Supporting practitioner-led research in the art museum – what can leaders do?

Recently I was contacted by a colleague from Australia, Sheona White, who has been reading the blog.  She posed a question to me concerning what it takes to lead and manage individuals and team(s) who are keen to undertake practitioner research in museum learning programmes. Sheona rightly pointed out that we tend not to discuss this a great deal and her question got me thinking about what my experience has been at Tate, what I have come across in my recent research and what can be learnt from both.  I have pulled five characteristics of leadership together here as a starting point for what I hope will be an ongoing discussion.  This list is not in order of priority – all these characteristics are equally important in my view.

  1. Modelling an explicit commitment to research

Leadership is vital to developing a vibrant research culture and supporting practitioners to undertake research.  In my experience team leaders need to model an enquiring perspective. Even if senior managers do not undertake research themselves they are crucial in creating a culture where speculation and reflexivity is encouraged and where change is welcome.  The exemplary leaders I have come across embody an approach that prioritises learning and encourages all staff to challenge themselves and their practice. They test their thinking explicitly and encourage their workforce to adopt this approach too.

2. Building a trusting culture where thoughtful risk taking is encouraged 

Leaders play a key role in enabling a culture of trust and risk where experimentation and ventures into the unknown are an ingrained element of practice.  In a trusting culture people are confident they will not be criticised if they query current ways of doing and thinking and they feel empowered to question and disagree with their colleagues. David Garvin and his co-authors (who have written on organisational learning) identify that such workspaces provide a supportive environment for productive change, because they manifest ‘psychological safety’. In a psychologically safe learning space everyone can express ideas openly.  However, a supportive environment for practitioner-led research in my view requires a further step. Here people need to feel able not only to question existing scenarios or correct existing problems, but also to test out their own original ideas.

Maintaining a psychologically safe space needs constant attention to everything. From more micro-level decisions on, for example, acknowledging challenging voices and opinions in meetings to more macro-level responses when, for instance, research or experimental programming does not yield the findings or experiences that were expected. If staff feel disempowered or silenced or if the focus is on ascribing blame or emphasising what went wrong, then trust evaporates and positive risk-taking disappears. Each time this happens the likelihood of staff embarking on fruitful enquiry is reduced. If, however, at difficult or disappointing moments, the emphasis is on what can be learnt, the space for innovative investigations grows. When a culture of genuine trust and risk is embedded it creates a positive upward spiral of new insights and greater understanding.

Summer School Tate Exchange 2017
Participants in a Tate Schools and Teachers Summer School. Copyright Tate Photography (Alex Wood)

3. Establishing clear and open communication

All those I interviewed for my research acknowledged the value but also the complexities and challenges of maintaining regular and transparent communication across an organisation. But I have observed that in organisations where practitioner researchers thrive, and research and reflection are nurtured, knowledge and information are shared openly. David Garvin and his colleagues also argue that knowledge that is shared in systematic and clearly defined ways, among individuals, groups, or whole organisations, is most effective in supporting organisational learning. They emphasise the importance of information and insights moving laterally and vertically, so that ‘essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the hands and heads of those who need it’.  One obvious way that leaders can contribute is by sharing information openly and establishing regular meetings and all-team catch ups where staff are encouraged to disseminate information and ideas, reflect together on what has happened and been learnt and collaborate on future plans.

4. Making time  

What my experience and research has told me is that without question the main factor that prevents practitioners doing research is their perceived lack of time. I have found that almost without exception people are keen to research, reflect and take time to learn, yet they can struggle to build this into their practice. Too often they are overwhelmed by the practical and administrative aspects of their roles, which are perceived to take priority. Practitioners want time to share problems and insights and consider ‘what if’ questions together as part of their working day. And they want their organisations to acknowledge the importance of the thinking that is required to do their work effectively, by not overloading them with tasks or programming.

It is the responsibility of leadership in the first instance not to overload staff with programming tasks that leave no time for more considered enquiry.  Associated with this is the need for leaders to make sure there are adequate resources to undertake the work the organisation wishes to do.  And finally leaders can play a key role in encouraging staff to take the time needed, by creating spaces for reflection and sanctioning formal research time away from the day to day routines.

5. Committing to honest evaluation

My experience and conversations have revealed that without ongoing evaluation, it is hard to know what is taking place or estimate the degree and nature of change brought about through an intervention. I know practitioners who shy away from evaluation, associating it with the tedious time-consuming ritual of handing out questionnaires at the end of event. It is true that evaluation which is not an integral part of the cycles of action research and practice as research can seem to be an irrelevance, undertaken to fulfil the requirements of a funder. Or evaluation is framed as an opportunity for advocacy; for the telling of a positive story without an in-depth and honest appraisal and presentation of a programme. But neither of these approaches help improve practice, hence the need for leaders to ensure that honest evaluation is at the heart of careful enquiry.

This list is by no means complete and no doubt there are a multitude of other actions leaders can take to support practitioner-led research.  At the same time these characteristics do not operate in isolation, but are interconnected and co-dependent.  Furthermore, in my experience leaders cannot bring about and maintain a practitioner-led research culture on their own, as it requires commitment on the part of each person within an organisation.  Nonetheless, effective leadership makes the task of embedding practitioner-led research considerably easier, especially if they enact these five characteristics.

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