How to be a digital leader and advocate: The changing role of the digital department

Dafydd James, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales, Wales, Carolyn Royston, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, United States


In this session and paper, we consider the changing role of the digital department and the new challenges and opportunities it raises. We discuss how the digital team at National Museum Wales and others have approached this challenge through a variety of different tactics. We share some outcomes and provide tips and suggestions applicable to organisations going through similar transformations. It is increasingly unsustainable, particularly in medium to large organisations, for digital departments alone to deliver all of the organisation’s digital programme. We are seeing a shift to a more distributed model in which other departments are taking on more responsibility for digital delivery in their areas. Some questions this raises include: - What is digital leadership in museums? Who are the digital leaders and mentors? - How do cultural organisations develop the digital skills necessary with staff so that they are equipped to deliver their digital aspirations? - How do digital teams introduce new project-management methodologies that are often not aligned with the pace and approach of other museum work? - What is the changing role of the digital department? What new skills do staff need to develop so that they can work effectively with the rest of the organisation? - What new relationships do digital teams need to form in order to support skills development and formalise organisational expectations around digital skills and knowledge? We address these questions through real-life examples from teams in organisations that are finding solutions to these challenges. For example, we use case studies from National Museum Wales that include a new approach to a website redesign, introduction of digital competencies for all staff, and reshaping the digital team from being a production bottleneck to being leaders and facilitators for digital work.

Keywords: change, transformation, capability, skills, stakeholder management, digital team

1. Introduction

In the past year, the Digital Media department at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (NMW) has produced a Digital Content Strategy. This document set out to reevaluate the approach to digital content, including the way it is currently produced, available assets, and methods and channels of delivery. The Strategy has proved to be a catalyst for change across the organisation, highlighting the need for a major website redesign and a more distributed approach to social-media management. These projects have forced the Museum to reevaluate many of its current practices and processes so that it is better equipped to manage a more distributed and sustainable digital model. The challenges raised include:

  • Current governance and decision-making processes regarding the management and operational needs of the website
  • Updating the content-production process to improve the quality and quantity of content available for the website and social media
  • Encouraging new thinking about audiences and use of collections and content online
  • Opportunities to engage staff more widely with the website and wider digital services
  • Development of a new “curriculum” of digital skills training that is more personalised and specific to job roles
  • Evolving the role of the Digital Media department to better support the organisation in this new digital landscape

This paper will provide examples of how the Museum is tackling some of these new challenges and the impact this is having on the role of the Digital Media department. Importantly, it will demonstrate how the leadership team is supporting the transformation by moving beyond seeing these challenges as purely “digital” and more as whole Museum issues requiring a change in culture and organisational thinking.

NMW’s digital transformation is driven by a need to increase efficiency, audience demand, and a challenging financial climate. The senior management team members have recognised that digital is key to their future success and have stated that a connected digital museum is a strategic priority. In order to achieve this, the Museum is adopting a comprehensive and innovative approach that is having an impact across the organisation. This is manifesting itself in new cross-organisational teamwork and collaborations between departments, introduction of new working processes and practices that are better suited to digital ways of working, and reviewing existing governance practices to streamline decision making and help the organisation become more nimble.

2. Leadership

Digital transformation in cultural organisations is first and foremost a leadership challenge. In a complex and rapidly changing landscape where change is the new normal, an effective leader and leadership team need to set a vision for digital that shows what it can do for the organisation, have a coherent and integrated strategy or roadmap for how to achieve that vision, and then be able to effectively communicate this to staff at all levels.

At NMW, the senior leadership team is actively engaging with digital. They have highlighted the importance of digital to the future success of the organisation. They are working towards developing a more integrated approach to the way they currently manage the Museum’s digital and information services in order to better plan, budget, monitor, and agree on compliance for digital delivery and projects in a more holistic way, improving effectiveness and efficiency. They have also recognised that wider organisational change is required to support this more integrated approach and are implementing new practices and processes that will enable this shift and empower staff to make change happen at an operational level.

3. Practical implementation of a digital transformation

The Digital Media department is a small team dedicated to working across a number of digital platforms, in an organisation of around six hundred. Limited capital budgets are available for commissioning external consultants and developers, and revenue budgets are being pushed to their limits in the current UK economic climate. Due to increasing digital activity across the organisation, there is an imperative to address capacity for delivering projects.

The challenge is how to move the Museum toward a more distributed model of digital delivery. One department cannot be the single point of digital activity, and the Museum cannot rely on the enthusiasm of a few individuals in other parts of the organisation to advocate digital work. The Museum must plan for other staff to adopt digital responsibility, embedding it in their work in a manageable and sustainable way.

A number of initiatives are in place to begin this transformation. At a practical level, this is manifesting itself through increased communication about digital activity, providing different methods of learning new digital skills and using pilot projects to test new ideas.

It is important to state that Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales is at the beginning of this journey, implementing change incrementally at a pace that the organisation and its Digital Media department can manage.

4. Production of a Digital Content Strategy (2014)

An organisational restructure and a new approach to ways of working provided the Digital Media department with the opportunity to rethink the way that digital content is defined, produced, and published. This resulted in development of a Digital Content Strategy, which addresses issues such as the ongoing reduction of budgets, staff resource, and the prioritisation and management of large-scale digital projects.

When developing this Strategy, the Digital Media department focussed on areas within its control to address more urgent short-term developments. These include:

Increase and improve our digital content output

The Museum’s aim is to share as much of its knowledge as possible in an accessible way. To improve the quality of content, the Digital Media department has implemented a number of approaches, including undertaking a comprehensive content audit on the website, taking a mobile-first strategy, developing materials for multichannel use, and using analytics to better measure impact on the website and social media.

Build a user-centric approach to design and technology

The Museum is redesigning its website to meet the needs of its audiences, whilst also ensuring that it is scalable enough to manage a growing amount of content. This involves improving the search facility and creating a new architecture. The Digital Media department has included stakeholders and users from concept and released testing versions as early as possible. The new website is being rolled out incrementally and improved iteratively.

Deliver a digital transformation

The Museum is using large projects within this strategy to drive transformational change. For example, a major website redesign project and the rationalisation of social-media identities have helped begin the transformation and encourage the organisation to consider its processes for governance, project management, and training.

5. Digital skills development

An increasing portion of the Digital Media department’s work involves improving the digital skills in the Museum. Given the organisation’s commitment to increasing quality content online, there is a need to maximise staff participation online and ensure that they have the appropriate skills and tools for the job.

How is the Museum raising digital capability for its staff?

The Digital Media department is working with staff to determine the requirements for digital skills training. The approach is to focus on key projects such as the website redesign and develop specific training for the needs of that project. This allows for an incremental rollout of new training programmes that are small scale and tailored to the needs of different job roles.

The Digital Media department is also working closely with the Human Resources department to develop a set of digital competencies that will be role specific and help managers to develop staff.

Training case study: Social media

To support digital skills development, the Digital Content officer has implemented a training programme and set guidance to address a range of challenges for managing bilingual and monolingual social-media accounts.

Social Media Policy

Policies help the organisation clarify boundaries and remind people of their contractual duties. They are also a necessary starting point for staff and can lead to further learning materials. The Social Media Policy had not been fully reviewed since 2009; in 2014 it was overhauled to better manage the increase in social-media use across the organisation. The Digital Media department implemented a social-media training programme for staff to coincide with the development of the new policy.

The training consisted of the following elements:

Training sessions: Evaluation and Social Media Surgeries drew out common issues and themes on the current status of social-media activity. This led to training sessions designed to address some main challenges and introduce beginners to social-media platforms. Key departments were given briefings on the current status and future plans, including senior managers, heads of department, and project managers. Twenty-three sessions took place between July 2014 and January 2015.

Social Media Surgeries: Social Media Surgeries continued, with light touch facilitation; social-media contributors were encouraged to share good practice and develop ideas for coworking with each other, seeking advice or guidance with an established point of contact in the Digital Media department.

Pilot projects: Advanced users who showed a keen interest in social media were challenged to come up with campaign ideas. Small projects were initiated with facilitated sessions to embed good practice. As campaigns developed, the projects became more independent, with remote check-ins taking the place of more formal workshops. The Digital Media department is supporting the use of analytics to inform the direction of the projects.

Social Media Toolkit: A Social Media Toolkit is being piloted to give account-holders autonomy, while also maintaining good risk awareness and encouraging better planning and coworking. This will be available for all staff and provide a model for other content toolkits.


Since implementing the training programme, the Museum has seen a shift in how staff are using social media as they are actively embedding new practices in their day-to-day work: for example, using storify to report to funders, enhancing the Museum’s presence at conferences, planning content in advance, and using analytics to inform future work.

The outcomes for the Museum are reflected in its online activity. Social is more embedded in its website, content is programmed for impact rather than being reactive, and campaigns across the seven museums are much more coordinated in their delivery.

6. Evolving the role of the digital team

The Digital Media department has always championed content production elsewhere in the organisation. In order to increase and improve quality of the Museum’s content output, the department needs to develop its training, coaching, and facilitating skills and support staff with their digital aspirations. It is crucial that digital staff in museums develop these new skills, as a centralised digital service is no longer sustainable.

There should also be ongoing communication with staff outside of formal structures. For example, staff from the Digital Media department have held website redesign roadshows for colleagues across all sites, sent out social-media e-bulletins for account holders, and posed questions through internal social networks. By encouraging and implementing good suggestions from staff, the department is democratising corporate projects and giving ownership to others, and in the process developing new collaborations.

There is still a need for specialist knowledge and a strategic view of what platforms fit the organisation’s audiences and objectives. Digital teams are well placed to horizon-scan for emerging media and technology to utilise for future use.

Digital staff are also exposed to different project-management methodologies, which do not always fit within traditional museum approaches. An agile development approach encourages testing internally and externally and improves products based on real-world evidence. It is important that digital project management fits alongside other project and programme management approaches in the museum and that there is a shared understanding of approaches between technical and non-technical staff.

Developing new relationships

Digital staff have had to develop their communications and stakeholder skills due to the nature of their work across the organisation. They collaborate with IT/ICT teams, whether in the same division within the organisation or not, and integrate with departments responsible for public programming, such as Learning, Exhibitions, Curatorial, Communications, and Marketing.

As digital activity grows and permeates every area of the organisation, it is increasingly important to involve the Human Resources (HR) and Training departments to support this change. Traditionally, HR is a department that the Digital Media department has not necessarily worked closely with, apart from recruiting and personnel matters. However, HR is very engaged with setting new programmes that improve efficiency and output. The Digital Media department is building trust and co-collaborating on developing new training for digital skills, which is forging a new relationship.

A long-term goal is that the organisation’s recruitment policies, competency framework, and professional development plans are building a staff equipped for the digital challenges ahead.

7. Measuring success

The Museum is targeting some key areas for skills development, which include building on the social-media training programme, producing content for the redesigned website, and building promotional campaigns around website content. Following a baseline measurement of skills for the key areas, they will then be linked to pilot projects and progress reported in a number of ways.

The digital skills development will be led by the Digital Media department but will involve close working with key stakeholders. The approach will be incremental and manageable, with clear agreed criteria to measure success. This will include a plan identifying areas for skills development training, and an agreed curriculum for the programme and how it will be delivered.

The outcomes should be measurable on three levels:

  • Personal development, where individuals have increased ability and confidence in a key area
  • Organisational, which includes a number of internal and external measures, such as improved efficiencies, an increase in followers, and so on
  • Advocacy and communication, where individuals share what they are finding, empowering others and working collaboratively

The Museum is at the beginning of its digital transformation, with the understanding that it needs a long-term strategy that encompasses its business systems, infrastructure, assets, and content and brings them together in a holistic and integrated way that has an impact across the whole organisation.

Cite as:
. "How to be a digital leader and advocate: The changing role of the digital department." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 30, 2015. Consulted .