What Learning Organizations Resist Learning

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If I’ve already referred you to Robert Poole’s 2003 book Explorers House: National Geographic and the World it Created, sorry for repeating myself. I can’t stop recommending it — kind of ironic given how long it took me to get around to reading it. I’ll blame my delay on a deceptive title and cover illustration: made to look like you’re about to delve into a collection of adventure stories, the kind best suited to vacation reading. Actually, Poole’s goal was corporate history: equal parts celebration and lessons-learned to remind National Geographic Society staffers where they’ve come from, what they’re all about, and how the Society has dented the universe. It succeeds at the first part, but truly excels at the latter.


Not to put too fine a point on it, but Poole has written the best book I’ve ever read on nonprofit branding. Although I’ve previously applauded National Geographic’s approach to communication, Poole describes how deeply knowledge marketing is embedded in its work, and how the Society benefits from offering its audience multiple points of interaction with its content. Communicating in a substantive way has given the Society its identity — inquisitive, authoritative, and irresistible. An identity that is, for other organizations, enviable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Another book I also procrastinated in reading turned out to be a kind of prequel to Poole’s success story: John Falk’s and Beverly Sheppard’s Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions (Altamira Press, 2006) describes a world at the opposite end of the spectrum, one that doesn’t understand the benefits of knowledge marketing. They describe a world that continues placing great, and undeserved, faith in a “build it and they will come” mentality, and in the attendant belief that high visitor numbers indicate “something good is happening”; a world that continues to expect people innately understand what museums are all about and expects those same people to blindly support their work.

Fortunately, we’re told, the museum audience isn’t tapped-out: Falk and Sheppard assure readers there are “many more people who could find museums satisfying to their identity-needs than currently avail themselves of museums” if the museum can provide the “catalysts for individuals, organizations, and whole communities to come together and develop meaningful transactions.”

Figuring out what constitutes that “long-lasting, meaningful transaction” is the industry’s $64,000 Question. Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that museums will continue down their traditional, misguided, marketing path instead of transforming what they know into mission-connecting products that develop and nurture the interests of a community of supporters — exactly what’s needed to produce, according to Falk and Sheppard, “sustainable and profitable revenue streams that support ongoing development and growth.”

So is this “transaction” merely about money — institutional sustainability and growth — or something else? The impact museums make on society is an issue Douglas Worts thoughtfully examined in a pair of papers: “Extending the Frame: Forging a New Partnership with the Public,” Art in Museums, (1994) and “Measuring Museum Meaning,” Journal of Museum Education (Spring 2006). A veteran museum educator, researcher, and theorist, Worts recognizes how few people “think of a museum as a locus for transforming human attitudes and behavior.” He knows, moreover, that it’s not the public’s fault for not seeing museums as a practical, leveragable societal resource: museums don’t know how to (or why they should) persuade people that culture should be at the centre of their life.

Worts wants people to see the museum not as a leisure-time activity, or as a discipline-based academic specialty, but as a venue whose meaning impacts “the context of daily life,” and he wants visitors to be partners in an endless process of creative meaning making:

“If the museum is truly the place of the muses, then museum professionals must realize that the physical and intellectual aspects of our current operations must function more symbolically as triggers that support visitors in activating the muses within all of us. It is this inner space that, in my view, is the real museum.” — Douglas Worts

Worts is concerned some will see his vision as idealistic and unachievable. I don’t think so, but success will elude museums for as long as they persist in believing that meaningful marketing — communicating broadly and substantively — is unnecessary. Museum managers aren’t asking fundamental questions about how a museum experience adds societal value. Activating this muse, writes Worts, necessitates the creation of new opportunities to engage audience thinking far beyond the “beyond the current emphasis on exhibitions.”

And some will undoubtedly object, arguing that this kind of meaningful marketing conflicts directly with the latest museum orthodoxy: avoiding the appearance of paternalism. But at what point do museums tread so intellectually softly that they actually abdicate their responsibility to challenge people’s thinking? Consider the messages behind Smithsonian or Natural History magazines: that the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History respectively are paternalistic, or that both are vital, relevant, and important organizations because they widely transmit their unique and compelling knowledge?

To figure out how to dent the universe, museums are on the look-out for best practices. But which practices? Communicating identity and mission is a chronic challenge when organizations rely on narrowly-focused traditional branding practices such as mission statements, logos, taglines, advertising, media relations, or direct mail. Museums have to look beyond and make room for authentic and substantive conceptions of how to brand.

The outcome of this sharing should be about engaging the public and challenging audiences’ thinking not a ritualistic internal planning exercise. How can the museum message have an impact if the message isn’t getting out in the first place? It’s high time to communicate beyond their four walls. They can’t be recognized as impactful organizations until they make a better account of their public value and start telling people why they are important.

So where should best-practice-seeking museums look for inspiration? A great model has been hidden in plain sight for over a century: the National Geographic Society, adaptable and (fortunately for us, almost pathologically) open-minded about how its mission — “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge” — gets achieved.

Robert Poole tells us “the key to National Geographic Society’s success had been its willingness to be different from other organizations.” Often criticized for not following the practices of other magazines, NG editors didn’t worry about competition from upstart magazines such as Look or Life: those were read and thrown away (and are now defunct). National Geographic, on the other hand, was read and saved. This sustained interest in the product provided the real proof that the magazine was doing something meaningful.

Why did National Geographic stand out? It was willing to provide a fresh story. The Society began sponsoring scientific research and expeditions in 1905 as a way to become “the authority on matters of science and exploration.” By leveraging its unique research the organization became nationally prominent and distinguished, recognized for being unlike other organizations. By such gestures, Poole writes, “the National Geographic Society was transformed into something more than a successful publishing house.”

This launched its habit of taking bold moves that would make an impact: pioneering the use of colour photographs, publishing books, expanding into documentary films, television production, electronic media, and even branching out with specialty magazines. New ventures took time to take root, but editors knew that if the magazine was to stay ahead of new competitors the Society must take steps to demonstrate its vibrancy and relevancy. And over time, as each new product did, in fact, take root it became part of what seemed to be “a logical progression.”

Although the Society had a deeply-seated institutional fear of “preaching way above the heads of ordinary well-educated people,” editors realized not just that “the public hungered for authentic geographic material,” but they craved the stories that would captivate and challenge their thinking. Members (not “subscribers”; the Society has nurtured a community of the “right” people — those wanting NGS stories — not the most people) were “well-educated, avid readers who routinely ranked the longest articles as their favorites.”

Insights like these, Poole tells us, didn’t come from editors relying on “the market testing and readership surveys just then coming into vogue.” Advertising legend David Ogilivy once remarked that people have a tendency to rely on surveys “like a drunk uses a lamppost; for support, not illumination.” National Geographic, under the Grosvenors at least, did not make this mistake. Editor-in-chief Melville Grosvenor seemed to know that surveys are a good way to gauge reaction, but not direction: he believed that his long experience of meeting with and listening to member-readers “provided all the audience data he needed.” In the 1950s, for example, the Society’s early TV specials provided an opportunity for Grosvenor to gauge public reaction to the programming he hoped National Geographic would begin producing on a regular basis. Because these television specials were different and unexpected, NG readers might — had they been asked at the start — have simply said they preferred the magazine and didn’t see a need to branch into TV. Grosvenor knew — regardless of whether readers could say so — that “People expect that sort of thing!”

In 1995 a newly-established subsidiary, National Geographic Ventures, launched a flurry of new for-profit opportunities that divided the National Geographic family: the new looked upon the old as arrogant and elitist, whereas the old viewed the new as quick-buck artists. To overcome organizational turmoil, the Society drew on its corporate lessons and reminded staff of its tradition of adaptability. The magazine wasn’t being abandoned, but the Society had to address whether or not it was about something other than a magazine. CEO John Fahey reminded staff that the National Geographic Society was about providing a fresh story: “We want to make sure that we accomplish the mission in every way possible… We have to adapt the delivery to the changes — the sometimes revolutionary changes — in technology and behavior on a worldwide basis.”

The need to understand geography in this complex, interdependent, world of ours is why the Society exists. Addressing what Poole calls the “woeful condition of geographic literacy in the United States” remains its ongoing crusade, one that connects the present-day Society to the core values espoused originally by Gardiner Greene Hubbard and other Society founders. It’s doubtful the crusade will ever end, but that shouldn’t suggest a lack of impact. Any organization’s impact, to be truly meaningful, has to be organic: give people the tools that challenge their thinking, then get out of the way; let audiences make up their own minds. By putting geography into classrooms, living room TVs, and computers everywhere — by engaging minds with interesting, fresh content — the Society has done just that… and dented the universe.

And made its crusade sustainable: The Society’s present day (circa 2003) outreach is formidable: 9 million readers of National Geographic magazine, 1.1 million children read National Geographic Kids, hundreds of millions of viewers watch its TV programs and visit its websites. This reach is enough to make someone like AOL’s Steve Case sit up and take notice. Case, who believes traditional philanthropy has become hidebound and ineffective, told the New York Times that the National Geographic Society’s success at sustaining itself through sales of knowledge products means the Society “doesn’t have to focus on collecting money or holding black-tie balls to raise money because its sales are sustaining its mission of educating the world about the world” (Stephanie Strom, “What’s Wrong with Profit?” 13 November 2006).

Is the Society’s success at making geography, history, and science popular and infectious the cause of its financial sustainability, or is financial sustainability enabling the Society’s success at making geography, history, and science popular and infectious? Its pattern of adaptability, its willingness to accomplish the mission in every way possible, has meant spending for research, which means more stories to tell. That’s the primary motivator. By harnessing substantive communication, National Geographic Society has shown us that good will and sustainability can be two sides of the same coin.

Good communication, strong brand, mission fulfillment, and sustainability are indelibly linked: a lesson many learning organizations resist learning.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 31 March 2008)

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