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Technology is essential for effective arts administration and marketing and to be successful, all arts organisations need to adopt best practices in acquiring and managing IT systems. Trevor Lea-Cox examines the issues.
Managers working in the arts have much to consider in choosing new IT solutions, co-ordinating their business and technology strategies and maximising the benefits achievable from their IT infrastructure. The first challenge they face is acquiring the most appropriate IT infrastructure for their organisations needs.

Strategic thinking

When organisations in the sector look to charitable sources to fund their IT purchasing, they usually find that such funding is piecemeal and tends to result in short-term decision-making. Over the long term, this leads to a succession of purchasing decisions that often fail to achieve a coherent and effective IT infrastructure. In addition, it is easy for management to underestimate the running costs (upgrades, maintenance and support) of IT systems and to over-allocate available funds to capital expenditure instead. As a result, for example, when a network problem does occur, there isnt always sufficient money available to fix it. Arts organisations should also be wary about donated equipment. Although such donations are normally well intentioned, the equipment itself may sometimes be over-specified, require special operating skills or push the recipient arts organisations down a less than ideal technology path.

For any IT strategy to succeed, it is critical that all the senior decision-makers within the organisation appreciate the importance of putting in place a sustainable infrastructure. However, to do this successfully, they first need to develop an appropriate strategy that clarifies the value of IT to the organisation. This needs to be supported by a budget that takes into account the maintenance and support of the IT infrastructure including staff training. All elements of the IT infrastructure must work together to achieve optimum performance and, critically, to support the organisations overall strategy.

Creating harmony

At the outset of the implementation process, it is important that the arts organisation is able to put in place a solid infrastructure for its IT systems and processes. Standards and guidelines such as ITIL for IT service (operations) management, Prince2 for project management, ISO 27001 for information security and Investors in People for IT training and development, provide good management frameworks for large arts organisations, but they also provide an insight into best practice for smaller arts organisations. Also, because they have evolved over many years, a significant body of associated educational and training material already exists. This material can be used to help introduce these processes into an organisation in a structured, cost-effective and easily understood fashion.

Synchronised information systems are very important, but this is something that many arts organisations fail to appreciate. Rather than taking a holistic view of their information requirements, they concentrate on implementing an individual system that automates only part of a business process, without ensuring that this system communicates effectively with other systems in the information chain. This is the equivalent in musical terms of several musicians simultaneously playing the melodic line from the scores of several different works and expecting perfect harmony!

In an ideal world, arts bodies would be able to implement a co-ordinated IT infrastructure simultaneously across the whole organisation, but the inconsistent availability of funding for IT prevents most from operating in this way. However, if a coherent IT strategy is in place, expenditure can be decided in the context of this strategy as and when funding becomes available. This, in turn, increases the chance that the critical elements of the organisations IT infrastructure will be compatible and harmonious.

On access

A robust, integrated IT infrastructure is vital to the success of any arts organisation. However, this is not an end in itself, but rather a means to providing efficient access to information throughout the organisation. It is therefore important to identify the various types of information required, the condition and availability of this information and who within the organisation either needs or should be denied access to it. Furthermore, all this information needs to be secured to ensure it is not lost, stolen or maliciously destroyed by viruses or hackers and to make certain that rival organisations do not plagiarise important elements of it.

Of course, many of these issues are common to all arts organisations. At the Company of Information Technologists, our awareness of this led to the decision three years ago to run a series of workshops using funding provided by the Baring Foundation, to address some of the key IT problems such organisations face. Participating organisations have benefited by becoming part of a community committed to the professional and productive use of IT and all the learning, networking and support opportunities that this brings. But ultimately, as we have already seen, the benefits they achieve from adopting best practice in IT management are much more far-reaching.

Cost cutting

Over the years, many arts organisations have found that by introducing a co-ordinated set of information, systems and technology policies and standards they can cut the capital cost of purchasing new IT and, more importantly, the cost of sustaining this IT. In some companies with which the Information Technologists have worked, the cost reduction has been as much as 2035%.

Consider the cost of supporting different versions of technologies and systems, especially operating systems like Windows and Office Automation tools. Support costs increase exponentially with the number of different versions employed. This is because of the complexity of tracking and managing different features and information requirements. If a company standardises on just one version of the set of systems they use, and often just one type of system, the cost of supporting and integrating the information they manage will be reduced sometimes dramatically. In addition, if arts organisations are able to operate better quality systems and improve the condition and availability of relevant information, this is likely to both improve the decision-making process and enhance competitiveness.

The introduction of IT management disciplines such as project management will typically generate further benefits including a more integrated and productive use of information and knowledge and a more effective use of limited funding and other resources. Equally, the critical discipline of training staff on the IT they use will drive up productivity by enhancing IT literacy and, as a result, better distributing responsibilities and accountabilities.

Taking the plunge

Of course, in order to achieve these benefits, organisations managements will have to commit to making a major shift in thinking and approach, and this will require time and effort. Inevitably, it will entail some tough decisions, particularly in terms of the sustainability of some systems and technology, and the risks involved. In most cases the sacrifices will be well worthwhile. Any organisation with a significant investment in IT, that has yet to implement the policies, standards and disciplines described in this article, has a huge opportunity ahead of them.

Trevor Lea-Cox is Head of the Arts Panel at the Company of Information Technologists, based in the City of London (formerly known as The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists).
t: 020 7600 1992;
w: http://www.wcit.org.uk; http://www.it4arts.org.uk