplified example. People are the network nodes, and people
often work on more than one team. Those people – and the connections
between teams – create the small world network. The closer the connections,
the higher the effectiveness of the entire organization.
The next disruptive innovation is a major change in the way that we
conceptualize and apply leadership.
Let’s juxtapose traditional leadership as management with the capital L
In a traditional management model, the leader is the lone expert, who must
control subordinates, demanding compliance and threatening punishment if it’s
not received. Rules are important, and risks must be minimized. Ultimately, a
manager seeks compliance – "Do it my way because I said so!"
By contrast, the Leader in the new model inspires people by empowering them
& unleashing their talents. Purpose is made clear, and risk is understood as a
necessary ingredient not to be feared, but to be anticipated and dealt with. By
earning trust, the capital L Leader develops followers – not a flock of blindly-
obeying sheep, but instead PEOPLE who’ve made a decision to get on board
as full PARTICIPANTS.
I am a strong advocate for something termed Host Leadership. The best
dinner party HOSTS do several things well: they plan, invite, set the table,
welcome, lead and take part in the entire experience.
Applied in the work place: While traditional leadership is focused on the
accumulation and exercise of power by someone at the top, by contrast the
Host Leader model creates an effective workplace and welcomes people into
it, all the while recognizing the power in each and every person.
A Host Leader shares the power willingly, puts the needs of others first, helps
people develop and perform as highly as possible, and gives credit widely and
sincerely (from a place of gratitude and humility). I strive to be a Host Leader,
but frankly I believe that I'm still a work in progress.
Let’s turn from systems and structures and leaders to TALENT – the PEOPLE.
It is critically important to find and empower your assets, whether they are
digital files or talented knowledge workers.
Self-organizing teams are at the core of this approach, and admittedly moving
to this model is a rather big step. There must be trust and truly effective
communication across the entire enterprise. Ultimately, it means empowering
people to go ahead and get things done. No need to wait, you know what we
need to do, go do it!
So, where does all of this take us (in other words I need to stop talking soon).
Well, for one thing, did you get into your career path because you aimed to be
a disruptor? I'd wager probably not, and yet I think that digital stewardship
professionals are and will continue to be important, influential and innovative
contributors to change.
I hope that I’ve managed to pique your interest and get you thinking about your
careers, along with the need for disruption that all of you will support, both in
terms of leadership and innovation in practice. The theory and practice of
digital stewardship - rooted in systems thinking and understanding the
importance of bridging past, present, and future – enables us to make sense of
such things and contribute to the overall mission and success of our
One last thought: I also want to say that you are much more than “that digital
archive person”. You are part of a connected system, in fact you are a part of
several inter-connected and mutually dependent ecosystems. You are a part
with intrinsic value, a part with important impact.