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Digital Strategy Catches up With the Present: An Interview with Smithsonian’s Michael Edson

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For this installment of Insights, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group’s ongoing series of interviews, I talk with Michael Edson, the Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution. Edson gave a compelling talk at last year’s NDIIPP/NDSA conference, Let Us Go Boldly into the Present I’m excited to take this chance to talk through and discuss some of the key ideas in his vision for the role of digital media in cultural heritage institutions.

It looks like you keep revising and expanding your talk, Let Us Go Boldly into the Present, could you give us a quick abstract or brief run-through of what your argument is in this talk?

Michael: You’re right, I have been updating and revising this talk! It’s a set of ideas I feel very strongly about, that I want to share and make better.

The basic idea of the talk is that there is enormous value to be had in the technology platform we have available to us today. We don’t have to wait anymore for some new technology to appear or mature. We don’t have to wait to see if social media and crowdsourcing and mobile data in the cloud are going to add up to anything useful. It’s happened. These things are real, now today. And we’d better get busy. If we want to do justice to our missions—our audacious and important missions in society—we’d better get busy. We need to change our collective mindset from “let’s be cautious and wait to see how things are going to turn out before we commit” to “Let’s place the bet. Let’s get it done.” Hence the title of the talk, “Let us go boldly into the present.”

Let me give you an example. Five or ten years ago we had people like Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams telling us that the future would be owned— “pwned” if I may— by disruptive new ways of working, ways of thinking about work, that took advantage of crowdsourcing (though I don’t think they called it that) or distributed networks collaborating without much central control, like wikipedia. Wikinomics was published in 2006. Those of us who read it, devoured it, and tried to spread the concepts up through our organizations were met with a fair amount of skepticism back then. Even though the arguments in wikinomics are meticulously and generously documented with real world examples, the world in which groups of strangers could work together without central control to advance the mission of a non-profit or increase shareholder value seemed a little…vague, to many people. It was easy to dismiss. Now, eight years later, kapow! Those ideas are tangibly, bankably real because we’ve done the work and shown how it succeeds. This wiki-like way of working is provably real, at scale, in our industry, and now it’s time to place the bet.

These are not fringe activities anymore. Mobile is not a fringe platform. Crowdsourcing is not a fringe activity. Social media is not a fringe activity. Open access is not a fringe activity. Or they shouldn’t be. They don’t deserve to be. These are serious workplace tools. But I think many organizations, used to a slower evolution and maturation of new ideas and platforms, haven’t noticed how quickly we’ve transitioned from theory to prototypes to practice to profit–however you want to define profit.  I want organizations to notice what’s changed, what the new physics are, and to align resources and priorities accordingly.

The world needs memory institutions to succeed, to win big, at scale. There’s a lot at stake for our culture, our cultures, our species right now. And we’ve got to either win, now, or get out of the way.

Trevor: How have your ideas about digital strategy for cultural heritage organizations changed and evolved?

Michael: How long do you have?!

Now keep in mind that I’m not a policy maker or a spokesperson here. I’m just a strategy guy with an interesting vantage point.

I find myself focusing more and more on execution and scale recently. Learning how to be a “closer”, personally, and studying the different ways organizations execute successfully on their visions. And also how to orient ourselves towards projects, visions, strategies, that operate at a big scale–that really move the dial on the things we care about, not just for hundreds or thousands of people, but for millions and tens of millions of people. I’m disenchanted with the strategic change model of opportunistic low-risk tactical one-offs and I’m looking for ways we can work tactically towards big, big things.

I was talking with an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory a few weeks ago and he said they won’t even consider building a new instrument unless it offers a factor of 10x improvement over the last system. That means that with every new telescope they can see ten times farther back to the beginning of time. That’s kind of…bracing. I’d like to see that kind of dedication to scale and impact in the way we approach the other kinds of work we do. Andrew Ng at Stanford just taught his computer science course, online, to 100,000 students. He told the New York Times that he’d have to teach that course in a traditional classroom setting for 250 years to reach that many students. That’s scale.

We have about 20 million physical visits to the Smithsonian every year. Are we going to be able to double that? Triple that? No. Never. Could we triple our reach and impact online? Quadruple it? See a 10x increase? Yes.

Trevor: Can you tell us a bit about some of your early digital projects at Smithsonian? I’m interested in getting a sense of what kinds of change you have seen in your time working on cultural heritage digital media.

Michael: Early on, say, in the late 1990’s, there wasn’t much knowledge and experience with new media in our organizations. Most of us were still trying to figure out how to run Wordperfect macros or get email with Lotus Notes. The idea of half the people in your office having a 32GB iPhone 4s was just, ridiculous. So we spent a lot of strategy-making hours rolling up our sleeves and learning geeky stuff and trying to figure out what it all meant, where it would lead.

I remember doing a visitor orientation kiosk for the Freer Gallery of Art in 1995. Most people coming in the door had never seen a touch-screen kiosk before. Most older visitors had never held a mouse before. Nobody knew what to expect from glowing screens in a museum lobby. I had to teach myself programming, Lingo, photoshop, Macromedia Director, Soundforge, all this insanity. It was just the wild wild west. The strategy was to just wrap your arms around some time and money, somehow, and do something and show it to someone. To pursue the case. To learn something. To connect with somebody.

I also remember teaching myself Perl to build a photo-uploading and sharing website for an exhibition at the Sackler gallery. There was no Flickr then, so I wrote something, and somehow it worked, and it was so gratifying to see people uploading their travel photos of India and telling us about their experiences. And there weren’t a lot of users who knew how to scan and upload photos back then–there weren’t even that many people on the Internet! Everything is so much easier now, which makes strategy so much more important. When you can do anything for almost zero cost and with almost zero technical skill, you need some strategic vision to help you align the tactical opportunities towards some coherent long-term goal.

Trevor: I’m curious to hear a bit about what you think has changed since those early days, aside from advancing technology, do you think staff’s approach to technology is changing as well?

Michael: One thing I’ve noticed recently is how good some of our web and new media practitioners have gotten. How experienced and competent and wise they are now. This is a big change that kind of snuck up on us. It’s certainly snuck up on most managers I think. All of a sudden they have these total professionals under them—maybe it’s happened without them even noticing! I worry that we’re going to lose a lot of talented, self-starting fast learners in our industry if we don’t recognize this emerging, or emerged, talent at the bottom and middle of our organizations. I spend a lot of time working to call attention to these individuals, to get them some recognition and resources and decision authority, and a framework of policy and platforms to help them have an impact.

I was at a web strategy workshop for cultural organizations in Latin America recently, sitting around a conference table with 5 or 10 of my colleagues from throughout the Smithsonian—webmasters, social media coordinators, the people working with the public day-in and day-out on the web—and we were hashing through some of the challenges of managing public relations through social media. And I was gobsmacked, just totally blown away by how much my peers knew about how to do this stuff now. What works and what doesn’t. It was a level of wisdom equal to anything I’ve seen in the industry, and it was the kind of wisdom that can only be borne through experience.

These people had quietly and humbly put in their Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours and they knew things. Really smart things. And I see this happening in almost every organization I’ve studied or visited with. When you’ve got that kind of talent emerging within your organization, explosive creative growth can happen, and smart leaders get out of the way. In that kind of environment he job of strategy should change from high-falutin philosophy to execution. Execution. Getting stuff done for the mission, for the public we serve.

So very many things have changed, but the hardest and most important aspects of strategy have remained constant, and remained difficult—I don’t think I’ll ever master them! How to lead. When to push and when to be patient. How to surface and confront difficult ideas in a constructive and non-threatening way, but still to surface and confront them—to press the case. How to help change happen within large, complex organizations. How to build a sense of urgency and a shared vision around mission and progress. How to close the gap between those protecting the status quo and those who want to disrupt.

Trevor: In your talk you described an Alien auditor who comes down and looks over how cultural heritage organizations are organized and how resources are allocated. Could you tell us a bit about what you think the Alien auditor would tell us about many of our cultural heritage organizations approaches to new media?

Michael: It all comes down to whether or not we’re going to really embrace new media, and the new kinds of behaviors and group actions that come with it, as a fundamental, foundational aspect of pursuing our missions.

This Extraterrestrial Space Auditor is a thought experiment I came up with to help organizations look more closely at what they were doing—and not doing—with digital media and why. In the early adoption phases of new media initiatives when the inputs and outputs are less clear–things are more experimental. There’s a certain feeling you get in an organization when they’re leaning into important, mission-critical work—there are things you notice when it’s succeeding that don’t show up as line items in the annual report at first. Scott Berkun talks about this in The Myths of Innovation quite a bit.

The basic idea of the Extraterrestrial Space Auditor is to put yourself in the mindset of an auditor from outer space—from way out of town, so to speak—with no bias or assumptions about your organization’s prestige or presumed value in society. The extraterrestrial Space Auditor’s only job is to look at your organization and compare its stated mission with what you are actually doing every day: how you’re spending your time, investing resources, hiring, firing, the kinds of meetings you’re having, the pace and velocity in the organization—the outcomes you’re achieving in society. Are you using all the tools at your disposal, and are you using them well?

Now, of course, technology, new media, and the new kinds of behaviour and group work they make possible are the subtext of this thought experiment. How can we use new media to advance our missions—to accomplish more of the good things we’re supposed to be doing in society, better and faster and with more impact? I think most, but not all, of our cultural/heritage organizations–organizations and businesses of all kinds really—don’t measure up as well as they could or should.

Many organizations feel that new media, social media, mobile platforms, even basic services delivered through straightforward web 1.0 websites, are nice additions to the 20th century modus operandi, but they’re not considered to be critical. They’re not considered to be as good, as valid, as a museum visit, or a trip to the library. I’m constantly surprised by the number of organizations who have not thoroughly build the web—the Internet—into their DNA. Their sense of profit and loss.

Many web teams in museums, libraries, and archives, are starved for resources, starved for attention. The teams, the individuals in the teams, are on the hunt, on the move, they’ve figured out how to pursue the mission in dramatic and innovative ways, they’re doing interesting things within their own limited spheres of influence, but it often feels very tentative from an institutional perspective. We say that the web, technology, the Internet, are important, but too often, an impartial observer would logically conclude that we can and should be doing more. We say in our Smithsonian web and new media strategy that “some re-balancing of resources and priorities will be required.”

Back in 2009 some volunteers did person-on-the-street video interviews with Smithsonian museum visitors, and they asked the visitors what they wanted from Smithsonian websites, and almost all the visitors said they wanted—expected—all of the Smithsonian’s 137 million objects to be online, for free, in high resolution, in 3-d, with a video about the object by a curator. That was their basic expectation. It’s going to take a while to fulfill that expectation, we’re working every day to get the most important materials online first. There’s no time like the present to get started.

Trevor: One of your themes is the idea of ramps and loading docks as key metaphors for defining the digital strategy of a cultural heritage organization. Could you unpack what you mean by these terms and explain your reasoning behind their value?

Michael: I don’t know that it needs to be a part of the strategy, per se, but the “on ramps and loading docks” pattern is a way for organizations to behave, tactically, if they believe that the organization needs to be a connector, a convener, and a catalyst, rather than an exclusive manufacturer—a monopoly.

If you believe you’re a monopoly you want to do everything yourself—you’re internally focused. You build structures and organizational habits around moving infrastructure, expertise, raw materials (collections, data) inside the organizational walls and you do the stuff you want to do, you build the end-products in toto, and you deliver them as final products in a one-way transaction to an audience. You build infrastructure and business rules and a culture of assumptions around that work model. This is like a highway with no on ramps, just a place where the pavement starts and finishes, and if you happen to live in the countryside the road goes by you’re out of luck—you can’t get on it. It’s like a factory with only one small door in it for letting workers in and letting products out, and that door is usually protected by a surly guard.

But if you believe that the best return on investment for society is to behave like a catalyst so that other people outside your organization can be successful, so that other people who don’t work directly for you can take your resources (or in the case of public institutions, can take the resources already paid for by taxpayers) and execute on your mission themselves by making a new product, inventing something, making new creative works, making a scientific breakthrough…then you need to build infrastructure, business rules, and a culture of assumptions around making it easy to get resources, ideas, expertise, data, knowledge, and attention in and out of your workgroups. This is like a highway with a lot access ramps, or a factory with a lot of entrances, comfortable well lit staff rooms, and a lot of big beefy loading docks to accept and move out all kinds of things.

And if you have a highway with a lot of on and off ramps, or a factory with a busy loading dock, you need to devote a lot of time to ensuring that those things work efficiently—you need to work at managing the infrastructure, the work habits and cultural assumptions of lots of people, things, ideas, data, resources moving through your organization to where they’re needed. Otherwise you have chaos. Or inevitable atrophy and failure.

So, all of this being said, ask yourself how easy is it to share raw materials within your organization? Or to share from inside to outside? How easy is it to share a 100MB data file with a colleague? How easy is it to bring a volunteer software developer on board? Can you get them a login ID and an email address? Is there a place for them to sit? Can you find a room to meet with 10 colleagues? 100?

All of these things constitute a kind of platform that makes it easier to get work done in the fast, collaborative, open environment I think we need to be working in. Not just a platform of servers and apps, but a comprehensive platform to make collaborative work of all kinds easier.

Trevor: You also focus on defining different roles, processes, responsibilities for groups working at the edge of an organization and groups working at the core. Could you talk us through why you think this is so important? Further, do you have any good examples for places that you think are doing this well, that have groups doing innovative work at the edge that is being scaled up, refined and integrated into the core?

Michael:  In our our Web and New Media Strategy we say that the best innovation happens out at the edges of the Institution, where we have, close together, subject matter experts, collections and data, the public (which can include a 6th grader or a Nobel laureate, or both) and some degree of technology expertise. This is an intentional effort to embrace an edge innovation model here, and this kind of innovation doesn’t usually happen in central offices, it mostly happens out in the vast border habitat between “us” and “the public.”

But, we also say that the innovators out on the edges have reached the limits of what they can accomplish on their own, without a commons of shared tools, standards, and infrastructure. So the “innovation at the edges: a commons in the middle” strategy is a way of acknowledging, and turning into a feature, the need to balance autonomy and control within the organization. And I see this dynamic playing out everywhere I go, because it’s so easy to innovate at the edges now.

Once you’re headed down this path, you get into a situation where you need to build core competencies around identifying which innovations at the edges need to be brought into the central platform so they can scale, so you can get some network effects, and so you can relieve the innovators at the edges from the withering responsibility of maintaining servers and doing security and software maintenance and all those things that edge innovators are notoriously bad at and get bored with very quickly.

A long time ago we decided, somehow, that we weren’t going to ask our curators, our subject matter experts, our catalogers, to bring sacks of coal into work in the winter to heat their offices. I talked about this recently at a symposium for the National Heritage Board, National Library, and National Archives in Sweden…

We don’t ask researchers to blow their own light bulbs, or press their own copy paper from rags and wood pulp. There’s a big platform that central service organizations have agreed to perform to free up time and energy to use for mission related work. That same process needs to happen, habitually and intentionally, with the IT stack.

Edge-to-core is what happened, kind of haphazardly, when the World Wide Web came along. When computers came into the workplace. It’s happening now with drupal, with mobile, with intellectual property policy, the public domain, and the creative commons. We’re getting better at it, and that’s a good thing. There’s going to be a ceaseless torrent of edge innovation being injected into our organizations for years to come. That process might— will — change the way we think about traditional organizations and what they can and can’t do. It’s going to be a restless and exciting time.

Trevor: Where do you think the home should be for digital media in a cultural heritage organization? Or, how do you think one should divide up roles and responsibilities when digital is increasingly becoming a key part of nearly every part of cultural heritage organizations? We are increasingly acquiring, preserving and exhibiting born-digital and digitized materials, using social media for outreach and public relations, supporting researchers and fielding reference questions through digital channels, and supporting all of that work with a substantive IT infrastructure. Who should be whom’s ramp and loading doc?

Michael: Hah! I see the same pattern being acted out almost everywhere. I’ve written a little about this in “Good projects gone bad, an introduction to process maturity” from a session I did with the Getty’s Nik Honeysett at the American Association of Museums conference in 2008, and also in New Media, Technology, and Museums: Who’s in Charge? from AAM in 2009.

I think that everyone is moving along the same series of evolutionary plateaus, from a chaotic approach to organizing for new media to a “mature” one. This is modeled loosely on the “capability maturity model” way of thinking about organizational change. (I talk about this in depth in the “Good projects gone bad” powerpoint and the accompanying text document on slideshare.)

In the first level, the most basic level, the approach to new media governance and ownership is chaotic and opportunistic. Authority and responsibility is granted, often passively, to an arbitrary individual or workgroup within the organization. Good things can happen, but they rely on individual heroics, there’s little measurement, and successes are hard to repeat.

Level two is the “Emerging and Repeatable” level. You still have very small teams working pretty low down in the org chart, but there’s been an intentional management decision to place authority somewhere. You start to see some standards and business rules built around a few projects, but a lot is unmeasured and left undone.

In level three, you start to see a Director or CEO-level awareness of the new media as an explicit line-of-business, but authority is still in a somewhat arbitrary position in the org chart, and usually two or three steps from the executive suite. There’s usually general uncertainty about the true purpose and impact of new media in the organization, and there are a lot of struggles over decision authority and direction but you also start to see some organizational discipline around workflows, standards, costs, and outcomes.

Level four is “Quantitatively Managed.” You start to see the of new media departments, greater awareness of roles and responsibilities and the routine and predictable involvement of key stakeholders. At this level, new media has become an integral part of organization. You see formal organization and oversight, usually in the Director’s office to someone without specific background in new media but who has overarching knowledge of the organization and a lot of decision authority. Perhaps most notably you see increasing cross-disciplinary expertise/experience across the enterprise: the new media team is familiar and broadly competent with all areas of expertise across the organization, and visa-versa. Here’s where you start to have everyone sharing the same on ramps and loading docks!

In Level five, you have full-time, formal, professional management and visibility in the executive suite, everyone is focused on new media–not as something special, but as an integral part of the overall mission-based effort. You also see a controlled, measurable, repeatable cycle of experimentation and innovation. At level five, the organization is focused, competent, and can innovate freely because they know what they’re capable of and know how new media fits into the overall framework of outcomes.

The trick in working with this framework is figuring out where you are and trying to ratchet forward one level at a time without slipping back. It takes years of effort to move along this path, but I see SFMOMA, the Met, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Walker, PBS, NPR, Discovery, National Geographic, and many other kinds of organizations moving along this path. I don’t know of any examples of executives or boards choosing to de-emphasize and un-prioritize the new media line of business, though I’m sure it’s happened somewhere. And I’m fine with that, as long as it’s done in an honest, urgent effort to advance the mission.

Trevor: What do you see as today’s biggest challenges regarding digital media and cultural heritage organizations? Further, what and how do you think we go about meeting those challenges?

Michael: Leo Mullen quipped at the closing plenary of a museum strategy conference that the biggest obstacle to (and I’ll paraphrase) “Organization 2.0” was Organization 1.0. It was a clever thing to say and it got a big and knowing laugh from the audience, but the kernel of truth in it represents the tremendous challenges facing our large “forever” institutions — our memory institutions. We’ve got to last forever, but we’ve also got to be nimble, agile, and fast to have an impact. Sometimes those things—those different value systems, can seem hard to reconcile.

How to meet that challenge? Develop and hone a strong sense of mission, a strong vision of the impact you want your organization to have in society, and then ruthlessly measure progress towards that vision every single day. If you need more “new media,” more digitization, more crowdsourcing to get that impact, then remove the obstacles and get going. If you need less new media, get rid of it. The things that matters are impact and outcomes.

When organizations are struggling with this I invoke “the one year rule.” I tell them this: think about a gathering, a staff or executive meeting a year from now– what do you need to have accomplished? What do you need to have nailed, crushed, succeeded at or you will have to resign in shame? Name those things now. Measure progress towards them every day. And get them done. Most organizations find that with focus and effort, the most important things take months to get done, not years, and the team finds the tangible progress and accomplishment exhilarating. Liberating. Sometimes life changing. I always evoke the motto of social entrepreneurship: think big, start small, move fast.

Trevor: What parts of our standard practices at cultural heritage organizations do you think we should be radically rethinking? Are there any key parts of our organizations that you think just persist unchanged which we should be seriously re-evaluating?

Michael: “Radical” is a pretty loaded term. What we’re doing isn’t radical. It’s pretty practical, given what’s changing in society, what will change in the future, and what’s at stake.

In this epoch we should be rethinking, re-evaluating, everything, always. That’s not radical, that’s pragmatic. That’s liberating and realistic. But it’s not a license to navel gaze. Let’s get something done. Something that will matter, for a citizen, tomorrow, and something enduring that will matter 100 years from now.

I think the most important re-thinking we’re doing now is around our traditional intellectual property policies, and the ways in which we can encourage and celebrate the use, and re-use, of “our” resources by citizens—by everyone—for the benefit of society. If we get it right, if we begin to form a new appreciation for how our work relates to the giant mashup that is knowledge creation and cultural participation in the digital age, then our descendants will remember us with smiles on their faces. Our institutions will endure.


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