At the end of this chapter you should:
understand how the skills of the people who work with your collections can best be used to help the organisation meet its objectives;
be able to assess the skills of your people in a simple and supportive way; and
be able to match the skills of your people with the requirements of your organisation, and identify any training needs.
People are an organisation’s most valuable resource. They are the source of creativity and inspiration that keep your organisation alive. It is, therefore, essential that museums, galleries and libraries understand how to bring out the best in people and how to employ them to achieve the collective aims of the organisation.
The people who work in museums, galleries and libraries, whether in a paid or a voluntary capacity, possess a diverse range of skills and abilities. Many of these skills can go unrecognised by the organisation, because people may work in narrow fields that do not fully use all their skills. Sometimes even the person does not recognise all his or her own skills; for example, someone who has raised several children may have tremendous organisational skills but not think of these skills as useful to the organisation for which he or she works.
By carrying out a skills assessment, you will be able to identify what skills you already have and recognise where there are gaps that may need to be filled by training, networking, or hiring people with specific expertise.
Why assess skills?
Carrying out a skills assessment finds out what skills people have. Then give them jobs, projects or a series of tasks that more fully use their range of skills. Assessing skills is about recognising the talents you already have and putting them to good use. The value for the people being assessed is that they should end up with a more fulfilling role in the organisation.
Before you undertake a skills assessment, it is useful to have a plan for the organisation as a whole. The plan should state the aims and objectives of the organisation, and outline what the organisation will do to meet these aims. With this plan in place, it will become apparent what skills are needed. If you then assess the skills of the people working in your organisation, you can match their skills with the skills that are needed.
Be aware that undertaking a skills assessment can be a difficult process. It may be viewed by some people as threatening—why do you have to check up on me, aren’t I good enough? As the purpose of skills assessment is to create a better organisation, which will in turn benefit the people who work there, the fear is unfounded. Nevertheless, it is important to handle the process with a great deal of care and consideration.
Some organisations undertake skills assessments for all staff members, whether paid or voluntary, when they join the organisation. This makes the assessment process a normal part of the introduction to the organisation; it ensures that new staff are used to their fullest potential as early as possible, and reduces the idea that an assessment is making value judgements or criticising the quality of one’s work.
If a skills assessment is carried out as a one-off exercise, it is important to explain to all involved what the assessment is, why it is important, and how it will benefit both the museum and each individual. Everyone should be aware of the exercise, even if they do not take part, to avoid those being assessed feeling that they have been singled out. Keep the atmosphere informal and relaxed. If possible, conduct the assessment away from the person’s or group’s normal work area, so that it is clearly seen as a special activity, and people are encouraged to focus on thinking about what skills they have to offer.
A skills assessment should be led by an assessor, whose function is to draw out information from those involved. The sample assessment provided can be used as a guide to the types of questions to be asked, and as a checklist for responses. Although the sample records responses as a simple yes or no, you should encourage those being assessed to answer as fully as possible. Often a short discussion or an explanation of an answer reveals abilities which could be of value to your organisation, and which their possessors had not felt were important.
A simple process to assess skills
A skills assessment can be done:
as a one-to-one exercise, for example, between a manager and staff member, or a committee member and volunteer; or
as a group exercise, where the team from a particular area of the organisation does the assessment together.
The approach you choose depends very much on your organisation and what people feel most comfortable with. The following process, based on a fictional organisation, Small Museum, can be applied in either situation. It examines a fairly typical small museum run by volunteers. Four stereotypes are used to illustrate the point that everyone has useful skills to contribute to the museum, even if these are not always obvious.
Small Museum is a small country museum with a diverse collection of local social history material, archival material, mining technology, an important collection of early photographs, and unrelated memorabilia donated by the town’s population. The museum is run by a dedicated group of volunteers, and receives some financial support from the district council and from visitors’ donations. The museum is suffering from dwindling visitor numbers, and the number of volunteers is also starting to decline. Financial support is not enough to look after the collection adequately, and the building needs urgent repairs.
Given this situation, the museum’s management committee has decided to turn it into a specialist mining museum, to reflect the rich history of mining in the region and to increase visitor numbers by attracting tourists. The museum will divest itself of all material which does not fit the new collections policy.
With this simple plan, the museum’s management committee has identified the following skills as essential to the redevelopment of the museum and to its continued survival:
the ability to promote the museum to the local tourist authority and to tourists directly;
the ability to write grant funding applications;
- the ability to liaise with State and Commonwealth museum support organisations;
- metal and woodworking skills;
- mechanical maintenance skills, particularly mining equipment;
- financial planning skills;
- basic display design skills;
- public speaking skills—being able to make visitors feel comfortable while taking tours of the museum;
- the ability to write engaging and informative display labels;
- building skills—being able to undertake some of the building repairs, or to direct builders in these repairs;
- organisational skills—being able to coordinate the redevelopment plan;
- basic preventive conservation skills;
- documentation and record-keeping skills;
- skills related to mounting and framing photographs;
- negotiating skills—being able to trade with other museums so that the museum’s unwanted material could be swapped for more relevant material; and
- research skills—being able to research the provenance of items in the collection.
If the museum had all these skills available to it, its management committee would be confident that it could redevelop the museum and increase visitor numbers.
The museum’s volunteers have vast experience in a diverse range of occupations, from farmers to cafe owners, miners to teachers.
Summary of results
The ability to promote the museum to the local tourist authority and to tourists directly
This group of people does have some of the skills necessary to promote the museum, especially the cafe owner. It would make sense to give this activity to the cafe owner, who has the greatest knowledge and experience in this area.
The ability to write grant funding applications
In this case the farmer has the most experience in grant applications and, with some additional knowledge about what grants are available, he could possibly take on the task.
The ability to liaise with State and Commonwealth museum support organisations
The farmer, the miner or the teacher could each take on this activity. The cafe owner, who may have the skills, does not think it would be beneficial to talk to other museum professionals, and so may not take this activity seriously.
Metal and woodworking skills
The farmer and the miner both have good skills in this area, and are both confident they could make some of the display cases the museum needs. They may well be able to take on a role where they contribute to the construction of new display furniture and/or assist with the maintenance of the building and, with advice from a conservator, some of the collection.
Mechanical maintenance skills— especially mining equipment
The miner has the experience and knowledge to look after the mining collection, but does not understand the conservation policy. The miner would be the most appropriate person to put in charge of the maintenance of the mining collection. However, he needs further training in the museum’s conservation policy so that he clearly understands what is acceptable maintenance from the museum’s point of view. The mining collection is now a museum collection, not a collection of equipment used for working in a mine.
Financial planning skills
The cafe owner and the teacher should both be able to look after the museum’s financial planning, but the teacher would need further training in financial reporting to the committee.
Basic display design skills
The museum has a shortage of exhibition design skills. It should try to recruit someone who has these skills, or find training for one or more of these four. The teacher may have the basic understanding, and so may be worth persuading to undertake basic training.
Public speaking skills—being able to make visitors feel comfortable whilst taking tours of the museum
Good public speakers must feel comfortable about talking to groups of people. Ideally, all museum staff should be able to speak to visitors and tell them about the collection. Apart from the miner, who seems not to want to participate in this activity, all the others could play a role in conducting visitors through the museum.
Building skills—being able to undertake some of the building repairs or direct builders in these repairs
Because none of the team understands what repairs the museum needs, it is difficult to assign this responsibility to any of them. The farmer, the miner or the teacher could take on the task; however, from the answer to the last question, it seems that the farmer and the miner could be more comfortable with the task.
Organisation skills—being able to coordinate the redevelopment plan
Coordinating the redevelopment plan is probably the most important responsibility of the museum committee. While the committee as a whole should retain this responsibility, it should know who can play a leading role. The teacher and cafe owner can play this role. But the miner and farmer, who are much more reluctant, should still be involved. The committee must do more to convince museum staff of the importance of the plan.
The ability to write engaging and informative display labels
The teacher would be most comfortable with this activity, but may need simple training in museum display labels.
Basic preventive conservation skills
All these people need some training in basic preventive conservation. Because preventive conservation is inexpensive and can lead to major benefits in terms of preserving the museum’s collection, it would be worthwhile having these people attend conservation training courses.
Documentation and record-keeping skills
Clearly the museum has a weakness in this area. The cafe owner has the most experience but is not comfortable taking on this responsibility. The museum should try to recruit someone able and willing to do this job—perhaps the local librarian—or persuade one of the four to receive training and do the job.
Skills related to mounting and framing photographs
Again, this set of questions highlights a need for training. The four people do not know enough about mounting and framing photographs, without additional training.
Negotiating skills—being able to trade with other museums so that the museum’s unwanted material could be swapped for more relevant material
The miner, who may have a personal interest in seeing the museum specialise in the mining history of the region, is keen to take on this activity. Because the miner is also aware of some of the trading possibilities, it would make sense to assign the activity to this person.
Research skills—being able to research the provenance of items in the collection
The miner and the teacher would make a good team to undertake this activity, with perhaps the teacher taking a somewhat larger role. Researching the collection so that visitors can be better informed, and so that the history of the region can be better documented, will be a major function of the museum.
The summary of the results of the skills assessment gives you a fairly clear indication of who is best suited for each area of activity within the museum. It also indicates the areas where training is needed.
This example has been simplified greatly in order to demonstrate the principles and benefits of skills assessment. In practice, the questions will not have simple yes or no answers, and some interpretation will be needed. There are also cases where information about people’s skills has to be coaxed out of them, usually because they are unaware of, or underrate, their skills.
The example is also unclear as to whether the process was undertaken in a group situation or in one-to-one interviews. Either could have taken place; the actual method depends on what individuals feel comfortable with. But be careful—don’t just hand out questionnaires for people to fill out. The benefits of this process will come only through talking.
In summary, a skills assessment process can be used to build a strong sense of teamwork and commitment, while at the same time organising people to take on important tasks.
Before you undertake a skills assessment of the organisation, it is critical that you have a clear idea of what skills the organisation needs. Once you have this list of skills, it is a fairly simple matter of writing a series of questions for each skill. These will help to draw out of people information about their experience, knowledge and abilities relevant to that skill.
If you have a problem relating to the skills and experience of individuals in storing, handling or displaying important artefacts, contact an experienced and respected conservator or speak with your local personnel officer. He/she can offer advice and practical solutions.
By carrying out a skills assessment you can:
a) help people to recognise the skills they already have;
b) work out what training programs you may need;
c) find out what skills are available in your organisation;
d) match people with tasks that need to be done;
e) all of the above.
When carrying out a skills assessment you should:
a) create an atmosphere to keep people on their toes;
b) have a plan for the organisation so that you know what skills you need;
c) be quick, to save as much time as possible;
d) handle the process with care and consideration.
Which statements below are false?
a) People are an organisation’s most valuable resource.
b) Everyone knows what their skills are.
c) You can get the skills you need only by hiring experts.
d) A skills assessment should be carried out face-to-face because the benefits come from talking together.
Before carrying out a skills assessment you should:
a) have a plan for the development of the organisation;
b) know what skills are needed by the organisation;
c) discuss the purpose of the skills assessment with the staff so that they understand why it is important;
d) all of the above.
Answers to self-evaluation quiz
Answer: b) and d). A skills assessment should be something that benefits the organisation by matching what you have with what you need. By approaching this with sensitivity, you are more likely to get the information you need and create a feeling of goodwill. A little time spent at this stage could save time later.
Answer: b) and c) are false. Many people underrate their skills. If they do something every day, they often don’t recognise it as a skill. Everyone has skills, and you can often find just what you need within your organisation.
Answer: d). It is important that everyone understands what the organisation is trying to do, what skills the organisation needs in order to achieve its objectives, and that each can play a more meaningful role as a result of the skills assessment.