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'Lessons from the Half Way Point' by Neil Grindley

The 4C Project formally kicked off on February 1st 2013 and is due to finish on January 31st 2015, which means that right now, we are almost exactly at the half way point. A good moment then to see how we’re doing as a project and for me personally to have a think about what I’ve learnt so far.

Is it all going to plan?

By the end of Month 12 we are supposed to have achieved 18 milestones and we can happily report that (with a little bit of slippage here and there) we have managed to tick those boxes in the project and keep things on track, which is very reassuring and bodes well for the second year! Kudos and respect to task and work package leaders for this – well done everyone.

We were scheduled to deliver 8 deliverables during the period and whilst it looks like one of them might be delayed by a month, we believe that the other seven are either already available or will be fairly soon. Keep and eye out for announcements and take a look at our community resources page (/community-resources/outputs-and-deliverables). Again – a small exhalation of breath on my part.  Phew!

That’s all very well ... but what have you learnt?

OK – so this is a much more interesting question and my immediate thought is that pretty much every time I have an extended conversation with any of the team members working on the 4C Project, I learn things or get a better understanding of perspectives that would not have occurred to me if we hadn’t started the work. And that isn’t just confined to thinking about how to clarify the costs of digital curation, it also encompasses: how to manage a project; how to get the most out of people; how to creatively interpret and shape the work we have promised to do; how to act strategically and politically; and how to get messages across to people more effectively. A whole bunch of useful skills and thinking that you couldn’t pay anyone to teach you in such an effective or practical way.

Coincidentally, this chimes with a thought that was repeated a lot during a webcast last Friday from the Royal Society in London ( The event was the formal UK launch of the European Commission Horizon 2020 Programme featuring EC commissioners, luminaries and politicians all giving their take on the opportunities that UK organisations might take advantage of over the next 6 years as Europe collectively tries to chew its way through a programme budget of €79 billion. In answer to the several different ways that the audience asked the question, “why should we apply to do EC Projects when we don’t make any money on them?” – the consistent response was:  “don’t do EC projects if you are only interested in the money!”

But let me give you three examples of things that I have learnt specifically by doing this project.

1.What are Indirect Economic Determinants?

I’m pretty sure it was me who made up this phrase so I should know what it means. It turns out, though, that I didn’t really understand why such determinants might be useful to define! When we wrote the 4C proposal I thought that we should be able to identify some factors that had an important influence on the cost of curation but which hadn’t so far been factored into curation cost models. Perhaps something like: the efficiency (or otherwise) of an organisation’s internal communications; or the degree to which the reputation of an organisation is dependent on its curation activities. The idea being that they might be additional dials on a fiendishly complicated cost calculator that would change the eventual numbers in quantifiable €€€’s. At month 12, we have a list of 15 Indirect Economic Determinants that we have crowd sourced and tested and what they actually signify are organisational motivators and proxies for benefits. These terms describe what an organisation actually wants to get out of its curation (and other information management) activities and might therefore be of most use to us in helping us to describe those organisations and what they want to achieve; rather than helping us to more accurately calculate the cost of curation. The report on Indirect Economic Determinants is available on the 4C Community Resources Page.


2.Why (some) people don’t want to count the cost of curation

From the numbers that would come to various sessions at conferences and anecdotally, it was clear to me when we were planning this work that the costs of curation was a topic that a lot of people were glad that someone else was prepared to take care of. They would acknowledge that it was an important topic, but also believed it was complex and awkward and ultimately not a good use of their time to get involved with.

What occurs to me now – anecdotally rather than evidentially – is that there may also be a rather more fundamental reason why some people don’t want to count the cost. More fundamental even than a concern that if we are able to count the cost of curation, then the numbers will reflect badly on our processes and make them seem inefficient and excessively expensive. There seems to be a feeling in some quarters that it is almost ideologically wrong to focus on the costs because it undermines the whole point and remit of archiving. The thought process seems to be that ‘an archivist’s job is to preserve and curate valuable material and that should be enough to secure the necessary budget come what may’.  I can see why such a doctrine might appeal ... but I don’t anticipate it succeeding!

3.The really critical issues aren’t always the ones you start with

From the start we realised that the Curation Costs Exchange was going to be both the centrepiece of the project and the most difficult thing to deliver effectively. But the main issues (at least for me) have shifted over the last twelve months so that the challenge in delivering this resource now seems slightly different in emphasis than it did previously. Having looked at the modest number (but interesting variety) of cost datasets that 4C has already manage to gather together, I’m now of the opinion that calculating the costs of curation is actually NOT a problem for organisations. Or perhaps I should say not an intractable problem. If they are motivated to do it, then the complete lack of widely accepted methods and the absence of a definition about what a true calculation of curation costs entails obviously works in their favour. They can decide what costs are important to them and they can go ahead and work them out – in whatever way is meaningful and useful for them to know.

At which point the problem for the 4C project is not the calculation but the comparison of costs. This insight has implications which amplify the importance of previously more obscure component pieces of the work.

a) Definitions: how does a small coordination action like the 4C Project have a significant enough impact on how digital curation is defined across the community, in order to standardise the way that people break down their costs?

b) Anonymisation: how can we protect an organisation who is prepared to share its costs with us (but does not want to be widely identified and associated with the figures) when their method of breaking down or defining those costs is uniquely individual?

These are just a few of the ways that my thinking has subtly changed shape over the last 12 months and I don’t expect that to change very much as we go through the next 12 months. It is a complex and awkward topic but then some of most interesting problems are.   

Neil Grindley is the Coordinator for the 4C Project and when he isn't doing that he is a Programme Manager at Jisc, the UK's expert organisation on digital technologies for education and research.