Monday, February 13, 2017

Museums as Learners

Photo: Bethlehem Museum of the Mind

“We are a learning organization.” I’ve come across that statement in countless strategic plans and learning frameworks. Executive Directors often describe their museum in this way in recruiting new staff or updating the board. This phrase appears in countless capacity building grants too. While pleased by this statement, I am also curious about what a museum means and how it acts on that pledge.

All organizations learn; some are more intentional and strategic in learning and in channeling knowledge into being a better organization. How is your museum as a learner?

In The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization MIT professor Peter Senge describes 5 characteristics, or disciplines, that need to work together as an ensemble for building companies into learning organizations. A prominent management fad in the early 1990’s, approaches to learning organizations have spread to other enterprises and have been updated. Related ideas have emerged as learning cities, learning communities, communities of practice, and learning circles.

Business management trends may come and go, but learning as a long-term interest persists in and defines museums. At all stages of their development and regardless of size, museums promote life-long learning for visitors, generate new knowledge through research, share and learn from peers and partners, and develop new skills and strategies for navigating a complex, dynamic environment. How are museums able to do well for themselves and for their visitors and communities without being learners themselves?

David A. Garvin and Amy Edmonson, professors at Harvard Business School, note that learning organizations are skilled at two things. They are skilled at creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge. They also act purposefully, modifying their behavior in response to new knowledge and insights they’ve acquired. Within a learning organization, 3 conditions must be present: specific practices that support learning processes; an environment that encourages learning; and leadership that values learning.

What kind of place is your museum for organizational learning and cultural? Is your museum a place that learns continuously and strategically? That integrates learning into its work? That responds to change and challenge by learning together? Is your museum’s leadership continually looking for opportunities to learn? Does learning cross team and department boundaries and create a sense of community?

Some guiding questions and related examples may provide useful pieces for advancing your museum as a learning organization.

Does your museum have a learning agenda?  A learning agenda designates and communicates areas that are a priority for the entire museum and that overlay professional development topics for a department or team. Learning areas might be community engagement, adult learning, play, green practices, social media, or inclusion. The focus may emerge from the strategic plan, the learning framework, collaborations, weak organizational performance, or a city issue.

A collective commitment that could stretch over months or a year, a learning agenda may seek to deepen current knowledge, build a shared understanding in an area of emerging importance, or develop new skills. Besides providing clarity and direction, having a learning agenda demonstrates that staff, trustee, and volunteer learning is valued by and valuable to the museum.

For instance...
• A museum that included being a learning organization in its commitment statements in its planning framework also identified 4 related commitments: evidence-based practice, many kinds of teachers, knowledge shared with others; and revisiting and challenging assumptions. 

• In reporting on his trip to Berlin with Hüttinger Interactive Exhibits (Nürmberg, Germany) Paul Orselli described the coordinated staff training and learning excursion he participated in and how he saw it expressing a commitment to staff learning and capacity. 

What supports for organizational learning are in place? A selected topic can be explored in various ways. A museum may commission a study of best practices, form study groups, develop a training program and schedule, or form a task force. It may identify a question to study together as a staff: how has community engagement changed us as an institution? Or what does it mean to be a thought leader? Whatever the approach–and often multiple approaches are selected–dialogue and inquiry flow through the process.

Regardless of particular methods, it is critical to allocate time in schedules; span teams, departments, and hierarchies;designate shared practices; and introduce systems to capture and share knowledge. Without tangible and intangible supports for constructing knowledge collaboratively, organizational learning is a struggle.  

For instance...
• In active practice, a team member brings an activity or program to engage the group in discussing how it supports an innovation strategy, engages participants, or supports family learning. With the group’s input, the activity is aligned and strengthened.

• Minnesota Children’s Museum has a Video Volunteer who is responsible for capturing museum staff development efforts through digital video and sound. Videos are for training new staff members on museum philosophies and practices.

• Inspired by Reggio pedagogy and guided by research agendas and learning frameworks, museums including the Exploratorium, Providence Children’s Museum, Columbus Art Museum, and Portland Children's Museum (OR) are following practices for making learning visible.

How do you make new knowledge into institutional knowledge? Everyday, each of us has numerous opportunities to rethink, learn, and discover some piece of information, assumption, or idea. Some encounters are incidental and some are central to a museum’s learning interests. We learn about a membership structure a museum is implementing, hear about a study on curiosity, go to a workshop on inclusion, or read the task force’s report on digital technologies.

For organizational learning to make a difference, a museum needs practices for sharing information, reflecting on and consolidating new knowledge, determining the relevance of information, and getting information and ideas to stick. With time and dedicated practice a museum will develop its own approach to learning as a group.   

For instance...
• Lisa Marcinkowski June describes in her 2013 post, Is Your Museum a LearningOrganization?," a process similar to After Action Reviews from the U.S. Army that captures the lessons learned from past successes and failures, with the goal of improving future performance. The exercise uses 4 questions: What did we set out to do? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What are we going to do next time?

• Recognizing that all museum staff and volunteers interact with visitors in some way, The Wild Center has developed a set of training opportunities so all staff and volunteers have a shared language and understanding of The Center’s interpretive practices.

How do you use new knowledge to create change? Putting new knowledge to work to make a difference is a critical moment in emerging from a one-time learning project to creating an on-going learning culture. At this point, a museum starts to use data to inform decision-making. It discovers whether its strategies are, in fact, able to move performance indicators, and whether its feedback loops relay meaningful information to the necessary people.

Throughout the process, a museum also needs to be open to stumbling on and capturing unexpected  connections and insights which may be as, or more, valuable than intended outcomes. Before hitting the pause button on a project, a museum needs to ask what it will do differently as a result of this work and what it has learned from this learning project to improve the next.

For instance...
• After implementing the museum-wide training program, The Wild Center saw an increase in membership, an improved visitor satisfaction, and fewer visitors reporting they did not interact with staff. Results have been sustained and improved over 5 years. 

Along with along with the signature, position, organization, telephone numbers, fax, and address on an email I received recently from an executive director, was, “I am currently reading The Lean Start Up by Eric Ries. What book or journal would you include that you are reading? What book would your colleagues name?