It’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and you own a small factory in Wallsend, up the river Tyne from Newcastle. You’re considering whether to ditch the steam engines and get your factory plugged into Charles Merz’s new Neptune Bank Power Station, the UK’s first electrical power distribution system, based on Nikola Tesla’s discoveries at Westinghouse.
It’s cheap. It’s efficient. It’s the future. But who in your company knows about this new energy source? Who understands how to buy it, how to ensure consistent supply, and also how to explore its potential?
Cue the arrival of the Chief Electricity Officer. At this time, as Nicholas Carr explains in The Big Switch, every corporation needed a Chief Electricity Officer but just a handful of years later the role was redundant.
As electricity became a utility, a shared resource essential to business operations but inconsequential to competitive differentiation, it no longer required a separate staff to watch over it. It became a routine and largely invisible element of operations, marketing, product development, purchasing, and other traditional functions. Chief electricity officers disappeared, their work complete.
Nicholas Carr, What’s a CIO to do?
The role of Chief Digital Officer (or CDO) is much like the Chief Electricity Officers of yore, argued Koven J. Smith in a discussion following his opening keynote at MuseumNext 2014. This year’s conference was held in Newcastle, close to where (I later found out) the UK National Grid began.
Koven explained that electricity is now just a thing we all use, and that digital media are the same: there won’t be such a divide between digital media teams and the rest of the organisation. Instead all those content creators and producers will know the best way to communicate this content, whether that’s through an API, say, or via an exhibition. They’ll not just know to create that content, they’ll know how to code. The risk with having a CDO, Koven argued, was that it excuses people of not needing to know about digital.
I completely agree with this sentiment: that it’s just not good enough for people in our cultural organisations – any organisation – to get away with saying they’re a Luddite, or simply not interested in technology or digital media. Guaranteed there’ll have been folk back in that factory in Wallsend saying this new-fangled electricity thing wasn’t really relevant to them, that they weren’t interested in it, or in understanding how it works. And to an extent that’s fine: I certainly don’t know about the intricacies of energy trading, or of exactly how the grid works – nor do I need to. But I do understand about circuits, about bulbs and voltage, about various different energy sources and the pros and cons of each. The same applies to digital media: while they needn’t know about data modelling in Python or the Dublin Core, everyone (and I mean everyone) working in our museums and cultural institutions needs to know digital media basics.
Back in 2012, Gartner was predicting that 25% of businesses would have a CDO in their top team by 2015. Fast forward a year or so and Forrester was questioning whether the CDO was a fad or the future and earlier this year reported that just 1 percent of firms plan to hire a chief digital officer in the next 12 months.
Clearly a lot has changed in the last two years. The job title of CDO is certainly faddish, so let’s not fixate on that. So while we might not be recruiting CDOs any time soon, I’d argue that right now we do need more digital leaders in our museums. We need these digital leaders because, as new media artist Victoria Bradbury put it (over a few post conference beers), ‘When electricity becomes as mundane as turning on a light switch, who’s going to be the one to show people there are more interesting things electricity can do?’
And that’s where digital media are different to electricity; while electricity, as Carr explains, became ‘inconsequential to competitive differentiation’, it’s only by embracing digital media that our museums and cultural organisations can differentiate themselves in this increasingly noisy age.
We do our job right, we won’t need job titles like Chief Digital Officer or Head of Digital Media in five years’ time. We’ll be in tech, content or comms or wherever it is we came from. One thing’s for sure: without those digital leaders today’s cultural organisations will not be exploring the true potential of digital media.