Automating Your Museum

A five-part series

Stephen R. Toney
President & CTO, Systems Planning
Published on, February 2000

Copyright 2000



This series of articles is intended for the museum professional who is involved in planning major new systems. Usually the largest systems that museums acquire are collections management systems (CMSs), but these articles will address systems of all kinds. And although the web pervades our jobs and lives, there is nothing different about planning web projects. Good planning applies to all technologies.

Having been a consultant in museum information systems since 1986, I have found that cookbook approaches do not work, because each museum's situation is different. Therefore, these articles will teach the principles of good planning, rather than giving a cookbook approach. I will not cover strategic planning -- the planning of the museum's mission and goals. Instead I discuss planning for technology projects which support the mission and goals.

The articles assume you have or plan to hire a consultant. Most museums facing major systems projects hire a consultant to assist with technical knowledge about the systems and experience with planning and procurement. But hiring a consultant is not the end of your responsibilities. On the contrary, the more you know about systems and about planning, the more you will get out of your consultant.


Part 1: Making a Plan


Why Plan?

Planning is the beginning of everything.

I have seen more problems in museums because of lack of planning than from low funding, incompetent staff, or bad management. And yet the decision to plan is within our control, whereas the other factors may not be.

Have you ever gone shopping with a plan? The shopping plan might be a list of stores to visit and what to look for in each store. When it's on paper, you can then number the stores in the order you plan to visit them. This is obviously less fun than recreational shopping in which you just wander the mall, but it's more efficient. And our duty as professionals is to be as efficient as possible.

To strike nearer home, have you ever participated in a well-planned committee? If so, then you know the pleasure that results from having an agenda, having the correct briefing documents, and holding meetings that stick to the point and end on time.

Anything can be planned, and in our work life, many more activities should be planned than usually are. Planning is the 10 percent of the effort that can produce 90 percent of the benefits.

Of course, not everything needs to be planned, but a good exercise is to think about each activity in your work day and decide if planning would help it. Eventually you'll begin to divide every activity you do into two phases: planning and execution. The increased efficiency and control over your time will be greatly satisfying.

We all know we should plan, yet we repeatedly undertake projects with museum-wide implications with the sketchiest of plans. Quite often planning is skimped on because of time constraints or for political reasons. But will the time needed for planning really be worse than a quick but wrong decision? In fact, a bad systems decision can cause huge amounts of pain and dollar costs for years into the future.


When To Plan (And When Not To)

OK, do you spend your entire day planning? Well, some jobs are like that, but most of us are also required to accomplish something. As a former boss at the Smithsonian used to say, "Enough planning! Let's see some action!"

I suggested above that you think about each activity you do to decide whether it needs a planning phase. It's really a matter of asking one question: Are there major long-range consequences to this activity? If so, planning is essential in order to ensure the optimal future for the museum. If you prefer, another way of looking at it is: Can the decision be changed easily? If so, planning is not required.

Thus I do not advocate making a plan to decide what kind of coffee to buy for the staff lunchroom. There are no long-range implications; it is a decision that can easily be changed. (And by the way, this is also a clue that not much time should be spent on this decision. Let someone make a decision, and if it's wrong, change it.)

Get in the habit of asking yourself whichever of the two questions you prefer, for each activity throughout the day. This will tell you whether you need to plan or not.

The next step is to decide how large the planning phase has to be. Sometimes you can plan a meeting while you're walking down the corridor; other meetings require the preparation of documents, preliminary briefings of key staff, or other lengthy activities. The remainder of this article will help you determine how much planning is needed for any activity.


What Is Planning?

So what exactly do you do during the planning phase? I suggest that the most valuable thing you can do is develop alternatives. After all, when you don't plan, you still do something, usually the first thing that comes into your head. But how do you know that is the best thing to do?

Instead, I suggest that you think of at least three ways of accomplishing the goal. For a simple activity, you can do this in your head. For example, as you walk down the corridor to a meeting, think of three ways to deal with a staff member who digresses in meetings. Now you have some choices to select from.

More complex activities require more complex planning, but they are essentially still about developing and then evaluating alternatives. What is an RFP but a formal evaluation of choices?


Why Planning Is Hard

Why do we resist planning? There are many reasons, some based on fear, and other based on perfectly sound thinking that just happens to be wrong.


How To Plan

So let's assume we are about to begin planning for a new CMS. What's the first step?

If you have followed what I've said above, you will probably not be surprised to learn that I advocate that planning begin with planning. After all, the planning itself has major long-range consequences, which means it deserves planning.

In other words, you need to plan the planning.

But how? The answer may surprise you. The fact is, you really don't have to know what you're doing, as long as you follow a good methodology. As I said above, it is not the plan that is of value, but the planning. Thus any techniques that force you to develop and evaluate alternatives based on your museum's needs will have huge benefits.

There are lots of planning methodologies in print, many of them geared to non-profits. But I believe it is not the specific planning exercises and forms that are of value. In fact, by focussing on these, as so many methodologies do, they lose sight of the really important aspects of a planning methodology. Therefore I will outline the general principles I feel are important.

Here are the factors your planning methodology should include:

Stakeholder analysis

Stakeholders are those persons and organizations that will be affected by the planning. For most of the major systems museums install, this includes just about every department in the museum. But it can also include persons and groups from outside the museum, such as visitors, friends, neighbors, trustees, and volunteers. Stakeholder analysis is simply determining how all these groups will be represented in the planning process.

This leads us right into the Planning Team.

Planning Team

The Planning Team will have the primary responsibility for conducting the planning for the new system. (Quite often they also guide the implementation.) This team should be kept small. I recommend it be about five people, seven at the most. Each additional person adds enormously to the difficulties of finding meeting times, and to the duration of the meetings. The larger the team, the more time you will spend on the mechanics, and the less on the content. This is a hard pill for museum people to swallow, as we tend to want to be inclusive in our work. But not only will a too-large team risk failure, but your other work will suffer as you spend longer than necessary working out details with too many involved. It's really not fair to the museum to have a larger team than necessary.

The Planning Team should be comprised of people at the working level up to department heads, rather than executives. The team will be handling endless details, and executives are just not able to give the process the level of attention needed. Normally the team members are chosen ex officio, based on their jobs. So a CMS planning team will naturally include the collections manager, the registrar, a curator, an exhibits designer, etc. This automatically ensures that these major stakeholders have the required input. However, it may take some finesse to ensure that the right curator, exhibits designer, etc. is placed on the team. You want smart people with relevant background, not political figures.

I'm sure you are now asking how such a small team can represent the wide variety of stakeholders. The answer is the Steering Committee. This is a higher-level team that meets less frequently, and can be far larger than the Planning Team. It exists to ensure that the Planning Team is considering the needs of all stakeholders (not growing introspective or short-sighted), and also should provide the policy decisions that the Planning Team will need. The Steering Committee should represent the highest levels of the museum administration by including the director or deputy director. It should also represent the breadth of the museum by including representatives from each department. This is where you put people who need to be included for political reasons but are not appropriate for the Planning Team. And I do not mean this facetiously: the Steering Committee has a very real role in ensuring that the new system will meet the needs and priorities of the museum.

The Planning Team should report to the Steering Committee regularly, each month or every other month. By now you should not be surprised to learn that I advocate the Planning Team prepare a formal presentation -- not to have a lot of slick transparencies, but to force you to perform a procedure that will have many side benefits (just as it's not the plan that's important but the planning.) I guarantee that the discipline of preparing to present your work to the Steering Committee will catch all sorts of problems and omissions.

Go away

Planning is very hard to do, and especially hard to begin. If you hold your initial planning sessions in your building, you're just begging for people to take advantage of every opportunity to do things that are easier, like take phone calls, deal with crises, meet visitors, and the thousand things they do every other day. These interruptions do not just affect the person interrupted, but send a very bad signal to the rest of the planning team ("what I'm doing is more important").

Groups go through four stages, which facilitators like to call "forming, storming, norming, and performing." This implies that the first thing a group must to is "form" itself from a roomful of individuals into a group. I'm sure you've all felt that moment when people start to work and think as a team, and that achievement is the first goal of the team. Well, it just can't happen if people are coming and going, working or on the phone during meetings, or continually putting other priorities ahead of the team. By going off-site, the opportunities for these kinds of interruptions are reduced drastically.

Why is "forming" important? Simply because as human beings we function better in groups than as collections of individuals. We are more creative, have more ideas, and come to better solutions. (I will revisit these ideas in a later article, along with the phases of "storming, norming, and performing.")

Once the team is formed, it is strong enough to function onsite. However, I recommend that the team have a standing rule that it not be interrupted during meetings. It's not fair to the other members, as time is always wasted filling in the interrupted member. Or if the interrupted one is not filled in, something else is lost.

If a Planning Team member is continually interrupted, that person should be shifted to the Steering Committee. They obviously do not have time to be on the Planning Team.


Any group activity can be separated into the process and the content. A facilitator is a person who is hired to focus on the process, so the museum staff can focus on the content. For optimum planning, it is important that ideas be heard and given a chance, but so often in meetings ideas are forgotten or even squelched before they can be considered. A facilitator provides a format in which ideas are recorded and considered systematically.

Therefore I recommend that the first meeting of the combined Planning Team and Steering Committee (the meeting that is held off-site), be conducted by a facilitator. This meeting will comprise the formal beginning of the planning process, and thus should result in a statement of goals for the new system, as well as schedules and budgets for both the system and the planning process. But in addition, the importance of a pleasant, satisfying beginning to the planning cannot be overemphasized.


Finally, how do we know if our planning is any good? We must constantly ask ourselves this simple question: Will our plans achieve the desired results?

Here are some examples:

In other words, the planning isn't over once you have a plan. You need to compare the plan to the goals of the project and see if the plan has a good chance of fulfilling the goals.

The obvious time to perform the reality check is when you have finished planning. Of course, if you leave it to the end of the process, you run the risk of major disappointment and ridicule, not to mention the risk of having a bad solution implemented just because time has run out. Instead, make sure you include a reality check whenever you are evaluating alternatives, throughout the planning process. And make sure the reality check compares the alternatives not just to the present goals, but to any possible future, as illustrated in the last bullet above.


When To Stop Planning

I'm sure you'll agree we want to avoid "paralysis by analysis" -- that condition of perpetually planning and never executing. But how do you know when you have done enough planning?

There is a concept in decision theory called "the cost of perfect information." Perfect information is knowing absolutely everything you need to know to make a decision. For most non-trivial decisions, perfect information costs so much it is not attempted; instead, we make decisions based on information that is incomplete and even incorrect.

For a complex moving target like a major system acquisition, perfect information is unattainable. Even if we could afford to gather every bit of information that could be useful to a decision, it would take so long that the situation would have changed.

I defined planning as the development and evaluation of alternatives. So it is a process for generating information for making decisions. Thus you should scale the planning to the decisions to be made.

So when do we stop planning? My obvious rule of thumb is to stop when the value of the additional information would be less than it would cost, either in money, staff time, or the cost of delay. You plan until you feel you can make the decision with a reasonable degree of certainty that it is the best decision, then you stop.

I'm sorry there are so many subjective terms in this definition: "worth," "reasonable," and "best." But these words reflect the reality that knowing how much to plan and when to stop is a matter of judgment. The best you can do it to give yourself every opportunity to leverage your judgment: by working with a team so that more than one mind is involved; by adding experienced staff to the team; and by using an experienced consultant.

Part 2: Managing the Project       Part 3: Technology       Part 4: Sample RFP       Part 5: Making Decisions

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