Friday, June 24, 2011

Thinking 20 Years into the Future

This blog post is based on the plenary session I gave at the 2011 New York Archives Conference (NYAC) and is not a transcript of my talk.  I must admit that taking a long view is starting to color many of the conversations that I am having.  If you have thoughts on this, please share them with me by commenting on this post.  Perhaps thoughts on your organization's long-term vision or on the strategy planning process that you are using?  Or how the long-term vision is impacting your work today?

Poppies I love gardening!  I grow flowers, herbs and a few vegetables.  I work in the yard - maintaining all of the plants - so they will look good this year and next.  The results please me and others.  (I do have the best looking yard on the street!)

Maintenance does take time and sometimes is hard, but I do it because it is necessary.  And I do it even though I spend part of June - when the yard is full of blooms - at the SLA Annual Conference.  Just because I don't get to enjoy the flowers all the time doesn't mean I'm not going to do the work to keep them looking beautiful. 

Do you know someone that owns a bonsai tree?  A bonsai tree will outlive its owner and should outlive several owners.  Anyone who owns a bonsai tree isn't just maintaining the tree so that it looks good today; the person wants the tree to look good for years to come and for the next owner. That person is thinking even longer-term than I am when I work on by garden!

bonsaiEach of us - who works in a library, museum, archive or some other cultural heritage organization - does all we can to maintain our organization's resources.  We all work hard to keep the organization alive and sometimes that is not easy. 

Right now we are all focused short term...let's say the next 12 to 24 months.  What's going on?
  • We worried about the economy and how it is impacting our budgets (and tightening them).
  • Our staff members are stressed.  They may be stressed because some of them have been downsized.  They may be stressed because they are fearful that they will lose their jobs.  They may be stressed because they are doing more with less.
  • We are worried about our competition, which includes other cultural institutions, stores, games, the Internet, etc.  We are all trying to figure out how to get our users/customers/members to pay attention to us and not to our competition.
  • We need our users to not only pay attention to us, but to also be loyal.  We need them to be loyal - and do demonstrate their loyalty - in order to help us gain more funding and support. (It is likely that we're stressed because we don't know how to assess our impact on our users or the level of their loyalty.)
  • We're also trying to change because we know that we can't do things the same way as we have in the past.  Change is never easy, yet change is necessary.
Yes, the short term - the next 24 months - has us stressed (panicked).  The good news is that stress can help us focus and get things done.

We aren't thinking too much about the long term...let's say the next 10 years.  However, we should be gathering information on what futurists and other think the next 10+ years will be like.  What technologies will we be using?  What services will people want?  What will the economic, business and regulatory environment be like?  And what will our living environment be like?  There are people who are thinking about these things and publishing their ideas.  Reading or listening to what they have to say can help us determine our own path and the things we need to focus on longer term.

By the way, we shouldn't just read the futurists that agree with our point of view.  We need to hear as many ideas as possible because neither will be completely accurate.  Sadly, we won't be able to judge their accuracy until the future arrives, so getting a broad picture of the future can help us consider the steps we need to take to make our version a reality.

PoppyHowever, let's not think about the next 10 years; let us consider the next 20 years.  20 years means that we're thinking about the next generation.  I would assume that none of us will be working for our current employer in 20 years, so this means we're thinking about what will be going on for our successor or our successor's successor. Yes, the view out that far is fuzzy, but any insight we can garner will help us set our compass. (By the way, stop and consider what you think your organization will be like in 20 years.  Can you conjure a vision?)

In my vision of the future, I see:
  • Your organization still exists!  Yes, it may be quite different than what it is now, and that is okay.  (As I lay out the rest of my vision, you'll see why your organization still exists.)
  • Your organization has built tight collaborations with other cultural and service institutions.  For example, your organization has recognized that the business across the street shares the same customers, so why not collaborate on programs, marketing, or perhaps just one event?  How about collaborating or partnering with a social service agency?  By 2031, your organization has decided to collaborate with everyone and that has made it stronger (and its reach greater).
  • Your organization is co-located.  It has both a physical and a virtual presence, and there is no difference between the two.  None. Whatever I can do in the physical space, I can do in the virtual space. And virtual is the same no matter what device or technology is being used.  We won't be thinking about what we do on Facebook, on a smartphone or on some other tool.  We'll just be thinking about what we can do virtually.
  • Your organization will deliver information and content to users wherever they are.  Users will be able to access information/content 24x7 from anywhere in the world. Everyone who accesses your information has access to it all.  
Our squash is blooming!As I said, it is a fuzzy vision, but if that what 2031 will be like, what do you need to do now?
  • Expand your definition of "patron".  We use several different words for those people that visit our institutions including users, customers, clients and members.   I like the word "owner".  If members have privileges then owners have responsibilities.  We want those people that use our services to understand that they are responsible for ensuring our funding and our access to resources.  It is a very different way of thinking and it can change the relationship between you and those people that come through your door.  How do you get them to see themselves as owners?  Start now - in small ways - to educate them about their role as owners in your institution.  Start to change your language, how you talk with them, the information that you give to them, and your expectations of them.  This will take a while to implement and to reap the rewards, so you'll need to be patient.
    • You will also need to take the limits off of who your institution serves.  I know there are budget and funding implications in this, so it is not something you can do overnight.  However, start the conversation now about who your organization should be serving and be ready to think differently about the answer.
  • Take the limits off of your definition of "virtual".  Don't think in terms Facebook, Twitter, web sites or whatever.  Think in terms of what you want to offer, and then work to offer the same features and functionality e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.  Again, this isn't going to occur overnight, but it is something you need to begin to discuss with whomever helps you with your technology needs.  Get them on-board and then work toward this goal. 
  • Explore new and cutting edge way of delivering content.  Your user/member/owners will migrate to the new, cool tools and will expect you to be there too.  I changes, which means you'll need to change technologies likely more frequently than you're used to.  That's okay.  You don't need to be on the bleeding edge.  Be on the leading edge or really close to it.  If that scares you, then find someone to collaborate with.
  • Enter into collaborative arrangements and find those that will last.  Collaborate with the business across the street and the agency across town. Collaborate on one-time events, on market efforts, on longer term projects, or whatever you can a collaborate for.  It's okay to start small.  Do one this summer and then don't wait too long to do another.  And keep doing them!
Most importantly...start n-o-w!  Take small steps, recognizing that each step will move your organization closer to being (remaining)  a vital and important organization in 20 years. Yes, every step you take will help your organization be sustainable and have a bright future.

Pink roseWhere will you be in 20 years? Wherever it is, see yourself reading the news about your old organization.  Yes, it still exists, although perhaps differently than it does today...and it is doing wonderfully!  As you read the news, you remember an idea you had in 2011.  It was a small idea...a little step forward...and look at what you started!

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