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II. Strategy Themes

Three themes emerged through discussion in the staff workshops, on the public wiki, and through ongoing engagement with stakeholders inside and outside the Institution. They provide context important to understanding the eight strategic goals described in section III.

Theme 1: Update the Smithsonian Digital Experience

Today, the Smithsonian Institution’s digital experience is primarily in the form of a collection of separate Web sites. There are few, if any, mechanisms that support findability (the combination of search, information architecture, and design that enable digital information to be found), Web 2.0 features (such as content syndication, “e-mail to a friend,” tagging, sharing, and social bookmarking), and sustained/repeated user engagement across multiple platforms—and in many cases even within individual Web properties. We are like a retail chain that has desirable and unique merchandise but requires its customers to adapt to dramatically different or outdated idioms of signage, product availability, pricing, and check-out in every aisle of each store. This needs to be addressed to realize the full potential of the Smithsonian’s digital initiatives.

Addressing this challenge does not mean abandoning the notion of strong, unique, and creatively autonomous museum/unit Web sites (in fact, strong and innovative unit-based sites are the core strength of the Institution and should be protected at all costs), but it is important to note that the current model undermines our effectiveness as an Institution. The future Smithsonian digital experience should encourage focused, unit-driven and unit-controlled audience engagement, but it should also support combined unit, pan-Smithsonian, and end-user solutions for findability, design, collections access, and community engagement across Internet, in-museum, mobile, and emerging platforms as a whole.


Theme 2: Update the Smithsonian Learning Model

James Smithson wrote that “Knowledge should not be viewed as existing in isolated parts, but as a whole. Every portion throws light on all the others.” This Web and New Media Strategy seeks to update the Smithsonian’s learning model to be aligned with Smithson’s founding vision and new kinds of education and knowledge creation made possible, in part, by technology.

This strategy is based on the growing understanding of learning as a hybrid of formal education and self-directed discovery that can be brought together and enhanced by online tools and communities. Increasing online access to Smithsonian collections is part of the equation for promoting learning. (A detailed digitization strategy is under development.) The impact of online collections can be greatly magnified by highlighting the knowledge and insight of Smithsonian experts, an intellectual property policy that encourages re-use and sharing of our assets (where appropriate), and a matrix of tools, policies, and resources that allows our audiences to be our partners in the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

The Updated Smithsonian Learning Model

Theme 3: Balance Autonomy and Control within the Smithsonian

From an internal perspective, successful Web and New Media programs are created largely in isolated pockets of excellence. While this model allows for freedom for Web teams within the Institution's museums and research centers, it also creates an environment where effort is duplicated and opportunities to collaborate and pool resources can be overlooked. In addition, internal Web teams, working separately, are approaching the limit of what they can do on their own: units cannot afford to establish, maintain, and refine the platforms they want individually, and if they could, the repetition of effort or the effect on end-users would be counterproductive: Imagine 30 separate e-commerce, event ticketing, or personalization systems.

The key to accomplishing the transition from our current organizational model (in which the central organization takes a "hands off" approach to Web stewardship) and a future model (in which the central organization is more engaged) is in achieving a balance between central control and creative autonomy while binding oversight and operations to a shared vision and goals.

Staff at the unit and collection level are the Smithsonian's greatest asset, and the best Web production happens when collections (or research data), subject-matter experts, Web teams, and the public are working in close proximity. This Web and New Media Strategy respects and encourages innovation and autonomy throughout the Smithsonian's organizational structure.

The expertise and accomplishments of unit-based staff, however, need to be supported and enhanced by an internal commons of shared tools, services, and standards. The use of these shared resources should be voluntary for Smithsonian units, but should be highly desired because the tools and services provided are well conceived, well supported, and make critical work easier and cheaper for participants.

The principle of a commons is described in detail in section IV. The Smithsonian Commons: A Place to Begin.

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