An Ethnomethodological Study of UK Museum Strategic Decision-Making
The key research question is “What is a strategic decision for a museum?” This is relevant because it may elucidate the tension between ‘collections’ and ‘publics’, so often written about in museum journals and even more often discussed amongst museum professionals.
What museums say they can do for society is a very long list of high-minded things. The graphic below (Hatton, 1995) represents some of the processes and purposes alleged to drive museum decision-making from the museum worlds’ own literature. I have set them out in a production chain schema, indicating where performance measures might be applied.
What museums actually do is another matter, for mostly, this is not measured in any consistent way. The UK’s only ever national museum survey (Prince & Higgins-McLoughlin 1987, 132) found that few museums had actually bothered to find out who was using them by market research methods. This was worrying. Even more alarming, the Audit Commission’s Quality Exchange (Audit Commission 1994, 13) seven years later, indicated less than a third of respondents had surveyed visitors for exhibition interest, content, presentation, educational value, or attractiveness, whether at all sites or some. The Museums Association’s own survey (Davies, 1994) found that only 33% of museums (of all types) reported monitoring customer satisfaction. This is clearly Middleton’s “marketing deficit” (1998, 44). Kawashima found that three quarters of museums were without a marketing policy (1998, 44).
There is, however, currently a government backed drive to establish performance measurement in UK museums (DCMS, 1999 - see various). The specific study on visitor information (1999, 11) revealed that though 85% of museums in one sector – those nationally-funded – had conducted user research. The sector as a whole compared unfavourably with only 48% having user research to draw on.
In some senses, museums are their own worst enemies, in that they have responded over time to a series of pressures to be all sorts of things to all sorts of audiences. Some of this may be seen as “flexibility”, a still current management buzz word. Some of it has been an inability to focus on one or perhaps two “outcomes”, at the expense of leaving others aside: a lack of strategic focus in all but a few.
The research undertaken to elucidate this situation was ethnomethodological, qualitative and interpretive. This approach was adopted in deliberate contrast to almost all previous work on museum management from a “classical” stance, i.e. a Taylorist perspective, itself consistent with a majority of management literature. A recent and highly relevant example is Abraham, Griffin and Crawford (1999), who undertook a survey involving museums in the UK, Canada, the USA, and Australia. It is hoped that as the work continues, a different perspective will be revealed, either complementary to, or contradictory of, the “received wisdom” on decision-making, at least from the standard managerialist perspective.
Most museums in the UK may be classed as “small to medium sized enterprises” (SMEs), by size of operational budget and/or staff numbers. This is significant since the majority of management theory derives from a large organisational model, often with manufacturing as the basis. This theory’s roots go back to Alfred Sloan’s pre-World War II reorganisation of General Motors. As “theory” it was introduced into the UK public sector in the 1970s.
I also adopted an ethnological stance because “I have lived with this tribe” twice before, the longest between 1972 and 1986. I revisited them during 1992 and 1994, and once again mid-1999 to mid-2000. I am convinced they are a “tribe”: they share a common dialect of English, if not an altogether separate language. Over the intervening 28 years since my first “visit”, when I first learned their dialect, things have changed little. They still speak of the same things, have the same rituals, carefully preserving their particular culture. This is especially so in the face of increasing attempts to drive a foreign culture onto their everyday existence: managerialism with its attendant rituals of accountability, performance measurement, strategy, business plans, and so on.
Thus, this work is “new paradigm”, objectively subjective, rather than either “naive inquiry” – subjective, or the more traditional “old paradigm” objective (Reason and Rowan, 1981; Reason, 1988). It draws on areas such as interpretivism, phenomenology, cognition, and in particular representation.
The methodology was firstly to pilot a sample of my own decisions as an ex-practitioner from when I visited the tribe. Secondly, I undertook external referencing of my assumptions with a small number of interviews from governmental and quasi-governmental agencies concerned with museums. Then finally I undertook a second “pilot”, interviewing a number of ex-practitioners turned academics. This was followed by formal field work.
The actual data were collected in twenty-seven one to one interviews, creating a sample of 116 decisions, with a mean of 4.296 per interviewee, a high of seven and a low of two. Each decision consists of between seven and thirty-five individual concepts, with a mean or twenty-three of twenty-four per decision, giving a total of some three thousand concepts, or units of meaning, to be analysed.
The interviewees were drawn from Area Museum Councils
(semi-independent governmental agencies servicing museums in the UK), National
Museums, large Local Authority Museums, and independent museums. This last
category is the most recent, developing from the late 1970s onwards, and operate
as charitable trusts in most cases, dependent in large measure on public sector
grants and admissions charges and other income sources for their survival.
What became immediately interesting during the first stages of analysis, was that although all the decisions communicated to me were presented as “strategic”, the “content” of them was not at all dominated by the expected discourse of either management or strategy, as defined by the literature.
The graphic below illustrates that only a quarter of all decisions could be defined as strategy, and only 16% were about the usual aspects of “objective setting”, “staff restructuring”, and so on. A further 14% were about creating and maintaining political alliances. These three categories total 55%, so just over half can be seen as the expected topics of decision-making under a managerialist regime.
Surprisingly, only 14% were about collections, odd considering the rhetoric about museums’ primary purpose being to preserve things. Perhaps it merely reflects the times and the imposition of managerialist discourse on museums. Even more surprising, especially given the public rhetoric of museums, only 8% consisted of discourse about finance!
To explain this consistency, there seems to be a phenomenon of ‘shared meanings’ and ‘shared understandings’. This might be the:
· organizational culture of management and organizational change/development literatures
· professionalization of the institutional literature
· acculturation of sociology and social anthropology
· socialization of cultural studies
As a phenomenon, it has also been described in a variety of ways, from a variety of perspectives:
· scientific communities (Kuhn, 1970)
· interpretive communities (Fish, 1980)
· cognitive social structures (Krackhardt, 1987)
· cognitive communities (Porac, Thomas, and Baden-Fuller, 1989)
· epistemic communities (Haas, 1992)
· autonomous vs. espoused values, norms, and beliefs (Heron, 1981)
· cognitive groups (Dunbar, 1993)
That is to say, there is a constituency of meaning which binds all museum decision-makers together, a professional orthodoxy. This is perhaps not all that surprising: one might expect the daily business of like organisations to look, sound and feel the alike, or at least very similar. What makes schools “schools”, law firms “law firms”, or hospitals “hospitals”, and factories “factories” is a common set of experiences, challenges and opportunities. Attributing similar meanings to this shared experience, though maybe even in different parts of the world, solving challenges using similar strategies, and attempting to seize opportunities using similar tactics, is probably only to be expected.
The problem is that “strategy” contains implicitly, and often explicitly, the management of change. Whilst this shared meaning phenomenon binds museum workers together as a group, and thus operates as a positive heuristic, it also operates as a negative heuristic in terms of strategy (Lakatos, 1978). That is to say, the very thing which binds museums and their professional workers together, their museum-ness, and delivers what we as customers see, hear and feel when we visit, also makes them resistant to change.
Change, according to Lakatos, only works when a critical mass of influences or evidence from the auxiliary hypotheses breaks through to the core concepts themselves. Much evidence and influence can be absorbed before this “break through” occurs, and without changing these core beliefs at all. This is why museum decision-making is internally consistent and why radical change is at any rate very unlikely.
Governments and publics are demanding ever-increasing standards of service, and changes in services offered, from all public, nonprofit, voluntary and profit-making organisations. This seems to be a sine qua non of the Third Millenium. Our UK museums, as institutions however, would still need to learn the art of strategic change, even if in an evolutionary as opposed to a revolutionary form, but certainly not at an evolutionary pace!
Alf Hatton, 10th October 2000.
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|DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport)|
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