Digging into digital at Birmingham Museums Trust

Over the last five months, we’ve been working with Birmingham Museums Trust to deliver their digital strategic plan. Last week we introduced the project. And over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing what we did in each phase. First up, the Discover Phase.

Why do discovery?

Museums are complex organisations – both mission driven and income generating. A mixture of archive, academic institution, education establishment, visitor experience, retail outlet, hospitality, publisher and membership organisation.

A museum’s digital offer is often an expression of this.

The complexity for those both inside and outside of an organisation can be overwhelming, distracting and quite easy to pretend it’s not even there. And yet, we need to acknowledge and understand the complexity in order to deliver a strategic project. This is what we do during our discovery phase, we make sense of this complex context and ensure the effort is focused on the most vital areas.

For this project, we’re identifying what’s the vision for digital compared to the current reality, helping the team understand what are the blockers to delivering the vision and where the opportunities to excel. This allows us to shape the strategic plan to focus on these vital elements and provide knowledge and inspiration for the areas it needs to address.

What we did?

We carried out workshops with people from different departments at different levels. We looked at existing data to understand how digital activity was defined, initiated, developed, distributed, maintained and measured.

We also carried out research into the online audience to understand who the organisation was currently reaching and not reaching, identifying what was the opportunity to develop those audiences.

Finally, we looked at the gap between ambition and reality. What was happening inside BMT and how was affecting the impact on the organisation’s capacity to connect with audiences, deliver their mission and be more sustainable.

This can be hard for any team to go through, an uncompromising look at what’s going on can feel harsh. But with new leadership and new ambition, we heard from the team an appetite for things to change.

What did this tell us?

1) Who needs to be involved in co-creating the plan?

As a collaborative planning process, it’s important that the people in the room making the plan are the people who will have both an impact on, and be impacted by the activity. Digital is so far ranging across an organisation that different departments are represented and people from different levels of the organisation. We identified 10 team members who would be involved in all the sessions to create the plan – this included directors through to those at the coal face of commissioning and delivering digital experiences.

2) What did we need to include and just as importantly exclude from the plan?

What is and isn’t digital is one of those philosophical questions we all want to avoid. However, it’s important to set the boundaries of what the plan will and won’t address. When we spoke to the team there was an acknowledgement of how broadly the term “digital” was used within the organisation.

There was already work planned to review and realign technical systems and platforms so although the plan needed to be aware of the systems and platforms, the plan would inform rather than address these. There were also some significant needs to improve organisational systems, however, without digital leadership in place and an organisational strategy – we agreed the plan would focus on a vision and direction that would be about delivering externally-facing digital.

We also heard about the ambition and the challenges. 

  • An excitement to be digital first along with the tension of limited resources 
  • A passion to support local communities and wanting to put Birmingham Museums on the map as a key part of Birmingham’s tourist offer, particularly during the upcoming Commonwealth Games
  • A need to open access to collection, knowledge and heritage with a need to develop offers that were sustainable
  • A need to do focus on more impactful work while continuing to deliver what has already been agreed

3) What time horizon should the digital strategic plan cover?

The insights from the discovery made it clear that this plan needed to be limited to just a couple to two years. The organisation is in a big transition phase, moving from the previous way of doing things to a new future facing horizon. However, that new horizon hadn’t yet been decided on and there was still key work to be done. This plan could then focus on addressing some of the fundamental digital needs while the organisational strategic plan and digital leadership were put into place.

4) What are the gaps in what the team at BMT wanted and what they did?

Where did they need new inspiration? New voices and ideas? The discovery raised these five areas to explore

  • Use data and insight more effectively to make decisions and priorities – In the past, data has been used to monitor performance. Moving forward, BMT wanted to use data more strategically to inform how to make the right thing, not just to make the thing right.
  • Connect and deepen the effect you are having with communities – the research showed that the current online audience was incredibly niche. Web was a more concentrated version of the in-person audience and social an even more concentrated version of the web audience. None of these audiences currently represent the diversity of the local community, but also online was not attracting new audiences beyond the Trust’s physical sites.
  • Meet the needs and motivations of local citizens – the research also showed that the organisation’s online and in person audiences were local. Yet the online audiences were an even narrower group of local audiences than the in-person visitors – more culturally motivated, very white, very highly educated. How might BMT reach a wider group of local audiences that better represent their Birmingham communities?
  • Focus on long-term sustainability – BMT current digital activity was driven by available funding and/or access to low to no-cost services. The impact was a small team pulled by the agendas of funding bodies and generous supporters rather than a focus on what was needed at that time. The digital strategy needed to address this challenge, and the team needed some insight into what addressing these issues might look like.
  • Use our creativity constructively – like many museum teams, the BMT staff are not short of ideas – in fact, as the team came on board we used the term “the ideas factory”. This is a vital skill to have in the team but focusing and executing these ideas to make sure they delivered needed a new approach.

We also created the first draft of our focus question for the digital strategic plan. This is the question that the strategy has to answer.

How can we collaborate over the next two years to use digital technologies to increase our financially sustainability, reach more of our local citizens and do the preparation needed to engage a national and international audience in the future ?

By Lindsey Green, co-founder of Frankly, Green + Webb.

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