Designing Europeana’s COVID-19 Sense-Making Workshops

By Michael Peter Edson. Mike is a digital cultural strategist facilitating Europeana’s Digital Transformation in the time of COVID-19 workshops.

In a matter of months, COVID-19 changed the world. But how? How do we make sense of it? What does the crisis have to teach us? And what should we do differently as a result of what we learn?

In normal times, if such times can be remembered, we might have thought it was enough to learn these lessons slowly, and to take action even more slowly still. We could ride out the current crisis and hope to re-group and get back to business-as-usual when the dust had settled. As long as the columns were still standing in front of our buildings there would always be time to make a decision tomorrow.

A screenshot of one of a Digital Transformation workshop, Europeana Foundation, CC-BY-SA

But what would be possible, in terms of our own work, our institutions, our sector, our communities, and society at large if we could pick up the speed of learning and action just a little, starting now?

At the start of June, Jasper Visser and I began facilitating a series of sense-making workshops with 60 members of the Europeana Network Association to see if we could quickly gain some insight on the effects the COVID-19 crisis is having on the GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archive, Museum) sector and what that might teach us about the priorities, values, and future of our collective work and the actions we should take.

Or so it began.

It’s clear from the listening we’ve done in last week’s workshops how consequential the recent killing of George Floyd and the resulting global protests have also been to many of our colleagues. Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 have, together, created a new awareness, and a new sense of urgency, about some of the cultural sector’s old, unresolved questions about race, privilege, digital divides, and the roles and obligations of cultural institutions in society.

We’re learning from the workshops that our colleagues see a powerful moment for positive change opening up for our community. Positive changes in the work and goals of the cultural sector — big and small, short-term and long term — seem possible now in a way they never have before in my lifetime; and I think the biggest question on the table now is whether we will be alert and capable enough to take advantage of it.

As we’ve been designing and running these workshops I’ve had a line from William Gibson’s novel Zero History echoing around in the back of my head: ‘When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.’

How can we use this moment, when so many things seem to have come apart, to see in a new way the systems that enable or hamper our work, and the underlying assumptions, values, and bias that often shape our actions in hidden ways?

I’ve also had the words of Louis Pasteur bouncing around in my thoughts: ‘Chance favours only the prepared mind.’ What kinds of preparation, training, and doing will be necessary to make good changes happen now, and make it last over the long-haul?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The job of this piece of writing isn’t to take you deeper into the discussions we’ve been having in these Europeana community sense-making workshops but to leave a record of their goals, and design — the rationale behind what we’re all doing together, and why — so we have some context to work from when ideas, big questions, recommendations, and ‘next steps’ start appearing in the days ahead.

In the sections below I’ve listed 10 inputs, goals, and principles that have guided our thinking as we’ve put these workshops together.

  1. Sense making, not strategy (for now)
  2. Digital transformation and capacity building
  3. Workshop goals
  4. Simplicity and a manageable ‘ask’
  5. Networked and bottom-up
  6. Speed
  7. The learning model and the narrative arc
  8. The flow of things: 60 participants, 18 workshops, 3 weeks
  9. More participants and perspectives through social media
  10. Moving into action

As you read on, please keep in mind that we’re working quickly and collaboratively together and we’ve tried not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as the saying goes. We’re open to your questions, know-how, and observations at every point along the way (I’ll give you some options, below).

1. Sense making, not strategy (for now)

Together and separately, Jasper and I have been working with dozens of cultural organizations, leaders, and practitioners since the COVID-19 crisis and the Great Shutdown began, often on a free and volunteer basis.

From that work we have learned that the sudden, complex, and disruptive nature of the crisis has put many people and organisations in a reactive mode; just trying to deal with the crisis day-to-day and adjusting focus and priorities rather than strategy, per se, assuming they have the capacity to make adjustments at all (some organisations have simply ‘gone dark’, as one workshop participant told us.)

Many GLAM professionals, at all levels and in every country, are continuing to face new and disorienting challenges in their work even now, months after major lockdowns in Europe began. The Director of a national library system told me a few weeks ago that most people on her staff were doing three or four jobs now, including educating their children, caring for parents and extended family members, running a home office, and then their ‘normal’ jobs.

And while many workshop participants have told us that they wish they had had a good digital strategy or content strategy in place when the crisis began there’s a general sense that most organisations and individuals can’t find the time to work on strategic planning now.

There are exceptions to this rule: I worked with two European GLAMs, a national gallery and a regional museum, in April and May to develop short-term ‘real time’ strategies to guide their work in the midst of the crisis; and through a grant from the Aspen Institute Tech Policy Hub I have the privilege of working with 10 American institutions to develop short-term interventions to reduce the effects of social distancing caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

As a result of this insight that most institutions and individuals are too busy and/or disoriented to work on traditional strategic planning processes now we decided to focus instead on the idea of a sense-making process.

In a sense-making process, based on dialogue and reflection with peers, we could focus on helping participants understand the impact of the crisis to their own lives, work, and communities — and through that process we could start to build a strong foundation of concepts, ideas, and insights that could guide and embolden both the participants’ own work and the work and strategy of Europeana.

2. Digital transformation and capacity building

Building the capacity of European cultural institutions to support them in their digital transformation is a primary focus of Europeana’s 2020–2025 strategy.

As a result, stakeholders throughout the design process — which was initiated by the Europeana Foundation, Europeana Network Association, and Europeana Aggregators Forum — were eager to develop a deeper understanding of what digital transformation and capacity building actually mean to the European GLAM community in practical terms. Some workshop participants have brought up the delicious paradox that the capacity we need to build most is the capacity to develop a common language digital transformation, capacity building, and change.

In parallel with the workshops Jasper and I are facilitating, Europeana has commissioned independent charity Culture24 to produce a study and report to identify, through research and interviews, the most helpful definitions of digital transformation and capacity building as they are used in the GLAM sector and beyond.

Europeana’s emphasis on transformation and capacity is reflected in the goals below.

3. Workshop goals

Working with Europeana staff, the Europeana Network Association, and Europeana Aggregators Forum, we developed a set of goals for a sense-making workshop process affecting three types of constituents: individual participants, networks and institutions, and the Europeana Foundation itself.

Project goals at-a-glance

These goals begin with the immediate and tactical at the top and progress towards the longer-term strategic and visionary at the bottom.

For individual participants

  • Longer vision, deeper impact: Enhance mutual capacity for longer-term thinking, planning, and impact beyond the immediate crisis.
  • Contribute: Contribute to a broader discussion about digital transformation and the role of digital culture during the current crisis and in a post COVID-19 world.
  • Strategic insight: Develop strategic thinking around digital transformation that will support work at individual, institutional, and societal levels.
  • Generate actionable insights: Gain new perspectives through working with peer experts in digital cultural heritage; identify new paths through the COVID-19 crisis for digital culture.
  • New roles and actions: We hope and expect that individual participants will find new ways to act, and will take new actions, as a result of this workshop process. Perhaps a new/deeper understanding of what individual practitioners might do or accomplish might emerge.

For Networks, Institutions

  • Assess the state of the network: Establish a greater sense of how Europeana members, the Europeana Network Association, communities, audiences, and culture in general are doing during the crisis.
  • Assess the changing landscape of digital culture, capacity, and transformation during COVID-19: Establish a foundation of thinking and reason regarding digital goals and aspirations, digital capacity (to achieve desired goals), and digital transformation (to reach a state of greater efficacy and impact).
  • Strengthen network strength and ties: Build a sense of solidarity, and catalyse new collaborations and bonds across the network; enhance the network’s ability to take collective action.
  • New roles and actions: We hope and expect that groups of participants will take action and collaborate in new ways as a result of this workshop process. Perhaps a new/deeper understanding of what “the network” is and does will emerge.

For Europeana Foundation

  • Understand the zeitgeist: Understand current needs, experiences, and state-of-mind of the network re: digital GLAM, collections, sense of public needs and institutional priorities.
  • Gauge aspiration & capacity: Where are members in practical terms vis-a-vis digital aspirations (what do they want to do?), and digital capacity (what can they do?).
  • Find meaning for digital transformation: What does ‘digital transformation’ mean in the current ethos, and what does it need to mean moving through and out of the pandemic environment? How can the term ‘digital transformation’ represent a useful, constructive, and actionable concept for the Foundation and its members and stakeholders.
  • New roles and actions: How should the Europeana support its members and strengthen its own capacity & reputation, given the crisis? What should it do? Where should Europeana invest directly and assume responsibility, and where should it support or amplify the work of others?

4. Simplicity and a manageable ‘ask’

Based on our previous work facilitating workshops during COVID-19, Jasper and I had the feeling that Europeana Network members would want to participate in peer-to-peer sense-making workshops, but that many potential participants would be stressed-out and burned-out from Zoom calls, parenting, economic pressure, and household responsibilities — and as a result would not be able or willing to deal with new commitments or extra complexity in their lives right now.

So we knew we had to come up with a process and an “ask” that would be appealing and rewarding for participants without being too ambitious or taxing either in practical or cognitive terms.

In other words, we knew we had to design a short, predictable, easy-to-understand process, with no long meetings and not much cognitive complexity in terms of formats, tasks, or burdensome assignments.

5. Networked and bottom-up

In addition to designing a simple-to-understand program we wanted to develop a process that was predominantly networked and bottom-up — involving groups of hands-on digital cultural professionals.

Particularly in a complex and emergent environment like the one we’re in now, we reasoned, there would be too many new and unknown variables at play (public health policy, financial models, educational policy, stay-at-home orders, working from home, technological capacity, the changing needs of the public, to name a few) to rely on the perspective of just a few experts to make sense of things.

And we also wanted to avoid the temptation to look for consensus or get ‘agreement’ about what was going on now and the most likely future scenarios by trimming away unusual or unexpected ideas that didn’t fit neatly into our preconceived notions of what might, or should, be possible. Rather, we wanted to work with participants to paint a broad landscape of ideas that might be useful to the GLAM community, depending on each member’s unique circumstances, abilities, and values.

In this I have been heavily influenced by my training as a designer and facilitator of the LEGO Serious Play® methodology, which seeks to activate the full cognitive diversity of groups to solve difficult challenges; and I have also been inspired by James Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds.

‘Diversity and independence are important’ in the work of groups, Suroweicki wrote, ‘because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.’

Most of the important insight and know-how, we have always thought, is ‘out there’ in Europeana’s network of cultural heritage professionals who work with culture, technology, and audiences every day. Furthermore, we felt that Europeana members would be more able to find the right questions, and the most productive answers, if they worked with and for each other as a networked community of peers rather than as passive attendees at a presentation.

Europeana’s longstanding commitment to open, collaborative forms of knowledge creation and its strong sense of cohesion and shared identity also gave us confidence that a participatory bottom-up, peer-to-peer process would be a good place to start.

In addition to these internal factors we also drew upon the collaborative ethos and optimism of the open web and the open source software movement: if you want to overcome difficult challenges quickly, one important step is to use a platform where many people can get involved.

(For open source software aficionados, Eric Raymond wrote the coder’s version of this in his influential 1999 essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar; ‘With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.’ Meaning that with enough collaborators, finding and fixing problems becomes a lot easier.)

6. Speed

Finding the right speed for the workshops required balancing fast and slow processes.

In a rapidly evolving environment like the one we’re in, if a sense-making or strategy process goes on too long its findings and recommendations are likely to be out-of-date by the time the process is done.

But, reflection, ideation, and the search for deeper meaning can’t happen overnight either.

So we settled on a three-week workshop process of short, one-hour meetings (one every week) to give participants enough time to let ideas and insights develop — but enough forward velocity to put ideas into action while the problems and solutions being discussed are still relevant.

7. The learning model and the narrative arc

Given the weight and complexity of the personal, professional, and societal challenges GLAM professionals are wrestling with, we thought it would be most productive to guide participants through the sense-making process in three, incremental steps beginning with the concrete, tactical ‘now’ and ending with a more abstract and visionary conversation about goals, values, and direction.

We also felt that the questions, prompts, and reflections we used should have a kind of narrative structure, or arc — with a beginning, middle, and end — so that participants would feel that they were being guided through a coherent journey rather than being subjected to a disconnected battery of tests.

In workshop #1 we would ask participants to reflect on ‘the now’ from a pragmatic, tactical point-of-view: how have their own personal lives changed; how have team and professional relationships changed; and how have connections with audiences and communities changed through the course of the pandemic? This workshop would also be used to let participants become comfortable with each other, the workshop process, and our Zoom format.

In workshop #2, we would ask participants to reflect on the ‘near now’ — the recent past and the not-too-distant future — with more abstraction and complexity and a more strategic perspective: what do you know now that you wish you had known three months ago; what inspirations have you taken from the GLAM sector and beyond (and which do you want to carry forward in your work); do you have the agency (resources and authority) to create change?

Finally, in workshop #3 we would ask participants to imagine their working life and institutions six months from now: what new skills and capacities will they have developed; how have Europeana and other networks helped them to succeed; what ‘edge predictions’ — developments that are possible, but not certain to take place — might be at the forefront of civic life?

We’ll share the actual questions, surveys, and prompts for reflection that we used when we’re farther along in the process.

8. The flow of things: 60 participants, 18 workshops, 3 weeks

The basic process we’re using is that everyone participates in a single one hour Zoom call every week for three weeks.

Participants — 60 thought leaders from across the cultural heritage sector and Europeana Network Association, divided into five groups of 12 — get a pre-workshop questionnaire a few days before their meeting along with a series of prompts, open-ended questions, for reflection.

On the day of the workshop, participants join their groups for a 1-hour workshop session on Zoom and everyone gets four minutes to share their reflections while the rest of the group listens.

We put a countdown timer up on screen, logged into the call as one of the participants, so participants can see how much time they have for speaking and everyone is assured that time is being managed fairly and equitably.

(Accomplishing this requires a funky log-tech/high-tech hack: I log in to the Zoom call from a spare laptop and point the camera at an iPad showing a four-minute countdown clock. Every time I do this I feel like a software engineer somewhere must wake up in a cold sweat but it works like a charm, every time.)

Jasper and I highlight themes and connections as the sessions progress and any time left over is used for open discussion.

Shortly after each session we send a follow-up survey to participants to learn more about what they heard and to encourage them to delve deeper into their own thinking.

A special group of ‘captains’ selected from each workshop cohort meets at the end of the week to discuss progress and plan for the week ahead, and we further discuss each workshop with the Europeana team every week, including our research partners from Culture24 and representatives from the Europeana Network Association and Aggregators Forum.

At the end of the three-week process, Jasper and I will work with Europeana staff to wrangle the surveys and discussions into a manageable report to provoke broader debate within the Europeana community and beyond.

Tamara Van Hulst, Europeana’s Network Association Assistant, helps to manage the workshops and support the participants along with Nicholas Jarrett, Gina van der Linden and Sebastian ter Berg, and many others behind the scenes.

9. More participants and perspectives through social media

We hope that we can broaden and deepen the scope of our collective sense-making by being open about our process and sharing ideas, problems, open questions, and work-in-progress as the project continues.

Jasper and I are only the facilitators, and though we do have the responsibility to help with the synthesis and recommendations, the most important job we have is to help the voices of others to be heard. This is crucial to the sense-making process and fundamental to this project and this design: Many hands make light work, as the saying goes.

Please watch this space and keep an eye on the #BuildDigitalCapacity hashtag on Twitter and news pieces related to the workshops on the Europeana Pro site.

10. Moving into action

Altogether, over the course of three weeks and 18 workshops we expect to have had about 300 person-hours of conversations and personal reflections and 54,000 words of survey responses and facilitator notes about the impact of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, digital transformation, and societal and organisational change.

One of the most profound observations to emerge from the workshop process so far is that participants have told us that if they had known early on how long this crisis would last, and how profound its disruptive potential would be, they would have taken action much sooner to begin the processes of positive change.

Another profound observation has been that action seems possible now in ways that it never has before.

And those observations are a lesson for all of us.

We all have our own lists of positive actions we could be taking. We’ve been talking about the digital divide, inclusion, equity, social impact, justice, diversity, accessibility, climate action, sustainable development, education and lifelong learning, and building stronger and more resilient communities for as long as I’ve been in this business.

We’ve been excited about the potential for computers and networks to help us achieve transformational changes, large and small, for as long as I’ve known what a computer is.

But somehow, day-to-day, most of us convince ourselves that we should take a little more time to plan and consider things before we act.

Perhaps no one has been more effective at calling attention to the disconnect between knowing and doing than climate activist Greta Thunberg, who told the assembled dignitaries at Davos, just over a year ago, that ‘our house is on fire.’

Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.’

We expect that these workshops and discussions among Europeana Network members will result in many positive outcomes, big and small. But most of all we hope everyone involved will find new ways to act, and will take new, positive actions, as a result of being involved.

We welcome your thoughts and contributions about what this moment means to the digital cultural community, and what actions are necessary, whether you were in the workshops or not.

If you have something to ask or say please dive in on social media, comment on this piece, or get in touch (I can be reached on Twitter at @mpedson or through my website, Jasper is at @jaspervisser and VISSCH+STAM, and Jane Finnis is at @janefinnis and Culture24).

You can also sign up to stay up to date with the project.