Hannah Rudman reports on AmbITion, an emerging initative she is leading to help the cultural sector develop digitally.

If you’ve read my column a few times, then you’ll know that I am partial to sharing statistics that reflect the impact of digital technology. The latest figures show that people have changed the way that they behave – statistics proving increasing interaction, creation and participation via the web. About 2.7 billion searches were made on Google this month. If MySpace were a country, it would be the eighth largest on the earth. Six hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

The next stats show that we are living in exponential times. Distribution and commercial opportunities have changed dramatically. The first text message was sent in 1992. Today, the number of SMS messages sent daily exceeds the population of the planet. eBay’s 2006 revenue was $6bn. Every day 3,000 books are published in some digital form. The opportunities presented by digital technologies for business, organisational, audience and artistic development are substantial, and will only increase in the future.

Growing and retaining audiences remains key to the health of our sector, and the wider competitive environment demands that the arts sector embraces new paths to audience or lose market share to other sectors. Examples are:

  • 24/7 leisure options;
  • the boom in the use of the Internet for entertainment and information;
  • increased penetration of visual media via personal digital devices such as MP3 Players and mobile phones – in 1992, there were 1 million Internet-enabled devices globally, now there are 600 million;
  • a music industry that understands individual eclectic tastes, and is beginning to produce business models that understand the notion of the Long Tail1.

These other sectors have recognised and responded to some specific challenges and opportunities emerging from the technology revolution. It is crucial that the cultural sector not only keeps up with these developments but can create its own exemplars and best practice.

It is this future opportunity that my main project, AmbITion, has identified as one that the cultural sector is ready to embrace, but is not always willing and able to do so. Through the previous research of Arts Magnet (reported in AP 122) and the testing phase of AmbITion, we have discovered that the technology base of arts organisations is very low. Most arts organisations have made some digital developments, but they are piecemeal and not strategically connected or centrally embedded. Most seek funding to develop digital content around their artform, but the audience development opportunities can not be maximised due to the low technology base. Most do not have a clear idea of what the appropriate assets are to digitise, nor how to set up contracts to allow/maximise digitisation. In addition, basic operational software is increasingly required in order to conduct business, and should be justified as a cost of doing business. Knowledge management technologies, and other advanced systems, are justified if they reduce expense, improve productivity or enhance value.

AmbITion’s vision is to generate a critical mass of arts organisations that proactively consider digital development as key to their business, organisational and artistic growth and sustainability. The AmbITion model provides direct financial support for seven organisations through ACE’s Thrive! programme for organisational development. These share a diagnostic consultancy model with a further eight organisations requesting funding support from ACE’s Grants for the Arts Fund. The consultancy leads each organisation to develop a business case for investment in integrated technology. The funding will enable the organisations to develop digitally across their business, operational and artistic functions. The 15 AmbITion organisations (representing all artforms, operational models and sizes) will become ‘beacons’ for the successful adoption of integrated digital technology in the sector. We will monitor and evaluate their progress throughout the project, and disseminate their journeys, stories and case studies widely. This activity will be supported by an online knowledge base, a training and networking programme, and advocacy and leadership development around digital issues, achieved by a national roving roadshow.

The story of Oldham Coliseum, an AmbITion participant, gives an idea of impact we can expect. Three years ago, Oldham Coliseum had a single email address and only a handful of computers, which were not networked. Some earlier investment had given it a server-based network with Internet for all, but there was still some concern that the organisation wasn’t using its systems well enough.

Under the guidance of Administrative Director Liz Wilson and Artistic Director Kevin Shaw, ICT now tops the priority list. The whole staff met together and then broke out to discuss four separate themes: back office systems, e-marketing, digital technology in performance, and digital technology to help production. Several key cross-cutting themes came out of this meeting: namely, the need for a proper technology plan for the organisation, better sharing of resources across departments and the need for a full technology audit to address immediate issues.

Even as the AmbITion business case was being developed, Oldham Coliseum was engaging with how it uses ICT across all aspects of the organisation. A digital development business case has been constructed, and the following has taken place internally:

  • a new supplier for technology services has been put in place, and PCs and the network have been upgraded;
  • a new administrator has been appointed with a reworked job description including ICT;
  • the development of a collaborative artistic digital endeavour with its young people’s theatre has been planned, to take place in 2009 after all the new digital technology and skills have been embedded across the organisation;
  • Oldham Coliseum is speaking with its web developer about developing an extranet to further communication with staff and all its creative collaborators;
  • Oldham Coliseum has identified the need for a robust and ongoing technology strategy, with the emphasis on growth and sustainability, to be undertaken in the next few months.

Liz Wilson wrote to AmbITion a few months ago to reflect on progress: “We have upgraded every computer… it has really made a difference… created a wireless environment in the bars, education studio, rehearsal room and green room and are in the process of purchasing a multi-media machine with peripherals for everyone to use.”

I believe that the AmbITion approach will continue to breed successful digital development implementation and integration, and I look forward to sharing more of the stories, as well as presenting more thought and debate on the key issues of digital development.

Hannah Rudman is a freelance IT and digital content consultant.
t: 07971 282261; e: hannah@hannahrudman.com;
w: http://blog.myspace.com/getambition
1 Chris Anderson coined this phrase in his book The Long Tail (2006) – the notion being that the Internet provides the market place for niche markets that have enduring sustainability.

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