Why digitally literate leadership is so important right now.

In summer 2020 the Europeana Foundation commissioned Culture24 to research the digital transformation agenda in galleries, libraries, archives and museums internationally and the final strategic report is now published. With so many cultural organisations thrown into the digital deep end due to the impact of the pandemic lockdown, this report couldn’t be more timely or relevant.

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Image courtesy of https://unsplash.com/@austinchan

The report summarises the key themes arising from the research including digitally literate leadership, the role of agents of change, how digital divides, and tackling fear and negativity

It is not an understatement that the cultural sector is in a moment of crisis and in order to be ready for what lies ahead — to foster the resilience not just to survive, but to thrive — we need dynamic, creative leadership that is both digitally literate and digitally mature.

At Culture24 we have been working on and thinking about these issues intensively for some time now and are putting them into practice with the Leading the Sector professional development course in Digital Leadership that we are running with a cohort of 16 leaders from medium-to-large heritage organisations across the UK. It’s funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund for Digital Skills for Heritage and is in partnership with Golant Innovation/The Audience Agency and specialist advisors including Professor Ross Parry, University of Leicester and Dr Nick Winterbotham.

This new report is a long read but it is worth the effort for anyone who is trying to build the digital capacity of their own organisation in the current crisis. The report is also part of a wider programme of work by the Europeana Foundation who commissioned us.

If you are wondering what all this talk about digitally literate leadership means for the cultural sector then here are three of the top considerations that you need to be aware of, which shape the bigger picture that we are all a part of.

The first is that digital is about a lot more than just technology and digital literacy is about getting our heads around the many new ways of doing things, new business models, new ways of working and new ways of delivering our services. It is about our processes as much as systems and about people as much as hardware.

In our work at Culture24, we often see the emphasis for digital put on the creation of digital things — websites, interactives, apps etc — the shiny end products that attract the public, please the policy makers and demonstrate our creativity. It is often the less sexy aspects of managing digital systems and infrastructure, and the commitment and resources necessary to ensure staff have the skills and capacity to use those digital technologies and systems well, that can often take second place. Most significantly, however, it is around the understanding of digital where we have found significant gaps, particularly in leadership positions. This understanding starts with appreciating the ways in which the culture of the digital world itself is a huge influence on our modern lives — shaping our communications, our social interactions, our politics and our sense of identity.

This brings me to the second consideration that digital culture shapes social change. Many of the most pressing social issues we face as an increasingly networked and connected society don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a complex, multi-causal ecosystem that has digital culture woven into its fabric. Being able to understand the nuances of this digital culture is a key aspect of digital literacy for anyone, especially those in leadership positions.

Increasingly, digital platforms are facilitators for the debate, activism and amplification of profound societal issues such as Black Lives Matter and environmental campaigns, issues that strike at the heart of our values as cultural organisations. I am sure many of you will have followed the recent public removal of the statue of the controversial merchant and slave trader Edward Colston from Bristol’s streets. The image of it being thrown into the dock was captured on social media, shared and, like many other examples, went viral. The statue has now been pulled from the river and is in the care of the local museum. These kinds of issues are all being played out online in a way that is very difficult to ignore, particularly if you are an arts or heritage organisation.

The third consideration is about the dubious ethics of the digital world. Surely as the cultural sector we cannot ignore the politics of digital power and the ethics of the digital tech giants? Are the engineers and technologists in these companies operating with a sense of civic duty and building products that serve the good of humanity? Do they use people’s information ethically, not just in compliance with the law? Campaigns like ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ are trying to hold social media companies accountable for hate on their platforms and some cultural organisations are signing up. Tim Berners-Lee is leading a project called Contract for the Web that is a global plan of action to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone. These issues are crucial to the future of digital democracy within our society; acknowledging and understanding them are vital for any genuinely digitally literate leader.

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As we move forward into the new normal, our sector needs leaders that can be informed, reflective, responsive and active in their digital understanding, so that as organisations we can build a more digitally fluent workforce and create digitally mature relationships with our audiences. If this sounds good to you, then here are a few simple, practical suggestions for things that you can do to improve your own digital literacy and confidence:

  1. Commit to spending an hour a week to build a deeper understanding of the digital world. Read one of Culture24’s Let’s Get Real reports, talk to others who are more digitally confident then you, talk to a teenager, ask them about their behaviours online, join Medium and search relevant key words to find articles by interesting thinkers who are publishing ideas and research in this area.
  2. Discuss with colleagues taking a values’ driven approach to your digital activities. Start by looking at the Charter which is part of the Digital Culture compass. This has been designed so directors, trustees and senior managers can make and communicate a commitment to approaching digital activities in ways that are led by core values, centred on people’s needs and responsive to change. It offers a great starting point for a discussion at your next team meeting.
  3. Carry out your own quick audit of your organisation’s digital channels. Literally look at what you are doing on Instagram, Twitter or on your website and how it is being received. Ask yourself if you are sharing your core values with your audiences through these channels? Are you modelling positive behaviours online? Are you using your channels as a way to give space to different voices, have real conversations or just broadcasting your own world view? Sit down with colleagues and look at what the data from your digital channels is telling you about how your digital activities may be directly helping you fulfil your mission — or not.

Download the report on the Digital Transformation Agenda and GLAMs internationally.

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Written by

Chief Exec of Culture24. Doing my bit to help bring the global museum and gallery sector into the 21st century.

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