A New Perspective for a Mature Museum Industry

January 3, 2014

Yahoo! Voices 

By Peter Chang

January 3, 2014


There's something considerable to be said for experience. Experience provides the development of relevant skills, relationships, and other tricks of the trade not likely to be gained in the classroom. The impact and benefits are very real, transparent, and highly regarded across industries and functions. In fact, many actually believe experience makes up a mammoth 70% contribution of all adult learning. The origin of this approximation is based on the "70:20:10" framework popularized by Jay Cross, a learning specialist, in his book Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance. Cross was able to successfully decipher and communicate the findings of extensive research on the process of adult informal learning, which can be summarized as follows: A modest 10% of learning resulting in improved performance occurs through participation in formal training events. Another 20% of learning transfers through on-the-job learning from others. The remaining lion's share of real learning comes from experience.

With that said, emerging professionals lacking in experience can still provide multiple critical benefits, especially to a mature sector, such as the museum industry. As witnessed over time, mature industries typically have established set cultures, norms, and tendencies that have successfully guided their constituent companies. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to the life cycle of an industry at this stage is that it tends to also result in limited perspective, where by focus becomes on improving existing processes rather than innovation and next gen thinking. Oftentimes, it is only after painstaking learnings and deep self-analysis that a new perspective is truly valued and sought after.

Specific to our industry, this new perspective should, in part, come from emerging museum professionals. These emerging museum professionals can either be represented by new university graduates or transfers from different industries. This naïve, non-biased, and energetic and ambitious group can be essential to the new challenges facing the museum field.

First, emerging professionals provide new ideas. Studies have demonstrated that creativity typically decreases as one gets older. This makes sense as many great innovators realize their most groundbreaking research while in their younger years. While those with experience are essential in utilizing their acquired time-on-the-job knowledge in making necessary continuous improvements to processes, products, and services, true disruptive innovation that helps create new markets and value are needed to adapt to a new economy with constant environmental changes vastly different than in pervious years. Often, new graduates can bring new ideas that they've acquired from thought leaders, professors, and simply, a refreshed perspective. Emerging professionals coming from different industries can also leverage their prior experiences by suggesting practices that are unique to the museum industry, but that have been successful and time-tested in the industries from which they came.

Second, emerging professionals come with a non-tainted perspective, which allows for numerous benefits. With the limited exposure to traditional methods and the long-standing culture, they may not need to unlearn bad habits that may be imbedded in those that have been in the field for an extended period of time. New personnel also tend to have "why do we do it this way?" type questions. While the answers to these questions may seem trivial to an experienced staff, this may result in a healthy re-evaluation of antiquated approaches.

Third, emerging professionals who have just graduated from school are wired for learning. They have the energy, excitement, and self-motivated nature to make things happen and to get the job done, all while doing it with a smile and willingness not as easily solicited from experienced staff. Having this agile resource is increasingly important to succeed with an environment plagued with competition and rapid change. This favorable characteristic of emerging professionals also lends itself to taking more risks. They are relatively fearless at this stage, unlike mid-level museum professionals that may be less willing to take what they deem as career risks.

Other benefits not to be discounted include their comfort level for technology, ability to thrive in collaborative projects involving cross-functional team members, and multitasking skills. All together, these benefits that are not easily obtainable from existing experienced employees, can be critical to any museum. Museum leadership should not only learn to appreciate and leverage these benefits, but moreover, they should actively pursue relationships with universities that can compete to attract top new talent away from their for-profit hiring competitors. Museums should likewise be receptive to bringing in new staff from different industries that can be lured by the ability that this industry has to meet our social responsibility. While experience carries the heavy burden towards the pathway to success, emerging professionals can help provide the necessary flexibility to navigate this pathway for a long and sustainable trip.