Working together to grow digital courage

This case study by Dr Sophie Frost forms part of the University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums. Sophie worked with Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove to explore ways to develop digital courage within the service.

Jump to: What was the thinking that got you started? | Why was this important to the museum? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | Further reading

What was the thinking that got you started?

How can we develop digital confidence in the museum workforce and empower greater personal storytelling around its collection using technology?

Why was this important to the museum?

Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager at Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton and Hove (RPM) was seeking to develop a more coherent approach to social media that better captured the mission, vision and civic role of the service across Brighton and Hove, as it prepared itself for the future.

RPM is a five-site museum service comprising the Royal Pavilion, Brighton Museum, Hove Museum, the Booth Museum and Preston Manor. The question was important in the light of RPM’s change, in April 2020, from operating under local council jurisdiction to forming an independent trust. This gives the organisation more freedom over how it manages its online presence, especially in the use of social media. Social media is referred to here in the broadest sense – from the evergreen to the ephemeral; from long-form content such as blogs, podcasts and online website articles to more transient and short-lived posts made via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram.

What did you do to implement this?

RPM worked with Sophie over a 10-month period.  She began by having conversations with different staff across all five sites, which revealed some of the conditions affecting social media aspirations in the organisation. The most common challenges described were:

  • A lack of time and funds to upskill current staff and volunteers or to hire in the right people.
  • A lack of consistent support from senior leadership. Reasons for this included fear of undermining the city council and a reluctance to overhaul current social media approaches.
  • A workforce of whom roughly 50 per cent did not feel particularly confident with social media and who expressed concern about its privacy and ethics.

Based on these conversations, Sophie reframed Kevin’s original question as two separate but interlinked questions:

  • How might we develop digital confidence in the museum workforce?
  • How might we empower greater personal storytelling around its collection using technology?

Sophie wanted to experiment with developing a consensus-based approach to digital at RPM, with decisions formulated by museum people as a group, instead of decisions feeling like they were top-down, from one individual or from a separate team or ‘silo’.

With the museum service, she devised an approach aimed at showing how museum people’s needs and aspirations for digital can be met at their own level, without needing the intervention of advanced technology or large-scale organisational change. The idea of ‘digital courage’ was developed from ‘digital confidence’.  Courage was felt to be a more empowering and collective term, more consistent with RPM’s collaborative and community-driven working practices. See ‘further reading’ below for more on this.

RPM trialled a ‘courageous’ approach to social media, allowing each individual to react to their particular situation by adopting a context-based and values-led attitude. This involved empowering employees in digital storytelling across the service’s five sites, culminating in two main outcomes:

These two outcomes responded specifically to each of the two separate questions originally posed.

In order to respond to the first question – How might we develop digital courage in the museum workforce? – Sophie set out to develop a Social Media Blueprint for RPM by inviting staff and volunteers to a series of social media workshops which acted as safe spaces in which they could express concerns, share ideas, and collectively develop a new organisational approach to social media.

Formulating a blueprint can not only provide a coherent and holistic strategy for social media that all staff are happy with, but it can extend and build openness and enthusiasm for social media and how it relates to both individual and organisational storytelling. It can galvanise museum people around the organisation’s mission and vision and help them to feel more closely affiliated with its values. At the same time, it can increase awareness of different digital capabilities existing within the workforce.

The blueprint at RPM was made up of a series of affirmations and interventions that formed a ‘blueprint’ for online engagement. While the affirmations created by RPM’s staff and volunteers intended to capture the desired character and mood of its social media outputs, for example: “RPM’s tone of voice is risk-taking, accepting, responsive, collaborative, trusting, boundary-breaking and brave,” the interventions were a series of actions created to assist in making these affirmations possible, including directives such as “the appointment of social media champions” or “social media takeover days.” Combined, these provided a way of inspiring deep-rooted change to take place.

What happened?

In total, approximately 40 people attended four social media workshops at RPM, making up roughly 20 per cent of RPM’s workforce. It is important to emphasise that this process was underpinned by a spirit of collaboration and developed through the consensus of participating staff and volunteers. It required time and patience, as well as a willingness to listen to all voices regardless of job role or salary band. There is more information here on how to develop and agree a Social Media Blueprint for your museum.

The second outcome was the development of a staff-led podcast series, which responded to the question: How might we empower greater personal storytelling around its collection using technology? A podcast is an episodic series of digital audio files that a user can download in order to listen. Podcasts are like radio, but not live. In the last few years, they have become a popular format in providing different and additional content about museums for varied audiences, some of whom may be less likely to visit the museum itself.

Voices of the Royal Pavilion and Museums aimed to be a platform for employee self-expression, seeking to encourage creativity through personal storytelling. The microphone was used to empower staff and volunteers to reflect, consider and create alternative narratives about the buildings, objects, collections and histories of the museum service. The podcast sought to position RPM’s five sites as intrinsic to the staff themselves – as part of their identity and shared history as citizens within the community of Brighton and Hove. The podcast series was a polyvocal exercise, comprised of the multiplicity of voices which make up RPM. Featuring episodes which spanned different aspects of the museum service such as the Pavilion gardens, the ghosts of Preston Manor, LGBTQ+ histories and RPM’s unique workforce development programme, the podcast was an opportunity to enable a greater range of staff voices to be heard, whilst building courage in using technology in new, exciting and different ways.

Further reading

What is digital courage?

Everett R. Rogers, author of Diffusion of Innovation (2003), was instrumental to the articulation of ‘digital courage’ as a form of practice. He describes how any social system which appropriates an innovation:

“acts like a participatory democracy in which the aggregated individual adoption decisions of its members represent a consensus vote on the new idea.”

Rogers describes how the success of an innovation relies on its ability to be re-invented by any group that chooses to adopt it. In other words, its success is guaranteed only by its capacity to be owned and re-appropriated by those who assimilate it.

This offers a different, more equalising and decentralised approach to digital practice in museums, where museum people choose the applications and technologies that best fit their specific context (size, location, collection, audience etc.) and acquire, in the same breath, the right to reinvent them.

Fear of Digital – the challenge for museums

According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), 37 per cent of art sector organisations say that a lack of capability and knowledge is a major barrier to achieving digital aspirations (Tailored Review of Arts Council England, 2018).

Museum people struggle to keep up with digital transformation for several inter-connected reasons. One is the inter-generational nature of the staff and volunteers running our museums, many of whom struggle with constant digital change. King’s College London’s Changing Cultures (2018) report claims that such workforces require a dispersed leadership that is ‘more welcoming to distinctive work styles and preferences.’

Another reason is the impact of funding cuts on staff training and skills development. As a result, museum people may express trepidation towards digital technology, especially towards the realm of social media. Fears range from its potential threat to privacy, concerns over its ethics, its use as a self-promotional tool rather than for organisational marketing and the extent to which it can capture institutional voice accurately.