Heritage Innovation diary

Heritage Innovation diary

By Paul Blundell


The Arts Marketing Association (AMA) was one of 35 organisations awarded a Heritage Innovation Fund grant supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. Paul Blundell, the AMA's Head of Digital Research & Development, takes us through key moments in his diary as he explores challenges and pioneering solutions for making the heritage workforce fit for the future.   

Innovation is not supposed to be the solution to everything – it should be about setting you up to think about what might be in 20 years' time.

Introduction (9th February 2023)

The Heritage Fund launched the Heritage Innovation Fund in February 2023 as a pilot for experimenters and collaborators to explore innovative solutions for new ways of working in the heritage sector. The project is split into three phases: explore, test and grow.   

The Arts Marketing Association was one of 35 organisations awarded a Heritage Innovation Fund grant supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund to start the Explore Phase of the initiative. The focus was to define a clear challenge and then develop potential solutions to take to the next Test Phase.  

I led our project exploring innovative ideas to address the audience development/marketing skills gap in the UK heritage workforce. We were supported by the Young Foundation in a structured discovery learning programme designed to help us explore our challenge in a series of workshops and masterclasses. We also met in peer-groups during the project.  

We know the skills gap is a challenge because of our experience working with the heritage workforce, specifically leading the Digital Heritage Hub and Digital Heritage Lab and existing research such as the DASH survey. There is an urgent need for organisations to be better at engaging and diversifying audiences. Organisations that build relationships with audiences and remain or become relevant and essential to their communities are the ones that will survive.  

This blog has two themes. Firstly, it follows the Design Thinking methodology (with thanks to the Young Foundation) to explore challenges and propose innovative ideas. Secondly, using this process on our own learning about our challenge. 

 How to be innovative (14th February 2023)

Coming up with innovative ideas isn’t easy. If I ask you to come up with one now, what would you propose? Innovation sometimes comes from a spark of inspiration but in most cases, it comes from hard work and consistent prodding to find things out. This was the journey the Young Foundation took us on.

The first workshop introduced the ‘innovation spiral’ which focuses firstly on ‘seeing’ the challenges and opportunities. It’s all to easy to jump quickly to think about solutions – however we were encouraged to use a Design Thinking methodology, to first empathise with those who the challenge effects. This first phase was to bring clarity, bring our organisations and wider contacts along for the ride and to find collaborations and synergies.  

What is your natural habitat? Are you a head-person, big picture thinker; or a hands-person, an action-oriented doer or perhaps you’re a heart-person driven by your lived experience and emotions? I found I’m a hands-person, a doer – I’ve been a web and solutions developer for twenty years and I’m used to quickly finding solutions to problems. I was encouraged to think from other perspectives, what is the bigger picture here and how am I feeling about it? You may want to ask where your natural habitat lies. 

Having a plan (20th February 2023)

We were introduced to the ‘discovery plan’. A journey for our innovation journey with key questions along the way. It started with looking at our challenge itself – a deep dive into the issues we were trying to address, technical and social factors that might influence it. Have a think about the nature of your challenge? What are key issues you’re trying to address?  One of the key learnings I took from the whole programme was the quote by Ronald A. Heifetz: “the most common failures stem from trying to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges.”  

I had to question myself, is our challenge just a technical one? If I find the right bit of kit, the best technical solution – then that’s it? It become clear that our challenge wasn’t technical it was adaptive. Even if we had all the time and money could we come up with a solution? No, was the answer. We didn’t clearly understand the problem, it affected many stakeholders and at the root were beliefs and values.  

Exploring the challenge (2nd March 2023)

Our challenge is to close the skills gap in the heritage sector around marketing/audience development/digital preventing organisations from reaching their potential in terms of engaging more visitors and more diverse visitors.  

Our main question was “how can we make the most of technological advances to design a new digital learning environment that specifically focuses on the skills gap in the heritage sector?”.  

We initially wanted to explore a range of potential technical options such as augmented, extended and virtual reality; artificial intelligence and machine learning, personalised feedback mechanisms, headless CMS systems to support personalised learning journeys, learning management, collective intelligence and peer-to-peer systems. 

However, it was clear I had a lot of work to do before this. I needed to ask some fundamental questions to explore our challenge such what barriers are people facing and how can we support them to move from learning to action? An issue we have identified is that one-off webinars and workshops can initiate the learning process but how do we follow-up to ensure that the knowledge acquired is used.

The AMA has researched and honed this process over the years – we knew that group-based intensive learning retreats over a period of time really did make a difference, but this type of learning seemed a long way off from a digital learning environment. I also needed to ask what learning methods work best for different types of people?  

The iceberg model and systems thinking (13th March 2023)

We were introduced to the iceberg model as a way to guide our thinking. This methodology comes from Systems Thinking that sees a problem as part of a wider system. I had previously studied complex systems theory so knew it to be a great way to make sense of challenges by looking at the ‘whole’ around it and the relationships between it. This an analogy for the 90% of stuff we don’t see – so the challenge is only the tip of the iceberg. We see the ‘event level’, that’s how we perceive the problem so in my case that was heritage organisations under threat because audiences are changing.

However, what is underneath this? We looked at the patterns or trends that seem to be persisting, I looked at how marketing and audience development skills have consistently been lacking, how professionals don’t consider marketing a strategic activity but merely an operational one. Then the next layer down, the structures – what are the rules and informal ways of working that have made these patterns. Lastly the ways of thinking that keep the challenge persisting.

This was going to be a key enquiry for my research – what is holding people back from gaining knowledge about audience development? 

Diagram of the Iceberg Model. Divided into four sections. Above the water: Event. Below the water descending in this order - Pattern, Structure, mental Model

Lines of enquiry – the ‘how might we?’ (16th March 2023)

We were guided by the Young Foundation to think about specific use cases. Who is the person with the challenge and how might we provide a solution to help them. 

I wrote the following: 

  • How might we offer training for senior management in the heritage workforce (both paid and volunteers) in order to make their organisations more resilient by teaching marketing skills to put audiences at the heart of everything they do? 
  • How might we offer training for middle management to implement marketing strategies? 
  • How might we offer training for junior roles to offer operational marketing skills such as digital or content marketing? 

Problem-framing canvas

We used the problem-framing canvas to explore these lines of enquiry. It’s a great part of the innovation toolkit developed by Mitre and free for anyone to use: Problem Framing - Innovation Toolkit (mitre.org) 

The idea is to define the right problem, to test we’re asking the right questions. I like how this resource asks you to explore your own assumptions and biases, and how you can reframe these. I realised that our challenge perhaps wasn’t experienced by the workforce directly only the results of not doing something if that makes sense. For example, you see a declining revenue for your organisation.

The causes of this are often complex such as rising costs and declining visitor numbers. However, how many people would say ‘I need audience development training’ that’s my key challenge.  

Evidence gathering (21st March 2023)

The next stage of our innovation journey was to identify research needs and to gather evidence. The learning programme introduced a wide range of research methodologies including surveys, participatory action research, systematic reviews, realist evaluation, simulation modelling and convergent designs. We designed an evidence quest based on our assumptions, hidden knowledge, gaps and new discoveries. I looked at two lines of research: 

1. Secondary research: conducting a meta analysis of our survey feedback data. We had three years of survey data from our Digital Heritage workshops and webinar where over 1600 heritage professionals took part. I found the biggest barriers to learning were unsurprisingly time and budget.

However, after the Young Foundation workshop looking at assumptions and hidden knowledge – I wondered if there were also hidden factors at play?

2. The AMA conducted three focus groups for senior management and marketing professionals in heritage and the arts. With the help of the AMA team, we analysed the findings from these sessions and found that there were large, unexplored gaps in how people valued audience development and marketing.

We found that many CEOs, directors and trustees viewed marketing as an operational ‘sales’ activity rather than a strategic business one. They valued marketing professionals for their knowledge of social media and digital marketing rather than for their ability to put audiences at the heart of the work they do. It became clear that many heritage professionals did not see the value of audience development – so the focus could be exploring the value proposition rather than the practicalities.

Deep dive research (8th May 2023)

Following the survey analysis and focus group research I had more questions than I started with. This project needed to focus on the technology of learning platforms, however I recognised that I had to fully understand the social issues before I could move to the technical.  

I undertook a series of one-to-one interviews with senior heritage professionals across the UK. I needed to find out more about how people really felt. These discussions were a gamechanger for me. I discovered that many people were working in small organisations with teams of 2 to 5 and often had multiple hats: CEO, fundraiser and marketer. They often work remotely, with little support or capacity. They felted isolated and really wanted to be able to connect with their peers. Many said self-directed training was not an option because of so many competing priorities, however when questioned further a lot admitted they wanted to learn with a group of people like themselves. They found ‘formal’ training courses were often ‘top-down’ and quite patronising – a lot of senior professionals said they have found that people were ignoring the advice and experience they could give. 

I then talked to coaches, trainers and the AMA team who corroborated these findings – senior management want peer-to-peer interaction and group training, not individual self-directed on-demand courses. 

Thinking about solutions (6th June 2023)

Taking this research back to our challenge:  how can we make the most of technological advances to design an online learning environment? It was clear that we needed to provide an intensive group-learning environment with tutors and facilitators. We have been doing this successfully at the AMA for over a decade. However, this method is expensive and only engages small numbers of people. How could we use technology to scale it up and how could we make the most of learners’ own experience and context? 

Back in October 2022 when we applied for the project, AI wasn’t widely known but was at the top of my list as a possible technical solution.  I’d also been considering virtual reality, collective intelligence systems and a wide variety of learning management systems. I quickly discounted VR as costs were too high for engagement. I needed a system for peer-to-peer and group learning.  During my research, generative and conversational AI systems saw massive growth in early 2023. I realised that with these new technologies we could possibly think about creating an AI-driven group learning platform. The partnership between Microsoft and Meta and the launch of Llama 2 was very exciting for me as I saw a use for my Microsoft .net coding skills. I also realised that the no-code options were also viable such as Power Virtual Agent and Google’s Dialogflow CX. If this technology could integrate with group learning platforms and if we could automate the whole process – we could have an innovative solution.  

Co-creation and a new AI course (17th July 2023) 

I’d decided on the technology but needed a test methodology. What course could we run and how would we put it together? Thinking about my conversations with all the heritage professionals over the past few months I thought we can’t have a traditional ‘taught’ course, and the course content needed to show the value of audience development.

The interviews gave me the answer – the first course participants themselves would co-create the course. They have the experience and real-life challenges. If we listen first and then bring learning content based on those challenges we can really help learners make a connection between knowledge and taking action. If we then take the feedback from co-creation sessions and update the content each time – we have the basis of a great course.

Finally, I had to decide, what should the course be? By now the answer was obvious, why don’t we be completely transparent about how the course works with an AI agent – the course would be Audiences & AI.  

The Test Phase (10th August 2023)

We have submitted our application to the next phase of the Heritage Innovation Fund for an AI-powered peer-to-peer online platform. If successful we will invite groups of people to co-create a course called Audiences & AI.

This is an important test for two reasons:

1) Can we use the technology to scale up online group learning for thousands of people?

2) How will an Audiences & AI course impact heritage professionals and their understanding of audience development?

Paul Blundell head and shoulders.

Paul Blundell, Head of Digital Research & Development, Arts Marketing Association 

Resource type: Articles | Published: 2023