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Transparency and Museums (Part 3) – Institutional Culture

Museum TransparencyLast week, I had the opportunity to attend the 2009 Museum Computer Network Conference in Portland, OR.  While Portland was rainy and cold all week, I found the conference to be both engaging and thought provoking.  While the sessions were great, the thing that keeps me coming back for more is the community.

Community – the culture of this gathering – is where the real diffusion and impact occur.  Although the speakers and panelists were great and a good trigger for conversation, the value really took hold in the hallways over coffee or in some of Portland’s great pubs over a beer.

In thinking about this next post on transparency, it struck me that the same is true about our own museums as well.  The culture of our institution – the hallway and cafe conversations that happen between colleagues – is where much of the success and innovation will come from.

At the MCN conference we heard some great conversations about strategy and innovation.  But I think all would realize, the harder part of strategy is finding a way for it to take hold and become REAL.

As a final salvo offering reasons why your museum should adopt open and transparent practices around institutional performance, let’s talk a bit more about the impact this choice can have on the culture of your museum.

If you’re just joining the conversation, here are links to parts 1 and 2 of this series. (Part 1 – Walking the Talk) (Part 2 – Reasons for Transparency)  Please join the conversation in the comments and tell us what you think! A little virtual water cooler would help us all.

Reasons For Transparency: Impact on Institutional Culture

“The organizations that will be truly successful in this environment are those that have integrated Transparency as part of their organizational culture and not just their communications strategy. To the extent that the two are inter-related, the communications strategist has a substantial role to play here.”

Mark Hannah, “Transparency as a Principle not a Tactic”,, January 7, 2009

The infusion of an attitude of Transparency and an institutional understanding of strategy will allow our museums to continue to mature steadily and continuously over time, but these goals require a cultural shift for our staff. One organization which understands the impact of Transparency and the role of company culture is the internet shoe company, Zappos (recently acquired by Amazon). As illustrated by Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh,

“It’s a very different world today. With the Internet connecting everyone together, companies are becoming more and more transparent whether they like it or not. An unhappy customer or a disgruntled employee can blog about a bad experience with a company, and the story can spread like wildfire by email or with tools like Twitter.

The good news is that the reverse is true as well. A great experience with a company can be read by millions of people almost instantaneously as well.

The fundamental problem is that you can’t possibly anticipate every possible touch-point that could influence the perception of your company’s brand.”

Tony Hsieh, “Your Culture is Your Brand”, Zappos CEO Blog, January 3, 2009

Hsieh makes an important point that museums should observe as well. In order to remain culturally relevant, museums must address this inevitable and global cultural shift towards ubiquitous information and user experience or risk being sidelined both online as well as in our communities.

Putting Transparency into practice in an institution has a number of consequences which can offer significant benefits to museums. The act of publishing information for public scrutiny always elevates the attention that is given to that effort.  Whereas staff members may have been apt to forget about tracking performance in a key area, a commitment to publish that information pushes professional staff members to pay more attention regarding how that information will be perceived outside the walls of the museum.  Ideally these are features museums want and need to be tracking anyway, but the reality is that when no one is looking, it’s easy to pay less attention. Transparency then, is an effective mechanism for generating this external motivation which can result in measurable improvements for the museum.

When these key metrics are tracked, organizations will be able to easily identify and develop trends and forecasts for these mission critical pieces of information. Since institutions are committed to a timely publishing of this information they will also benefit from more timely and accurate disclosure of problem areas not only to the public but also to internal constituencies. Indicators of success and poor performance can help management teams identify areas which need more attention or resources without simply sweeping the problem under the carpet.  Measuring which areas are succeeding can help museums better optimize how much effort is required to continue performing well in that area.  Perhaps staff can spend half as much time or money and achieve the same results?  Mission-critical information such as this is a crucial underpinning that will allow management teams to execute good decision-making based on fact and not opinion.  These steps can facilitate not only cost savings, but time savings over the long term as well.

Next week, we’ll begin to look more practically at how the Indianapolis Museum of Art put some of these theories into practice and what kind of impact / experience we’ve seen since doing so.  Again, I’ve really enjoyed some of the comments offered to these posts… but understand that there are several shy ones among you!  Don’t Fear!  Pipe up with your thoughts… I’ve generally found our little blog community to be very open to opinions of all different stripes!  -Rob

Filed under: Musings, Technology

2 Responses to “Transparency and Museums (Part 3) – Institutional Culture”

  • avatar

    Rob, this has been a great series–thank you so much, for these posts specifically and for being in the forefront of transparency in museums more generally.

    I think one of the cultural issues that has been in some ways overlooked is the challenge of getting all levels of the organization to understand and appreciate the benefits of transparency. In my experience, it’s not too unusual for the “lower-downs” to see its value in a way that the “higher-ups” don’t, concerned as the latter so often are over controlling the image of the institution. It goes against the “trumpet the good, bury the bad” approach that so often comes from museum administrations. My sense is that this process at IMA started out with an administration that was open to the idea–is that a fair assessment?

    So what I’m struggling with is identifying the best ways to make the case for a cultural shift towards transparency within the organization. The guerrilla in me likes the idea of pushing the bottom-up efforts, but at some point I think the top has to say “yes, we’re doing it this way now; we’re now committing ourselves across the board to transparency.”

    It’s bridging that gap that proves the most difficult, in my opinion. Thoughts on how best to do it are welcome from anybody!

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Hey Eric,

    Great comment! To be fair, your assumption is probably correct. Max Anderson, our CEO has been in favor of transparency and performance metrics for museums for quite some time. My role as CIO has also helped in cementing this strategy as a way the IMA can improve its performance to mission.

    The application of performance metrics to continuous improvement is not new, in fact much popularized by Deming and others ( For museums it only makes sense to focus this continuous improvement on our mission.

    In the last part of the series, I’ll introduce a few key steps to get started. Quickly though, it’s often useful to find some quick and low-risk ways of getting started… to “try it on for size”… Be sure to still pick something that’s important or the change won’t matter…

    Thanks for a great point of view here! -Rob

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