April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Fast, Open, and Transparent: Developing the Smithsonian's Web and New Media Strategy

Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution, USA


This paper describes the unusual process used to create the Smithsonian's Web and New Media Strategy. The strategy was created through a fast, transparent, public-facing process that included workshops, the Smithsonian 2.0 conference, Twitter, YouTube, and ongoing collaboration through a public wiki. Transparency, openness, and speed were used to overcome obstacles and gather the input of hundreds of people inside and outside the institution.

Keywords: strategy, Smithsonian, wiki, collaboration


The Smithsonian's Web and New Media Strategy is pretty self-explanatory: two diagrams, three themes, eight goals, 54 specific tactical recommendations, all written in plain English and hosted on the public wiki on which the strategy was created:

The strategy talks about an updated digital experience, a new learning model that helps people with their "lifelong learning journeys," and the creation of the Smithsonian Commons  – " a new part of our digital presence dedicated to stimulating learning, creation, and innovation through open access to Smithsonian research, collections and communities."

We developed our strategy through a fast and transparent process that included a public wiki, Twitter, a YouTube contest, workshops, and the Smithsonian 2.0 conference. This is not the way strategy is usually made. I work for a particularly large museum and research complex  –  the Smithsonian Institution has 137 million physical objects, 6,000 employees, and $1.2 billion dollar annual budget  –  but that doesn’t mean our challenges are unique or that we’re any better prepared to cope, adapt, and change than smaller organizations  –  far from it! I’ve talked strategy with colleagues all over the world in the last two years. I’ve been surprised by how common our challenges are in organizations big and small, young and old, rich and poor. The ideas in this paper should be applicable to just about any size organization or work group.

Figure 1

Fig 1: "Education" Web and New Media strategy workshop, 4/21/2009. A few pictures from the workshops are in a Flickr set at

This paper is organized into 4 short sections.

  • Why Strategy Matters
    What strategy is and the job it should perform in an organization
  • Pain, Fear and Opportunity
    Why a strategy was (and is) necessary
  • The Strategy Process
    What we did
  • Benefits of the Open Process
    Some good things that happened as a result of transparency and openness

I. Why Strategy Matters

Strategy prioritizes tactical decision making

Good strategy helps you prioritize tactical decision making. Today, a teenage intern can harness more technology and reach a larger audience with free cloud-based applications and a little moxie than an army of Unix system administrators could ten years ago. It's easier to do stuff now, and that makes choosing what you do, and what you don't do, even more important. Organizations without good strategies tend to pursue disconnected opportunities – short-term successes  –  that give the illusion of progress, but which aren't aligned along a strategic path and don't add up to much in the long run. This is like a junk food diet that feels satisfying at the time but leaves you hungry 30 minutes later and gives you long-term health problems.

Figure 2

Fig 2: Strategy helps you prioritize tactical opportunities

Strategy is portable

In most organizations only a handful of people understand the nuances of digital strategy, and they can't be in every meeting of every department. A well written strategy makes an organization's thoughts and decisions about digital strategy portable. The strategy and its supporting data and arguments are self-contained, rational, and coherent. They can be pulled out, scrutinized, and acted upon regardless of who has come to work on any given day.

Strategy is a tool that performs work

Good strategy isn't just a bunch of pretty words: good strategy should help you get things done by clarifying what's important, what's not, and why.

II. Pain Points

Leo Mullen, CEO of Navigation Arts, a Smithsonian 2.0 conference attendee, and my collaborator on the Smithsonian Web and New Media strategy project, told me that in his experience "most organizations don’t get serious about making strategy until they’re either afraid or in pain." This section describes the points of pain and fear that motivated us to initiate a Web and New Media strategy process.

Pain point #1: decentralized content, technology, and standards

In the context of an overarching discussion about Web and New Media strategy, it's important to understand that Web and New Media production at the Smithsonin is done in a mainly decentralized environment. The Smithsonian Institution is comprised of 28 separate museums and research centers, plus the National Zoo, and the central Office of the CIO is funded to provide the Institution with a basic Web infrastructure and a handful of support staff, but practically everything on the Smithsonian's Web sites is produced by the decentralized business units. These unit-based Web teams can be very small, sometimes consisting of just a single part-time content-coordinator.

There are a lot of great things about the decentralized model, and there is a lot of visionary, award-winning work going on in the units. Web magic truly happens when collections (or research data), experts, and the public are in close proximity. And it certainly beats what, from the unit perspective, is presumed to be the alternative: dictatorial standardization from a central authority.

But with those 137 million objects, a dynamic and increasingly Web 2.0-savvy workforce, and the mission to increase and diffuse knowledge, the Smithsonian leaves a lot of value on the table by working in silos.

Search and findability  across the Web properties is poor. Usability and branding are incoherent. Web 2.0 patterns underutilized. And the units can’t afford to establish, maintain, and refine the platforms they want on their own, never mind that if they could, the repetition of effort or the devastating effect on end-users would be calamitous: Imagine 30 separate e-commerce, event ticketing, or personalization system.  Nobody would rationally design the online operations of a world-class Institution this way. The sum of the individual parts of the Smithsonian don’t add up to more than the whole, and they should.

Pain point #2: unexpected rivals

Imagining a Smithsonian Commons (Edson, 2009) describes multiple pain points facing the Smithsonian Institution's Web and new Media programs in toto, mainly as a result of a lack of coordination, strategic direction, or operational coherence.

  • Unexpected rivals in search
    Important Smithsonian initiatives can be dramatically less findable (via external search engines) than efforts by small or seemingly obscure organizations. For example, shortly after the launch of a major ocean initiative, relevant Smithsonian Web sites had low visibility on major search engines when compared with a variety of similar organizations and niche content providers
  • Unexpected rivals in reach
    The free Alexa tool ( revealed that small or obscure organizations can have greater on-line reach than the Smithsonian. (Alexa defines reach as a measure of Web site traffic compared to total Web traffic worldwide.) For example, Enchanted Learning (, a two-person Web team providing homework support for elementary school students and their families, has greater on-line reach than the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum and research complex.
  • Competition with Flickr/YouTube/Wikipedia
    Crowdsourced and crowd generated content can provide compelling alternatives to the Smithsonian's curated information. For example, user generated content related to Spaceshipone (the first privately financed craft to launch a person into orbit and an accessioned Smithsonian object) seems to offer a dramatically more complete description of Spaceshipone than the small amount of curatorially approved content on the Smithsonian's Web site.

Pain point #3: brand identity

The vaunted Smithsonian brand may not mean as much onl-ine as we think it does. The clever and revealing (but not scientific) Brand Tags Web site ( subjects well-known brands to head-to-head competitions. Currently, the Smithsonian is rated as the 569th of 957 brands, just above Weight Watchers and just below Odwalla.

Pain point #4: relevance

  • Smithsonian Web sites not used by museum visitors
    Candid interviews with visitors in and around Smithsonian museums told us that they've never used our Web sites. This statement was echoed by many users: "[your Web site] is not user friendly, it's very complicated…" (See Quick Study: Have You Ever Visited a Smithsonian Web Site?

Figure 3

Fig 3: Screen capture from the video Quick Study: Have You Ever Visited a Smithsonian Web Site? (Answer: No, these Smithsonian museum visitors, and many others, had not)

  • Demographic changes
    Shifts in the habits, ideas, and perceptions of traditional museum audiences are making old business assumptions obsolete. Lee Rainie, President of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, says:

 Everything we hear from people we interview is that today’s consumers draw no distinctions between an organization’s Web site and their traditional bricks-and-mortar presence: both must be excellent for either to be excellent.

Mr. Rainie adds that “the real fun will come with the next generation AFTER the Millennials [our current ‘digital natives’] come of age." (Rainie, 2008)

Pain point #5: thermocline issues

The thermocline is a metaphor for a host of issues that develop when Web and New Media practitioners are isolated in an organization, and as a result have a dramatically different understanding of New Media related issues than the management and leadership teams that set budgets, priorities, and strategy.

In Oceanography, a thermocline is a condition in which an invisible barrier forms between cold, dense water at the bottom of the water column and warm, light water on top. The gradient between the two layers can become so pronounced that cold and warm water areas support separate ecosystems, and the thermocline itself distorts sonar signals so much that submarines can use it to escape detection from surface ships.

Figure 4

Fig  4: The Digital Strategy Thermocline. Management and practitioners sometimes operate in different ecosystems of knowledge and methodology

The Thermocline is an apt metaphor for the situation faced by many organizations in which the practical knowledge, communication habits, and action models  –  ways of getting work done  –  are dramatically different between senior managers and typically younger staff. (Note that this is not just an issue of age. A non-ageist way of thinking about this divide is provided in The Generation M Manifesto: "Generation M is more about what you do and who you are than when you were born ."  Harvard Business Review, 2009)

The digital media thermocline presents enormous challenges to Web and New Media practitioners as they try to catalyze change within organizations. I first noticed how pronounced the divide is between senior managers and Generation M employees during discussions with executives about Twitter: practitioners saw Twitter as a critical part of their work and a rising public meme, while executives saw Twitter as a baffling distraction, or at best, they understood it as a broadcast medium rather than a social network tool. In addition, many Generation M participants in our Web and New Media strategy workshops seemed to show up with a fully-formed understanding of how the wired, 2.0 (and post 2.0) Smithsonian should function. Organizational and policy issues that stopped seasoned employees in their tracks seemed to be non-issues for them. (See the discussion thread at

The difference between a New Media savvy management team and a less savvy team makes a difference in the kind of strategy that gets produced. This is highlighted in Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales' critique of the Associated Press's digital strategy in November, 2009: " Nothing in this document couldn't have been written by someone actually savvy in the Internet culture five years ago " (Meyers, 2009).

Below is a brief list of disconnects across the New Media strategy thermocline  (The Thermocline metaphor is further illustrated in The Digital Strategy Thermocline, )

Issue Old construct Current thinking
What is the Web? The Web is a bigger megaphone for broadcasting what we do to a bigger audience The Web is a fundamentally new way of getting work done.
"We are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organization …Getting the free and ready participation of a large, distributed group with a variety of skills has gone from impossible to simple." (Shirky, 2009)
What is the Web? The Desktop Internet 3.5 billion mobile subscribers (ICT Statistics Newslog, 2007)
What is the Web? Fixation on the superficial aspects of Web 2.0 and social media Web 2.0 and social media are just part of the stack.
"There's no such thing as social media, it's just doing stuff with a computer. Everybody go to bed." (Harmon, 2009)
Mission Focus on innovation/discovery inside the Smithsonian Institution Focus on catalyzing innovation/discovery outside the institution. Joy's Law: "No matter who you are, the smartest people work for someone else." Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems (via Lakhani and Panetta, 2007)
Mission Museums are for curiosity and enlightenment Museums should do work to benefit society
Change model We can get ahead by doing more of the same thing No we can't. John Kotter, Harvard Business School's Konsosuke Matshushita Professor of Leadership, Emeratus makes the case that we are in an era of inexorable cultural, technological, and economic change that requires urgent, ongoing action. (Kotter, 2008)
Change model Manufacturing change model  –  Pursue Web and New Media with the same design/build methodologies as books, exhibits, building construction. Gardening change model  –  continuous iterative design, build, testing, refinement. (Credit to Josh Greenberg of the New York Public Library for this metaphor.)
Change Model Institutions built on the "model of enduring wisdom" (i.e., we don't have to change quickly, because wisdom is meant to endure. Credit to Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network for this metaphor) Institutions built on the model of social entrepreneurship (i.e., think big, start small, move fast)
Governance Manage technology and content separately The most interesting ecosystems are in "border habitats" between the two
Governance Govern New Media through the existing org chart Establish New Media as its own area of responsibility at the top of the organization. (See New Media, Technology, and Museums: Who's in Charge,, Edson, 2009)
Business model Make Money Now Build an ascendant brand by "doing work that matters" (see Tim O'Reilly, "Work on Stuff that Matters: First Principles" Also, Carl Malamud's tweet during our business models strategy workshop, " Once [the Smithsonian] has increased user base 100x or more, many other [revenue generating] possibilities open."
Intellectual Property Control access and reuse through restrictive policies. Protect the brand and notional income/revenue Encourage unrestricted access and reuse as a fundamental part of the mission

Table 1. Thermocline issues represent a rift between
old and new ways of thinking about New Media

III. The Strategy Process

This section describes the structure of the Smithsonian's strategy-creation process.

Strategy, version 1.0

In the summer of 2007, seven Smithsonian units and the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) commissioned a high-level assessment of the Smithsonian’s strategic position on the Web. Accenture Consulting conducted 26 interviews with project sponsors, unit-based Web teams, and key stakeholders throughout the Institution in the fall and winter of 2007.

Accenture delivered 130 pages of meeting notes and a 40 page summary report which offered findings and recommendations in the areas of vision, value drivers, brand consistency, shared services, relationship management, Web 2.0 and social collaboration, and analytics. The report summarized the current state of organizational vision and strategy for Web and New Media programs: "The Smithsonian lacks a clear vision, strategy, and business model for its Web sites and public-facing new media technologies" (Accenture Consulting, 2008).

Though a handful of actionable recommendations were extracted from Accenture's deliverables, the strategy assessment project failed to catalyze a sense of urgency or lasting change for several reasons.

  • The project had ambiguous ownership within the Smithsonian
  • Key stakeholders were not interviewed
  • There was a long gap between stakeholder interviews and when interview notes were circulated
  • There was a general sense that note taking did not reflect what was said during stakeholder interviews
  • There was no mechanism, team, or resources in place to translate recommendations into action
  • Smithsonian sponsors did not sufficiently scrutinize draft recommendations or challenge the consultants to prioritize or justify recommendations
  • The final strategy was written and delivered several months after the first round of interviews
  • Stakeholders couldn’t directly see how their input shaped recommendations
  • Few participants had experience in the development of organizational strategy.

In the end this work did not adequately address the concerns of stakeholders, nor did it provide a realistic road map for implementation. Because of these shortcomings, the initial strategy project bred a certain amount of cynicism among the Web and New Media teams in the Institution, but the project's failures did provide valuable insight when it came time to pick up the pieces and create a process for strategy 2.0. The initial deficiencies and how we chose to mitigate them in the subsequent strategy process are listed in the table below.

Strategy 1.0 project flaws Mitigation in Strategy 2.0 project
Ambiguous ownership Grant authority and define roles-and-responsibilities and governance structure in advance
Key stakeholders not interviewed Ask stakeholders to identify themselves and encourage them to participate in workshops and via a project wiki
Notes not circulated quickly Post meeting and workshop notes in real time via public wiki
Stakeholders felt meeting notes were inaccurate Display meeting notes in real time (via projector) as they're being taken. Allow stakeholders to update notes any time via public wiki
No mechanism to translate recommendations into action Focus on creating an actionable strategy, and emphasize governance and resources requirements throughout
Draft recommendations not scrutinized sufficiently Emphasize the process of scrutiny and synthesis during the formulation of the written strategy
Too long to write and distribute report Design a fast, compressed process
Stakeholders couldn't see how their input influenced the process Highlight the input of participants and provide feedback and discussion via meetings, wiki comments, and discussion
Inexperienced participants Work with an experienced technology strategist and facilitator .Open the process up to outside experts via public wiki.

Table 2. Flaws in the initial strategy project and how we tried to mitigate them the next time around

Strategy process, version 2.0

On September 23, 2008, I outlined a 90-day strategy-creation process on the internal Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy blog, a follows.

  • Kickoff
    Hold a kickoff meeting with senior management
  • Workshops
    Hold a series of workshops, open to all practitioners, about the top 5 or 6 issues facing us. The workshops will be facilitated by a leader (probably the head of a New Media agency/group), a Business Analyst, and a note taker. The facilitator will bring outside perspective and expertise to the table and provide an impartial point-of-view (and also provide some resources to move writing and research along.)
  • Internal Wiki
    As the meetings are taking place, use an internal wiki to take notes and record decisions. Show the note taking in real time on a projected computer-screen that everyone can see. The real-time wiki process ensures that participants see and understand what's being recorded, eliminates the process of circulating and approving minutes, gets the output immediately into a collaboration space, and helps drive participants towards useful, enduring ideas.
  • External Wiki
    As soon as possible (hours, not days), review and migrate meeting notes and discussion to a public-facing wiki. The public-facing wiki will accomplish three things. First, it will help us engage outside experts early in the process when things are fluid and input can be utilized, rather than at the end when things get rigid and we'll be grumpy. Second, we need the help - our brain-trust here is wonderful, but small. And third, what stronger statement could we make about what we want our relationship with the public to be in the era of Web 2.0 and collaborative knowledge creation? We've been pilloried in the past for being secretive and Web strategy is the ideal venue to demonstrate a new way of doing business. [Note: the Internal wiki was not used in the actual strategy process. All production was done on the public-facing external wiki.]
  • Validate, Release, Repeat
    The strategy should emerge through the workshops and wikis, and because we're doing all this in written form out in the open - when we're done, we're done! The wiki is the strategy.

After posting this outline I received 13 comments from internal Web and New Media practitioners, which I summarized in an internal blog post titled "Web Strategy: What I Heard and What to Tell Sr. Management" (10/1/2008).  Excerpts from the blog post are shown in the table below. (For this paper I've used the initials of the commenter instead of their full name.)

Plan area

Comments from Smithsonian Web and New Media practitioners

Urgency I think a core team driving this project is essential and there needs to be a sense of urgency motivating said team. (W.B.)  
The Wiki I very much like the idea that the Wiki becomes the strategy. That approach is both more efficient and ensures that the strategy will be a living, growing document that can adapt to our changing needs over time. (N.P) …the more inclusive and transparent the process, the more it's likely to succeed but also the more internal buy-in it's likely to inspire. I see no reason not to move forward with it. (M.M.) This approach seems to be an excellent way of creating a strategy in a transparent fashion. The steps seems logical and I agree the wiki tool and the process it would allow could appeal to the larger SI community, outside experts, and the Secretary. (D.M.)  
Fatigue Many of us are burnt out by the process of creating documents that don't result in any actual product or process. I too…am tired of looking for a strategy, when we should just get started and see what we come up with. (L.S.) We already spent hours this year working with the Accenture consultants only to end up with a sloppy final product that seems to have produced nearly universal disappointment. (S.S.)  
Governance and ownership

Is the initiative given adequate authority, independence, and resources? To my mind governance is a critical enough question as to merit being one of the top issues that we try to address in the plan itself. (M.M.)

I definitely believe in bottom-up/edge-based innovation and inspiration, but ultimately, someone has to have some say in the enforcement of what (hopefully) will be new (and probably somewhat uncomfortable) ideas (isn't this the definition of innovation?)…  (D.M.)

...We, here at SI, have problems actualizing the strategy, putting form to the excitement and the ideas. Generally what works is: the smaller the team, the more specific the product, the greater the likelihood of development success. (L.S.)  

Executive skill/focus

What I am concerned about is the lack of tech knowledge among 'senior management'. I am faced with this constantly and either get a 'yeah-yeah, move along' buy-in with it cause they just can't be bothered with what I'm telling them, or I'm met with opposition and resistance because they can't be bothered by what I'm proposing to them. How do you plan to deal with this? I see you being met with blank stares when talking about new media initiatives like Web 2.0...I hardly think they can grasp that concept. (Anonymous)

It sounds like many of us may have to participate in the process without the clear support of our directors or supervisors … That is, UNLESS this process is seen as piece of Clough's SI-wide strategic planning process, which was just officially announced today via email. If the commitment to this process comes from the very top, it sure would make selling the idea to our supervisors easier. (S.S.)  

Synthesis The page comes across as a straightforward project plan: Kickoff, stakeholder input, validate, publish…What's missing in my mind is the synthesis. Synthesis should come between input and validation. What's to keep this from being another Accenture type product, but from a topical angle. The Accenture report didn't synthesize thoughtfully, didn't digest and recommend beyond the patently obvious. Another one of these will severely wound our faith that a change is a-blowing. (R.F.)  

Table 3. Comments on the initial "workshop-to-wiki" strategy creation proposal

These comments on the proposed strategy process show the insight and commitment of the Smithsonian's internal Web and New Media practitioners, and some of these comments proved to be prescient,  particularly those related to executive skill, governance, and oversight. It was critically important to have this input, direction, and validation early in the process, and I put these ideas in the forefront of my thinking as the process evolved. The strategy process (and, of course, the strategy itself) was shaped by comments like these.

Smithsonian 2.0 conference

The Smithsonian 2.0 conference was a two-day gathering held in January, 2009 to explore "how to make SI collections, educational resources, and staff more accessible, engaging, and useful to younger generations (teenage through college students)." (See A Gathering to Re-Imagine the Smithsonian in the Digital Age, Keynote speakers were Bran Ferren of Applied Minds, Inc.; author Clay Shirky; George Oates, founder of the Flickr Commons; and Chris Anderson, author and Editor-in-Chief of Wired. Their keynotes and a full list of participants are on-line at the conference Web site link above.  

The conference was inspiring and created a palpable sense of excitement and possibility around the Smithsonian. The invited participants were almost unanimous in their advice to the Smithsonian: embrace change, work quickly, use crowdsourcing and the tools of social networking and "Web 2.0" writ large, and share the incredible resources and expertise of the Smithsonian as widely and aggressively as possible. But as with the "Strategy 1.0" process discussed above, there was no organizational mechanism through which we were to take this advice, scrutinize it, and synthesize it into a plan for change. Change management, post Smithsonian 2.0, was a bit of a vacuum, into which we inserted the Web and New Media Strategy process that eventually delivered a working strategy to the Institution. In addition, the event was initially conceived as a closed event with only a handful of participants, and members of the Smithsonian Web and New Media practitioner community worked hard to make the event more open, both to Smithsonian staff and the world at large via Webcasts.

Strategy 2.0 process defined

As noted above, the enthusiasm and sense of possibility generated by the Smithsonian 2.0 conference provided a natural lead-in to a focused strategy creation process, and the shortcomings of "strategy 1.0," as well as the advice and involvement of the Smithsonian Web practitioners, gave us insight into how to structure a successful process.

The process, reviewed and validated by Smithsonian Web and New Media practitioners, revolved around a public facing wiki and five workshops for Smithsonian staff.

The workshop topics were

(The URLs above point to the session's notes page. Links to each session's discussion guide and post-workshop evaluations are at the top of each page.)

All Smithsonian staff were invited to participate in any or the workshops directly, and to follow or contribute to the workshops via the public wiki.

The workshops were two hours long and were facilitated by Leo Mullen, CEO of Navigation Arts, and Nikki Pampalone, a Navigation Arts Information Architect. Leo’s deep experience with corporate and institutional technology strategy and his sensitivity to the internal machinations of large institutions proved to be invaluable. Leo was a brilliant collaborator on all phases of strategy development, and Nikki provided outstanding support and insight throughout the process.

Real-time notes, shared publicly 

At the beginning of each workshop, participants were told that the main intent of the workshops was to "move relevant information to the wiki where it could be openly evaluated, sifted, weighed, and considered by all." (See Smithsonian Institution Web and New Media Strategy, V. 1.0 2009, Process at-a-Glance,  The rooms where the workshops were held were set up with large screens on to which the note taker's laptop display was projected so attendees could see what was being written, as it was being written. Information Architect Nikki Pampalone was the note taker.

During the course of each workshop, Leo Mullen led participants through a series of discussion points outlined in discussion guides that were given to participants and posted to the wiki. (See links to the discussion guides on the workshop pages listed above.) Leo and I worked out the discussion guides in advance to help organize our thinking around the various workshop topics, but in the actual workshops we generally let the conversation take its own course.

Figure 5

Fig 5: Workshop notes were taken in real time and posted every few minutes to a public facing wiki. Notes were displayed to workshop participants on screens in the front of the room as the notes were being composed

The workshops were held between April 29 and May 6, 2009. Two hundred and ninety-four Smithsonian stakeholders from 55 museums, research centers and business units participated in one or more workshops.  Over 29,000 words of notes were taken and shared on the wiki. Between January 29, 2009 (the day the first page was created on the wiki) and January 31, 2010, the wiki received 65,625 page views and 31,913 unique daily visitors: 2,166 edits have been made (but by only 184 unique daily editors, probably representing under 30 individuals).  The wiki currently has 153 registered members with editing rights. (See Running the Wiki, below, for a discussion of user rights.)

The process of synthesizing a strategy from the input and conversations of the workshop process began almost immediately after the first workshop. Leo Mullen and I outlined the structure and content of the strategy and presented draft outlines and business requirements (things the strategy had to address) to an advisory group of practitioners on May 12, just 6 days after the last workshop. (This group of practitioners helped write the strategy and provided guidance, oversight, and support during the strategy-creation process. Group members are listed in the strategy appendix at

Following the philosophy of openness and transparency, meeting materials and notes were posted to the public wiki ( .  The strategy was essentially complete the first week of June, six weeks after the first workshop.

Figure 6

Fig 6: Illustration from the completed Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy. Theme II describes an updated Smithsonian Learning Model. Illustration by Nikki Pampalone, Navigation Arts

Running the Wiki

We decided to host the wiki in an externally hosted environment ( for several reasons.

  • It was easy and fast to set up
  • It was inexpensive ($50/year)
  • The site we chose had a good suite of intuitive editing and back end tools
  • Since we wanted to run the wiki without moderating comments or changes before allowing them to be published, we used a hosted service to establish some separation between the Smithsonian brand (on the core Web site) and the branding for this wiki. In the unlikely event that inappropriate/offensive content was posted to the site, damage would be contained to the domain.

To ensure ease of access, we set up user permissions on the wiki so that anybody could view the site without requiring registration or login, but to encourage responsible participation, only registered members could make edits or comments. To date, everyone who has requested an account has been granted one, and there have been no incidents of abuse or misconduct. Changes to the site are monitored via RSS and e-mail notifications.

A common complaint about group-edited wiki pages is that it is difficult to know who has written what when viewing any particular version. We attempted to avert this problem by encouraging contributors to follow a very simple style guide when editing pages or making inline comments. The style guide asked editors to put their comments and modifications in brackets with their initials and the date when changing a page. This convention was developed through previous work on an internal wiki, and it seemed to be mainly successful. The style guide is at

Figure 7

Fig 7: This grab below shows an example of the bracketed-comment style used in a back-and-forth about Web technology investments. From the Business Models workshop notes at

IV. Benefits of the Open Process

Transparency, openness, and speed defined the strategy-creation process and created an environment that was conducive to the creation of a strong strategy. Below is a list of some of the beneficial effects of this way of working.

  • Extended inquiry
    In two hours, each of the workshops could only skim the surface of deep and challenging strategy topics. Real-time note taking on the public wiki was a way to acknowledge the limited nature of the workshops and invite participants and other stakeholders and interested parties to extend and deepen the inquiry over time.
  • Participant input mattered
    Workshop participants told me they felt that their input "counted" because they could see that their ideas were being heard and recorded  –  and would be remembered and have an impact after the workshops adjourned. (Many participants shared their frustration with committee style meetings in which discussions, thoughts, and ideas just drifted away after the meetings adjourned.)
  • Breaking out of the "back room" mentality
    Organizations need to confront "unspoken truths" in order to change. The open wiki format enabled us to openly discuss and analyze difficult topics in a productive way. For example, see the strategy's description of the current overall end-user experience on Smithsonian Web sites: "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." (
  • Edit while it's fresh
    Real-time notes on the wiki allowed participants to edit and make comments as soon as they returned to their desks, while the ideas were still fresh in their heads. Changes and comments could be made and published instantaneously, without waiting for a document of notes and minutes to be circulated and changes reviewed and compiled. (Such a process would have taken weeks given the number of people involved.)
  • A bigger brain trust
    People outside the Institution, and Smithsonian staff not able to attend, were able to follow and the discussions and contribute to strategy development via the Wiki, Twitter, and eventually YouTube.
  • Sharing and linking
    Written notes on Wiki pages allowed for linking and URL sharing in a way that an audio recording or Web cast would not. (Referencing a spoken passage in a podcast or Web cast is challenging and tedious.)
  • Trumping bureaucracy
    Gathering support and momentum for new ideas in a supportive public forum before subjecting them to the withering scrutiny of bureaucratic processes was a way of inoculating the process against a bureaucracy's natural tendency to say no to things.
  • Efficient problem solving
    Open, iterative development is an efficient way to find and solve problems. Or, as they say in open-source software development: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" (Raymond, 2000). In one stark example of this, an attorney at the Creative Commons spotted a typographical error in a "final" strategy page that negated the intended meaning of a whole section of content: instead of saying "we will not unnecessarily restrict content" we had written "we will unnecessarily restrict content." This error had eluded internal detection until a highly motivated outsider focused on the intellectual property statements in the strategy.
  • Speed
    Working directly on a wiki is a faster way to collaborate and develop ideas than a traditional committee-driven process. Smithsonian practitioners expressed a preference for asynchronous collaboration through the wiki for most activities.
  • Promises made in public are not easily forgotten
    Saying that we intend to create a free content commons to a group of internal bureaucrats is one thing: making that commitment in public is quite another. The assertions and direction of the strategy are less likely to be forgotten or ignored because there are more witnesses.

Figure 8

Fig 8: Real-time workshop notes "wiki-cast" to a public wiki enabled and encouraged a number of beneficial activities. The Web page pictured is for the April 30, 2009 Technology and Operations workshop,


Throughout the process I was mindful of the admonitions of my colleagues who told me that past failures had left them wary of strategy projects, but those of us who worked on this project were united by the conviction that a strong Web and New Media strategy was required to prepare the Smithsonian Institution to succeed in the 21st century. I was also mindful of the extraordinary potential of the Smithsonian  –  the affection felt towards it even by its critics  –  and the talent and dedication of the its staff: I did not want to fail them! I tried to use transparency and openness as a tool to make difficult but necessary assertions about opportunity, our strengths and weaknesses, the urgent need for systematic change.


Accenture Consulting (2008). Smithsonian Institution Web Strategy and Assessment, Volume I.

Edson, Michael (2009). The Digital Strategy Thermocline. Consulted 2/4/2010.

Edson, Michael (2009). Imagining a Smithsonian Commons. First presented at the Gilbane Boston conference in December, 2008, and subsequently updated and presented at several venues, including the 2009 Computers in Libraries conference:  text version:, PowerPoint version:, video version: Consulted 1/30/2010.

Edson, Michael (2009), New Media, Technology, and Museums: Who's in Charge, Consulted 2/4/2010

A Gathering to Re-Imagine the Smithsonian in the Digital Age (Smithsonian Institution Web 2.0 Conference) (2009). Consulted 1/30/2010.

"Global Mobile Phone Users Top 3.3 Billion By End-2007." ICT Statistics Newslog. 5/26/2007. Consulted 11/11/2008.

Harmon, Elliot (2009). Quote is from a twitter message, Consulted 2/4/2010.

Haque, Umair (2009). “The Generation M Manifesto”. Harvard Business Review. July 8, 2009. Consulted 2/4/2010.

Kotter, John P. (2008). A Sense of Urgency. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Lakhani KR, Panetta JA (2007). The Principles of Distributed Innovation. MIT Press Consulted 2/1/2010.

Myers, Steve (2009). Jimmy Wales: AP's 'Landing Pages' a Good, if Late, Idea. Pointer Online. 11/16/2009. Consulted 2/4/2010.

O'Reilly, Tim (2009). Work on Stuff that Matters: First Principles. O'Reilly Radar. Consulted 2/3/2010.

Raine, Lee (2008). E-mail to the author, 4/21/2008.

Raymond, Eric S. (2000). The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Consulted 2/1/2010.

Shirky, Clay (2008). Here Comes Everybody. New York: Hyperion, 2008.

Smithsonian Institution Web and New Media Strategy, V. 1.0 (2009). Consulted 1/30/2010. This URL is the home page for the strategy, as well as the strategy-creation process.

Cite as:

Edson, M., Fast, Open, and Transparent: Developing the Smithsonian's Web and New Media Strategy. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted