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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Building and Growing Your Web Site Using The Team Approach

Brian Bergeron and Susan Steinway, The Children's Museum of Boston, United States



The Children's Museum of Boston launched its Web site in 1997 primarily to establish a Web presence and offer basic visitor information. The marketing manager oversaw the site, squeezing it in to her already busy schedule. Then, in 2000, the Museum formed teams to tackle work such as the Web site that needed Museum-wide input. This paper examines how having a team responsible for a Web site works and how a Web site can prosper when it is cared for by a diverse group of Museum employees.

Keywords: children's museums, teams, collaboration, team management


Children's museums exist to provide children with experiences that stimulate their curiosity and enhance their learning on many levels, but in order to reach the children, we must first reach their parents. The Children's Museum of Boston's Web site must serve the dual purpose of making parents sure that a visit to our Museum will be not only a valuable and fun experience for their children, but also a relatively stress-free outing: information about how to get there and where to park; where to change diapers; whether there's a breastfeeding area; and what food options are available are just as important as what exhibits and programs we have. And of course, new parents tend to be young, in their twenties and early thirties, and have grown up using the Web in college and work. They are likely to be comfortable with and accustomed to finding answers on-line.

Teachers and school groups are an integral part of the audience for children's museums. The Children's Museum of Boston was founded by teachers as a place for teachers to share resources and learn new techniques and methods, as well as a place to bring their students. The site www.BostonKids.org must reflect the importance of teachers and teaching to our Museum, and should also provide a place for teachers to share resources and learn.

Part I – www.BostonKids.org is Born! The Evolution…

In 1997, the Board, management staff, and IT department of The Children's Museum decided that the time had come for the Museum to have a Web site. At that time the primary concern was to establish our name, BostonKids.org, and to establish a presence on the Web with information for visitors. The Marketing and IT departments created the initial home page and support pages through a volunteer effort at the Museum. From the very beginning, the Museum planned the Web site to be both a marketing tool and a content-rich resource, with three main content areas: parents, teachers, and kids.

Quite soon after that initial effort, it became the responsibility of the Marketing Manager to post and update information on the growing Web site, in addition to her many other responsibilities. Due to her heavy workload and the lack of staff participation, it was inevitable that the site was often behind schedule with visitor information, had broken links, outdated information, and an inconsistent look and feel. Meanwhile, other divisions within the Museum, notably the Teacher Center, which received grants to develop Native American content for the Web and its Kits program during this time, were working on their own particular content areas. This state of affairs continued for some time, while the Marketing Manager continued to urge the Museum to consider the Web site as more that just a marketing tool; that it was, in fact, a Museum-wide priority.

Then, in 2000, the Museum did some reorganizing at the senior level and Neil Gordon, formerly Chief Financial Officer, became Chief Operating Officer, with one of his charges being to fully integrate the various content areas of the Museum. He stepped in with the concept of Museum-wide teams to manage Museum-wide products and priorities (See Part II), and from that concept, Web Team was born. Web Team was created with people from all 9 divisions in the Museum, and was told the goal was: Fix the Web Site.

Web Team started right away, first assessing all the areas of weakness in the site, and setting priorities and task lists to remedy the ailing site. Web Team proposed a small budget to hire a part-time Web assistant to maintain the Web pages, managed by the Graphic Arts Manager. The Web Team also created a Web Request form in an effort to streamline and manage the workflow and give all Museum divisions equal access to the Web site. This worked for a short time, and the Web site grew and improved. New areas of the Web site were created for the Arts Program and Recycle Shop, Birthday Parties, and the School/Group Visits; without the team's ability to focus on the Museum as a whole, these might not have been created. But given the money dedicated to Web staff time (enough for five hours per week), the staff turned over frequently, tasks were left undone, and wishes left unfilled. This inspired Web Team to undertake a full reassessment of Web production.

The Web site then fell under the responsibility of the Graphic Arts Manager for a short time until it was determined that the site production would continue to be managed by the Graphic Arts Manager (who serves as Web Team Leader), advised by Web Team, but produced by the Museum's Graphic Designer, adding a day to her work schedule to accomplish this task. In the meantime, Web Team spent nearly six months taking a look at a completely re-organized Web site plan and architecture, in an effort to convince the Museum that this is a Museum-wide effort that should be financially supported. The production exists using this model at present. In December of 2003, Web Team was presented with financial support to re-design the Web site. Web Team is currently reviewing proposals from design firms to create a bigger and better BostonKids.org.

Part II – Teams at the Museum

Structurally The Children's Museum is divided into 9 divisions responsible for various functions within the Museum, each reporting to a vice president, and each with its own budget and annual goals to meet. Yet much of the work of the Museum, especially that which impacts the visitors, depends on cross-communication among divisions with different staff working together. Prior to the year 2000 and the introduction of cross-divisional teams to the Museum, there was no formal mechanism in place to facilitate such integrative work. So, early in 2001, Neil Gordon, the recently appointed chief operating officer, created several teams to be responsible for this cross-functional work. Charged with integrating the various centers of operation at the Museum, Gordon felt that teams were the best mechanism to focus on Museum-wide priorities and include a global perspective on these issues.

Phase One

In this first phase of teams at The Children's Museum, which lasted about one year and a half, teams were created where the product of the team needed representation across the divisions. Four types of teams were created, each reporting to one of four vice-presidents. There were teams concerned with the visitor experience, who reported to the Vice President of the Visitor Center; there were teams concerned with the staff culture of the Museum who reported to the Vice President of Human Resources; there were teams concerned with resources who reported to the Vice President of Development; and there were teams concerned with long range planning who reported to the Chief Operating Officer. Staff members were assigned to teams by senior management, and almost everybody participated except those whose jobs were primarily on the Museum floor, or who worked less than 40 percent time, or who worked at night or only on the weekends.

The Web Team was created at this time, under the auspices of Visitor Services, and peopled with staff from every division. Brian Bergeron, Graphic Arts Manager, was appointed team leader, and there were representatives from the Teacher Center, Early Childhood Center, Membership, Development, Marketing, the IT department, Human Resources, the Exhibits Department, and the Visitor Center. The Team was charged with fixing the Web site, which we took to mean taking a look at the Museum's entire Web site, making any small changes we could now, and making recommendations for larger changes as well. The team, like all other teams, was expected to use or coordinate existing resources to accomplish its goals.

It is important to realize that teams were never designed to take the place of the divisions, the hierarchical management style under which the Museum functions. The divisions within the Museum are content-based: teachers, family visitors, exhibits, membership, fundraising, etc., while the teams are about coordinating those different contents. Teams are also not about replacing a job function, or accomplishing the work of one job function, but rather are about accomplishing clear, doable, shared tasks beyond the scope of an individual's job function or a division's specific purpose.

There was much confusion among the staff about how teams worked and what purpose they served during this first phase of teams. Some teams floundered, unclear of what they were exactly supposed to be doing, while others accomplished a great deal; staff grumbled about having to take on additional work when they were already working 110 percent, yet a staff survey indicated great support for the concept of teams; and it seemed that rather than facilitating communication among the divisions, things only got muddier. Thus was born Phase Two of Teams at The Children's Museum of Boston.

Phase Two

A consultant, an expert in team building and functioning, was called in. After spending a few months talking to Senior Management, the teams as a whole, and many individual team members, she recommended a large-scale revamping of the teams and the team process. A small team of 9 people representing most divisions and most levels of employment at the Museum, and including the consultant (the Team Coordination Group), was formed in the summer of 2002. This team took a look at how teams should work and came up with a framework for the team process, a new way for teams to report to Senior Management; it also reformed and reconstituted the actual teams, retiring some, revising current working teams and creating some new ones.

This group met about six or seven times over a period of three months and created a document called The Team Framework to be used by teams to clarify roles and responsibilities. The Team Coordination Group. felt that having a published framework was important because staff members were looking for some definitions of roles and responsibilities and just what teams meant to the Museum. In answer to the question Why teams? the framework said:

Using teams to get things done also allows us to focus on Museum-wide priorities and include a more global perspective in our work, so that we are all more closely aligned with the Museum's mission and goals. Teams enable The Museum to bring a more diverse set of perspectives to bear on a problem, a program or a project. Additionally, team work supports The Museum's values of empowerment and professional development for staff members.

A new role, that of Team Sponsor, was created to eliminate the prior hierarchical structure of reporting to a vice president. Rather, each team now has a leader, from the manager level at the Museum, and a sponsor, a vice president. The Team Leader and the Sponsor work collaboratively to shepherd the team's work and concerns through the Museum's senior level. The results were unveiled on Halloween Day, 2002. The new teams created have specific projects and goals; staff members were allowed some choice over which teams they were assigned to serve on; and there has been much more success in Phase Two.

Part III – Web Site Maintenance

Web site maintenance and management responsibility have been a constant issue since the beginning of www.BostonKids.org. Whether under the supervision of the Marketing Manager, the Graphic Arts Manager, or Web Team, the Web site has always been tacked on to someone's job, not benefiting from having anyone's full attention. As a result, the site is currently uneven and inconsistent in its look and feel. While the team has been very effective in broadening the Web site to include more areas of the Museum and strengthen the depth of our offerings, there are areas of the site that suffer from neglect. Web Team currently has no budget of its own, but depends instead on other Museum departments to fund the Web projects. This puts emphasis on new material rather than on updating the look of, or increasing the depth of, content already in the site: long-standing material that doesn't always have someone who 'owns' it and looks after it.

To streamline the method for putting material on the Web, and to try to provide coherent and consistent oversight of all the material, Web Team has devised a process for putting up new content or revising old content, and it all starts with a form. Any staff member who seeks to post information must fill out this form, which requires the divisional vice-president's signature. That ensures that there is divisional support for, and knowledge of, the content so there are no nasty surprises down the line. This form is necessary for both small tasks (updating a calendar item or event posting) and large (creating a whole new section.) The request form provides an opportunity for the requestor and the Graphics department to make sure that all pertinent information is in place for the new addition; it also later serves as a reminder that material needs to come down off the Web site as well.

For small jobs, The Graphic Arts Manager assigns the Graphic Designer the work and then the requestor is notified that the site has been updated. For new additions to the site, or a large-scale revamping of a section, the ideas and designs are presented by the Graphic Designer and vetted through Web Team for user testing, and then sent back to the originating Division for approval. All content is always also reviewed by the External Relations Department (PR/Marketing) for tone and consistency of message.

Although this process works very well, it has only been in effect for a year or two, and a few small bumps in the road are apparent. First, several areas of the Web site are updated frequently, such as the events calendar and the job listings, but they must still follow the same form-filling out procedure each time. This is perceived as a hassle by staff. Second, not everyone in the Museum is willing to fill out a form, or is willing to do so in a timely manner, before the need for something to be on the Web site is immediate; this creates emergencies for Web Team to manage. And third, time-sensitive material, such as notices for teacher professional development opportunities, doesn't always get removed at the appropriate time, and may mislead or irritate the visitor looking for current information.

To address some of these bumps, Web Team is now beginning the process of reviewing content management systems that would allow individual staff members to add and edit content into pre-determined design templates. This way, content could be entered by staff members who would be following guidelines pre-determined by the Design department. Then, it would be sent to a control point in the External Relations department who could review it and then post it. Of course, these management systems have their own sets of complications, the biggest for the Museum being cost to implement. But the hope is that providing a central automated system for Web content would truly make the Web site an integral part of the way the Museum does business with its many audiences.

Part IV - Growing the Web Site

Through the efforts of Web Team, BostonKids.org has grown enormously in the past two years. It has become an important venue for the Museum to distribute information and resources to its audiences. However, with no budget solely dedicated to the Web site, each department or division wishing to put content up must find the money to do so. In that way it is like the other Museum departments that deliver products such as teacher institutes and family programs: each product must be fundraised for before it can be delivered. As Gordon, the Museum's COO, put it, "Our ability to add content is tied directly to our ability to raise money." But he went on to say that the Web must be a part of future thinking and future grant proposals.

One of the first large content pieces on BostonKids.org was People of the First Light, a section of the site devoted to teaching about and understanding the Wampanoag tribes of Mashpee and Aquinnah, in Massachusetts. The Museum has had a relationship for over thirty years with the two Wampanoag tribes, creating exhibits as well as public programming together, doing teacher professional development, and working with the collections. It was a natural progression to bring this very fruitful partnership to the Web site. Through a generous grant from MCI WorldCom in 1998, the Teacher Center and the Native American Advisory Board were able to hire an outside Web developer and collaborate on the content, making this section work for both the Native and Museum communities. This section of the BostonKids.org serves as a model for current and future educational content development on our site.

The Museum is currently in the middle of a five-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for the Boston Waterfront Learning Project. It is a multi-dimensional effort which is developing waterfront fieldwork experiences and standards-based, interdisciplinary curriculum activities for students in grades 3, 4, and 5 to promote environmental literacy among students, educators, and families of the Commonwealth, focused on the Boston Harbor and watershed. One aspect of this Project is to create a Website that will disseminate curriculum and student work; stimulate visitors to waterfront sites to collect, record, and compare data and field notes; provide elementary students with a research tool to enhance their waterfront learning; and disseminate information about related resources. This Web site is expected to go live sometime in 2005.

There are many plans to put more content for teachers on the Web site. We are currently exploring ways of using the Web to bring the Museum into classrooms digitally, much the way our kits bring the Museum and Museum ways of learning into the classroom with real objects. Before this fiscal year is over, we'll be posting some of our curricular materials developed over the years, and we're exploring ways to integrate our cultural collections with out teacher resources on-line.

Other areas of the Museum are also in various stages of planning content for BostonKids.org. The collections department is busy applying for grants to make collections Web-accessible; the exhibits department is planning a Web component for every new exhibit they design and build; the marketing department is exploring new ways to communicate with our visitors via the Web; and the Early Childhood and Visitor Centers are hard at work making parent content that goes beyond directions and amenities to real material about child development and learning as play. All this is about generally extending and deepening the museum experience both before and after the visit.

When the Children's Museum of Boston instituted teams, it was actively encouraging cross-fertilization among the divisions and providing a forum for Museum staff to think about the Museum as a whole. Evaluation of the team approach with a period of assessment and reflection by the Museum, at both the senior level and the lower levels, confirmed that the team approach is a good one. Web Team is an excellent example of the worth of the team approach to our Museum. The team has not only improved BostonKids.org but also created a constituency in the Museum for seeing the Web site as a very important vehicle for promoting our mission.