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Welcome to Des Griffin.com

Find out about museums and what's happening in the museum world, about leadership, management and governance of museums, including the management of change, the contribution of museums to learning, contribution to public issues such as the natural environment, cultural diversity and relations with indigenous peoples.

More recent posts and pages take up the education debate with essays on every aspect of education including economics and community and inequality. These are derived from a set of essays which hopefully will be commercially published shortly dealing with education.

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Successful Museums – An Anniversary Tribute to Stephen Weil

December 7th, 2015

One of the Museum world’s most distinguished museum scholars, Steve Weil, died just over 10 years ago. He was a mentor and friend to myriads of people in many museums, of many ages, in many countries, at numerous conferences and elsewhere. Steve had been Scholar Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Education and Museum Studies and longtime deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian.

A brief biography appeared in the Washington Post and also in the New York Times.

[This introductory post is a work in progress: it concerns one of my principal interests, how organisations work and how decisions get made and why. Additional paragraphs will be added from time to time.]

A very fitting conference supported in part by the Getty Leadership Institute, ‘A Tribute to Stephen Weil: Making Museums Matter, 2006’ was held at the University of Victoria BC, Canada September 11-13. The Institute commissioned this presentation and for support of that I am grateful.

Though parts of this essay have appeared elsewhere the entire piece has not previously been published.

The essay addresses the matter of accountability, how museums might be judged to be effective in the pursuit of their mission and responsibility. Weil was a long time advocate of an approach to this which went beyond the dreaded metrics so beloved of those who believe they are in a position to judge such things. As the decade since 2006 has progressed accountability has become much degraded as corporatisation has invaded museums as it has so many other non-commercial sectors.

Many museums have been increasingly active in embracing change, most particularly in engaging visitors in their learning journey where they make a particular contribution. Likewise in advocating for issues concerning meaning, the value of cultural activities in individual life and in other areas such as biodiversity and evolution and social justice in respect of minorities including Indigenous Peoples. Yet they nevertheless have fallen to the ongoing drive to reduce government expenditure and been affected also by cycles of economic collapse including the Global Financial Crisis.

How museums respond to these pressures is a daily concern of those who lead museums as well as most of those who work in or are associated with museums. How often are they recognised for their success? The Natural History Museum in London, the Melbourne Museum, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. Many others.

At that vitally important level of leadership and governance how common is it to find superior performance? Too often government intrusion and the pressures to maintain the budget both through careful oversight and attracting greater community financial support comes to be the main concern. Too often, leadership ends up in the hands of those who believe they know about money, the law and marketing but understand little of the core mission of museums, the nature of their business and their history.

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The concluding paragraphs of the presentation outline the meaning of the (unusual) terms purposiveness and capability as Weil used them. What follows then is a list of issues which the board, the board and executive leadership together and leadership by itself should regularly review. Some may say this is far too process driven. Professional judgement should suffice. Those who say you don’t learn leadership you do it. But organisations are complex and judgements are critical but seldom effective if they are only the judgments of one person. The Cuban Missile Crisis and much of American foreign policy and that of other countries illustrates that convincingly.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and writer practicing at major hospitals in Boston Massachusetts. He was the 2014 Reith lecturer for the BBC. In those lectures he recalled the importance of using lists which had to be checked off by everyone. These helped significantly in major recovery surgery, of people who had been overcome by avalanches on mountains, for instance. Reference was made to the checklists which airline pilots use. In his second lecture he said:

We have made tremendous discoveries, but find it’s extremely complex to deliver on them. We have inadequate homicide investigations, for instance. We have flawed software design. We have intelligence failures. We’ve had tottering banks. And what we see repeatedly, again and again, I think is that as we embark on the 21st century we have found that the 20th century has given us a volume and knowledge and skill that is beyond what any individual can simply hold in their head, can know how to deliver on, and simply do it on their own. The volume of knowledge and skill has exceeded our individual capabilities.

And so then we went to the medieval approach… We’ve issued standards and guidelines and regulations. We’ll take away your licence if you don’t do this. Or, if we’re being nice about it – we’ll pay you more, if you do it, we’ll give you incentives. And that did make improvements in matters, but only a bit. It didn’t get us to what we want. And what we want in the modern version of the world is that the norm is to do X. And the way that we make it the norm are systems. And they can be as simple a system as just checklists. It can be defaults, it can be feedback loops. The important insight is that what we have to focus on is how to deliver on the guidelines and standards and knowledge that we have discovered, how to make it easy for everybody to follow.

These are lists but they are not the simple recitation of statistics, performance indicators which supposedly tell us what has been achieved but lack any information about the factors contributing to the outcomes that have been measured. Worse such lists often reveal what has happened after it is too late to take action to change course or remove impediments. As the enterprise collapses the only course of action is to sack large numbers of staff, cancel programs or restructure with all the damaging outcomes that attend such action. None of that amounts to good governance or leadership! Ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere and the systems in place have to manage that. That means the right oversight as well as the honesty to recognise when programs and policies don’t work.

In every consideration of policy and achievement a major focus should be on creativity and how people work together. I find it interesting that organisations highly successful in research and development share some features with other types of successful organisations. In the former, considerable effort is put into encouraging staff from different parts of the organisation to meet frequently to discuss issues central to the organisation’s main activity: people have morning tea or coffee and/or lunch together and the most senior staff attend those events. In one, lunch tables have places for a maximum of eight people because it is difficult for a larger number of people to conduct a single conversation. In one, staff have to present a seminar each year on a topic outside their own field of research. In another there are whiteboards in the foyers between section laboratories, and in the garden, which staff use during their discussions.

In a recent discussion on the ABC RN Late Night Live program journalist Laura Tingle, discussing her latest Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia How we forgot how to govern, mentioned that at the Reserve Bank of Australia, a successful organisation which has mostly escaped the depredations of the efficiency experts at the Department of Finance, all the staff go to morning tea.

The point is that in almost all organisations ideas are central to the future and ideas get worked through by conversation where they are evaluated and challenged. Without those discussions ideas may become solidified and enshrined as articles of faith, immune from challenge. That is precisely why boards, when they meet, benefit from a chairperson skilled at encouraging the exchange of views. A relevant story concerns a chairman who put forth a proposal and then asked for contrary views: when none were offered he postponed the meeting for a week by which time he said he wanted to receive contrary opinions.

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Too often those responsible for governance do not see their role as both encouraging above average performance by the museum’s leadership, as Peter Drucker would say, and defending the museum against the depredations of those who would marginalise the museum as of little relevance and deserving of less support. The result is inevitable decline. What this essay contributes is, I believe, as apposite now as it was when delivered. There are too few Steve Weil’s around to urge us to think about what is really important.

Society and Community: Governments and Corporations

December 1st, 2015

A year ago, I posted a long piece addressing the proposition that 2014 had been one of the most difficult years Australians had faced in peacetime, a year in which a government showed itself incapable of governing. I observed that the citizenry by and large made clear they were not prepared to be a party to an attack on the economy of those less advantaged, especially when they were told the policies would be fair.

In particular the anger by many in the community was triggered by the first Abbott/Hockey budget which clearly sought to withdraw funding from a wide range of programs critical to the less advantaged in the community. The commentary on that is substantial and does not need further elaboration here.

The consequence was continued low ratings for the Abbott government and eventually in the second half of 2015 a successful challenge for leadership of the Liberal Party and therefore the Prime Ministership by Malcolm Turnbull. Elaboration of that likewise does not need revisiting here. Except to say that it is yet to be seen as to whether critical elements of the Abbott government’s program – in health, education, climate change and in social programs generally as well as various areas of taxation – will in fact be overturned. One can say that the government is at least showing a more reserved and intelligent approach to many issues.

In this follow up post I address significant developments in  the more important policy areas to which this previous essay was directed.

Continue to “Governments and Corporations – An Update

Clearly the two most important events of the year 2015 have been the replacement of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister and (Joe Hockey as Treasurer) by Malcolm Turnbull (as I have said above) and the agreements reached at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP (Conference of the Parties) 21) in December. The continuing horror of conflict in Syria and the consequent exodus of millions from the horror as refugees and asylum seekers to Europe has consequences for Australia as an event of enormous significance for humanity and reactions to it and various terrorist attacks, especially in Paris, continued to fuel anti Islamic sentiment by those who cannot look beyond their petty prejudice and ignorance. The other major issue is the continued slow progress in recognising Indigenous Australians and according them the rights to which they are entitled, not least the right to self-determination.

Is Education the Answer

November 30th, 2015

Martin Ford has recently written a piece on Linkedin Pulse pointing out that education is not an adequate defense against the rise of the robots. Ford is the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books), winner of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award 2015. He is the founder of a Silicon Valley–based software development firm and has over twenty-five years of experience in computer design and software development. His book, together with Jerry Kaplan’s Humans need not apply (Yale University Press) also on robots and future jobs were reviewed in The Guardian in October.

Ford observes, “The conventional wisdom has long been that the solution to technology-driven job losses is invariably more education and vocational training. As machines and smart software eat away at low-skill jobs, workers are urged to retool themselves and continuously climb the skills ladder, taking on roles that are beyond the reach of automation”. However, rather than college graduates being inundated with opportunity employment prospects are in collapse: incomes for young workers with bachelor’s degrees declined by 15 percent from 2000 through 2010, as many as half of new college graduates are in jobs which do not use their educational qualifications. A 2013 paper by University of British Columbia’s Paul Beaudry and colleagues found demand for skilled labor in the United States peaked in 2000 and has declined since.

One of the really critical points is that it is easier to automate information-based tasks held by white-collar workers than lower wage positions which require physical manipulation. And “only a minority of people have the cognitive capability and motivation necessary to excel in technical fields”.

Ford concludes, “The hard truth is that the traditional solution to unemployment and poverty—and the solution that nearly all analysts and policy makers continue to support—is not going to be sufficient in the robotic age. Education has incalculable value both on a personal level, and as a public good that benefits society as a whole. For those reasons, we should continue to strongly support it and invest in it. We should not, however, expect ever more schooling to assure workers a foothold in the future economy.”

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Ford makes appropriate observations. But it should also be noted that the evidence, set out for instance by Michael Teitelbaum, is that underemployment of graduates is significantly influenced by the tendency of firms, in the US at least, to employ non-native graduates from run of the mill universities at low salaries in preference to American-born graduates of the top universities. This is insidious.

It is also important to note that the rising incomes of graduates reflect the fact that fewer young people are attending universities so that for certain jobs, firms are having to pay higher salaries; that is the well-known study by Goldin & Katz. The imposition of university fees is leaving graduates with debt that can never be repaid, rather like the stranded assets of energy companies.

An important point relevant to school education and the obsession with accountability is the fact that there is little correlation between test scores at school and future employment levels. University of Chicago’s James Heckman and colleagues have pointed out that rewarding teachers  on the basis of their student’s test scores risks misallocation of resources

Recent reviews by Simon Marginson (in SRHE 50th Anniversary Colloquium, 26 June 2015 Valuing Research into Higher Education The Landscape of Higher Education Research 1965-2015: “Equality of Opportunity: The first fifty years”), now of University College London, and Director of American Studies at Columbia University Andrew Delbanco in the July 9 2015 issue of New York Review of Books, have recently pointed out, too often universities do not enrol students on merit but choose them from more prestigious colleges: access is decreasing as quality of teaching declines and fees increase.

The contribution of education to overcoming perceived problems is frequently overstated. Those committed to the market economic model and small government (“get the government out of the way and the economy will flourish”) favour this which in essence is an excuse since it relies on the proposition that the market will sort things out ignoring the tendency of larger firms to manipulate the market to favour themselves.

The last 40 years have seen not just a diminution in the valuing of education but a downsizing of any commitment to quality in government and business, the profits returned by downsizing employment and retrenchments in the public service accruing to the already advantaged whilst the general public are left floundering and the quality of governance declines to alarming levels, as the AFR’s Laura Tingle points out in her recent Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia How we forgot how to govern. Not only is there less skill brought to bear but few people remaining in employment in government can remember anything and the media which has such an influence on general public perception also lack memory: who was Bob Hawke?

The contribution of government to the community warrants substantial re-examination. In Governomics: can we afford small government Ian McAuley and Miriam Lyons (2015) write, “In the din of political slogans about the supposed need to cut public expenditure it is easy to lose sight of the sound economic reasons for investing in public education, for resisting the sell-off of public assets, for taking strong action on climate change, for public funding of health care, for regulating to protect safety standards, for providing decent support for aged pensioners and the unemployed, for allowing modest levels of public debt, and for collecting enough tax to fund these services.”

There needs to be much closer consideration of the nature of the jobs that would seem to qualify for improved efficiency through application of artificial intelligence to ensure quality is not lost. Major candidates are the health and education sectors. The error rate in illness diagnosis would seem to merit closer consideration and delivery of educational instruction through electronic media does not constitute learning. The proposition that journalism can get by with the application of algorithms is highly suspect. Most of the stuff produced is boring: compare the New Yorker, the NY Review of Books, the BBC and ABC with the daily trash coming from tabloid media, which are no more than vehicles to generate profits through advertising stuff no-one wants but believe they have to buy so they can impress people they don’t know.

The Australian Government policy on Innovation, announced  7 December 2015 by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne, included funding to train young students in coding. Is coding that important? Or is the really important skill we should concentrate on something else: the ability to think? Consider the huge but seldom explored area of cyber security. There are implications well beyond how to write computer programs which underlie what we really should be concerned about when we consider job futures, let alone the last 30 years of obsession with efficiency and accountability.

Consider this statement in the ABC RN Future Tense program on “the Wild West of online security” by one of the participants who, talking about software development, said: “the fact of it is just building an application that does what it’s meant to is difficult enough. Building it in a way that it’s not doing all the things that it shouldn’t do, as well as doing the things that it should do is even harder“. If the quality of education is assessed through standardised testing and whether frequently used words can be correctly spelled by teachers, something that gained a lot of media attention in early December 2015, we are simply not addressing the real problems of the future.

Oh and by the way, the decision to encourage private providers to offer vocational education courses has led to quite a large number of very dodgy persons employing other persons to go around offering great benefits to enroll in their courses if only they would sign up and get rewards like a free lap top computer. The ACCC is investigating them. Instead of closing them down, the government is formulating new rules. Doesn’t really get to the problem. Competition does not always improve quality and often leads to nothing more than rorts.

There is plenty of work but few jobs – writer Elizabeth Jolley pointed that out – because those with influence won’t pay the costs of the benefits which would accrue to the community and, in Australia certainly, politicians lack the ability to intellectually manage issues of debt, future benefit and risk. Governments are still hell-bent on selling off state assets so they can fund infrastructure developed by private interests at higher costs than would be incurred were governments themselves to undertake and fund the work. In most parts of Australia primary roads are hardly up to the standard of minor roads in western Europe.

Distinguished accountants such as the University of Sydney’s Bob Walker, economists such as Professor John Quiggin and economic journalists such as Tim Colebatch and Peter Martin have taken this issue up. But governments continue blindly on whilst proclaiming they are looking after the taxpayer’s money. Alan Kohler recently observed “Most of the transport challenges in Melbourne and Sydney have to do with compensating for the absence of adequate underground public transport, apart from a single loop in each city”. The relevance is that infrastructure projects contribute to productivity and to employment!

The quality of performance achieved by the more roboticised firms and other sectors including health and education is worse, not better. But hey, who cares! It’s the economy stupid!

These issues are taken up in a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales dealing with a recent “Four Academies Forum” with other learned societies on the future of jobs. Here it is: . ISSN 0035-9173/15/020166-10 166 “The Future of Jobs: Reflections on the Royal Society of New South Wales and Four Academies Forum” (Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 2015, vol. 148, nos. 457 & 458, pp. 166-175)

 

First Public Address: An Indulgence

August 7th, 2015

As one advances in years there is a tendency to more strongly believe the merit of what one has said in ealier years. I don’t see why I should be an exception.

Shortly after I became Director of the Australian Museum in Sydney in 1976, the Museum celebrated its 150th year or sesquicentennial. As is customary in such circumstances there were speeches, exhibitions and other celebratory events.

I gave my first invited public address as Director later that year. The most important point to make, looking back at that time, is not that many in the audience fell asleep, which is unsurprising considering the length of the talk and its didactic style. What is important is that I still hold to many of the same views I expressed then: a concern for the rights of those on the margin, especially indigenous peoples, a belief in the importance of the natural and human environment and a distrust of the actions of many of those in power.

President John F Kennedy, speaking in mid 1963 at the American University in Washington DC (where incidentally President Barrack Obama also chose to speak of the importance of the agreements reached with Iran concerning nuclear non-proliferation) expressed hope for a world where the powerful were just and the weak were safe. Kennedy’s hopes have not been realised.

Notwithstanding the horrors of the present day, the ongoing destruction of the natural environment, the increasing inequality as the powerful grab ever more benefits for themselves, often robbing the citizenry in the process, the refusal by those with major political power to accept the challenge of negotiating for a more just world, the intellectual laziness of many with influence, the persecution of those with different beliefs and backgrounds, I express those hopes also!

I celebrate the innate creativity of the young, the contribution of people in science and the arts and the many who make so many exciting intellectual contributions, those who, as the 2006 Nobel Prizewinner in economics Edmund Phelps says, seek to prosper through mastery of their abilities and those who flourish through their creativity, through fascinating journeys into the unknown. I especially celebrate the courage of those who do accept the challenge to make the world a better place, often by overcoming the terrible challenges which face them in their own lives or the situations they face. What other way is there?

Continue to the talk

 

 

Finnish History and Schooling: A Perspective from Hannu Simola

August 7th, 2015

How the school education system works in Finland is something that has attracted a lot of attention over the last decade or more since that country’s 15 year-olds achieved top of the class in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000. It is undoubtedly true that the practices within organisations are significantly influenced by the cultural norms of that country which are in turn significantly influenced by the country’s history. Much of what we know about effective learning at school has come from studies of schools in Finland.

Though Finland’s students, like those of some other countries are no longer in first place in the PISA project, the practices in that country are still of great interest. The most prominent writer on the system is Pasi Sahlberg and his views have appeared recently in books and articles. Of perhaps special interest are his comparisons of the approaches taken in Finland with those of the USA.

There are numerous accounts of Finnish education from educators who have visited. A new book takes an historical approach to how school education is practiced in Finland.

Hannu Simola, until recently Professor of Sociology of Education in the Institute of Behavioural Sciences, University of Helsinki, has written the series of essays, some of them with colleagues over an 18 year period to 2011. The Finnish Education Mystery, published as an e-book by Routledge, bring them together. The essays focus on how the nature of Finnish society and political history have influenced Finland’s education system. (A consideration of the reforms in the United States might well be similarly instructive.)

Continue to article.