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Archive for November, 2007

What Boards and Leaders Must Do

Monday, November 19th, 2007

The literature on governance and leadership is not just exhaustive, it is exhausting. But as I have said consistently, most of it is not very helpful and the really outstanding literature based on actual studies rather than market driven (or hard left or hard right ideology) seems to be not often listened to. That can equally be said in respect specifically of boards of museums.

Increasingly boards have focussed on oversight of executive leadership and on performance indicators. The indicators used have concerned the past, attended only to activities that can be measured, are not leading indicators in the sense of suggesting actions which should be taken in the future. They lead to silly statements like the one I heard recently about what the Ford Motor Company should do: be more innovative and more efficient. Not only is this mere rhetoric, it is wrong. Japanese motor manufacturers and other manufacturers which have been successful use different methods in the design and on the assembly line. Like the people in Southwest Airlines they understand how people work best.

These performance indicators are also imposed from outside and therefore are resisted or used grudgingly. At worst of all they concern operational, not strategic issues.

Boards and executive leaders need to frame a statement of the unique value which the museum contributes and communicate that to every stakeholder, staff member, visitor and supporter. And that statement needs to be reviewed in the light of experience and adapted to changing circumstances. None of this means that every demand by every stakeholder has to be attended to: boards and executive leaders have to stand for principles which guide the way they operate and approach their responsibility. That requires an ethical stance, not a slavish following of the market.

Most importantly, boards and leaders must focus on what only they can do. That is maintain the closest possible understanding of trends in the industry and environment in which the enterprise works and constantly seek understanding of new opportunities both within the enterprise and without in the way the expectations of those who are intended to benefit might be better satisfied. For a museum that means understanding the nature of learning and the way people interact with the museum. All of these activities are strategic and all are difficult to quantify. Certainly they may lead to some outputs and outcomes which are measurable but they are not themselves easily measured.

And just as importantly it means constantly working to improve the way staff can achieve above average performance in scholarship, public programming and collection management as well as all the administrative, supporting, commercial and development programs. And it certainly means resisting every attempt by others to control the museum. In particular governments genuinely interested in the museum serving the public will ensure that best practice is pursued, not exercise control over every process and line item of expenditure. It also means, perhaps above all else, ensuring best practice in recruitment of board members and executive leaders.

There is something to be said, generally, for appointing scholars and content specialists to the senior executive position. But the alternative view that scholars are incapable of managing and that therefore managers (or administrators) are needed is insulting as well as dangerous stupid rubbish!

The best companies appoint senior executives from within the organization who know the business and the industry. Those executives are in place for a considerable time, unlike those companies which are poor performers. The same is true of museums. Like some other Government reforms, those concerning appointments of executives are wrong-headed if not dangerous.

Boards and executive leaders need a new agenda to replace their concern with oversight and financial management. They need an agenda which attends to the kinds of behaviours which other successful enterprises have adopted. Continue to essay.

Enterprise Systems: Centralized control or Let genuine expertise flourish

Friday, November 16th, 2007

Despite the evidence to the contrary, some people still believe that leadership means giving direction rather than putting in place the processes which encourage above average performance by staff.

Centralized control is based on the proposition that people generally can’t be trusted and that only those at the top of the hierarchy have the knowledge and experience to make the right decisions. However, those at the top frequently do not have the most up-to-date information and what information they do have may not be relevant to the local situation at all. It turns out that co-ordination is most successfully achieved, not by managers enforcing rules and regulations, but by managers attending to building the organization’s culture, by emphasizing trust and seeking above average performance. Increasingly, flexible teams are recognized as necessary, indeed as the only workable proposition The standards in such groups are set by the members of the group themselves on the basis of what they understand to be best practice from their own observations. Remember the exhortation from James Collins and Gerry Porras that successful organizations build strong cultures.

In recent discussions I had with museum people in Australia about relations between museums and indigenous peoples the issue of centralized control – the unreasonable expectations of politicians and senior bureaucrats – was brought to the fore. Government representatives expect that once material like human remains is returned, the job has been completed and the responsibility of the museum has been met but indigenous people consider this to be the start of a relationship which stretches into the future. Governments obsessed about control rather than values will never succeed!

These issues are dealt with by Simon Head, Senior Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University. His most recent book is The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age. (August 2003).

(The audio of an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show on New York Public Radio with Simon Head can be heard here.)

In the New York Review of Books for August 16, 2007 (“They’re Micromanaging Your Every Move”) Head reviews three books, The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (Harvard Business School), Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich (Owl Books) and The Culture of the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett (Yale University Press).

Head reminds us of issues dealt with in his book which centres on the use of what are called “Enterprise Systems” or ES to control the work even of professionals such as computer specialists and doctors. ES is the method used to run call centres and retail stores like Walmart. (There are numerous articles about Walmart and its management practices.) Continue to essay.