Boundaries and organisations

Following my talk at NDF last week I’ve been thinking more about how we need to break down some of the organisational barriers across our sector. My talk was in part thinking about how my organisation makes its publishing model more useful – useful to government, to the cultural heritage sector, and ultimately more useful to its audience.

That focus on the audience pushes us in the easily-measured trap of chasing audience numbers. In that we’re not alone. Every organisation typically does it.

The talk that followed mine in the session was from Te Papa’s Michelle Smith. It was a really interesting look at how they’re refining their content development to target social media and search engine optimisation, with two very different approaches. It’s definitely worth a look when the video comes out.

But one slide stood out: a screenshot of search results for ‘Matariki’. Turns out that Te Papa’s Matariki content is battling it out for first place against Te Ara’s Matariki content. So here we have two organisations, same sector, with a good relationship, chasing one audience on the same subject.

I’m not criticising either organisation. It’s how our funding incentivises our work: get the audience, get the numbers, and (hopefully) get the ongoing funding. For our audience it may or may not make sense (on the plus side, maybe we’re presenting different perspectives and different material) but as a sector, are we making the best investment?

It’s one of the problems of crossing organisational boundaries. A pragmatic approach might be to move Te Ara to Te Papa, a suggestion that’s been made in the past but rejected on the basis that Te Ara needs some kind of organisational independence. (It currently has relationships right across the sector and draws heavily on many collections. Would it start to prioritise Te Papa’s collections over others and give a skewed view of national collections?)

The cultural sector isn’t alone in this. New governments create new portfolios, for example the new Crown-Māori relations portfolio. Ideally it should sit right across government – we’re all part of the Crown and should all have relationships with Māori. But it has to ‘live’ somewhere, so it will be housed in an existing department and over time will have to contribute to that organisation’s vision to ensure its survival. Living somewhere means contributing to that place; if you can’t your future’s at risk.

It’s very similar to government publishing. Again, ideally, it should retain some kind of independence to provide analysis and interpretation of history and society free from the political levers a government wants to pull. But like a new portfolio it has to live somewhere and if it strays too far from its home organisation’s goals it less likely they’ll back you.

This is a tension we need to think about a lot more. How do we start to measure success that is less about the organisation and more about the organisation’s contribution to something bigger, something that stretches across organisational boundaries. It’s not going to be a few shared projects or some ad hoc collaboration. It’s about a shared and agreed strategy that acknowledges we’re all heading in the same direction; thinking about what we’re good and bad at; taking the lead on what you’re good at; and accepting that others are better placed to deliver in other areas (even if you’ve traditionally done them). To paraphrase Pia Andrews in her conference opening address, it’s deciding what to take forward and what to leave behind.