On Wednesday, July 24, we held the first workshop of the DigiTrans project. Launched in collaboration with Dortmunder U, Center for Arts and Creativity in Dortmund, Germany, this one year project explores new digital literacies for the cultural sector. The programme is funded by the Beisheim Stiftung.
DigiTrans explores four themes: rethinking leadership, rethinking teams, rethinking success and rethinking collaboration. We’re interested in the small steps that can have a big impact in the way people conceive and develop projects in the cultural sector. In order to do this, we’re following a reflective process to understand how the principles of agile can be incorporated by the GLAM community.
The main deliverable of DigiTrans is a toolkit for cultural practitioners to develop agile projects. This is not limited to digitalisation but also projects that focus on inclusion and participation in a period of rapid societal change. The purpose of the toolkit is not to get people to rethink their jobs. It is to bridge the divide between personal aspiration, professional development and institutional goals. My colleague Cori Moore and I are working with Jasmin Vogel (Dortmunder U) to develop this toolkit.
During the workshop we tested exercises with 25 participants from cultural institutions across Germany. The workshop agenda followed the structure of the toolkit: introducing three of the five principles. Each section included an impulse talk followed by a group exercise. The purpose of the impulse talk was to offer our participants a provocation as well as a lived experience of the principles we’re talking about. I feel this approach is conducive to create a digitally-enabled mindset, which, unlike digital-first, acknowledges the tacit knowledge and expertise that professionals already possess. This post includes a summary of the impulse talks. The exercises from the toolkit will be shared at a later date.
Why do we need new digital literacies?
The workshop began with a provocation by Jasmin Vogel. She suggested that digital can be everything and nothing. Or in other words, digital is what we make of it. In practice, she explained, this means that cultural professionals, who have studied/trained in a certain subject now have an important role of incorporating ideas from different disciplines and even sectors. Jasmin suggested this is a new digital literacy: a transdisciplinary, cross-platform approach to asking questions and solving problems. This was an excellent start of the day as it clarified that the journey to becoming digitally-enabled begins with mindset change rather than mastery of the tools, which is, at best, an ephemeral skill.
Building projects around motivated individuals
Now that we’d set the focus squarely on mindset change, Dr Martina Taubenberger (Whitebox, Munich) talked about the the importance of new leadership models. If we want to develop innovative projects in the cultural sector, we need to re-think how we build teams. It can no longer be a case of assembling the necessary job titles and then assigning roles with deadlines (more of that later).
We need to build teams of motivated individuals. Martina explained what this means: creating teams where individuals feel comfortable in their own skin, but at the same time, they are willing to be challenged and want to explore new ideas and ways of working. Leadership in this instance, is not about pointing the way and expecting everyone to follow, it’s about leading from behind.
Martina concluded her talk with a reflection exercise: asking us to consider the tasks we undertake on a daily basis and if these relate to the literal definition of our job titles. Most of us said that was not the case, which reinforced Martina’s point: why do we put boundaries around our innovation projects even before they’ve begun by assembling teams that look great on paper but have nothing to do with the actual project.
Keep things simple
Whilst talk of mindset change and new approaches to leadership is important, we cannot escape the elephant in the room: the ever-growing, ubiquitous digital toolkit. Michal Čudrnák (Slovak National Gallery) shared his approach to developing digital innovation projects with his colleagues at the museum: keep things simple.
He explained this approach by sharing his journey from being a self-professed ‘non-digital’ person to leading sophisticated projects that are regarded as good practice for cultural institutions in Slovakia. At every step of the way, Michal asks the question: is this software/platform/project management methodology addressing a genuine need or just creating more work?
A group discussion after his talk reinforced this principle. We asked participants to create a dustbin of digital best practice they’ve been asked to take up in the work place. The answers varied from learning Photoshop to using social media; using data for decision making to recording activities on Trello, a project management software.
Whilst this exercise did highlight the absurd rituals we’re asked to participate in to become more efficient, he reinforced the point that if a particular solution addresses a need then it is worthwhile to invest time. But if it seems absurd from the outset, it is best to move on. Through his provocation, he made an elegant case for experimentation.
Replacing deadlines with priorities
Speaking of rituals, Robert Weisberg (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) asked us to reconsider our attachment to deadlines. Citing examples from his twenty-five year career, he explained how deadlines can thwart innovation by enabling a culture of secrecy.
Robert explained that deadlines are about power and control, which are in direct conflict with the point Martina made: about building teams that allow innovation to thrive. He posed several questions during his talk to help understand how we can move away from setting deadlines to focussing on priorities.
The journey begins by reflecting on what deadlines mean for us: do they make us feel anxious or energised? Do they distract from the work that is to be done and divert our attention to thinking about bosses who will be upset if the deadline is not met? Or the colleagues who will not take the deadline seriously?
We exist in a spectrum
Continuing with the theme of rituals, Daniel Neugebauer (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin) reminded us that digital tools are optimised to polarise. But we — culture professionals, audiences, visitors, the community — exist in a spectrum of abilities, gender, behaviours. Whenever a technology / platform forces upon us a binary choice in the name of efficiency, we must question it.
Did we become agile overnight?
Our workshop would have been incomplete without reflections from Mechthild Eickhoff (UZWEI, Dortmunder U) who has been our go-to person during the first three months of the project. We’ve asked Mechthild to test the exercises we are developing for the toolkit and report back to us. And we are grateful for the time and energy she has put into this activity. Mechthild said that an agile mindset provides an opportunity for us to rewrite the script of how cultural professionals conceive projects. An agile mindset offers freedom, greater visibility amongst our peers and genuine knowledge exchange with our audiences.
A heartfelt thank you
I am grateful to our speakers who shared their lived experience with us. Our participants were wonderful — curious, open minded, up for a challenge and keen to try new ways of working. My co-facilitator Cori Moore was absolutely brilliant in developing the activities and improvising throughout the day. Last but not least, Jenni Müller, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure our workshop was a success.
What happens next?
Our next DigiTrans workshop takes place on Monday, September 23. In this session we focus our attention to digital tools and explore the art of prototyping: does it lead to beautiful artefacts that everyone loves but nobody knows how to use? Or can prototyping in the cultural sector help us develop new formats and platforms that bridge the physical-digital divide? We’re in the process of setting up the workshop. Our facilitators include professionals from Jerusalem, Bangalore, Bonn and Stroud. If you would like to be involved in the project, please visit this page and sign up for the newsletter. You will receive an invitation to the next workshop as well as the toolkit as soon as we are ready.