Heritage observatory observations

black binocular on round device

Useful discussion has continued around the notion of what a heritage observatory might look like, and there seems to be common agreement that what the sector doesn’t need is another static repository where information, data and what could otherwise be useful knowledge gets dumped and gathers digital dust.  We’ve got those already.  Any such development needs to be useful and ultimately sustainable (therefore useful might be replaced with vital).

In participating in a discussion with the wonderfully entitled ‘helping to help things happen’ group (part of the wider Heritage2020 programme of activity in England), my takeaway is that there are a set of areas/activities where an observatory function might operate which need further considering in a future feasibility study.  These are:

  1. Signposting of data / research / resources.  There is lots out there, but it can be hard to find or sometimes accidentally stumbled across. The signposting could therefore be passively pointing to what is held elsewhere, and also actively undertaking scanning outside the core sector to signpost knowledge and data that is useful.
  2. Brokerage. There is a need for further assistance in putting partners together (users / producers of knowledge), and supporting knowledge exchange in the heritage policy space. There are excellent projects and partnerships already underway (such as the Oxford TORCH Heritage programme, or our own work at the Scottish Confucius Institute for Business & Communication’s heritage and tourism activity streams supporting international working), and also organisations that exist to support this area of work (such as knowledge exchange units or the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement which focuses on the ‘translation’ of research into wider society) but much more could be done here on a national basis specifically within the heritage sector.
  3. Synthesis. Complex datasets, information sources, and technical detail which exist can be synthesised and translated for end users (particularly in the ‘SME’ world of NGO heritage) where little capacity exists to undertake this.  Again, organisations such as The Heritage Alliance and the Built Environment Forum Scotland already play a key role in this, but their own capacity is limited and could be scaled up further.
  4. Horizon scanning, scenarios and research agendas. There could be a ‘think tank’ role for an observatory, looking at longer term issues or macro pictures and drivers affecting the business and policy environment of the heritage sector.  In undertaking the potential roles listed above, an observatory might play a role in forming a shared heritage policy research agenda (taking aspects of the Heritage Counts / Heritage Audits programmes further, and picking up on the UKHRG work previously blogged about).
  5. Rewiring the relationships and transforming practice. A key aspect of any observatory development might be that it can support the transformation of the way we already work in the heritage policy arena, thinking about how we can do knowledge management better, and support skills and practice development at an individual and organisational level. New ways of working, creating shared knowledge, and better ‘evidence deployment’ techniques in policy debates could be the transformative element for making the case for heritage.
  6. Geographical coverage. Discussions at the moment are centred in England, however many heritage policy issues are cross-cutting in terms of geography, and the research funding councils which fund most of the University-centred research activities have a UK-wide remit. Whilst heritage and cultural policy is largely a devolved issue across the home nations, any observatory development should try to work at a country-wide level, not least as the devolved approaches in heritage are already raising interesting opportunities for learning from each other about difference – and can collectively support the wider public policy challenges for the sector that lie ahead regardless of where we live.




Management research in the heritage workplace

An article in the Times Higher Education magazine last week suggested that an understanding of the reliance on management research in the workplace can help academics plan their own dissemination strategies. The article drew on research investigating the use of management research within the healthcare sector, published in Human Relations, and commentary by Gerry McGivern, Professor of Organisational Analysis at Warwick Business School.  It considered the relationships that academics undertaking management research may need to form with practitioners in the workplace in order to not only get the best out of the research aims, but also to enable knowledge transfer and uptake of ideas from the academy into the workplace. Issues around ‘knowledge management’ within organisations are relevant to this, meaning that academics have to spend time understanding what organisations need to think about and understand in their operating and strategic environment. The article notes that long term relationships are often crucial, and that traditional published results in academic journals may include a level of theoretical and statistical details that may be (shock!) “boring and/or baffling” for busy managers. 

The context for the study drawn on is interesting, as healthcare has become an area of intense management research interest over the past few years.  But it is more fundamental than just being about dissemination – and what of other sectors, such as heritage? I have been arguing like a broken record for two decades that management research in the sector is under-developed: to the detriment of a sector (like health) which is having to transform itself in a pressured financial environment, and which is also partly reliant on a volunteer work force, and also has complex and changing operational structures and policy contexts. Management research developing theoretical and practical concepts that are relevant to the sector is going on, and is being applied – but arguably not enough, and the sustained longer-term knowledge exchange relationships between heritage and management are patchy. Much management research where it does touch on sector issues is often more critique or case study / evaluation driven – and whilst I am not being critical of this type of analysis, it suggests there is an opportunity to develop onwards from these more limited knowledge development interventions. 

A challenge, without doubt, is that much management research is inaccessible – either, as noted, due to its opacity and ability to engage the more general reader; or it is hidden in academic journals where those in the sector who would find it most useful would not necessarily know to look. Additionally, if they did find it, it may well be hidden behind paywalls, and still on gaining access need that ‘translation’ – or as McGivern suggests, ‘the “safe spaces” where “knowledge leaders” get a chance to “engage with research, innovate and shift practices.”‘

With my combined academic / trustee hat on (for The Heritage Alliance & BEFS) I’ll be continuing to work on how we can better facilitate the nexus between heritage practitioner and manager researcher.  

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