Oil tankers, learning, issues and NPOs

Big data, performance capture, digital commissions, audience engagement, new platforms, digital marketing. Blah blah blah. These are a few of the many “digital issues” that have presented themselves whilst I’ve been at Opera North.

I’ve already started and given up a few times on trying to write something that summarised what I’ve seen/done/learned over the last 3.5 years or so, here’s another try, I’m not going to go into too much detail because…it’s probably quite boring. So, here are just a few observations/thoughts from my point of view having worked at a National Portfolio Organisation for the last few years.

I am aware that this post strikes a fairly pessimistic note, so, first, here are some positives:

  • the sector is built on, and functions because of, some extraordinarily talented, enthusiastic and hard-working people.
  • the collaborative spirit which enables so much “stuff” to happen within the arts world is just the sort of thing that’s needed to be able to confront and harness digital.
  • there are some people doing genuinely interesting, clever and great things.
  • the evident frustration that appears in this post is because I can see the potential that exists, not being able to see that realised makes me very sad…and annoyed.

1. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is just going to keep getting wider. I first wrote about this quite a while ago (Building Digital Capacity in the Arts), my experience of working directly in the arts sector extends to my time at Opera North and when I first started here I was shocked and worried at the sheer lack of digital skills and knowledge within the company and more widely within the sector as a whole. This lack of understanding and awareness seemed fairly all-pervasive and no-one really seemed to have much of an idea how to address it. The Arts Council certainly didn’t (I’m still not convinced they do, even if they now seem to be acknowledging that it may be a problem) and any of the limited money that was  available was sucked up by the (mostly larger) organisations who had some apparent understanding of the problem, or at least an idea about how they might approach tackling it. I get this, allocating money to things where you’re fairly sure you’ll see success is understanding, but is just (as an unintended side-effect) solidifying the skills/capacity gap that already exists and, in my view, making it even worse. Also the money seems to have gone towards funding, frankly, unimaginative projects and, until recently (admittedly Native is good and getting better) the sharing of any outcomes was…limited to say the least, and in many cases completely non-existent. But more generally there is still a huge issue with fundamentally basic understanding of the opportunities (and threats) that digital offers and how to grasp (or confront) that and there seems to be no real momentum towards addressing that…which I would say is a problem. Referring back to the 2011 post I’ve linked to above I certainly don’t think we’re at a point where “digital capacity” in the sector has been built to a level that could be described as resilient…

2. The arts sector is its own worst enemy. I could ramble on at length here but I think what I’m trying to describe is how the structures and processes that are inherent within the sector, the union agreements that govern ways of working and the historical practises regarding “how things get done” are just too out-of-step with how the world now is. I am fully aware that artists need protection, intellectual property is hugely important and rights exist for a reason. But all of these things need to be addressed in light of how the “landscape” currently is, not how it was 20 or more years ago. I know that the level of change we have witnessed over the last decade has happened at such a pace that means lots of people feel intimidated and scared but hiding behind restrictive and outdated working practises and agreements won’t hold back the tide, it will simply mean that by the point that the impetus for change becomes irresistible many people and professions will find themselves in a position of almost complete irrelevance or that the level of change required will be crippling, far better to be flexible and realistic and roll with the punches than try to out-Canute Canute.

I still really think that this quote is so relevant, and I’m annoyed I didn’t jot down who it was from: “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital” – imagine if the arts sector could try and get ahead of the curve, being brought to the brink of collapse doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable for anyone.

3. Digital strategy isn’t really a thing. I got quite uppity about this a while ago (Digital Strategy, why how…wait, why again?) but I’m still concerned by the number of quite important and seemingly intelligent people I see yammering on about “digital strategy”, my issue is with the way that digital is thought of, and talked about, as a separate thing, a new tool that we need to work out how to hold and to hit stuff with. In my opinion it is more and also completely different to that, it requires new terms of reference, or at least a more sophisticated understanding. My thoughts were articulated far better than I could ever manage in this piece from Paul Boag, Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?. Paul goes further (and writes far more coherently) than I did. Here are a few excerpts from his piece: “when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society” in my post I talked about understanding digital as “a layer”, I didn’t quite get to the level where I was discussing understanding and adapting to the level of impact the digital change has had on the world, although I should have. “I am often surprised at how resistant managers are to adapt their companies’ structure to accommodate the new reality of digital. They persist in trying to squeeze it into their existing mental model by making it an IT problem or a communications tool” – now I’m not sure Paul has any arts clients but this description could easily be applied to the arts sector, maybe it is due to lack of understanding (I think it probably is) but until this is addressed I’m worried that, once again, opportunities will be missed. I think the best excerpt I could grab from Paul is: “The key is to recognize that digital-focused thinking will not be required forever. One day, companies will not need Chief Digital Officers, the way we no longer have Chief Electricity Officers. We also need to recognize that the most important role of a digital team is not to own and implement a digital vision, but to facilitate company-wide change and to educate colleagues about the potential of digital in their areas of responsibility.” In many ways the things I am most proud of having achieved at Opera North are the changes in understanding and approach to digital. I am not claiming that Opera North is a “digital first” organisation, it most definitely isn’t, but the most fundamental changes I’ve overseen have come through intangible things such as a shift in discussions so that digital  is (in some cases) just considered as another channel through which the company performs/communicates/reaches people. It is by no means the same as being in the same room as an audience but that brings both pros and cons, and the fact that people are at least beginning to understand that is going to have the biggest and most long-term impact on the company.

4. Real change is a slow process. This is perhaps stating the obvious but the pace of change in the arts sector seems glacial (and that is putting it mildly), the reality of funding cycles and all that jazz means that the sector moves to certain rhythms and stimuli, none of which are particularly urgent. The last funding cycle was…5 years I think, the next will be…3? The impetus to do anything outside of this natural, externally-imposed timeline seems non-existent. For example it is only now, with the next round of funding applications happening, that ACE is beginning to talk about enshrining some level of commitment to “digital stuff” in its funding criteria. Maybe this viewpoint is skewed by working at a fairly large NPO organisation but at times it feels less like trying to turn an oil tanker and more like trying to turn a fleet of…whatever is bigger and slower than an oil tanker.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at any particularly earth-shattering conclusions, I don’t think I ever expected to. As I say above, change is occurring, it is just a very (very) slow thing, maybe I’m just impatient, and undoubtedly my sight of what might be possible inevitably feeds my frustration and leads me to be a grumpy bastard. Hey ho. Good luck to the arts sector and all who continue to sail in her, I will watch from a not-so-great-distance with interest.

AMA Conference and “the digital question” (part 1 of ?)

I’ve been working at Opera North since November 2011. My job, Digital Communications Manager, is a new role within the company which means there is a hell of a lot to do but also that I am allowed to have mildly ridiculous ideas on a semi-regular basis and attempt to see them through.

I am a techie, or a developer, or maybe a ‘digital creative’ (hideous term) albeit with a fair amount of ‘traditional’ marketing experience. I am not, I wouldn’t say, an ‘arts marketer’. However, I gladly ignored this fact and made my way up to Glasgow for the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) Conference this week.

I like conferences, the breakout sessions are usually crap and the keynotes are complete bullshit peddlers but it’s always good to get away from the daily grind and talk to other people similarly revelling in being away from the daily grind in whatever industry it is you’re in (plus there is usually at least 1 good speaker that makes your brain think new things). Also it’s a good chance to see new places, e.g. I’d never been to Glasgow before, now I have.

I didn’t have huge hopes that my breakout experience was going to be hugely challenged, I’d only got at all excited by one session (from a list of about 30) – on Open Data – and the prospect of one of the keynotes talking about ‘digital success’ made my heart sink. Now would probably be a good point to try and excuse, or at least explain, my cynicism. I don’t come from an arts background (lots of my immediate family do, but that’s another story), I have worked for agencies, as a freelancer and for a university in recent years so moving into the arts sector has been a bit of a weird and wonderful experience. I love the atmosphere in arts organisations, the people are great and there is always something interesting or odd going on, however I despair whenever I am dragged into a conversation with anyone with what I’ve come to recognise as ‘digital pretensions (or,often, more accurately, delusions)’.

The arts sector (and I’ve mentioned this before) is almost scarily lagging behind ‘the curve’ when it comes to embracing digital developments (which in this context usually means “stuff that’s happening with the internet”), I think this is relatively easily explained when you look at the problem. Who would be best placed to recognise, understand, explain and apply the latest technological advancements? Technologists, developers etc…essentially digital people. These people are almost entirely absent from the arts sector. They simply don’t exist in a sector that has never really needed them before. Most arts and cultural organisations’ dealings with this type of people are through short-term, project-specific agency relationships where, more often than not, the arts organisation tries to explain what they want (or think they want), hands over some money and sometime later receives what they paid for. These relationships were never intended to build understanding, capacity, knowledge or any of those other intangible but essential and sustainable things – why would they be? The agencies were never going to want to put themselves out of business and the arts organisations really didn’t have the time, money or inclination to even think about things in these terms.

BUT, then digital became important, it became fundamental to the way that people communicate, understand, consume and create. So the arts organisations suddenly had to understand, or at least seem like they were trying to understand. The way in which this process took place to me seems incredibly strange. It seems (and I have only my own perceptions to go on for this, as I say I have no history of working in the arts sector until last year so have very little in the way of facts to go on) that instead of going and trying to find people with the skills to help them make the huge leaps required in the ways that organisations understood, used and worked with technology (and really, change the way that these organisations worked in a fundamental way) they instead established a list of arbitrary ‘must-haves’ (e.g. a website, an e-newsletter, some sort of social media presence, maybe some multimedia content – essentially marketing assets in digital form) – found a bunch of people already working in the arts sector and put them in charge of making these things happen. As a result the management of digital strategy, digital activity and digital development in the arts has been driven and carried out by a group of people who, whilst incredibly enthusiastic, don’t have the fundamental understanding of what they’re doing or the technology they’re working with. For me, and I may be in a minority of 1 on this, to properly use something you simply have to understand it, ESPECIALLY with a vast, unwieldy and complicated field of development such as web-based technological developments (wow, that’s a clunky way of describing things).

I could continue to waffle on about this but I don’t think that’d be very interesting for anyone, I simply wanted to explain why sometimes I seem like a cynical bastard when people in the arts claim to have struck upon some revolutionary digital concept as more often than not when trying to explain themselves they make so many factual errors that it makes the gods of the internet cry big, wet, binary tears of woe. I wanted to get that out there because I think it’s an important bit of context for my views on almost everything to do with the application of ‘digital’ in the arts. Although I do realise that it does make me seem like a bit of a nob (probably).

Oh and I’ll actually write some actual things about the actual conference (and Glasgow, and the weird Dutch, Japanese-concept hotel we stayed in) some time next week.

P.s. I am also aware that I don’t have all the answers, I probably don’t even have one of the answers. I understand that arts organisations are (sometimes) slow, weird, idiosyncratic, stubborn places and that even with the best will in the world perhaps some types of change are almost impossible to accomplish at the pace required, or maybe even at all. I do however think that there are several elephants in the room that need to be roundly pointed at in as loud a way as possible, and that’s what i’m trying, in a small way, to do.

Building digital capacity in the arts

Back in March (I think) I attended the launch of a new Arts Council England/BBC initiative aimed at ‘building digital capacity in the arts’. Now in my (admittedly short) experience this sort of thing can’t happen soon enough, I’ve had so many conversations with people working in the arts and cultural sector who are either clueless about the potential of ‘digital’ or so fixated on how it’ll solve all their cashflow problems that it actually worries me. Unfortunately almost everything I heard from the speakers at this event seemed to reinforce the latter view i.e. that digital is important (agreed), that it is something that we as a sector need to embrace (agreed!) and that if we do so everything will be ok cos we’ll have an app and a website and everything will be fine (oh god NOOO *hangs head*). Not only did the programme seem misguided in its aims but it seemed to be proposing to take place in an incredibly blinkered way, a series of workshops would take place, mostly in London or Manchester – these would be videoed and then people could watch the videos. That was it, that’s the scheme. Some videos about how to make videos and apps.

The problem with digital capacity in the arts sector (in my view) starts with a widespread lack of understanding regarding a)how digital works, b)the potential of technology and c)how to engage with the technology in a meaningful and sustainable way. To ignore these fundamental issues just means it is surely inevitable that any investment now will have a limited short-term impact and almost zero long-term impact as the very specific short-term skills that’re taught (to a small group of people who can actually attend the workshops or can learn by watching a video of a workshop) will be out-dated relatively quickly and there is no widespread ‘bringing up to speed’ regarding ‘digital fundamentals’ that’d underpin any potential long-term impact or the a. Are ACE/BBC simply proposing to run a series of workshops every time a new technology presents itself? It all seemed hopelessly short-sighted and badly thought out.

There was some interesting chatter from a Google chap about the power of ideas or something similar but in reality that isn’t reflected in any aspect of the actual ‘capacity building programme’, which is depressing and will surely lead to a situation where, in 5 years time the arts sector will once again be massively behind the curve and will need a whole new training programme.

The scheme seems less to be about building capacity and more about teaching very-specific, non-transferable skills to a small group of people that’ll have little wider impact. Which is sad.

My proposal would be that the scheme does what ACE keep saying is important and empowers/equips the highly skilled organisations (there are some out there!) to upskill smaller organisations in their locality. This sort of scheme would surely have a wider reach, would get organisations working together and would be more sustainable than simply getting the Beeb to run a limited number of workshops to a limited number of people?