7 October 2015

Aside: fostering a messy vibrancy (a response to John Knell's provocation at No Boundaries 2015)

If you missed No Boundaries 2015, you can watch John Knell in action on their website. Worth doing if you're going to spend any time reading what follows. Also worth visiting his website to see that he has seemingly been screaming at a wall for the last decade or so.

As someone who occasionally appreciates hard-headed economics, Knell's argument that 'some of our larger national arts organisations are not too big to fail but too small to succeed' initially seemed appealing. This proposition was based on the winner take all nature of content markets in the digital era: since content markets are now so efficient, consumers seek out only the most sought after content. Few, if any, subsidised national arts organisations have the resources to compete effectively in that marketplace as things stand. Given the cultural footprint of those that succeed, surely it makes sense to get national organisations involved? Problem is that this focuses on whether organisations could compete, whereas more time needs to be spent researching whether organisations should compete.

Let's be very clear that market participation in this way (IE competing toe-to-toe) is absolutely a war of attrition (or a dollar auction if you prefer) because time is infinite but the resources required to compete are finite. The optimal way to play the game is simply not to become involved in the first place because the only true winner is whoever sits in the middle and facilitates the contest. Those participating in the arms race will eventually draw ever further away from those not participating and it will be increasingly impossible to make the jump. Rather than creating the more collaborative sector Knell also spoke about, attempting to expand cultural footprint by creating competitive giants would likely strengthen the 'us and them' mentality: the pyramid gets higher and steeper rather than lower and flatter.

Knell also advocated the establishment of scalable dynamic platform organisations that could amplify artistic and audience footprint (which I will now lazily term 'growth') and create a glorious messy vibrancy. On this point, I agree with him wholeheartedly and began to actively consider what one such platform organisation could look like.

The starting point was the skills chasm that Knell identified in the public arts sector (also present in all industries across the private sector but a more efficient employment market helps paper over the cracks there). Knell provided a list of requirements (incomplete) for an arts organisation operating in today's complex mixed-economy:
  • Outstanding creative leadership
  • Investment expertise
  • Funding expertise
  • Entrepreneurial expertise
  • Great management skills
  • Excellence in data driven decision making
  • Strong governance
  • Capacity to engage with a variety of stakeholders
  • Up to date on relevant issues: legal, funding, compliance etc.

If present within an organisation, those qualities also have to be in balance and correctly aligned to the overall vision/strategy since organisations themselves are ecologies. If balanced, they then need to be utilised properly and developed. Even if the skills are present, balanced, utilised and developed correctly, the sad truth is that a small organisation simply does not have the capacity to maintain the relationship network required to generate substantial growth for themselves.

So a good starting point for a platform organisation would be to address this skill gap and provide the required resource for network construction and maintenance. The platform organisation would be an amplifier with the arts organisations as the input. Simple, quality components (people with the necessary skills to foster organisational development) could be used to create configurable feedback loops of resource for organisations. The resulting amplified output could then be tweaked depending on the context.

To illustrate how the platform organisation would be effective, I took the 168 organisations in the ACE Portfolio that list 'Theatre' as their primary discipline and conducted a quick ABC analysis to get them quickly into tiers. The chart below shows how many of each type there are:

A - The National and The RSC
B - Organisations who (in addition to the above) cumulatively a receive 80% of allocated funding
C - Everybody else

I was expecting a power curve relationship where 20% of organisations received 80% of available funding (or 80% of orgs only receive 20% of available funding) but actually 30% of organisations receive 80% of the funding (or 70% of orgs receive 20% of funds). The below shows how that breaks down:

I believe that the most efficient way to rapidly improve is to identify the lowest level at which something occurs and then look to reduce the amount of time spent at that minimum level (rather than focusing on the highest level you can possibly achieve which invariably leads to diminishing returns as it takes more and more effort to improve marginally). So, if we are looking for growth in cultural footprint and we accept that generally organisations in category 'C' have lower cultural footprints, that lower tier of organisations should be the focus. Remember that this is just an example of a small sub-category of organisations: the platform should be a vertical organisation that facilitates movement up any pyramid, perhaps turning it into a diamond or inverting it completely.

So, our theoretical platform organisation could collaborate with the large number of organisations with smaller cultural footprints to help them grow by providing resource in the form of skills and distributing opportunity by establishing and maintaining a collaborative network. To ensure that it can work with a large number of organisations, the platform organisation itself would need to be scalable, operationally efficient and extremely agile. It should not be distributing funds, only resource (which it will likely need to initially acquire from the private sector).

Ideally it would only have one source of annual funding (ensuring operational focus on output rather than inputs) which could be linked to target metrics defined by the ecology approach mentioned earlier. The important measure would be 'growth facilitated': how did the platform amplify the input of an arts organisation beyond the initial signal by providing resource? The most efficient form would likely be a NPO funded by ACE - any other form would just mean that ACE funds will have to pass through other organisations anyway to reach the platform.

It should be a "Yes and..." platform and never say "Yes but...". As an amplifier, it would be in place to expand on possibilities rather than to limit them.

Practically speaking, this hypothetical platform organisation would offer support to organisations with the desire and potential to improve and grow their cultural footprint. It would work alongside those organisations to identify steps required for rapid and sustainable growth, for example:
  • outlining, implementing and refining a successful long-term growth strategy
  • identifying routes to funding
  • encouraging operational and artistic innovation
  • identifying and addressing skills gaps
  • championing the use of data driven decision making
  • identifying opportunities
  • bespoke business development
  • establishing a growth oriented community

I strongly suspect that raising the bar for the many in this way would have a much wider impact on artistic and audience footprint than by partaking in a war of attrition in the content markets at the other end of the pyramid.

Guess now I can look back in 10 years and see how I got on screaming at that wall.