Approaching Innovation and Digital Strategies
Innovation with a purpose: how to build an innovation strategy fitting one’s institution?
Spurred by the necessities of coping with the COVID-19 crisis, many institutions have accelerated the digitisation of their collections. However, this is not always embedded in an overarching strategy, involving the whole of the institution’s operations. In these guidelines, we focus primarily on what should be taken into consideration at the institutional level. However, we will stress that this cannot be done in isolation: there is a compelling need for interoperability and data exchange, which means institutional strategies should best be embedded or aligned with regional or national strategies, and in accordance with standards of international networks.
In this part, we stress the importance of developing at the institutional level a comprehensive digital strategy that involves all aspects of the operations - from preservation to audience development and user engagement. We can point to existing examples from our networks. We discuss a revision of the inside-out digitisation workflow, and complement it with an outside-in workflow that starts from the stakeholder communities and tries to look from that perspective to the user needs, and how it impacts the organisation and information flow in the CHIs.
Digitisation workflow: inside out
In a classic digitisation workflow, a selection is made of collections to be digitised. Whether it is about mass digitisation of e.g. library holdings, unboxing of archival fonds or high-end digitisation of museum objects, it inevitably starts with an assessment of the objects to be digitised and their properties. Digitisation is not the same as cataloguing or documentation. It involves capturing key properties of the collection objects involved so that they can be represented digitally. This can be done in a variety of levels, up to a digital facsimile or digital twin.
Fig. 5. Digitisation workflow steps (Fred Truyen 2020, CC-BY).
Typically, a digitisation plan covers different steps of the process: it often starts with a careful selection of the collections to be digitised, depending on institutional priorities, but sometimes driven by project funding or user requests, e.g. for research. From the selected objects collection come the digitisation requirements, defining the technical specifications. There are several standards that can be used to adhere to for the actual digitisation process: the US FADGI guidelines e.g., the Metamorfoze standard.
Next is the description of the objects, and metadata enrichment. What is important here is to highlight that online publishing of digital collections offers the possibility to integrate data from different provenance into aggregated, virtual collections, across institutional boundaries, whether they are a gallery, library, archive or museum data: it all comes together online. The emergence of aggregated collections such as the DPLA and Europeana adds a new dimension to the use and reuse of digitised cultural assets and offers avenues for cross-institutional curation and storytelling, as well as for new educational and research approaches.
Traditionally, curation activities fall beyond the scope of a digitisation plan, but we see more and more that these activities become linked, as more and more the digital collections are published online, which involves digital curation, storytelling and editorial planning. Many digitisation projects showcase their results immediately in online exhibitions. For this, Europeana offers the Publishing Framework, setting quality standards for online collections.
This possible variety of digitisation levels requires a strategic vision on what the fits, ultimate and derived goals of the digitisation efforts are supposed to be. Are you digitising for online publishing, or for digital preservation, or both? Is the digitisation effort confined to one project or is it meant to be an integral part of the core functions of the institution? As many digitisation efforts are funded on a project basis, there is a real danger to focus the digitisation requirements solely on the project goals, and not on the “afterlife” of the digital collection.
In larger organisations, different departments could have competing digitisation needs, e.g. there could be a need for digital preservation of fragile objects, while at the same time the marketing department wants attractive representations of top items for a multitude of media deliveries. At the same time, the research department might be doing multispectral imaging. There is not really a one-size-fits-all approach, but it is certainly advisable to have an institutional alignment of basic digital processes, which could be quite elementary but important things such as file naming conventions, implementation of common standards, a catalogue of file types and their supporting software etc.
It would lead us too far to go into the details as these might seriously differ given the nature of the collections involved, but the key insight we need to share here is that digital (ICT) processes are about control, and that one has to develop a vision on how digital copies will become digital assets for the organisation, allowing for future use and reuse. This is where the digital master comes in: the digital master file which will allow multiple derived products.
The range of applications in which a digital copy of an object can appear is quite broad and ever-expanding. From an illustrative image in the catalogue system, to high-end images in a preservation system, multispectral RTI images for research to images tailored for social media and web communications and others for print. All these images might require specialised supporting software and are often kept in separate databases, each having its own life-cycle and corresponding management. On the other hand, we see a growing trend of information integration: with the increasing development of participatory practices in CHIs, there is a growing interest to be able to trace the actual use and contextualisation of objects; e.g. to know in which exhibitions, with what curational context images have been used, where they have been published etc.
Our advice for the digitisation workflow consists of the following recommendations:
- Develop an institutional digital strategy that takes into account the needs of different departments and activities within the organisation, and that transcends the specific requirements of individual projects;
- This strategy should align with external conformity and interoperability requirements set by your regional/national context and/or international collaboration networks;
- The strategy should also form the basis of internal conformity and interoperability requirements for individual projects;
- A public summary of this strategy should be published online, to document the digital maturity of your organisation.
This digital strategy should be supported by 3 important actions:
- A capacity building framework, in which the organisation reflects on what capabilities the individual employees should have - their skills and competencies - to be able to generate the required capacity - the ability to perform and deliver the desired outputs;
- A Digital Asset Management, to make sure the digital copies resulting from digitisation efforts become reusable assets that can support a multitude of organisational activities, ranging from online catalogues over virtual exhibitions to printed publications, user engagement, high-end visualisations. A sound Digital Asset Management makes sure that the digitised collections can be part of a “Digital Proof” business model for the CH operations, allowing to explore new revenue streams that require a stronger online presence;
- An integrated Digital Life-Cycle Management, so that not only the digital copies remain up-to-date but also the supporting software and databases. This will guarantee the sustainability of the digitisation efforts.
This way, the Digital Strategy of the institutions can help CHIs to develop a business model that is adapted to the Digital Single Market while pursuing non-for-profit, for benefit societal impact goals. Read more about this on Value Chains in the Digital Single Market.
Fig. 6. Digital strategy - inside out (Fred Truyen 2020, CC-BY).
To improve typical inside-out digital strategies, it is important to complement the digital workflow with the necessary capacity building efforts to train staff in their new roles, and make sure staff from different departments speak and understand the same “language” about the digital processes involved. Only when all relevant uses and usage contexts of the digital copies are understood, well defined and represented in the information system can they become assets to fulfil the institutional goals and societal needs. Making sure the underlying digital processes are sustainable over time also requires insight into the life-cycle management of the infrastructure and tools. This way the digital processes can form the basis for a balanced value model for the institution,
Participatory model: Outside-in
Due to the increased impact of social media on the workings of heritage institutions that publish their contents online, it is no longer sufficient to plan a digital strategy starting from the collections. When moving to richer online experiences such as virtual exhibitions and deeper, more meaningful interactions with the online audiences, e.g. in the case of crowdsourcing and citizen science, the outside pressure on curation choices and decisions is mounting.
When we look at digitisation starting from the requirements of a co-creation workflow, we need quite a different model. The requirements will now not be set by the properties of the objects and the wishes of the curators, but by the intended user community. It is this community of stakeholders that will influence the selection of to-be-digitised collections, and the properties of interest that need to be digitally captured. The subsequent metadata enrichment can involve crowdsourcing, and often uses established thesauri. In recent projects we see how communities can already become involved in the development of metadata definition and hence the enrichment of the used thesauri themselves, as was e.g. done in the Europeana Migration project.
Fig. 7. Outside-in digital workflow steps (Fred Truyen 2020, CC-BY).
This means that the institutions need to rethink capacity building to include representatives of user communities as well as their own staff. Empowering community participation in the digitisation and/or metadata enrichment effort will not only save time and resources, as is often the case in crowdsourcing projects, but make sure the digital collections capture better how the objects have meaning for the community that actually makes sure that these collection objects are heritage in the first place. Enabling communities to take up the role of patrons or caretakers of their heritage by offering them the digital tools to do so might be the most sustainable way forward for CHIs. This adds a dimension of community management to the digital strategy, complementing the asset management. It is also a fundamental ingredient of any approach that wants to go beyond mere life-cycle management of the digital solutions to be able to further the sustainable development of the collections.
Our advice for the participation workflow consists of the following recommendations:
- Design a coherent, cross-department digital co-creation workflow for online participation. This involves dimensions of intellectual property rights, but also concerns privacy (e.g. conformance to the European GDPR regulation and FAIR practices) and issues of diversity and inclusivity;
- Make sure your digital environment empowers participants and enables stakeholders to have a voice. Conceive your training efforts and capacity building to include interested members of the public. Do not only educate the public about the collections but also educate them to become caretakers of their heritage;
- Implement strong online community management involving principles of fairness, inclusivity, and democratic decision-making. Publish and maintain a code of conduct;
- Embed your digital strategy in the pursuit of sustainable development goals;
- Monitor and measure your impact.
This way, digital tools are not only used to make digital copies of objects available in the collection but are really used for what they are good at: connecting people and communities, streamlining communications, and empowering users to take control. It also totally transforms the traditional role of patronage into a community based, sustainable model which goes beyond digital access to foster community caretaking and guardianship of their heritage.
Fig. 8. Participatory model - outside in (Fred Truyen 2020, CC-BY).
When looking back at the digital workflow starting from the user community perspective instead of the collections, it becomes clear that the workflow should integrate co-curation and co-creation facilities, to allow the users to actually engage with the collections from the very start of the process. This also affects our views on capacity building: it is not only necessary to train the staff, but also to educate the audience. This way, the stakeholder communities who actually define past objects as being “heritage” become empowered to contribute to the preservation and dissemination. Implementing procedures to facilitate co-curation and co-creation requires specific community management. By incorporating community management one becomes more capable as a heritage institution to contribute to sustainable development goals.