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Museums and Transparency Part 5 – Guidelines for Implementing Dashboards

Museum TransparencySo, the time has come to wish a fond farewell to our series of articles on Museum Transparency and Dashboards!  We’ve spent the previous 4 weeks covering a range of topics dealing with issues of transparency and performance metrics.  I hope that the posts have been valuable and that they might be a touchstone for conversations within your own organazation about being more transparent.

If you’re just joining us, you can find links to the previous articles here (tag: transparency)

To leave you with a bit more to chew on before we head off, this last article provides some suggestions for how to implement your organization’s own dashboard.  Feel free to add your own suggestions / questions to the comment stream after the jump!

7 Guidelines for Implementing Dashboards

For museums that would like to take the plunge into revealing and tracking their performance metrics online, the software used in the creation of the IMA’s Dashboard tool has been made freely available to the community under an open source license. (http://code.google.com/p/museum-dashboard/) Regardless of the tools used to embrace practices of Transparency, the following are some pragmatic suggestions to consider during your planning processes.

1. Choose a Few Key Metrics

Identify tangible and measurable statistics which can serve as leading or trailing indicators of your institutions success at meeting its mission. Many elements in mission statements are intangible and difficult to measure.  Identifying a few metrics which can serve as key indicators of success to mission is of critical importance. (See Maxwell L. Anderson’s “Metrics of Success in Art Museums” for a discussion on this topic)

2. Identify and Share Areas for Improvement

Museums should include statistics to describe areas in which they would like to improve.  Being open about areas in which we are not excelling creates opportunities for discussion with our constituents and an extrinsic motivation for staff members trying to excel in these areas.  Also, it’s only possible to demonstrate progress if we first share our deficiencies.

3. Simplify the Presentation

Resist the temptation to squeeze all of your information onto one screen.  Executive dashboards often suffer from information overload. Dense displays of data can take time and significant effort to decode and understand even for the most invested museum employee.  If we hope to engage the less invested and ever-so driven-to-distraction web visitor with statistics about our museum, we must start with the assumption that this information will be experienced in a glance.  Our hope is to capture that attention in the moment and offer deeper and more meaningful content easily upon further investigation.

4. Involve Staff

As discussed previously, one of the primary benefits of publishing an organization’s performance in a dashboard is the impact doing so can have on internal communications with the museum’s own staff members.  The active involvement of staff from a variety of departments is critical to disseminating an understanding of mission-driven performance metrics and serves to infuse the organization with a culture of honesty, openness, and a desire and expectation of perpetual and incremental improvement.

5. Explain Your Reasoning

Describe to your audience why you think each particular statistic is worth measuring.  Transparency tools, such as dashboards, offer exciting opportunities to share and describe the ways your institution is attempting to achieve its mission.  Museums should use these opportunities to explain why the data looks the way it does.  Are you succeeding, facing challenges, radically improved in this area recently?  The deeper content behind each statistic gives your institution the chance to engage with interested constituents.

6. Describe the Way You Measure

We all know that it’s easy to deceive an audience with statistics; to make the numbers say whatever we want them to.  Be explicit in describing the ways you derived the information you are sharing.  If you make any assumptions, be sure to indicate them.  If you based your information on another source, be sure to reference it accurately. Information without this description is unverifiable and subject to manipulation.  This documentation will also serve institutions well during occasions of staff turn-over, preserving a continuity of reporting and responsibility.

7. Participate in the Creation of Open Standards

An extremely valuable result of many institutions adopting similar strategies for sharing performance metrics online would be the ability to benchmark and compare statistics across institutions.  Current resources for museum comparative statistics are inconsistent, poorly specified and opaque in their measurement specifics making them generally useless for cross-institutional benchmarking.  The community needs a more sophisticated way of thinking about common comparisons which might be made between institutions and how those measurements might be achieved and normalized to facilitate a better common-ground of understanding.  The impact on the efficient and professional management of museums would be profound.

* * * * *

It is undeniable that museums have witnessed their role in the world change due to the dramatic increase of information and access resulting from the influence of the internet on contemporary culture.  This change has provided museums previously unimaginable opportunities for reaching audiences who are quite literally “a world away”.  However, it is important to realize that we now live our lives in the open much more than we ever have in the past.  Concepts of privacy and previously accepted social norms are changing as well. We can see and experience that this is true personally, but museums have been slow to embrace this fact.  The adoption of open and transparent attitudes toward information sharing allows museums to take an information-savvy and culturally relevant approach to engage audiences regarding why museums are important to our communities, and to share the unique challenges faced by mission-driven organizations in today’s marketplace.  Institutions which can embrace these trends will realize significant tangible and strategic benefits.

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