Digital Transformation: It’s a Process and You Can Start Now

Jack Ludden, , USA, John Russick, Chicago History Museum, USA


Museums have been contemplating the influence and impact of digital for more than a half century. In the last two decades, the debate has shifted from whether or not museums will be reshaped by digital technology to how will museums be transformed by technology and the thinking, processes, and personalities that come with it. Transformations like this are not uncommon. Other technologies have changed our world in equally significant ways and over similarly short periods of time. Automobiles transformed personal mobility and both the metaphorical and actual landscape of our lives. Radio and photography gave us the ability to see, hear, and understand people from all over the world. Large or small, museums need to evaluate their digital ecosystems and commit to change. Museums must improve their digital competency and support data-driven decisions that impact all aspects of their work. While many museums across the country have begun their "digital transformation," there are countless numbers (tens of thousands across the United States) that should be building upon strategic frameworks that expand their digital competencies. In this paper, John Russick (Senior Vice President of the Chicago History Museum) and Jack Ludden (Senior Strategist and Innovation Specialist at Balboa Park Online Collaborative and former Assistant Director, Head of Digital Experience and New Media Development at the Getty) will identify the challenges and opportunities they have experienced as museums undergo digital transformation. They will provide tactics that champion collaborative conversations and empower museums to create digital-first strategies that makes museums more efficient and improve the visitor experience.

Keywords: Digital Transformation, Organization Change, Data-driven decisions


John Russick and Jack Ludden

“A billion hours ago, modern homo sapiens emerged. A billion minutes ago, Christianity began. A billion seconds ago, the IBM PC was released. A billion Google searches ago… was this morning.” – Robert Goizueta


Museums have been contemplating the influence and impact of digital technology for more than a half century. In the last two decades, the debate has shifted from how museums will use digital technology to how will museums be transformed by it. More importantly, will museums guide that transformation, or will the internet age do to museums what it has done to news media, the travel industry, entertainment, dating, education…and nearly every other aspect of human life. The answer: of course, it will. But as the waves of change come, how can museums position themselves to manage the change and ride those waves (or at least not be crushed by them).

Major changes in the technological landscape have come before. Other technologies have dramatically altered our world in monumental ways and over similarly short periods of time. Automobiles transformed personal mobility and both the metaphorical and actual landscape of our world. Radio, photography, and other recording technologies gave us the ability to see, hear, and gain a greater understanding of people from across the globe, present and past. We are not the societies we were before these technologies burst on the scene. We’ve been here before and it is, for the most part, a good thing.

We developed this paper based on our mutual interest in the impact of digital technology on museums and how museums have been transformed by it over the past two decades. One of us (Jack) has worked in digital operations in museums, specifically for the Getty, and is now consulting on the topic for museums around the country and the world. The other (John) has been at the Chicago History Museum for over 20 years and remembers a time when not all employees had computers at their desks, there were no digital experiences included in the museum’s galleries, and the museum’s website was a page or two of information about open hours, admission fees, and parking.

We believe that we can offer some insights into the challenges facing any museum trying to transform itself into a digital first organization, one that begins all ideation seeking a digital solution first. The content of this paper is drawn from our experiences planning, organizing, and doing this kind of work. Much of what John shares here is taken from the last few years trying to expand the Chicago History Museum’s digital footprint, and Jack’s insights will be drawn from his years leading the Getty’s digital production team and working with other, often smaller, museums as they struggle to guide and manage digital transformation.

Transformation is a process, and we’ve all experienced it before. We’ve grown up. We all started as one thing and become who we are today. Much of that shaped by our DNA—the user manual for our development. And much of it has been influenced by forces that took us in unexpected directions throughout our lives. Museums are like that too. Our organizations have missions that guide us and a host of influences that take us down unanticipated paths. Together, they shape our identities and our destinies. Digital technology is a remarkably powerful and seductive influence on museums, and it has already had a tremendous impact on them. However, the change it inspires is coming so rapidly that we must commit ourselves to understand, embrace, and lead the transformation technology demands in order to ensure that it supports our museums and not the other way around.

In 2007, the Chicago History Museum (CHM) developed a visioning report for the future of the museum, This ambitious document barely mentions the role of technology in the future of the museum, which reflects the sea change that has occurred in museums in just the last dozen years. CHM has since made substantial efforts to consider and plan its digital future. As a result, the museum has invested in programs and projects built around our digital dreams and won awards for some of that work.

In more recent times, CHM has seen a wave of retirements and new hires that have both shifted its capacity to be more digitally focused and raised internal expectations of the museum becoming a digital first organization. Today, CHM’s audience expects digital experiences and electronic collections access as part of the museum’s offerings, which reflects a rapidly growing digital sophistication on the part of the museum’s patrons. Like many museums, transformation is underway in Chicago and yet the challenge of aligning strategic vision with planning and operations continues to be significant.

People Section Image


The first imperative to advance digital transformation is to provide both strong senior leadership and inspire and support staff engagement with digital technology. It is essential that an institution-wide digital strategy be woven into the fabric of the entire organization. Ultimately, digital transformation must start at the top. This may be frustrating for some to hear. Motivated staff may initiate the change but significant budget reallocation and comprehensive commitment to organizational change is necessary. This type of systematic, DNA-level organizational transformation needs to come from the CEO/Director’s office. Senior leadership must do more than just support change. They need to be a part of the change. Clearly a strong partnership with the staff is essential so that everyone is ready to take risks, forge new working relationships, and embrace new ideas and new ways of working. Digital transformation is about more than just creating a new website, an AR experience, or even a sophisticated metadata management system. It’s building the capacity and commitment to work in new ways, embrace new goals, and leave some old ways of thinking, behaving, and producing behind in an effort to be a relevant and successful museum in the 21st century.

Perhaps the biggest complication with digital transformation is the word “digital.” Museums simply need to transform so that they can embrace the future. Maintaining the status quo won’t allow you to find new revenue models or support new partnerships or attract new audiences. Though the spark may come from digital champions within the museum, the flame of change must be fanned by senior leadership and incorporated into the entire organization.

Transformation is complicated and takes time. It’s not a light bulb that we can simply turn on. We may need to find innovative and constructive ways to encourage and inspire senior management to make the first step. Likewise, nothing is actually produced in the museum without staff. And we all have to be open to the idea that products generated through digital tools could replace traditional offerings, such as tours, publications, even exhibitions. Too often leadership and staff resist the expansion of digital investments because they feel threatened by change or fear the loss of the aspects of our work that have traditionally defined our institutional identities.

Once senior leadership buys into digital transformation, meaningful, foundational work can begin. The Chicago History Museum established the Digital Future Committee (DFC) in mid-2017. In October of that same year, the committee completed its report, “Digital First: A Vision for the Future of the Chicago History Museum” (1), which was focused on the development of a digital mindset inside CHM. In late December 2017, the museum launched a follow-up initiative with the objective of crafting a plan aligned to the following three key themes enumerated in the “Digital First” report:

  • Establishing a “start-with-digital” mindset and way of operating, allowing CHM to be experimental, agile, collaborative, and responsive.
  • Developing a digital identity in serving the public, working with partners, and within our own organization.
  • Integrating technology skills, infrastructure, and data analysis into operations, rather than superimposing them.

This time the museum turned its attention to staff, rather than outside experts, to advance a “digital first” mindset as a critical next step in the institution’s transformation. In a series of departmental group interviews, staff were asked to think about the ways they already work in alignment with the key characteristics of a digital mindset, and to identify the new opportunities that might exist.

CHM defined its opportunities for digital impact through seven perspectives. As the digital world continues to change, these seven perspectives will endure as reference points for the museum. The perspectives are:

Accessibility: Ensuring access to all our audiences (remote and in-person, digital and analog) is vital to sharing stories. All content should be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust, and museums should commit to revisiting both new and legacy content with accessibility in mind.

Capacity: Building the capacity of the museum and its staff is a key component of actualizing the institution’s digital future. Staff must be given the resources and skills necessary to increase their digital skill sets. By raising the level of digital expertise across the organization, a museum can be more agile and innovative when it comes to embracing digital activity and expanding outputs and audience reach.

Collaboration: More than identifying new applications and programs, museums must go about the difficult work of facilitating a culture shift in how the staff works day-to-day. Cross-departmental co-working at museums should be incentivized and facilitated.

Creation: Museums have an opportunity to lead in the digital interpretation sphere by building upon their history of producing exhibitions and other resources. We should continue exploring avenues to allow new audiences to access our collection and resources online, as well as make our interpretive work more available.

Data: Data collection helps us quantify an institution and its impact, which gives us measurable benchmarks for decision-making. Many museums collect multitudes of data but are not always systematically using it. Currently many data collections are siloed within departments of a museum, which hinders us from seeing how various data points interact, and how we could work collectively.

Infrastructure: As museums continue to expand their digital footprint, resources must be allocated to maintain and improve digital infrastructure. A comprehensive strategy to ensure that the right servers are used, as well as reconfiguring storage and back-up systems to ensure that the museum is protected in the event of cyberattack, outage, or natural disaster, is vital to maintaining digital integrity.

Preservation: As museums continue to produce digital materials, and venture into collecting born-digital materials as well, a comprehensive strategy for digital preservation is vital. Museums can develop a digital preservation policy and plan that includes documentation of current and future digital content and collections and addresses future digital collection development and changes in collection policy.

To advance these perspectives, CHM’s mid-level managers were asked to work with their staff to develop recommendations for projects that would advance the museum’s digital ambitions as they developed individual departmental plans and budgets for the upcoming fiscal year. In this process, staff knows what the broad digital goals for the museum are, department heads can guide and develop ideas, and senior leadership can make choices about strategic investments that can have the greatest impact across the museum in the new fiscal year.


There are many opportunities to use existing, industry-standard assessment tools to help build a case for digital transformation. Moreover, these same tools help build momentum across an organization. One of the most compelling toolsets that can help catapult senior leadership into action is benchmarking.

Benchmarking helps clarify future goals by identifying current digital realities. An excellent benchmarking tool was created by the UK’s Collections Trust. (Collection Trust Digital Benchmarking, 2017) Using range statements, the tool allows organizations to plot current status and target goals across eight dimensions: strategy, people, systems, digitization, content delivery, analytics, engagement and revenue. This tool allows you to create an “action plan” so you can move from where you are to where you want to be.


Radar Graph Example

Figure 1. Example of benchmarking results. In this example, the institution in question is meeting goals for people and engagement but falling short on all other fronts.


It’s important to build an organizational digital ecosystem that supports staff and everything they need and want to accomplish. We inherently know this, but budgets tend to lag behind. While budget reallocations designed to support digital efforts are essential, there are additional opportunities for museums to capture and identify staff needs.

Today, the museum community has become much better at understanding the visitor experience. We need to divert some of this User Experience (UX) energy and try to focus on the museum’s internal UX. Staff often feels either overwhelmed by the expectations of transformation or underwhelmed by the level of support for new thinking and new directions.

Equally important, is the need to tackle digital literacy within the museum community. How does digital literacy help build and sustain a museum’s mission, audience engagement, and improve office efficiencies? The reality is that digital literacy takes effort, money, and time. It will take the entire museum community to define and sustain a meaningful, ongoing solution. One by One, a project being led by Carolyn Royston (Cooper Hewitt) and Ross Perry (University of Leicester) is a great resource that can help all of us begin to think about how to address the major concerns regarding digital literacy.

To make things even more complicated, we all have “digital people,” but we may not know who they are, or where they are until we’re having a final conversation at their going away party. These staff anchors are essential for change. We need to recruit them, nourish them, and find ways to retain and empower them to serve as advocates for the museum’s exciting, albeit unclear, future. This can require new HR policies, work environments, and collaborative project development with external partners, who can add a level of professional development to sweeten the pot for young, ambitious, digital-first employees.

Museums can use visualizations, interviews, and surveys to clarify and refine staff expectations and requirements. Creating well-designed system-application-workflow diagrams is a critical first step to bringing staff along. An audit of hardware, software, information systems, processes, workflows, digital assets and staffing are all important to understanding and improving your museum. Mapping out workflow bottlenecks, identifying key staff input, acknowledging out-of-date systems, and highlighting efficient databases is essential. These visual diagrams will be used throughout your digital transformation journey from project planning to process design to long-term infrastructure sustainability.

Example of a system diagram

Figure 2. Example of a basic systems diagram


“It’s hard to advance when we’re trying to maintain. It’s not a reluctance to be more digital, but a challenge of balancing our priorities.”

Make sure your digital efforts effectively support your mission and your brand. All organizations have competing priorities that tax content production efforts as well as infrastructure support. All organizations have mission creep. While a museum’s digital work may be impressive and innovative, there’s always the possibility that it isn’t mission-aligned, and misaligned work products (even good ones) can create “technical debt.” As more and more misaligned work is done, increasing amounts of staff resources end up needing to support this work. Ambitious museums must strike a balance between innovative and/or experimental projects, and an unflinching dedication to mission-focused work that might not provide opportunities for change but serve as a grounding element for staff and patrons.

Conducting a content audit is a productive way to identify rogue, out-of-date, and/or non-impactful content. An audit helps identify existing content and can prepare for future content strategy conversations. An audit can be very simple – identifying where the content is and who is creating it; on the other hand, it can also be very complex – identifying the voice, tone, workflow, content location, target audience, content management system used, content usage analytics, and staff time and effort. At its core, a content audit allows for different ways to categorize and review the vast amount of information you have.

Simple content audit framework

Figure 3. Simple content audit framework

Another helpful process is to use SMART Goals: When setting expectations, you want to create goals that are clear, concise, and mission aligned. Using S.M.A.R.T criteria is a useful way to help set those goals. Consider these five concepts. You want to be:

  • Specific: What do you want to accomplish? Who needs to be included? When do you want to do this? Why is this a goal?
  • Measurable: How can you measure progress? Can you put the results in a graph? Can you show results in percentages?
  • Achievable: Do you have the skills required to achieve the goal? Is the target goal realistic? What steps are involved?
  • Relevant: Why am I setting this goal now? Is it aligned with overall objectives?
  • Time-bound: What’s the deadline and is it realistic?


Countless high-powered companies have clear, money-making goals. The sports, media, and travel industries are all well entrenched and committed to data-driven decision-making. The Oakland A’s won 103 games in 2002 using data and their processes basically transformed Major League Baseball (Moneyball, 2011). Netflix gathers data to provide customers viewing recommendations; 80% of content watched on Netflix is influenced by their recommendation engine (Forbes, 2018). And we have all experienced how the travel industry, most notably airlines, use sophisticated algorithms to determine pricing that is based upon destination and travel dates.

Data-driven decisions are making these industries more efficient and more relevant. Museums need to do the same thing. In many cases, museums have the data. We have the metrics. We have the audience-focused data points from so many systems and applications such as: museum ticketing, donor and membership systems, mobile APPs, onsite surveys, parking lot data, Café and store usage data, websites, etc. Just because a museum has collected data does not mean the data is available to the organization. In fact, most data remains unavailable simply because it’s hard to get to and even harder to decipher. As a result, many museums can’t yet utilize the power of data to systematically improve internal processes or products because the data is “hidden” and “dirty.” With that said, there museums that are leading the way. The Art Institute of Chicago is pioneering the use of complex data models to help with exhibition planning. Also, more museums are introducing variable ticket prices. In both cases, data is guiding important, budget-related and visitor-related decisions.

While some museums have begun to incorporate data mining into their organizational structure, the entire museum community needs to embrace this burgeoning trend. Adopt a “crawl-walk-run” approach to data-driven decision-making. A useful first step would be to introduce SMART goals. They will help refine the decision-making process and are an effective way to help introduce incremental change. Predictive technologies are clearly complex but initiating and introducing meaningful data-driven decision-making doesn’t have to be. Start small and work to integrate data-based thinking across the organization. Many museums are poised to be “data aware” right now. We can use existing data to help us better understand our visitors’ needs and our various digital products.

The data-driven bullseye

Figure 4. The data-driven bullseye


Research your audiences so that your digital strategy speaks to them. Two common mistakes are not listening to your visitors and not balancing visitors’ needs with the needs of your organization. To combat these pitfalls, try to collect visitor data as often as possible. Online surveys, in-person interviews, on-site kiosk questionnaires are all ways to gather feedback from your audience. While the museum community is quite good at getting audience feedback, we are less effective at analyzing that information accurately, so it is perceived as a trusted resource inside our organizations, and then making decisions and implementing plans based on that information.

One of the most effective User Experience (UX) research practices is utilizing journey maps and experience maps to identify the needs of both your visitors and your institution. You can use maps to improve the visitor experience and also make internal processes more efficient. It is no coincidence that these maps are both highly visual and easily accessible informatics. Experts with varied points-of-view from across the museum can refer to the maps to better identify key visitor touch points and better respond to user expectations.

Example of a high-level Journey Map

Figure 5. Example of a high-level Journey Map


To become an organization that is truly digital first, there are likely changes needed in the operational structure of the museum. Discovering and elevating new ideas and ways of working is a challenge for an organization built on a traditional hierarchical model, but to be digital first requires a more dynamic, networked approach to collaboration. Adjusting your organizational framework to more accurately recognize the digital skills and needs of everyone, no matter the department or level, would naturally allow more effective teams to flourish and enhance productivity.

In 2017, when CHM interviewed staff to identify projects, teams, or initiatives that used an experimental, agile, collaborative, responsive, or iterative approach to their work, over 100 examples were given. The original Digital Future Committee report established these qualities as being essential to adapting a digital-first mindset. This indicates an opportunity for the Museum to maintain relevancy and ensure a future of innovation. The Museum is already invested in people as a resource, and so by focusing more on methods of training and communication, it can better utilize the existing expertise and skills of staff to further our impact on all audiences.

Innovation is relative and so is digital transformation. Start small but start now. Talk to your staff, ask senior leadership to share their vision, audit your current work, create a strategic roadmap and environment for creativity, plot your digital expectations and progress, and begin your journey. Take one step today and see where it leads. It’s a process, but it can only begin if you do.


Digital First: A Vision for the Future of the Chicago History Museum

Seven Things Data-Informed Organizations Do Differently

Netflix Used Big Data To Identify The Movies That Are Too Scary To Finish

Ways Airlines Use Artificial Intelligence and Data Science to Improve Operations

Art Institute uses data to give visitors what they want

Onboarding a New Executive Director Outline for a First-Year Transition Plan

One by One:

Museum Pricing for Affordability and Profit

‘One by One’: building the digital literacies of UK museums

Are You Data-driven, Data-informed or Data-inspired?

Employee Experience and Digital Workforce

Cite as:
Ludden, Jack and Russick, John. "Digital Transformation: It’s a Process and You Can Start Now." MW20: MW 2020. Published January 21, 2020. Consulted .