Discover more from Ash Mann's Substack
Digital Works Podcast: Seb Chan
A summary of some of the main points of the discussion that I had with Seb (CEO of ACMI in Melbourne) earlier this year
Episode 31 of the Digital Works Podcast was a chat with Seb Chan.
Prior to becoming the CEO at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) Seb was ACMI’s first Chief Experience Officer (CXO), and before that he lead on digital change projects at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
I first saw Seb speak over 15 years ago at a conference in Glasgow and since then have followed his career and the interesting digital things he’s done at a variety of cultural organisations.
Here are some of the main things that Seb and I discussed.
You can listen to the full episode here, or via the podcast platform of your choice.
How his digital experience informs his approach to leadership
“I think my digital background immediately foregrounds an audience, a user, the public […] I will often have a very audience-focused bias in my decision-making and my style. So I'll always be asking questions about how do we make this better for a visitor?”
“…and that’s why I think a digital mindset, in heavy inverted commas, can be so transformative outside of the sort of strictly defined digital stuff.
Because it inherently centers the user, the participant, the visitor, the audience member. It forces you to be empathetic and and to focus on how you can be effective and engaging and impactful.
And that doesn't need to be confined to things involving technology or the internet. Those are soft skills that are applicable across everything that everyone does”
The importance of thinking beyond purely quantiative numbers. And being patient
“…sometimes for people who have been specifically trained in a commercial digital environment, it’s quite tricky for them because in a commercial environment you've been driven by the metrics that have been available to you, and they've been quite short term, maybe quarterly reporting, or may maybe even shorter term than that. If you are designing making changes to user experiences, you're looking for immediate results. And I think in physical spaces and with more diverse users those impacts are much more squishy and they're not fast necessarily.”
“we've been doing some work with a primary school in one of the lower socio-economic outer suburbs of Melbourne here. And, it's been a five year project.
And in the qualitative research done by one of the universities on it, it was showing that for a lot of the kids who had come, it was not only the first time that they had visited a museum or gallery, it was the first time they'd been in the city.
And in some cases, the first time they had encountered an escalator.
And that to me was, you know, quite eye-opening.
And so for them, the impact of their visit is not measurable in an immediate way, but I think will become apparent and did become apparent in the creative work that they did in the years following at school and the way they thought about themselves and their own values and what they thought of as their possible futures too, which I thought was very exciting, but also hard to quantify in a quantifying methodology.
There's no, sort of user interface or user experience design you could do to optimize for that or even measure that directly.
So I think there's sort of, often, I also see the risk with digital people is they don't have necessarily the patience to see that, different sorts of results might emerge in different ways.”
The importance of someone focused on experience
“…when Katrina and I were talking about the role that I took in the end, I was very conscious of it not being a digital role or solely digital role.
It was about saying that sort of binary between analog and digital, or physical and digital, you know, had long passed. That idea that our digital lives were somehow separate from our, in quotes, real life, that evaporated with mobile […] the CXO role at that time, 2015, was about really clearly saying digital is just part of the broader museum experience no matter what you do.
And, you know, it's seven years after mobile in 2015, come on, museum world, this is what it's about.
The challenge of that though is, of course, the technology world at that time was moving very, very fast and continues to move fast […] so, uh, in that role as CXO, you needed to keep up with a lot of different things and adding the physical and spatial elements to it, and the service design thinking that it requires. It's a much more expansive strategic role in an ideal world […] I would extend that to the performing arts as well. I think that once you move to a CXO role in the performing arts, you start to think of the experience of going to the theater or going to the ballet or going to music venue venues or music events.
The role of digital is more than having a really good ticketing s system and user flow and, you know, a what's on website and things like that.
It can be much, much more than that.”
The CEO Mentoring programme that he led
“…so we were talking about this for an hour and I was like, well, look, maybe what we need is a mentoring program for the leaders of these organizations that allows those leaders to develop what now call a digital imagination.
Moving away from this notion of literacies, which implies a deficit, and moving away from skills, which implies that these are sort of things that you either have or don't have, and you can learn quickly.
A digital imagination points to a different mindset, but a mindset that's not just an entrepreneurial one. But this sort of sense of ‘what might be possible if…’, and knowing some of the constraints around that, and understanding who you need to work, universities, researchers, tech companies, artists whoever to help push on the edges of that imagination and turn that imagination into reality.
Well, in order to do that maybe a mentoring program is what we might need.”
“…in some ways, the CEOs and senior leaders were seeing the program almost as therapy to work through some of the complex issues they now face that all have a digital element to them.
[…] and of course we also talked a lot about new forms of creative practice that in some cases directors and CEOs were not aware of, super exciting, but also some that they were aware of, but they didn't know how that would affect their field.
So in the second round of the program, when we brought all the mentors and mentees to, Melbourne, one of the days in the kickoff, intensive period, we took them all to a motion-capture studio and for [some of them] it was the first time that they’d actually seen motion capture being done, or in some cases got to wear a motion capture suit and be captured. And that experience changed how they thought about how that technology might apply in what they're doing or what their teams are doing. […]
I think one of its real strengths was that it wasn't just within a single domain. It wasn't just museums and galleries or libraries. It was actually about saying, let's pair people from museums with people from the opera. Let's pair, you know, the chief of digital of the opera house with the deputy director of the National Science Center, you know, let’s pair these people in interesting frictionful encounters rather than frictionless ones and see what creative sparks could be generated from that.
[…] and you're in a much, much better place now to continue to think in this sort of way.
And when your technical staff or your creative staff come now to you with a proposal that requires digital in some manner, I can't imagine things that wouldn't really, to be honest. Now you have a sense of who to speak to and you know the types of questions to begin with, and you also perhaps have a better sense of when you're being fleeced by another consultant or vendor.”
The value of digital professionals in the cultural sector, and of remaining curious
“The language that creative practitioners use, the language that technology companies use, the language that funders use are all so misaligned that we need to find commonalities there.
And I think that's a great opportunity for people who work in digital within institutions, is to be the people who are actively developing and pursuing that common language. 'cause if they don't who's gonna do it!?
But that does mean stretching yourself into those creative spaces, into those other adjacent creative practices. If you're a theater person and you're not going to music events, I would suggest going to music events. If you're an art museum person and you're not going to theater, why aren't you?. If you're a music person and you're not going to visual art stuff, what's happening here?
Like, you know, you work in the space, explore the space, it's such a privilege. That's why I think most of us do it, because certainly in those digital roles there are plenty of other places you could work in the digital realm that would pay considerably better, particularly nowadays.”
You can listen to all 31 episodes (and counting) of the Digital Works Podcast here, we’ll be releasing new episodes fortnightly.