Digital Lab. Sara Devine. Communities of Practice.
The first blog by Sara Devine, Director of Visitor Experience and Engagement at the Brooklyn Museum and Mentor at AMA Digital Lab looks at communities of practice.
This November, I was lucky enough to attend and speak at MCN’s annual conference. For those unfamiliar with MCN (Museum Computer Network), it’s a professional interest group focused on museum and technology (affectionately known as musetech) and their mission is to advance “digital transformation in museums”. Although it was my first time at this conference, I was greeted like an old friend - partially because I knew so many people and partially because musetech folks are welcoming.
While the sessions were interesting and thought-provoking, like every conference I’ve ever attended, it was the conversation (both via Twitter and IRL) between sessions that made my attendance worthwhile. I was able to catch-up with old friends and make new ones as well as meet people I’d only known via the Twitterers. These are the conference moments that have the biggest impact for me.
© Corey Timpson
MCN mini-reunion of amazing musetech folks I connected with at a conference in Dubrovnik two summers ago. We escaped the conference for tacos on the water. From left to right: Corey Timpson (@coreytimpson), Beth Redmond-Jones (@bredmondjones), Brad Dunn (@badunn), and myself.
The biggest takeaway from this conference for me was the importance of being part of a community of practice. It hit me as I was chatting with a friend one evening after the sessions. We were sitting by a fire on the Mission Bay in San Diego (major points for conference location this year) and he was telling me about a recent project and we were brainstorming ideas for next steps. I was able to proffer unusual ideas because I’m not mired in the everyday realities of his workplace. He was able to do the same for me. We were both so engrossed, only our bladders full from a day of coffee drinking tore us away. This kind of commiserating, problem-solving, and brainstorming done over coffee or a drink with colleagues helps me feel grounded and connected to the work I do.
Sometimes I walk away from those conversations feelinging depressed (if I fall into comparison mode, e.g. I wish we had a team that large, then we could do x,y, z…), but mostly I walk away feeling inspired and grateful. It’s helpful to get out of my own head and my own institutional problems for awhile and talk about someone else’s, share solutions, or just complain a bit with a sympathetic companion.
The Arts Marketing Association (AMA) is providing just that kind of important community of practice for the Digital Lab and Audience Diversity Academy participants—fellows and mentors alike. Because of my work with AMA these past 5+ years, I have been able to expand my community of practice across the pond and feel connected to the cultural sector in the UK as well as the museum sector here in the US. How cool is that? I can then share the work being done in the UK with US colleagues, so they know about it too.
Sure, being active in a community of practice takes some effort. I’m active (to varying degrees) in several because the work I do intersects a lot of areas of practice (interpretation, engagement, visitor services, musetech, customer service, etc.) and it can get a little overwhelming sometimes, but it’s worth the effort. I know I can reach out to anyone in those groups and ask for help and ideas and doing the same for others is very rewarding.
How to get started
So, how to get started? Well, for AMA academy participants the hardest part—finding a community—is done. The next step is to continue the relationships you’re already building through your participation in the academies. Here are some other tips:
- Use social media as a way to find and join communities of practice. #musetech is just one of many focused conversations out there.
- Follow colleagues on social media if they’re active. Even if you’ve never met them, but like what they have to say, follow and engage with them. Then, if you get a chance to meet them in person, you have a relationship. I love the moments when I finally get a chance to meet someone I’ve been following on Twitter.
- Stay in touch with people you meet through work.
- Attend conferences. Check the registration lists ahead of time and reach out for a coffee date during the conference.
- Go up to people at professional functions and introduce yourself.
- Get contact info and keep track of how you met them (LinkedIn has a notes field that’s good for this).
- Join listservs or other professional message board/groups and participate. When you have something to share, don’t be shy.
- Pay it forward. If someone reaches out to you for an informational interview, conversation, or advice, do your best to accommodate them.
I promise if you put yourself out there, even just a little bit, you’ll see real benefit. We all need support, and who better to provide it than people who share our passions and challenges? Plus you’ll meet some really cool people along the way!