Social Media and Organizational Change

Blog Post, Published Writing

This paper was originally published for Museums and the Web 2011. It was co-authored by Dana Allen-Greil, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, USA; Susan Edwards and Jack Ludden, J. Paul Getty Trust, USA; and Eric Johnson, Monticello, USA. (See citation and Creative Commons information.)


Social media are altering how museums interact with the public. But how are they affecting the ways that museum professionals approach their jobs? How are large organizations dealing with new pressures for a more nimble, experimental approach to content creation, and a more personal level of engagement with staff? How do museums manage the ‘brand’ with so many people creating content, while also being flexible and bringing out the many voices in an institution? With the authors’ multiple perspectives, this paper highlights some of the ways that social media are changing the ways that staff communicate and work together, and addresses issues such as whether to distribute management of social media content across an organization or to centralize efforts; how to find tactics for educating and training staff about what social media are; and how social media can further the mission, set new expectations for current staffing positions held within the museum, and promote a cultural shift that embraces collaborative, agile ways of interacting with our peers and our audiences.

Keywords: social media, leadership, management, strategy, organizational structure

1. Introduction

All nonprofits operate in the public trust. Museums are keenly aware that in order to remain sustainable this trust must not be violated. (See the American Association of Museums’ Code of Ethics for Museums, Similarly, those tasked with sustaining social media efforts in a museum – who wish to maintain a certain level of nimbleness and tolerance for some risk – must continually work to protect the trust they have themselves built up with their colleagues.

Social media consultant Jay Baer and business strategist Amber Naslund argue that successful adoption of social media is as much about your organization’s culture as it is about its operations (Baer & Naslund, 2011). They pose questions designed to assess your organization’s cultural readiness for social media, such as: “Do employees frequently use the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ to indicate that they feel part of a larger whole?”, “Are office doors kept open for the most part?”, and “Is there a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude within the company and throughout every level of the organization?” What many of these questions are getting at is the level of trust internally, among staff, which is critical to establish before your museum can truly embrace externally-oriented “radical trust” (Douma, 2006) in your online communities.

[image url=”” title=”Radical Trust” alt=” Digital strategist Collin Douma defines radical trust as “a notion that influence, rather than control, is more effective at guiding culture, commerce and communities” (2006).” alignment=”center” margin_left=”0″ margin_right=”0″ margin_top=”0″ margin_bottom=”0″ border=”smallBorder” shadow=”1″ width=”500″ height=”200″]

Fig 1: Digital strategist Collin Douma defines radical trust as “a notion that influence, rather than control, is more effective at guiding culture, commerce and communities” (2006). Douma’s advice can be just as valid for fostering trust amongst work colleagues.

This central issue of trust is also a key leadership issue. Where does trust begin and end regarding decisions about social media? Business professor Roger Martin writes:

So, if we can’t draw a line in the organization above which strategy happens and below which execution does, what is the use of the distinction between strategy and execution, between formulation and implementation? The answer is none at all. It is a pointless distinction that in no way helps the organization. In fact, it does great damage to the corporation. (Martin, 2010, p. 68)

Organizations are changing because, to a large extent, social media implementations are ahead of their policies. Real-time efforts are impacting strategies and even organizational structures. In the past, institutional mission and strategic vision were reviewed every few years; now, they are reviewed every time someone posts to Facebook, comments on a blog, or opens a new Twitter account.

Social media have already altered how museums interact with the public and how museum professionals approach their jobs. This paper highlights some of the key ways that social media are changing the way we work and suggests approaches to sustain, organize, and implement social media within a large institution.

2. Where does social media sit in your org chart?

The day-to-day work of social media could potentially be handled by a staff person in almost any department – such as Web and new media, marketing and communications, publications, education and public programming, or visitor services. The three institutions represented by the authors of this paper – the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), a large history museum; Monticello, a large historic house and research institute; and the J. Paul Getty Trust (the Getty), a large arts organization – offer examples of different approaches to social media staff structures formed by intentional choices and organic growth.

NMAH – social media as public programming

At NMAH, social media are seen primarily as public programs. This approach shapes both the kinds of content shared via social media as well as the tone, approach, and objectives of participation on these platforms. The new media department oversees and manages social media for the institution and is situated within the larger Office of Public Programs along with education and visitor services departments. The museum’s three new media staffers also work closely with curatorial, public affairs, business ventures, and development staff. The flavor and trajectory of the museum’s social media activities are rooted in the conversational approach to history outlined in the Office of Public Programs vision statement.

Social media work is done by the same staff members that for years have been creating and managing content for the institution’s e-mail newsletter, website, and other online communications. Additional staff persons have not been hired to take up the significant workload that comes with social media participation. As we explore elsewhere in the paper, this is not a sustainable model for future social media growth.

Monticello – social media are building relationships

One of the key pillars of a recent strategic plan at Monticello is to “make Monticello a relationship and not just a destination.” An early tactic identified to meet that goal was to increase the organization’s social media outreach. A redesign of in late 2010 provided an opportunity to create a more social-media rich environment with greatly expanded staff participation across departments. A new media specialist was hired from within the institution and paired with the long-time webmaster; this Web team was moved into a newly-revamped marketing and communications department as part of a larger institutional restructuring.

The Web team aims to have a little something for everyone (Jefferson aficionados, Monticello fans, gardeners, political junkies, folks that want a diversion) from everyone on staff (curators, guides, visitors services personnel, administrative staff), and to develop ongoing interactions with the online visiting public.

An operational benefit is gained from the placement of the social media efforts within marketing and communications, in that the Web team is kept abreast of external communications opportunities and is a part of the strategic communication plans of the institution. The challenge, however, is in maintaining a close connection to educational, curatorial, and visitor services personnel; doing so requires more intentional effort on the part of the Web team.

The Getty – using social media to “get off the hill”

Partly because of the Getty’s physical isolation (on a hill above the 405 Freeway, and only accessible by a ¼-mile tram ride), the Getty has a reputation of being inaccessible to the community. Thus, staff managing the Getty’s social media presence talk about it as a way to “get off the hill,” and take the collections and programs into the community. Staff persons coordinating most of the social media efforts are located in the Web and communications groups, with additional contributing staff persons distributed across the organization. As at NMAH, social media at the Getty have been taken on by existing staff persons who have always managed online communication as part of their regular work, although a full-time social media coordinator was hired in late 2010.

As part of the larger communications department, the Web group’s primary goal is online outreach and publishing, with the aim of using digital media to facilitate promotion of the educational and scholarly efforts of our curators and educators. Because social media staff members are not subject-matter experts, they rely heavily on their relationships with staff across the institution who do this behind-the-scenes work. Internal outreach efforts on a personal level are key to gathering content used in social media.

Location, location, location

These authors have discovered that the viewpoint and specific goals of the department organizing social media within a museum have an effect on the nature of its overall social media presences. This suggests a question that many museums may be struggling with: How is the institution’s social media personality shaped by the staff members posting tweets and Facebook posts, uploading images and video to Flickr and YouTube, and having conversations with users in social media spaces?

Our experiences have been that traditional functions of staff often play out in social media. Marketing staffers may tend to use social media to promote dates and times of events and exhibitions; publications staff may highlight materials such as articles and books written by staff; educators look for ways to engage and teach visitors; and technologists may be eager to use the coolest new online tool. This is an oversimplification, but the point remains that it is natural to transfer what we already know how to do into a new realm. Social media workloads are putting pressure on existing channels of communication inside institutions and impact the scope and nature of individual job responsibilities.

Working wider

Staff members who come together around social media projects form new channels of communication, collaboration, and ways of thinking and working together. Figuring out how to make that happen – how to structure our social media staff within our organizations to encourage this – may be one of the most perplexing questions about social media facing cultural institutions.

Effective collaboration means staff members need to cross lines traditionally drawn between different working groups, and probably also cross lines drawn between hierarchical levels within the institution. This trend towards collaboration and working horizontally may be working to flatten traditional hierarchical structures within institutions. These changes are occurring both in the virtual realm of social media, and in the physical realm of the workplace itself. This is a major issue that needs to be brought to the attention of leadership to wrestle with and potentially formalize.

The role of leadership

At the Getty, managers know that social media are important as a growing avenue for outreach and communication. Managers are therefore encouraging staff members who show an interest in working in this arena. But determining how to establish goals, identify opportunities and risks, implement efficient and effective processes, evaluate progress, and set milestones for social media is slow going in such a large organization. As a result, several early Getty presences established on various social media platforms were often uncoordinated and sometimes competed with one another, as is the case with our multiple YouTube accounts. Some staffers stuck with it, and their initial efforts were successes in the long run; others were abandoned for lack of sustainable effort and either retired or handed over to the Web group.

This lag in policy development means that there has been little guidance about which staff members should be engaging in social media, which social media platforms the institution should participate in, and how much of staff members’ daily time should be spent managing social media. One benefit of this uncertainty has been that staff members are taking opportunities to experiment and develop new processes on their own. In a large, hierarchical institution, this kind of testing, rapid prototyping, and risk-taking is pushing the boundaries of the usual, highly-controlled content development processes. While this kind of spontaneous experimentation can be invigorating and exciting for staff, it may not be sustainable.

The process of justifying, defining, and finding funds to create a new position dedicated to social media at the Getty highlighted the difficulty of inserting these new work paradigms and processes into the organization. With no parallel or model for this kind of position, the human resources department had myriad questions about what kind of work this person would do, who s/he would report to, how much s/he would be paid, etc.

At Monticello, leadership is very interested in social media as a key means of outreach. Leaders have largely delegated the responsibility of managing these efforts to the Web team, although with a caveat to review policy matters that most affect the public perception of the institution. At one point, the enthusiasm of some leaders was so great that they considered making participation in social media (at some unspecified level) mandatory across the organization. The Web team argued that this would quash the nascent excitement among staff and dampen the quality of contributions. Here, the expertise of the Web team guides the wider social media efforts of Monticello staff. Open channels of communication and contributions from across the organization have flattened (though certainly not done away with) the traditional barriers between departments and among staffing levels.

A role of leadership, therefore, may be to think about the organization’s structure when planning for social media sustainability. At the same time, much social media leadership is emerging from the bottom up. Leaders need to acknowledge that this kind of work requires quicker and more flexible ways of thinking and working and consider that the experts are not necessarily found at the managerial level. Sometimes the best thing managers can do is get out of the way.

3. Introducing staff to social media

At the Getty and NMAH, staff members who have always managed online communication are also now handling the lion’s share of daily social media work. It has become clear that this is not a sustainable model. Time spent working in social media spaces is only increasing, and staff are pressured to take on new workloads in addition to existing tasks. Monticello established a new social media position during its reorganization – a step towards acknowledging the time required to be active in this space. But is one staff person enough? And is this the best solution?

As outlined above, successful social media practice probably requires collaboration across the institution. Further, social media work requires a variety of skills that can be found across the organization – editing, writing, customer service skills, technical know-how, legal knowledge, and subject matter expertise, among others. As an example, one can imagine how difficult it is to distill a complex historical perspective into a 140-character tweet, particularly when you are not the subject matter expert. On the other hand, a subject matter expert may not know how to tweak the HTML embedded code to insert a video from YouTube into the organization’s blog posts. And front-line staffers have insights about audiences that others, including management, are not privy to.

In all three of our institutions, we have witnessed the value and importance of raising awareness among the entire staff about social media in general, and the institution’s goals and policies for participating in social media in particular.

Raising awareness

Raising staff awareness about social media involves a three-pronged approach. First, staff members need ways to learn about and evaluate opportunities and weaknesses of various platforms. Second, they need to understand how social media help the institution meet its mission. Developing social media strategy and policies should be collaborative processes, supported by the leadership. Once formulated, the strategy and goals need to be communicated to the entire institution. Finally, staff members need to understand any legal restrictions or guidelines the institution has related to sharing work-related content on personal social media spaces.

For some institutions, the goal is to create a democratic forum in which staff from many different departments and positions can participate. For this to work, it must be the job of the social media champions, with active support from leadership, to help interested parties recognize the ways social media are similar to and different from the work they are already familiar with. If new media staff members show their respect for their colleagues’ content expertise and for the mission of the institution, then a trusting relationship can be built.

Beck Tench describes this concept vividly by borrowing a well-worn adage from the field of education about what makes learning fun – she says she wants staff members (and visitors) at her museum to feel “safe and smart” (Tench, 2010). Indeed, “trust is the glue of life,” wrote Covey, Merrill, and Merrill (1994, p. 203): “It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships – marriages, families, and organizations of every kind – together. And trust grows out of trustworthiness.”

The kind of cross-disciplinary social media program that has proven most successful in our institutions grows from a shared sense of mission, and that in turn is only developed through open communication.

Have face-to-face conversations

At all three of our institutions, the staff managing social media efforts have initiated in-person conversations to introduce social media, open a dialogue, and develop trust. At Monticello, Web staff tour departments; give presentations about the social media strategy connected to the new Web site; and introduce by example concepts and vocabulary such as commenting, tagging, favoriting, and blogging. At the Getty and NMAH, ongoing brainstorming sessions take place with interested departments. By approaching different departments individually, staffers working in social media are able to get targeted feedback about the particular needs, approaches, and questions of different departmental cultures. One size decidedly does not fit all.

In these conversations, staff members also make a point to recognize and discuss the fears some individuals have about a more wide-open approach to communication, such as concerns for loss of authority or of “the institutional voice.” Visiting staff on their turf and opening a forum for questions, and curiosity, help create an atmosphere of increased comfort with and enthusiasm for social media. Most important, by putting an approachable face on the key social media experts within the institution, staff members should know who to turn to for help and be comfortable doing so.

Although social media can be totally unfamiliar territory for many staff, the authors have found that using analogies to the outreach efforts that staff already use goes a long way to lowering barriers to participation. At NMAH, the conversational interpretation strategy that is used on-site for in-person conversations is a core skill of public programs staff that can easily be transferred online. Just as the audience might ask follow-up questions in a live setting, a curator or gallery teacher could be prepared to address comments on Facebook and Twitter in a timely and helpful way.

These authors find it notable that the increase in online audience engagement at all three organizations has resulted in a noticeable increase in face-to-face conversations among staff. It should be no surprise that the more individuals talk – and socialize – with one another, the more potential there is for building trust. But these conversations are occurring not just between subject-matter experts and the programming staff and new media specialists who are developing social media projects. At the Getty, the head of new media has had more meetings about social media with human resources, the legal department, registrars, publishers, and educators, than about any other topic over the past eighteen months. Social media are pushing us together in a very personal way. New conversations between staff members who have never had reason to talk before are establishing new relationships and new lines of engagement. As Edward Hallowell has argued, there are biological reasons why increased engagement may increase performance as well.

Engagement, research has shown, boosts performance, and a sense of connections in the workplace leads to engagement. So, establishing robust relationships at work should be a top priority. Small talk seems trivial, but it pays big dividends, building affinity and trust. (Hallowell, 2010, p.125)

These relationships often extend into our personal lives – staff members friend each other on Facebook, and this is reflected back into our working relationships.

Write it down and invite collaboration

Many institutions have codified and published social media strategies internally – some, such as the Walker Art Center, the Powerhouse Museum, and Indianapolis Museum of Art, have even made these documents public. Creating policies for staff and the public to view is a huge step towards establishing radical trust. The Getty has written an overview of social media for staff in a wiki, accessible on-campus. For each project or platform that the Web group manages, goals and guidelines are documented in the wiki. The aims are to make social media decisions, goals, and processes transparent; to invite others to join the conversation about how social media can aid the institution’s mission (the wiki is editable by all staff); and to experiment and troubleshoot in public with ways of evaluating and promoting social media so the entire institution benefits from mistakes and successes.

Evaluate… and share your data

NMAH has found that conducting research and sharing data with colleagues help tremendously with encouraging staff to participate in social media activities. Data about followers, fans, click-throughs, and blog traffic are shared throughout the year as part of the museum’s weekly reporting. New media staffers host brown-bag lunches for interested staff to discuss wider trends in Web usage, dispel myths about audiences (e.g., that older audiences don’t use Facebook), and share emerging thoughts on strategy and objectives.

In September 2010, NMAH conducted audience surveys on four platforms: Twitter, Facebook, blog, and e-mail newsletter. The survey included questions aligned with those being asked as part of a larger survey of Web audiences across the Smithsonian Institution. These surveys were the first organized effort to understand who the museum’s audiences are and what they want via social media (compared with other forms of communication). The results of the survey are fascinating; sharing data with colleagues through formal department meetings has led to interesting discussions and ideas for future projects that involve social media as a central component for engaging previously untapped audiences.

Create opportunities for guided participation

In September 2010, curators at Monticello were introduced to Twitter through an international project called Ask a Curator Day ( Barriers for participation were kept very low – Web group staff persons did the tweeting for the curators, and it only lasted one day. It was helpful that curators could concentrate on sharing content expertise rather than worrying about learning the ropes (and limitations and quirks) of a particular application. This effort gave curators a sense of one flavor of social media interaction with the public, showed that participation need not be scary, and whetted their appetites for more.

In a project aimed at bringing the in-gallery focus tour experience online, the Getty developed a project to re-purpose15-minute ‘Masterpiece of the Week’ gallery tours by bringing the conversation to our blog, Facebook, and Twitter ( Each month, the blog manager coordinates with the gallery teacher who gives the tour to publish a short blog post; the gallery teacher is then available to answer questions online. Although gallery teachers are experts at in-gallery facilitation, many find online discussions quite different. For many, there was a steep learning curve but also an eye-opening experience to be had. Working closely with the blog manager, staff members get a crash course in online etiquette, writing and editing for the Web, and using WordPress.

Getting the work done – staffing

Taking the steps outlined above to raise staff awareness about social media may help make strides towards internal trust and even collaboration, but it won’t necessarily get the day-to-day work done. Furthermore, planning for sustainability of social media projects requires some ownership of documentation and evaluation. As discussed above, much debate rages about who should bear the responsibility for social media in museums: the marketing department? Curators? The tech folks? A 2009 survey by Rose Sherman at the Minnesota Historical Society showed some twenty different departmental/functional homes for social media within the responding museums (Sherman, 2011). There is no reason – technical or otherwise – that creating interesting content and interacting with users must be solely the responsibility of one department. Social media content management and monitoring tools (e.g., HootSuite) should make collaboration by multiple staff a fairly straightforward process.

In the case of NMAH, it was the new media department who had the idea to establish a presence on various social media platforms, and so it has been that department’s responsibility ever since. Although other staff have been trained, given access to the tools, and participated on occasion, the sense of responsibility and ownership is harder to build. A similar pattern has occurred at the Getty and at Monticello.

In part, this problem stems from social media simply not being top-of-mind – if you don’t tweet (or post to Facebook, or read blog comments, etc.) consistently, it simply doesn’t occur to you to do it. Social media work, like many of the tasks associated with online communications, tends to be ongoing (as opposed to project-based work that occurs within a specific time frame). This may be one of the key challenges to incorporating different kinds of staff into the social media mix as ongoing work requires a different approach to time management.

In order to ensure that a museum’s social media efforts are proactive and sustained, staff members need to feel individually responsible on an ongoing basis. Whatever approach is taken, it needs to be clear that keeping content and conversations flowing is a daily task. Below are some approaches that our institutions have taken (and in some cases abandoned) towards creating sustainable models for getting the work done.

Hire a contractor

Early on, the Getty hired a contractor to help formulate goals and educate staff about key social media concepts. Again, conversations were key. Much of what the consultant did was offer a sounding board for questions. By talking staff through specific situations, she helped shape the Getty’s social media personality from the beginning.

Ultimately, however, a contractor may not be invested in the goals of the institution. A valuable outcome of having an outside perspective was that it shined a light on the institution’s working process and taught staff a lot about the importance of personal relationships and organizational culture to a successful project. Another lesson was clear: the people managing your social media presence need to know the institution very well and feel ownership and trust in what you represent.

Create a nimble social media team

In an early acknowledgement that a strategy for social media was needed, the Getty established a very large group of 15-20 staffers from various departments to form a social media working group. These staff members were not chosen for their experience working in social media. Mismatched skills, along with the sheer size of the group, precluded much work getting done.

Subsequently, a much smaller group of staff, working on a daily basis in social media, has emerged. This group of six people works primarily via e-mail to compose Facebook posts collaboratively. Members of the team also monitor other social media platforms and liaise with staff working in other parts of the institution on social media projects. The team lacks any internal hierarchy, and shares all the work, despite the fact that members are all at different pay-grades within the institution. Because each has a very different view into and contacts within the institution, there is a wide variety of sources to pull from for content. This team approach also creates a great checks-and-balances system. For example, one person may know that a certain issue is sensitive with the public, or that an event about to be promoted is sold out. In addition, there is a ready-made team of pinch hitters to take over when others are too busy, or out sick: this removes a bit of the 24/7 pressure of social media work. Most important, each team member uses the group as a sounding board for new ideas. All members feel comfortable suggesting any idea, no matter how wacky, because each trusts that with the support and feedback of the group the message will be honed.

Because they all take part in the ongoing management of social media, this core team can do much to help establish larger goals and serve as experts who train and aid staff distributed around the institution who want to work with social media but cannot dedicate huge amounts of time to it. This has happened at the Getty for several targeted project: the core team worked with staff distributed around the institution to collaboratively set guidelines and policy. The management was then handed over to these distributed staff members, who circle back to the core team from time to time to check in and to ask for advice and collaboration on specific issues.

Hire a dedicated social media staff person

There are several reasons why having someone dedicated 100% to social media can be a benefit for the organization. There is certainly enough work to be done! A dedicated staff person can also help plan for and monitor sustainability of projects.

In late 2010, the Getty hired a new social media coordinator. The process of reviewing resumes and interviewing for the position was enlightening in itself, as many people with various combinations of skill sets have the potential to be really good at social media. By looking closely at the specific skills that we didn’t have among existing staff, we found someone passionate about social media who also had skills that complement our own. The main challenge for this new person is that the learning curve for penetrating our organization’s culture is steep. Someone brought in from outside is starting from ground zero, and it will take time to build relationships.

Hiring from within is an alternative. At Monticello, economic realities dictated hiring a new media specialist from inside the institution. It became clear how much smoother the road was because this person was already familiar with the culture and personnel of the institution. It took virtually no time to identify personnel, projects, and staff activities to include in the social media program. But perhaps most important, the new media specialist and the Webmaster had good ‘street cred’ within the institution, since they were both recognized as people with a history of deep appreciation for the content and for the experts who interpret it.

Recruit volunteers, or require staff to participate?

When NMAH launched its blog in 2008, a cross-departmental editorial team of about a dozen people (including new media) recruited staff around the museum to participate. Momentum slowly built, and in the blog’s second year, 68 staffers from almost every department in the museum contributed over 170 posts. Despite this success, we found that curators were the most reluctant for myriad reasons, including lack of familiarity with professional blogs and a fear of the amount of time it would take away from other core duties. This may be a common theme across museums; in a recent survey of curators and their use of social media, Erika Dicker found that a majority of respondents would like more social media training in the workplace.

The message is clear: if curators’ roles are to change, curators must be adequately supplied with the skills to handle them….As museums focus more and more on audience engagement, curators must support the institution’s goals for doing so; however, the institution must in turn support the curator. (Dicker, 2010)

It can be tempting to place blame on the reluctant party for slowing down or even obstructing a museum’s social media efforts. Dicker’s findings underscore the need for dialogue across the organization as well as the importance of leadership in providing institutional resources to support ongoing innovation.

Because asking for volunteers is time-consuming and generally has low return on investment, some institutions have considered making social media a requirement written into job descriptions. After two years of blogging, NMAH’s director decided to do just this. All curators are to write at least one blog post per year; this requirement appears in individual performance plans. While this new directive will provide a wider range of perspectives on the blog, there is no sustainable plan for how existing new media staff will manage an influx of new posts. There is concern that moving from voluntary to required writing will affect the quality and friendliness of the blog as a whole. At the same time, the requirement provided the impetus for more one-on-one meetings between blog team members and curatorial divisions, spurring creative ideas and opening up more transparent dialogue about goals and processes.

Centralized vs. distributed models

As discussed above, there are good reasons for centralizing social media. We’ve provided a few examples from our institutions. And we’ve also given arguments for distributing social media management and participation throughout the institution. So which is it? Centralized or distributed? Perhaps it’s both.

Every few months at NMAH, the idea to create a new Twitter account (or Facebook page, etc.) comes up. Whether it is an exhibition team or a particular department, the concept is usually the same. Wouldn’t it be optimal to have an account that is highly-focused on a particular topic? Wouldn’t we be better able to target specific audiences? The answer to the second question is probably yes. Whether or not this is a better strategy is a different story. The benefits of one, centrally-managed account are twofold: (a) by focusing on growth of that account, we are able to reach a larger (if less-targeted) audience; and (b) by establishing a responsible party for that account, we can be assured that the effort will be sustained appropriately over the long haul. In the end, centralized staff persons who are experts at managing social media can help the organization answer exactly these kinds of questions.

A centralized group of experts may have a slightly distanced perspective on the institution’s activities and can be objective about choosing which programs and activities appeal to various audiences. The reality is that not all of the institution’s work is appropriate for promotion in social media, and some programs may be more appropriate for different social media spaces or perhaps better suited to traditional media. A centralized staff can understand how all promotions – online, on site, and in print – can work together to form a cohesive campaign. In addition, a centralized staff can manage evaluation, sharing analysis and data with the rest of the museum.

A key problem with a fully centralized model, however, is that same distance that the centralized staff members have from the actual content of the programs. They are not experts on the subjects, and therefore, have to do a lot of work to gather information from subject experts who are close to a particular project. It could be easier to involve those experts directly in the social media program.

As we’ve tried to emphasize, creating an atmosphere of trust and collaboration is key to a successful social media strategy – but it may also be key to the survival of your organization in an era when various forces (of which social media are just one) are putting pressure on our larger society to become more open and collaborative. Within all of our institutions, we are feeling the growing pains and the distress brought on by changing organizational structures and cultures. What would it really be like if we could work in a perpetually beta state of mind? If we could try, fail, and try again? We are closer than you think because it’s already happening at every museum that uses social media.

The center-edge model

The Getty, NMAH, and Monticello have each arrived independently at similar organizational approaches involving smaller groups of staff providing some form of social media oversight and training to a larger circle of social media participants. On the one hand, we each recognize the need for some kind of centralized policy-making, training, and oversight. On the other, we realize that those coordinating groups can’t do it all – we don’t have the requisite subject-matter expertise or enough hours in the work week. Coordination is needed, but so is nimbleness. How can we best describe that approach?

Business experts have for decades been scrutinizing technology’s impact on the changing shape of organizations. One such thinker is Christopher Meyer, who describes an alternative to a traditional hierarchical structure that he calls the “Center-Edge organization” (Meyer, 2009). It is a concept based on his observations of open-source software efforts. Meyer sees Center-Edge organizational structures as different from both traditional hierarchical organizations or totally “flat” structures. Center-Edge organizations create a “Center,” a small group of experts that “ratify, communicate, and commit decisions.” This Center sets policy that the “Edges” activate.

Effective Center leaders spend much of their time helping the Edges connect with each other and drive policy enforcement locally…[The Edges are] pro-active in reaching out to engage other Edges…[and] their autonomy is limited by their responsibilities to synchronize with other Edges. (Meyer, 2009)

This model, Meyer argues, depends on two key elements: transparency and engagement. The Center-Edge organizational model may be useful for understanding what is happening in our organizations and may help us to shepherd staff towards a more open, trusting culture.

Social media experts

In “Clearing the Path for Sisyphus: How Social Media is Changing Our Jobs and Our Working Relationships,” Jeff Gates poses a key question: “How can we challenge existing paradigms, yet maintain the support of our coworkers?” (Gates, 2010). Prior to launching social media efforts at NMAH, new media staff spent years inspiring confidence by managing high quality online communications (website, e-mail newsletter, etc.). Curators, public affairs staff, and others throughout the museum are comfortable with the judgment, diligence to correct details, and even the grammar and spelling skills of new media staff. New media staffers constantly strive to be transparent in their operations and thinking, and work to engage staff around the institution at every opportunity. This hard-won support allows new media staff to work more quickly in the new world of social media, with less review from multiple parties – much like the “street cred” that Monticello’s social media experts benefit from. We are able to decide strategically who needs to have input or give the go-ahead rather than follow a lengthy review process. A few mistakes have been made and quickly corrected, with attention paid to how to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

These tactics may seem like common sense, but they are essential; their importance also underlines the challenges of spreading tasks too thin or decentralizing to staff or interns who haven’t yet earned the required level of trust and expertise. Any effort to empower additional staff to work in social media must be paired with support and training – not just on tools, multimedia, and process, but also about museum communications strategies, clear and concise writing, and how to make judgment calls about what is appropriate for our audiences and our missions.

At the Getty, the Web group is taking a stand and fostering a center-edge kind of model. By working consciously to increase our network of experts across the Getty organization, we can continue to empower those closest to the content.

One related approach at Monticello has been termed the “beat reporter” model of doing social media. While many individuals and departments are being urged to participate directly in producing content for the blog and other social media outlets, the Web staff has had to recognize that some content producers won’t directly engage with the new media – but their stories remain central. In order to tell those stories, a designated staff member, with intimate knowledge of the institution and an understanding of audience interests, regularly reaches out to staff and reports (through new media) on their activities, much as a newspaper reporter with a crime beat or town hall beat would do.

4. Conclusion

In the few short years since the advent of social media, museum staffers have done a remarkable job of quickly trying new things, succeeding and (sometimes) failing at implementation, establishing strategies, and pushing their organizations into the 21st century with new models for collaboration. At the Getty, Monticello, and NMAH, social media organizers have learned a few lessons and raised many more questions. To summarize our discussion, here are a few key points to consider when planning your museum’s social media strategy:

1. Radical trust begins with you

To build trust with our audiences, we need to foster trusting relationships within the institution. Training, raising awareness, and promoting collaboration amongst staff need to be critical pieces of any social media strategy.

2. The Center-Edge approach is a useful organizational model

Where social media responsibility sits in your org chart does have an impact on your social media efforts. At the same time, we see social media as one of many forces pushing organizations to work more horizontally, collaborate across departments in new ways. The Center-Edge organizational structure provides a useful model for museum staff members who are grappling with shifts in authority and responsibility.

3. Social media experts – from anywhere in the institution – need to be empowered and recognized

Museums must recognize the need for social media experts who can help guide the institution through institutional change. Leadership has a key role to play by recognizing in-house social media experts, planning for sustainability, and facilitating quicker and more flexible ways of working. The motivated and dedicated staff persons who create and manage a museum’s social media efforts are also an organization’s leaders.

In order to help the wider community as we all grapple with these issues, the authors have established a wiki in which we have shared our organizations’ social media policies and guidelines for staff. We invite others to add to this wiki so that it may become a resource for the field. The wiki is located at


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How to Cite this Work

Cite as:
Allen-Greil, D., et al., Social Media and Organizational Change. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted March 26, 2011.

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