Sedef Gavaz, Natural History Museum: Digitally transforming a 150-year-old museum

Sedef Gavaz

Sedef Gavaz, Natural History Museum: Digitally transforming a 150-year-old museum Duncan is an award-winning editor with more than 20 years experience in journalism. Having launched his tech journalism career as editor of Arabian Computer News in Dubai, he has since edited an array of tech and digital marketing publications, including Computer Business Review, TechWeekEurope, Figaro Digital, Digit and Marketing Gazette.

After Sedef Gavaz, head of digital product at the Natural History Museum, took part in a panel discussion at TechEx Global this week, she shared insight and personal experience of digital transformation.

What would you say are the key aspects of digital transformation?

Data is fundamentally important to all of it because, if you don’t have data, you don’t have anything.

Language is also important when trying to bring people with you on a digital transformation journey.

And I don’t mean so much avoiding technical jargon because that probably goes without saying. But saing to colleagues something like “we’re just running a small experiment here” or “this is a pilot”. Speaking in language that resonates with an organisation.

At the Natural History Museum, where we have more than 300, scientists, everyone’s really comfortable with the idea of experimenting, because people understand that.

Outcome focused thinking is really important for change. And also being outside in. So looking at things from a customer perspective – say part of the transformation journey is moving away from being internal with all of our thinking, to be outside in and customer centric in that.

Empowered teams are also crucial. So delegating decision making down to the lowest possible place within an organisation whereby people have the right information to make decisions. At the Natural History Museum, we work in product teams, which is very much the setup in Silicon Valley with the tech companies. And it’s not the most natural fit of an organisation – it’s almost 150 years old, and bringing a bit of Silicon Valley into the mix. But we found that it’s working really well in terms of making that transformational change across the organisation.

I’ve visited some of the companies based in Silicon Valley. It’s interesting to see how they come up with their ideas. There are lots of post-it notes everywhere.

Absolutely. I mean, that’s one thing we struggled with during the pandemic. We’ve used the tools available, whether it’s a Trello or something like that, so we’ve used creativity boards digitally.

It’s the cumulative building of ideas that suffered during the pandemic because you inevitably get the seeds of something, but then you kind of can’t get that momentum and energy going to grow the idea.

What I mean, as far as digital transformation is concerned, that has really sped up a lot because of the pandemic. Absolutely. Yeah. We were Ready.

Everyone was already working on all the digital tools, say Slack, Google Drive, Google Hangouts etc. So we just picked up our laptops, I literally I shut the department down on March 17, just before we were given the instruction from the government to take your laptop, phone, take everything you need, we’re not coming back for a while. I said “see you online tomorrow”. And we just picked up and carried on.

In the first lockdown, we saw about three years’ worth of innovation in three months. And we’ve seen subsequent pushes with this whole period of a year and a half of really big bounds. For example, looking at how we redesign and re-articulate that the service design experience of coming to the Natural History Museum. It’s also been across the business model innovation, so thinking about how we generate income for the organisation, because, obviously, while our doors are closed, we self generate a large portion of our income.

And so we’ve had to think of new ways to do that because, traditionally, museums have to cater to one audience. They are the people who walk in through their doors. Three years ago, we began to build an entirely digital audience completely separate to the physical experience, and digital products within that. The pandemic came, and overnight we literally lost 8 to 9 million of our users across the site. But our digital offer picked up exponentially and it grew 76% over the past year. If you look at it holistically, there’s been a huge negative impact, which many organisations and businesses have felt. But it’s been brilliant in a way, at least from a digital perspective.

What do you think was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome with digital?

Digital transformations is absolutely a journey. If I think about the context of the Natural History Museum, we’re almost 150 years old, and for 150 odd years we have collected things. We are a content-rich organisation, and we think about everything through a content lens. Now, looking at that from an outside perspective, I just think “oh, that’s brilliant. We can turn all of that content into products and services and see it in different sorts of experiences”.

The organisational mindset is one of collect and preserve. We are, as part of our charter, mandated to have everything within our collection and 80 million specimens that we hold within our collection, and the collection grows every single day. Some of them are almost invisible. But some of them are absolutely vast. If you think about a dinosaur skeleton, it’s absolutely huge. You think about a whale skeleton, even a whale skull. I mean, you couldn’t get it in this room.

From the perspective of museum goers, how will your digital transformation impact their experience?

If you visit the Natural History Museum online, you will see all the different products and services that we’ve got. If you walk in through the door, that’s one of our next big challenges – how to better join that pre- and post-visit experience together for those who walk in through our doors. 

Potentially, prior to their visit or after their visit they can still connect with us. For example, if you go into the vaults, you will see the Aurora diamond collection, which is beautiful and exquisite. And under UV light you see the diamonds the diamonds differently. So under normal light, you see them with one appearance then under UV you’re seeing them with a completely different appearance.

You can experience that in the museum and you should. It’s beautiful. When you get home, you can read all about what’s going on. Where do those diamonds come from? Why do they look different in different lights? But when you’re standing in the physical space, you’re probably thinking what’s in that next cabinet to look at? So it’s about understanding the right point in that overarching customer experience as to when to bring forward content or experiences to people.

What advice would you give to companies that are working on digital transformation?

Transformation happens at multiple levels in a way. So, if you look across the transforming processes, and you’ve got to think about what’s the drive for each of these as well, since efficiency isn’t about maximising profits.

So you’ve got process transformation. You’ve got organisation and cultural transformation, which is probably the hardest of all to do, because you need to win hearts and minds. But my advice to anyone starting on this journey is to start small and start with an area or a person within a business that’s willing to do things in a slightly different way, and your success.

Metrics are also important, and how digital enables you to measure different things and measure more accurately and finely tune those and better articulate the benefits of what you’re doing back to business. So, if you’re looking to the online shop, you can, of course, understand when your customers interact with you. If it’s a one-off interaction, what do they buy? Does it change seasonally? Does it look like they’ve got kids or buying gifts for kids? Are they having things delivered at different addresses?

You have far more nuanced view of each of your customer groups than you do, for example, in a physical retail setting where people will come in. Yes, stores have got loyalty programmes – I mean, I often forgets to use my loyalty code. So you are still not having as complete a picture as you could have in the digital world.

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