Attempting to Trigger Digital Change

digital transformation

Facing the Challenges of a ‘Digital Transformation’

Ash Mann believes nurturing certain behaviours, along with acceptance and buy-in from everyone involved will mean organisations are better equipped to respond to the challenges posed by digital.

A few years ago I wrote a fairly lengthy rant about how I didn’t really think ‘digital strategy’ was a thing (and now I am writing a series of articles about it, how times have changed …although I still don’t really think that digital strategy is, or should be, a thing). At the time a few people disagreed with me (these were mainly people who made their living from advising on digital strategies), but some people seemed to find what I was saying helpful when used as a tool to reframe the debate they were having in their various organisations around digital, and how it was utilised.

Having worked in-house in a number of cultural organisations, I have been through the arduous process of trying to trigger digital change. Now I am agency-side I see the same issues with a lot of the organisations we work with and talk to. Based on my own experiences and those of a number of friends and colleagues in similar positions, it would appear that some of the fundamental blockages are the same, or at least seem founded on similar misconceptions.

I thought it may be interesting to revisit the topic and look at that internal argument, which is the starting point for any organisation truly embracing digital adoption/transformation/understanding. No matter how far the technology has developed in recent years, the primary problem with digital in this context is still the same. That it is intangible. Yet, this is what makes it so powerful.

Hopefully what follows may be of use to some people, even if it’s just used to start a debate.

Waiting for change

How do organisations, specifically cultural organisations, best respond to and harness the level of change we’re seeing? As Paul Boag says “digital moves too fast to wait. If an organisation waits until best practice is established it will be too late. That or best practice will already have changed. Organisations cannot wait. If they do they will be too far behind the competition and will become obsolete”.

Unfortunately, as the recent Digital Culture 2015 survey has highlighted, many arts organisations are not willing or equipped to be able to engage with digital in a particularly responsive way. They see digital as risky and unproven, tentative when it comes to adopting an ‘experimental’ approach to this sort of problem (which is often the most effective way for identifying tools and solutions that work for you) – they are far more comfortable in adopting the wait-and-see approach that Paul warns against above. Even more worryingly, this same report highlights that is all too often smaller organisations who are likely to be facing a host of other challenges (not least of which is funding), who are most ill-equipped to deal with digital change.

Throughout my time working in the cultural sector, I have been expecting some sort of digital transformation to take place; a paradigm shift or watershed moment. It has happened, or is happening in nearly every other sector that you can think of; healthcare, travel, hospitality, banking, finance, media, sport, education, the list goes on. But the cultural sector remains (relatively) stubbornly unchanged. Digital is seen as something that marketing can worry about, whilst everyone else can get on doing things the way they’ve always been done.

This lack of change is having a detrimental impact on some of the very people who would be best placed to help the sector harness and respond to this change when it does eventually take place – Rohan Gunatillake’s recent post on why he’s leaving the arts sector was elegantly written (as always), but could barely hide the resentment and frustration he clearly felt having spent years trying to help a sector respond to an issue it is refusing to acknowledge, and I know he is not alone. I have had numerous conversations with talented colleagues who have simply given up on the sector, preferring instead to ply their trade elsewhere in sectors they freely admit are more ‘boring’ than the arts, but actually value and act upon their input.

Yeah, but is digital actually that important?

I’m going to pick three sectors from the list above, banking, broadcast media and education, because I think they neatly encompass the spectrum of change we’re talking about.

On the commercial/transactional end of things we have the banking sector. Now, personally I can’t actually remember the last time I went into a branch of my bank. I think it was in November 2014, i.e. the year before last, aka a long time ago. I do all of my banking via the app on my phone. The report from A.T. Kearney (“Banking in a Digital World”) included the graph below which rates countries’ ‘digital banking readiness’ from ‘Committed to digital banking’ at the top, down to ‘Still working on fundamentals’ at the bottom. The UK is top of this graph, ahead of Singapore, the United States, Switzerland, Germany and a host of other ‘developed nations’.


Next, I thought it’d be instructive to look at broadcast media (which for our purposes is: ‘TV’), for which the primary impact of digital has been the explosion in the availability of ‘on demand’ services (BBC iPlayer et al), and internet streaming (free and paid-for). I believe this sector is useful to look at because at its heart, it is creatively led and focused on the creation of compelling and engaging content. Thus, hopefully challenging the preconception that digital is ‘just for marketing’. Fortunately, Ofcom does absolutely loads of research, on everything, all the time. The data I am most interested in drawing attention to is “On demand and online research data tables 2015,” which sounds quite boring and is presented in a way that only further exacerbates that impression.

However, this provides a really good snapshot of how people are utilising the on demand services that are currently available. 49% of the adults surveyed said they used TV catchup services (e.g. BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD, Demand 5, Now TV) at least once a month, this rose to 74% amongst the teens surveyed. This discrepancy was just as pronounced when it came to “On-line video rental services downloaded or streamed (e.g. Blinkbox, LoveFilm, Netflix)” with 19% of adults saying they’d watched them in the past month compared with 47% of teens. Line these stats up alongside the reality of the amount of video that people are watching on Youtube growing by 60% year-on-year, and you are faced with a media landscape in which audience habits and expectations are shifting rapidly. This shift is even more marked when you compare younger and older audience habits.

Finally, let’s look at higher education. Unlike banking (transactional/consumer) and broadcast (‘passive’ consumption) this sector requires serious and complex levels of engagement with its ‘audience’ (i.e. students). Alongside the shift in the ways in which ‘traditional’ courses are marketed, recruited to, delivered, consumed and marked (in which every aspect has moved to being either entirely delivered digitally or with a significant digital element), has been the emergence of MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Courses). I am by no means an expert in this area, but this development seems to represent a complete shift in the concept of how a course is taught, delivered and, for want of a better word, ‘consumed’.

On this particular point it is worth mentioning that the UK app market was valued at over £4 billion back in 2014, the biggest in Europe whilst research indicates that 76% of UK adults earn a smartphone.
So I’d argue that, yes, digital is important. It has fundamentally altered the habits, perceptions and expectations of your audience in almost every aspect of their daily lives. It would be madness to hope that this doesn’t have a knock-on effect on the cultural sector. But alongside that, digital has also radically expanded the ways in which you can satisfy, surprise, engage and delight those audiences.

The challenges

I mentioned earlier that you frequently hear about the same issues being faced by embattled digital managers in cultural organisations, here are just a few of the ones I seem to see most frequently:

“It’s too expensive, we don’t have the money.”

This is an understandable response to the issue. The subsidised arts sector has experienced an ever-shrinking level of funding since 2010. Whilst expenditure on digital doesn’t have to be massive, it does require some commitment of resources – whether that’s time or money or, ideally, a bit of both. My point would be that digital change is an existential threat to the arts sector and to refuse to spend money trying to deal with it amounts to burying your head in the sand and hoping it’ll go away. Unfortunately, it’s not going to go away. Also if you consider your expenditure merely as an investment on which you need to make a return, digital spend is measurable, trackable and more-often-than-not the channel through which you will see the largest potential for growing your organisation’s income.

“That’s nothing to do with what I do.”

I totally understand this response, the number of people I meet (not just in the cultural sector), for whom anything involving technology brings an element of fear and uncertainty is huge. However, I would argue that for the sector to properly respond to the challenges that digital throws up, there needs to be someone with some level of digital understanding or enthusiasm embedded in every part of a company’s activity. This definitely doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be up-to-the-minute with the latest digital developments.

What it does mean is that every part of your organisation has considered how digital might impact what they do, or how what they do might have a digital element. Frustratingly, in my experience often the most reluctant part of any organisation to engage with digital change is the artistic/curatorial side of things. I don’t know whether that’s because of a lack of understanding, or time, or the fact that digital is seen as a threat, or maybe a combination of all of these things. But it is a shame because it’s the people that work in these areas who will have the most interesting things to offer – the best work happens when you do see these parts of an organisation engaging with digital projects.

Lack of buy-in at a senior level.

An all too common problem related in part to the sorry lack of digital leadership in the arts sector. However, I’d argue that a sector as diverse and complex is never going to be able to fully embrace digital if it’s imposed in a top-down way. Of course there needs to be leadership and an openness from those at the top, but the most effective organisational and sectoral change will always take place gradually and, more-often-than-not, from the bottom up.

Lack of experimentation.

There will be numerous small things that you can do differently (and better) that don’t require any buy-in from senior management or much expenditure. I’d encourage all arts organisations to be running small, simple, playful digital experiments all the time. I know this may sound frivolous, we’re all busy, but digital projects don’t all have to be new websites, NT:Live or partnerships with Google. The most meaningful and useful things you can do will be specific to your audience(s) and your organisation.

Lack of expertise.

This is perhaps, alongside funding, the biggest challenge that the arts sector faces in relation to digital. The sector has maybe reached a point where it simply isn’t attractive in terms of the salaries on offer, or the opportunities available to people who could best help it in relation to this specific issue. Obviously, working in the arts sector is never going to be the best-paid job in the world, but on the subject of opportunity there is much work that can be done. Beyond digital ambition I have heard (depressing) tales of the lack of professional and career development opportunities that people find themselves faced with.

I suspect that this is not exclusive to just digital professionals and is really something the arts sector needs to face up to – I am definitely not qualified to pontificate on this specific issue. Beyond the obvious solution of ’employing more of the right people and letting them do their jobs, I still think there is some merit in the concept that was doing the rounds a few years ago, regarding ‘geeks in residence’ or similar. I’ve just remembered I wrote a bit about this, in a very inelegant way, 5 years ago.

Unfortunately, I think that the remit of these sort of positions should probably be less about ‘what’s the most implausible but exciting project I can do,’ and more about filling the very obvious and fundamental gaps in understanding and ability that exist right across everything digital that arts organisations do. Simply having someone who can see where the problems are and can propose a sensible solution is a ‘luxury’ that most people do not currently enjoy.

What does digital transformation look like?

What does, or should, digital transformation look like if you’re an arts organisation whose core purpose is performing, in a bricks-and-mortar location, to an audience sitting in front of you? Or you hold a collection in a physical location? Or any one of the other location and ‘physical audience’ dependent things that cultural organisations do? I think expecting an answer to this sort of question is part of the problem. Digital transformation for cultural organisations shouldn’t be about trying to change their core activities.

The really exciting potential lies in extending, evolving and developing their relationships with their audiences, using digital to overcome geographical restrictions or opening the door to ways of making and delivering work that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. I can see potential related to every aspect of the ‘business’ of cultural organisations, fundraising, e-commerce, ticketing, and so on, but this is equally applicable to the ‘mission’ side of things as well in relation to creating work, performing, exhibiting, enabling access to collections and so on.

But none of this exciting stuff happens overnight, there is not one thing you can do that is going to result in digital nirvana. It is an incremental process that will require some level of acceptance and buy-in from everyone in an organisation. Equally, this process doesn’t need to be labelled ‘digital transformation’ or ‘becoming digital first,’ or whatever you want to call it. Those labels may in fact be entirely unhelpful.

A sense of curiosity, not being afraid of change, openness, being willing to experiment (and learn from those experiments) and a willingness to fail are all far more important behaviours for you to try and nurture. All in turn, these will mean your organisation is far better equipped to deal with and respond to the changes and challenges posed by digital. Surely all those qualities are desirable for any self-respecting arts organisation? For god’s sake, if banks can do it then surely, surely, the arts sector can too!

I realise this article has been a bit of a broad sweep across an entire sector. In future articles I’m going to try and focus on specific solutions and projects, but I thought at the outset it would be good to set my stall out. Digital isn’t going away, the challenge may feel like an existential threat but the potential is enormous.


Ash Mann

Ash Mann

Strategic Director, Substrakt

Digital Strategy for Cultural Institutions

Ash has spent over a decade specialising in digital; working in the higher education, charity and cultural sectors. He is currently Strategic Director at Substrakt working with clients including English National OperaBirmingham HippdromeWaddesdon ManorModern Art Oxford and Saffron Hall, amongst others.


Image Credits: Top Image: (Creative Commons); Lower: (Creative Commons).

Author: Amelia Glean

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