Defining digital for cultural organisations

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had a few conversations about ‘digital’ in the cultural sector – the challenges, opportunities, and what to do about it all.

The thing is, a term as broad as ‘digital’ is only a useful shorthand up to a certain point. You can only get so far before you have to put the brakes on and say ‘wait, what do you mean by that?’

That’s because we use it to cover a huge list of activities, technologies, and processes that each have their own, very different considerations.

To make things easier, I’ve started trying to draw a line between the ‘administrative’ and the ‘artistic/mission-driven’ side of things. It’s not a perfect divide (and maybe those aren’t great names) but so far I think it makes more sense to generalise at that level.

Administrative digital

This covers any back-office functions that make use of digital media and technology (which is most of them). So that includes marketing, comms (although there’s an argument for this sometimes being in the other category), fundraising, ticketing, ecommerce, finance, venue management, volunteer management, HR… all that sort of thing.

If we’re talking about helping cultural orgs to make use of digital technology then, as far as this stuff is concerned:

  • The cultural sector isn’t alone – the rest of the world is trying to figure out most of this stuff too, so solutions can come from anywhere. In fact, I usually recommend people start by looking outside the cultural sector.
  • The benefits for going digital in these areas are mostly pretty evident. People don’t tend to need convincing, as much as they need help choosing, adopting, and making the most of what’s available.
  • There are plenty of external people that can help – software providers, agencies, consultants, etc.

I think the key thing is that senior buy-in isn’t really all that critical. An Artistic Director, Chief Exec, or board member only really needs a passing understanding of the details so they can support and resource those areas sensibly.

Beyond that, it’s mostly about cultural orgs having sufficiently skilled employees and giving them the resources to do their jobs. Done right, digital media and technology should be able to make the back-office stuff run more quickly, effectively, cheaply, and/or profitably.

That’s not to say that ‘doing it right’ is always easy, or that hiring sufficiently skilled employees is always possible on the salaries available, but guidance is usually available for those who seek it out.

Sidenote: there are loads of agencies and software providers that specialise in working in the cultural sector. They solve problems across multiple organisations, giving them a really interesting viewpoint and making them amazing repositories of domain knowledge. In some cases they go to lengths to educate their clients. It often strikes me as odd that these people aren’t seen as more of a resource. Maybe it’s tricky to engage with the more commercial players and easier to turn to the publicly funded support agencies.

Artistic/mission-driven digital

This is much more specific to the cultural sector and there aren’t going to be many templates for success that can be imported from elsewhere (no matter how many digital transformation case studies you Google).

Here I’m talking about the work of directors, composers, curators, artists, musicians, educators, workshop leaders, etc (you get the idea). The thing that the audiences, visitors, and participants come to experience.

Senior buy-in is also going to be much more crucial here than it is with the administrative stuff. For two reasons.

Firstly, this activity is going to be much closer to the core of what the organisation is and does. It might even require them to make room in their programming – maybe doing less of what they’ve been doing up to this point. Unless they’ve been ‘doing digital’ as a box-ticking, inconsequential bolt-on to the real programme of activity, but what’d be the point of that?

Secondly, the case for digital activity in this area may not be as clear cut as it is on the administrative side of things. If it’s difficult to show a clear return on investment then you need a strong, senior advocate.

But here’s the tricky thing. I expect there’s a sizeable cohort of senior people for whom this kind of work is outside their comfort zone. They maybe don’t yet have the necessary frames of reference for what’s possible, or the common ground to have useful conversations with people who work in tech and the artists and others who are already active in this area.

Bridging that knowledge/comfort gap is a challenge, but it could be an important and interesting one.

That’s because the artistic/mission-driven digital activity has far greater potential for being transformative for an org than the administrative digital stuff.

A new CRM, or ticketing system, or website might be nice – even necessary – but they’re not going to be revolutionary. They’re not the point of the organisation. Whereas creating and presenting new types of work with new partners (artists and funders), reaching audiences in new ways could well be.