Monday 18 November 2019

For Love or Money 1: The Changing Context of Work

I've had a chapter on reward included in MuseumEtc's book, 'For Love or Money': Re-engineering the Way Museums Work. This was on behold of Barker Langham, a culture sector consultancy I've been doing some work for.

However, I would hope the content will be relevant for people working in other sectors too.


Many museums have been trying to minimise their staffing budgets by reducing headcount and keeping their employees’ salaries low. But this strategy is not sustainable. It is a bit like trying to lose weight – you can focus on your diet and lose a few pounds, but are most likely to end up putting the extra weight back on. Instead of this, most people find the best way of losing weight is to change their lifestyle. The same type of thing is true in organisations too so what museums really need to do is to change the way they organise their work and their people. The supplementary benefit of this approach is often that museums will need less people. Many times, they will also be able to pay their people more appropriately too. This article reviews the opportunity for this re-engineering, supported by digital technology, and its impact on the types and levels of staff rewards.

The Changing Context of Work

Organisations across all sectors are currently undergoing major transformation due mainly to the impact of digital technologies. Many museums are introducing guides and apps to help people explore and learn about their collections. Good examples include new devices such as the Van Gogh Museum’s multimedia guide allowing visitors to walk at their own pace whilst accessing tour guide-like support (Van Gogh Museum, n.d.) and mobile games such as the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Secret Seekers which enable families to uncover facts about the V&A through a social gaming experience (Price, 2017). An even more innovative approach is Cooper Hewitt’s Pen which allows visitors to create and collect their own objects (Cooper Hewitt, 2014). Other institutes in Detroit (Detroit Institute of Arts, n.d.), Cleveland (Moore, 2015) and elsewhere are using virtual and augmented reality to provide exciting new immersive opportunities to interact with their displays. Increasingly, museums are looking at the internet of things and better use of data to provide even more personalised and engaging as well as educational experiences.

However digital transformation is rarely just about technology. All the above examples potentially disrupt these museums’ business models and allow or require the development of new, broader organisational ecosystems. For example, many museums have partnered with Google Arts & Culture (Google, n.d.) to extend their audiences and allow people to view new items or access collections in different ways.

Digital technologies also allow organisations to get closer to their customers as well as other stakeholders in order to better understand and meet their needs. Many museums are developing even deeper, longer-term and more collaborative relationships with their customers, embedding themselves within their communities. They also need to become more customer centric, including through the use of human centred design techniques such as journey mapping, personas, participatory design, user testing and prototyping.

These approaches are particularly important in museums which often find themselves in a rather unfortunate paradoxical position. The positive aspect of this is that the work museums do is increasingly recognised to lie at the centre of strategic culture, knowledge, creative and tourist industries all of which provide significant economic benefits. However, at the same time, museums’ outputs are often under valued by publics and governments which leads to reduced funding and greater pressure on being self financing, pushing museums to reduce salary levels too.

Dealing with this situation requires museums to become even more entrepreneurial and commercial as well as digital and customer focused in order to find new ways to provide a compelling experience for their customers. Museum staff need to be at the centre of this approach.

People have always been the main basis for success in any organisation. This is probably best explained in a classic Harvard Business Review article on the service profit chain which demonstrates how satisfied employees provide satisfied customers and high profits (Heskett et al, 2008). These days, we tend to focus on employee experience, or the level of satisfaction provided by the nature of people’s jobs, and the physical, cultural and digital environments in which they work (Morgan, 2016). We need to provide people with a compelling employee experience to provide the sort of compelling customer experience which was addressed above. And providing a compelling employee experience requires the same sorts of techniques, like journey mapping, which was described earlier, as well as organisational and managerial activities which are just as employee centric as the externally facing ones focus on customers.

As shown in figure 1, it is also useful to recognise that new opportunities for performing activities are often best identified by people acting near to where the work is done rather than by those doing it, for example by customer facing employees rather than customers for external opportunities, and by HR generalists or business partners rather than employees for internal ones.

Looking specifically at the retail sector, which is another area in which organisations often aim to reduce the numbers and pay of staff, Harvard professor Zeynep Ton promotes a good jobs strategy as a basis for an uncommonly employee centric way of operating (Ton, 2014). This is based on an ongoing cycle in which good quality and quantity of labour leads to good operational execution which then provides high store sales and profits which in turn allows high staffing budgets to provide the required labour. In particular, a good jobs strategy allows organisations to maintain a certain level of slack resourcing which enables them to respond to new requirements and opportunities.

Ton’s research suggests this strategy provides significant business benefits over a ‘bad jobs’ approach, and that the strategy works in other sectors too. For example, Toyota has been more successful than many manufacturing companies because its well trained and empowered workers are able to implement standardised management processes which enable the company to deliver excellent quality.

In the museum sector, a good jobs strategy needs to involve quality employees working in a flexible way. This will often require moving away from the standard 9-5 work day and a single location to being more available when and how customers want access, for example with more varied staffing patterns responding to peaks and troughs around exhibitions. Staffing also needs to respond to new and more quickly changing skill requirements, which include more commercial focus, customer service, partnership working, and the broader mindsets and abilities required to provide value. Increasingly, staff will also need to work in cross functional teams and internal or external networks.

One live example at the time of writing is a transformation taking place across the seven museums run by Leicester City Council where four curator posts are being replaced by a new audience development and engagement team, aimed at attracting new and more diverse audiences (Adams, 2019).

Therefore, although digital may reduce, and will certainly change the demand for staff, together with increasing people centricity, this will make people even more important to museum success. Museums need to invest in their core domains as well as putting an increasing focus into digital access and often into locating their physical displays in attractive buildings and facilities. But they need to invest in smarter and more tailored ways of managing their staff too.


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