Socially purposeful digital skills

This is an excerpt from Culture24’s report Let’s Get Real 6: Understanding the social purpose of digital technology for arts and heritage organisations.

The cover of a report entitled Let's Get Real 6

Digital literacy and social purposefulness are linked. In fact, they’re inter-dependent.

We can’t think about digital transformation in arts and heritage organisations without considering the socially purposeful aims of those organisations. Similarly, we can’t think about being a socially purposeful organisation today without reflecting on the institution’s digital capabilities, the digital dimensions to modern society, and the digital contexts of audiences’ lives. Twinned in meaning and practice, the digital and the social (the transformative and the purposeful) both offer the context for each other.

But, for us as a sector, to link the social and digital in this way (to always relate one in the context of the other) represents new thinking. To notice this, we just need to consider where we’ve been. If we look back on our recent history we can see that for two generations of professional practice the focus around ‘digital’ (even before we called it that) has largely been on the technology itself. The drive to ‘become digital’ has been reasoned and justified in terms of efficiency and productivity. It has been terminology and models from business that have powered the operational transformations of our cultural organisations.

Consequently, the last twenty years have been a time of implementing new systems to replace manual processes, of converting content to digital formats, and of introducing online modes of interaction. And as each innovation has arrived, the justification has typically been technocratic: we have made these changes and adopted these new technologies in order to optimise, to be efficient, and to be productive. To stay operational, all of this change has been a necessary transition, an important era of modernisation of the workplace. But it is a drive to digitise that has not been framed principally in societal terms. We digitised in order to be more efficient – not to be socially good.

We might draw a similar conclusion from the parallel transformation that has taken place around social purpose. Just as arts and heritage organisations have over the last twenty years experienced a time of extraordinary digital transformation, so they have also developed a new discourse and practice around their social role. It has been a time of the sector articulating and evidencing the effect that the arts and heritage can have on society, reflecting on the ways the outputs and provision of these organisations can be socially inclusive, and of demanding a social diversity in the sector’s workforce.

And yet – much like with the technological turn – there have been limits to this social turn. We may have evolved and changed as organisations in profound ways in order to be relevant, accessible and representative. But it has been a social agenda that has not always located itself vividly and confidently within the (adjacent) activity of digital transformation. We have become socially orientated in order to be good – not to be technologically efficient.

Today, our opportunity (or maybe now we are ready to say, our responsibility) is to embrace the connected contexts in which the social and the technological turns exist – and mutually benefit. Directly put, this means recognising that the society in which our organisations want to be purposeful, is itself increasingly digital. And it means recognising that those organisations that we want to be socially purposeful, are themselves, also, progressively more digital. Equally, it means recognising that the techno-centric changes we have made to our organisations are there to serve the higher social purpose of the institution. And it means recognising that the technologies we have introduced are used, understood within, and affected by, a wider society.

This, in other words, is about our socially purposeful practice looking across to (and being informed and helped by) our digital practice; and it’s about our digital practice looking up from its operational focus, and looking out to the bigger social goals which it needs to serve. Put simply, it means being more social about digital, and being more digital about the social. It’s about being digitally purposeful. That is what Let’s Get Real 6 is helping arts and heritage organisations to become.

And this is where skills matter.

For in order to be digitally purposeful (to see our digital resources and capabilities within a societal context, and to see our socially engaged practice in the context of a digital society and digital organisation) we need to understand what this means for our abilities – as people who work in arts and heritage organisations. In other words, our job now is to figure out the social purposefulness of our digital skills (how skills in our sector have this deeper social drive to them), and to understand the digital skills we need to be socially purposeful (what being digitally competent, capable and literate can mean for our socially purposeful aims).

A current national initiative that is already helping us with this challenge to rethink the purposefulness of digital skills in our sector is the ‘One by One’ project. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and led by the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, in partnership with Culture24, ‘One by One’ is a research programme looking to build digitally confident organisations.

Taking museums as its focus, and working with leading professional partners (including the Museums Association, Arts Council England, and the National Lottery Heritage Fund), the research is showing that people in these organisations are not best served by a single list of mandatory digital competencies. Instead, the research is showing that what museum people really need is the support to understand their particular circumstances within which their digital skills operate, and to understand the different digital skills that they need in these different contexts.

‘One by One’ is showing us that rather than a universal set of skills requirements, the stronger need in our sector is for a response to digital skills development that is not generic and top-down, both is instead person-centred, and context-based. But also, significantly, it is an approach to digital skills that is purposeful – an approach that acknowledges the social role of the museum, and recognises that any digital skills developed are understood within this purposeful context.

As well as evidencing this need, and making this argument, projects like ‘One by One’ are also helping us to recognise the complexity of exactly what we mean when we say ‘digital’. Digital, after all, can be many things. Digital is a tool and platform – it’s the things we use. And yet, digital is content and format – it’s the thing we produce. But digital is also an environment and setting – it’s the thing we are within. Whilst at the same time digital is also a subject, culture and concept – it’s a thing to think about. Usefully, it is this multi-dimensional view of digital (something we use, something we create, something we manage, and something we understand) that helps us to locate the different digital skills relevant to being socially purposeful.

As we look forward, and begin to imagine and articulate the digitally purposeful organisation, a new skill set, therefore, starts to seem necessary and obvious to us.

This is a digital skill set that assumes a social role and the wider social context of the institution. These are skills that – crucially – at their heart have a literacy around ‘why’ use digital, and not just a competency that knows ‘how’ to use digital. What this means, in practice, is being able to use the digital technologies used in society; knowing what our different audiences and users are using (or not using) in different parts of their lives. And it means understanding the values and consequences of these technologies within that society – how digital can exclude and divide, as much as it can include and connect.

It means recognising the agency and effect digital technology can have within society – how digital provides unprecedented ways not only of sharing, conversing and collaborating, but also for acting collectively and effecting real societal change. And it also means designing digital technology in ways that are universally accessible to everyone in society – recognising that a choice of technology or a decision on design can disable as much as it can enable.

Owing to their social function, for arts and heritage organisations the relationship between digital practice and social purpose is co-contextual. And so these new (purposeful) digital skills we seek to define and develop for ourselves within these organisations will, by definition and by design, always be socially motivated.

These skills will be – and must be – digitally purposeful.


A man with glasses listeningRoss Parry is Professor and Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Digital) at University of Leicester.