Click to Start – Arts Outcomes for Non-Arts Projects

I read recently that when legendary composer John Philip Sousa first heard Thomas Edison’s new invention, the phonograph, he "recoiled in horror and predicted unemployment and destitution among musicians." 1. It’s a lovely story, and I’ve hunted across the Net, but so far not found any corroboration. This Click to Start column is a quick foray into what I see as a basic issue facing arts organisations and the implementation of technology, and how we should recognise technology as an enabler to improve business processes – and not ‘recoil in horror’.

What I was searching for when I stumbled across the Sousa gem was a list of great technology predictions. Like the ‘paperless office’, or the oldie but goodie – the prediction by the Chairman of IBM in 1943 "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers". In a move which any marketer would have to admire, the IBM marketing department subsequently issued a press release announcing IBM as the worldwide leader in computers, with two computers sold giving them a 40% market share.

There’s been some fabulous predictions made for technology over the years – most methinks have not come true. We’re all familiar with the prophecies of doom in the entertainment industry – cinema will kill theatre, video will kill cinema. Funnily enough, they’re all still with us, long after the highly paid market analysts with apparently unlimited prescience have been superseded.

Technology has had a remarkable impact on art and its creation and production. Whether it’s digital effects in film; lighting a theatre show; or new imagery previously not possible with palette and brush, technology has changed the way many artists work, and made artists of many more.

But this is technology for art, not technology for the management of art. And that’s where I start to get a little hot under the collar, a little frustrated at what I sometimes think is a reticence on the part of some arts organisations to employ technology in their businesses.

My word for the week is ‘enabler’, technology is an ‘enabler’. It ‘enables’ us to do things – bigger, faster, better – but it doesn’t solve problems. And unless we know how to use it, technology just adds to our administrative burdens.

What technology has achieved is to provide us with a new set of tools to tackle our existing workplace tasks. We still communicate with people, we still write to people, we still plan projects, we still produce reports. And technology, when inserted into the workplace process, has given us tools to improve efficiency and effectiveness, albeit drastically increasing the amount of paper we consume – goodbye paperless office!

The average arts organisation uses technology in a myriad of ways – databases to manage mailing lists; email to communicate; CAD (computer aided design) software to design theatre sets; web sites to promote events.

What bothers me though is that this is a shallow approach to technology – it’s about continuing to do things the same old way, with the same old management approach, and ignores technology’s ability to refashion our approach.

"Rapid developments in information and communication technology have brought major improvements to the way we learn, communicate, obtain information, purchase products and services and conduct business. The emergence of the Internet, information technologies and global communications networks has provided critical business tools which have improved business processes, increased business efficiencies and provided viable business advantages over competitors." 2

Re-engineering an arts organisation to ‘enable’ it with technology requires a systematic and systemic approach. It requires examining the routines of the organisation, and considering how technology could effect change. Implementing technology can reduce the number of steps in a business routine, it can automate functions that were once manual. 3

"Effective implementation and use of ICT can substantially increase productivity and provide benefits in terms of organisational transformation." 4

At The Dramatic Group we’ve recently been working with Regional Arts Victoria on a technology project, funded by OZeCulture. RAV is a great case study in technology implementation, and their Director, Peter Matthews, and I recently presented a little of the story at the OZeCulture Conference in Brisbane.

RAV is a major Victorian arts organisation. Originally established in 1969, it has a turnover of $2-3million, 12 full time staff plus it hires up to 50 artists or groups per annum, and boasts a community based membership of approximately 80 local arts groups around the State.

In 1998 RAV had hopeless information technology gear and attitude – a few old PCs, no network, as many printers as computers, and no technology plan at all. In 2003 RAV boasts a strong IT culture, endorsed by the Board, an annual program to audit and upgrade hardware and software, ongoing staff training and an image as an IT leader through a number of projects.

At OZeCulture we highlighted a particular project – the online enablement of RAV’s ‘arts2go’ program – a schools performing arts touring program which sees 80,000 children attending 700 performances in 500 schools each year.

arts2go is incredibly labour intensive – like any touring program. There is a substantial amount of constant communication between teachers, performers, venues and RAV via paper and facsimile.

If you map the workflow of a booking it goes something like this:

Some tasks are expensive, others labour intensive. RAV prints thousands of glossy brochures detailing the program and sends them off to the teachers. The teachers look through the offerings, and fill out a booking form to request some events on various preferred dates – without any knowledge about whether a particular event will actually be available in their area on those dates.

They mail the form back to RAV, who then transcribe the data onto the in-house management database. RAV sends a confirmation of receipt, and then sets about the task of patching together the tour itineraries, and liaising with the teachers, venues and performers. In the meantime RAV mails out teachers’ notes kits to all the teachers who have booked each event – a few trees going by the wayside.

Once the itineraries are locked away, RAV then sends out more confirmations to the teachers and performers – which have to be constantly updated and reissued as the tours evolve and change.

Once the show has actually occurred, RAV then mails out a box office and market rsearch form for the teachers to complete – one form for each booking of each show of each tour. The teachers complete the forms and send them back – and RAV enters the data to the database. Finally an invoice request is made to the accountant who then bills the schools – one for each school for each event of each tour.

As part of our work with RAV we created a web interface to the management database, with a long term intent of subverting the labour, and cost intensive, parts of the process:

Using the web interface, teachers can log into the RAV web site and:

  • View tour itineraries based on school location
  • View full details of shows
  • Submit booking request
  • Track progress of booking request
  • View confirmed details
  • Download teachers notes
  • Submit post performance report

    Performers can:

  • Express interest in participating
  • View tour itinerary and booking status

    All of this happens automatically – and while the glossy brochures are here to stay for a while, and will probably continue to exist at least in summary form, their bulk and thus cost to produce will reduce over time as more teachers use the web interface to research the details of the events they are interested in booking.

    We’ve almost completely removed the need for RAV to re-enter the data which the teachers were entering on the booking form, and the post show reports. Teachers have access to accurate, current information at all times. For example, before submitting a booking request they can check if a particular event will be in their school’s region on their preferred dates. And they can check the status of a booking 24 hours a day – as can the performers view their itineraries even when they’re ‘on the road’.

    Our ultimate goal is to transfer the show reports automatically to the accounting system for the invoices to be created and dispatched.

    The system only went live a few weeks ago, but so far the feedback from the teachers using it has been extremely positive. There have been plenty of kinks to iron out, but as RAV moves towards planning and launching the arts2go program for 2004, the web interface is being refined and tweaked, and will be available to every teacher for next year.

    A report by the National Office for the Information Economy, ‘Productivity and Organisational Transformation: optimising investment in ICT’, which provides a number of case studies of technology implementation, found that:

    "Organisations can substantially increase their productivity through the effective implementation and use of ICT. While organisations in the study regularly achieved productivity increases of five per cent or more, the strategies and organisational forms they adopted were not overly technical or complex."

    RAV will make real savings from implementing a technology solution for the arts2go booking system, and whilst there is no formal costing available yet of the savings Peter Matthews, RAV’s Director, made the important observation during our OZeCulture presentation that if the system can save $10,000 a year, that’s enough to commission a new schools show – a pretty important, and concrete, outcome.

    And the benefits are not just internal – the web interface is delivering customer service hitherto not possible, and empowering teachers, performers and RAV’s other stakeholders to take control of their own information, in their own time, in their own place, as opposed to relying completely on RAV.

    The NOIE report’s executive summary makes the important point:

    "This report makes clear the fact that ICT is only an enabler – a necessary but not sufficient condition for productivity growth and transformational improvement. Unless firms and organisations also have the appropriate policies and supportive environments in place these outcomes they will not necessarily occur. The key is getting the business processes and strategy right. Then the ICT might be simple or complex, and the investment small or large, but the payoff will be there."

    The arts2go web interface, and the broader technology project we have undertaken with Regional Arts Victoria, will be a success in the long term because RAV has become an IT business. There is Board commitment at the top, a willingness by management to make decisions, and an enthusiasm amongst the staff to explore new ways of approaching traditional tasks. And the resultant savings can be used to employ more artists for more shows in more schools. A pretty good ‘arts’ outcome for a ‘non-arts’ project.