An ArtsProfessional feature sponsored by Yesplan

With new technologies offering potential answers to a myriad of problems facing arts organisations, how can you sift out the ones that offer cost-effective solutions? Andrew Thomas makes some suggestions.

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One of the things I love about working in the cultural sector is the way that innovation takes hold and is shared. This applies to ways of working, new production techniques, methods of marketing and adoption of new technologies.

Don’t accept any excuses that a sales person needs to do a detailed analysis before giving you an idea of price

Many of these advances have come out of the innate creativity of those working in the sector, looking for ways to improve their practice. But others have evolved over the past ten years of funding cutbacks and budget squeezes, simply because existing ways of working became too expensive in either outright spend or hidden costs.

Buyer beware

The movement to embrace new technologies has been particularly helpful in this regard, although inevitably it has attracted many suppliers who don’t normally serve our sector. The ill-famed Grantium system that has had Arts Council England (ACE) grant applicants tearing their hair out is a case in point. An off-the-shelf system designed to help government grant-makers administer large and multiple grants programs “with speed, confidence, and efficiency”, it has been amusingly described by one user as looking and feeling like “a Soviet-era interface for monitoring grain harvests”. And it has proved costly for both ACE and would-be grant applicants in terms of the time and resources needed to use it.

Some suppliers enter the market with the idea of making a quick buck, suggesting that our sector is somehow less discerning, or even ‘not that bright’. That last comment may have made you wince. It does me, every time I hear it, which sadly I do from time to time. But after working in the supply of technology to the cultural sector for over a decade, I’ve learnt a thing or two about being ‘pitched’ products, from either companies new to the sector or a new product to offer it, and I know that the sector must be aware that some of them have less than honest intentions, motives or practices.

Surveying the territory

Having worked as a consultant for the past three years, I get around five or six approaches a month from companies and individuals dying to show me a new software solution – from ticketing to cloakroom management, email tools to dynamic pricing engines.

Although it’s a time-consuming process, I try to have a look at them, as even if they aren’t relevant for me today, tomorrow’s client may have a need for such solutions. But these days, many venues struggle to afford the cost of engaging a consultant to sift through the options for them, and have to select solutions for themselves.

So how can you ensure you are exploring the technological solutions that could be useful to you, your team, your organisation and your customers, and not waste time on meetings and demonstrations that will not? Next time someone calls offering you a technology that will ‘revolutionise’ your arts organisation, it’s worth asking two questions.

#1 What problems does your solution solve?

My favourite ever Dragons’ Den pitch was for a plug-in contraption that travelling business people could carry with them to enjoy a fresh boiled egg in their hotel room. The pitch ended with the feedback from investors: “Congratulations, you have a solution that doesn’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist,” as the inventor cracked open another almost raw egg.

This nicely illustrates how important it is never to lose sight of the two key criteria on which any technological solution should be judged:

  • Is the problem it claims to alleviate one we or our customers actually want or need?
  • Will this actually solve the problem or create other frictions?

Many sales people will try and get through the door to explain the solution in person, but before you agree to meet, push them to explain how it solves a problem. If they cannot adequately explain the benefits or solutions their product offers in an email or quick phone call, chances are it may not be worth your time taking the conversation any further.

#2 How much will it cost?

This is a vital question. When you look for a new family car, do you head to a Ferrari dealership? No, even if they made four- or five-seaters, the cost wold be prohibitive. BMW? It may be worth investigating, alongside other apparently cheaper options, because the purchase cost is not the only cost. When shortlisting a car, we think about fuel consumption, insurance, emissions and road fund licence. And we must make sure we do the same when committing time to investigate technology.

Don’t accept any excuses that a sales person needs to do a detailed analysis before giving you an idea of price. If they called you, they should know your venue size and scale, and they should at least be able to give you a cost range. When I speak to clients about Yesplan, we talk of a simple range of monthly prices between x and y per month, and advise the potential client they are going to be closer to one or the other.

Likelihood of implementation

After a sales call, ask yourself how likely it is that this great solution or product will actually be implemented by your organisation? Even if there is a great fit with the problems you need to resolve, and the cost would not be prohibitive, might your organisational structure, politics or policies mean it will never happen? If this is the case, the time you waste – and it will be a waste listening to a pitch, reading a proposal or building a business case – could be better spent elsewhere.

Andrew Thomas is an independent technology consultant in the arts industry and is currently working with Yesplan, a Cloud-based venue management and planning system designed and supplied exclusively to the cultural sector.

This article is an advertising feature sponsored and contributed by Yesplan.

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