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Many cultural organisations say they want to "be more digital", make "digital part of everything we do" but, for many, transitioning to becoming an organisation that can think and behave like a digitally-native business involves some very loud crunching of gears. Why is this?

Before we dig into it, let's define some terms: you and I know that in our screen-based, internet-mediated world, the word 'digital' is so vast and contains so much it is effectively rendered meaningless. So, for the purpose of this piece, I'm using the word 'digital' as shorthand for the tools, platforms and skills that arts and culture professionals use to create and deliver digital content and experiences to audiences online and in their venues. By extension, a 'digital team' is the group within an organisation who are specifically tasked with delivering this content and experiences. (This definition of terms might sound ridiculously simplistic, but things might not be as obvious as job titles imply. We'll get to that in a bit.)

A digital team's size, shape and location in an org chart varies, as Kati Price and Dafydd James described in their presentation to MuseWeb back in 2018. They describe a range of team shapes usually found in the sector and plotted them on a spectrum of organisational digital maturity, ranging from 'decentralised' to 'holistic'. The holistic shape described a distributed, matrixed team with a high level of skill and autonomy, following an overall strategy outlined by a digital leader. They pointed out that this holistic model was rare in the culture sector in 2018, and I'd argue that it's still almost non-existent, despite a couple of years' worth of digital focus during the pandemic.

Why So Stuck?

In the early days of digital production at cultural organisations, digital was the scrappy new kid, the experiment. It was delivered by micro teams of one or two people whose main job was often something else - a marketing manager, a learning assistant; people with the enthusiasm and energy to push forward with something new. Digital had to prove itself to be allowed to stay, so digital teams had to lobby hard to be valued.

Then came broadband, streaming, and social media, and the mass availability of tools to make, publish and distribute content. Anyone could create digital content, and many did, which meant that digital production started to proliferate outside of the digital teams, and not always in a coordinated way. We had entered the era of the microsite - a period of great experimentation and creativity but with varying levels of quality, purpose, and relevance.

In the last decade or so digital output within arts and culture organisations has matured. Many cultural organisations now have dedicated, coherent digital teams that use industry best practices for product design and development, and content production. Arts and culture organisations are more likely to understand that digital is important, but due to a lack of strategic digital thinking at leadership and board level, and ongoing under-resourcing overall, means that digital has not been fully integrated into most organisation's business processes and operations.

Even now, after the months of wild digital pivoting during the pandemic, the day-to-day work of delivering digital still usually sits with a small team inside a much bigger organisation. Now, instead of lobbying for attention, digital's increased profile has brought it multiple stakeholders, but a lack of integrated strategy and business processes means that it is not at all clear who gets to decide what, or how those decisions should be taken. So, stakeholders often use their internal authority to try to influence digital outcomes such as what the website should look like, and what gets published on which social channels. This unbalanced situation leads most digital teams to hold onto all aspects of digital production because, without any decent processes or governance, it's the only way they can make sure that digital standards and best practices are upheld.

This is an exhausting and frustrating situation for everyone, which often results in compromised or confusing digital experiences for audiences. It also means that digital knowledge and skills that are so important for culture roles and businesses to succeed in the future aren't distributed throughout the organisation.

It's time to take (Baby) Digital out of the corner.

By now, digital should be part of every organisation's strategic planning, and that means integrating digital into all of its planning and operations. Running a digitally mature organisation requires a range of teams to work together, so holding decision-making within just one team no longer makes good sense.

But how do we move from embattled silos to collaborative matrix? Having a framework for digital governance can integrate the management of digital into the core operations of an organisation. At its heart is an understanding that responsibility for decision-making about digital sits across the business, and that specific colleagues have to collaborate to make effective and timely decisions.

To be clear, digital governance isn't concerned with how digital is implemented in the day-to-day. It doesn't set the content strategy, tell people which tools to use, or dictate whether their processes are agile or waterfall. What it does is specify who has the authority to make those decisions. This streamlines decision-making and makes sure that everyone upholds the same high standards and policies for digital work. It also reduces a lot of the internal wheel-spinning.

Each organisation's digital governance framework is unique because it has to fit with its own idiosyncratic structures and processes. Setting one up isn't easy - beyond the head-scratching involved in teasing out policies, standards and strategy, there is the very real and human work involved in navigating who takes on or relinquishes control and authority. Change is never easy, but it is worthwhile. Three important things happen when an organisation starts to implement good digital governance, and share decision-making across its operations:

  • Leadership and staff are clearer about roles, responsibilities and decision-making, meaning more can get done, more effectively
  • The organisation's digital output starts to benefit from all the knowledge it holds, not just the knowledge the digital team has access to
  • Staff and leaders develop and mature the digital skills they will need in their future careers and for their organisation's ongoing development

Good digital governance isn't a magic pill or silver bullet, or shiny new toy. It won't deliver a wholesale digital transformation, but it can bring about just enough cultural shift to nudge an organisation onto a path towards an intelligent, holistic, integration of digital practices. And that seems pretty shiny to me.

This essay was one of six commissioned for the Digital Works Conference 2024 by Substrakt. You can hear more from Hilary in this episode of the Digital Works Podcast where she highlights the importance of team culture, the value of being entertaining, and the strategic role of digital.

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