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February 2, 2006

Rethinking the business card

IDEO business cardSome very cool ideas from the folks at the IDEO design firm: They've posted a series of conceptual prototypes that rethink the future of the business card as part of their ''Identity Card Concept Project.'' Like good designers, they break the object and the values it conveys into elemental functions, and project how those functions might be served in an emerging world. Among the elements the designs explore:

  • True Identity - the business card as evidence of who you are, in a world of DNA tests and blood samples (kinda creepy)
  • Digital Identity - the business card as evidence and support of your digital self
  • Control - the business card as part of a solution to identity theft and spam, and as a more flexible communication medium
  • Memory - the business card as a mnemonic device, supporting and sustaining someone's memory of your meeting (or your interactions over time)
  • Ritual - the business card exchange as an essential ritual of business life
  • Branding Identity - the business card as a vehicle to create a public brand for your private self.

Some of the designs are bizarre and impractical, others could be printed tomorrow. The point of the exercise is to apply a designer's eye to social trends and values, and to foster a conversation through tangible prototypes. The arts and culture world could use this kind of experimentation -- in everything from tickets to programs to (as I've suggested before) the box office.

Thanks to information aesthetics for the link.

Posted by ataylor at 8:01 AM | Comments (1)

February 3, 2006

Stuff I wish I'd said

The Plexus Institute, which focuses on issues in health care, has some wonderful language that also fits the nonprofit cultural industry. See if this sounds familiar to your organization, or the struggle to professionalize arts organizations in a way that detaches them from their passion:

Our model for organizations emanated from the industrial era, in which human organizations were viewed as if they were machines. Undoubtedly, machines brought wondrous advances to humanity. The power of engines, the precision of clocks, and the very laws of mechanics created staggering efficiencies in the inanimate world, greatly benefiting the cause of man.

The principles of the machine operated so brilliantly, however, that people mistakenly began applying them to the living world as well. Institutions, from churches to armies to businesses, were structured as clockworks, built on rigid hierarchies and interchangeable parts.

Utilized as interchangeable parts, humans quit working with their hearts and minds. Governed by power structures and measured primarily by material metrics, personal relationships became more brittle, ranking family and community among the casualties of the modern age. Obsessed with measurement (especially of money), the unmeasurable, such as human spirit, shrank from our attention and we lost sight of how systems, especially living systems, operate as a connected whole.

They also offer a ray of hope, in a quote from John W. Gardner that should be written in permanent ink on our office doors:

"We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems."

Thanks to RED for the link.

Posted by ataylor at 9:08 AM | Comments (0)

February 6, 2006

I'm off this week

Various reports and projects are consuming the bulk of my brain space this week. I'll be back in the blogging business next week. See you then.

Posted by ataylor at 9:43 AM | Comments (2)

February 13, 2006

"Word of mouth" on steroids

The "Tell a Friend" feature is a common occurrence these days on any thoughtful website that wants to encourage and facilitate referrals. The scripts and the technology are essentially free, and well within the reach of even nonprofit arts organizations. But, of course, the big-league web players are already a dozen steps ahead of this basic referral feature, allowing a more dynamic interaction among friends.

A great example is the ''friends'' functions of Netflix, the DVD subscription service that's giving Blockbuster conniptions.

Netflix was already a web-centric service from its beginnings. Customers search for DVDs, rank their favorite movies, receive recommendations, and make their reservations for films on-line. The result is a web-based queue of DVDs they'd like to see (as soon as they mail one back, the next available DVD in their queue is mailed to them). Netflix has coded the site and the system so that customers can share their queues on their weblogs, and otherwise share their film preferences with the world. The ''friends'' function takes those lists to the next level.

Following a cluster of web innovators that are integrating social networking functions (Amazon, MySpace, etc.), Netflix Friends allows you to invite friends to share their queues and preferences with you, to see what movies they liked or didn't like, to pass along short "two-cent reviews," and to essentially tap the experiences and insights of a wide social network to make better entertainment choices.

It's a system that would be almost impossible for any individual arts organization to implement (not enough content, not enough variety, and certainly not enough money). But a regional cluster of arts organizations could certainly give this a go. The emerging community cultural information system of Artsopolis seems perfect for the challenge. Ticketmaster would be doing this if they decided to be innovative.

As arts journalism falters in most markets, and as cynical consumers grow numb to the marketing of organizations, referrals by friends and social networks are the next big hope for cultural institutions. We've always been a "word of mouth" business. But these new tools could help us reclaim that ground.

Posted by ataylor at 8:26 AM | Comments (1)

February 14, 2006

Churn, baby, churn

I'm thrilled to have a wise and thoughtful colleague blogging now on issues of arts and brand and strategy. Neill Archer Roan has shown up a few times in this weblog (like here and here). But now instead of quoting what I heard him say, I can point to his words directly...and subscribe to them, myself.

A case in point is Neill's wonderful work in audience analysis for arts organizations, where he's discovering some astounding underlying dynamics in purchase behaviors. One of the biggies, so far ignored by most consultants and arts marketers, is ''churn'' -- the tidal force beneath the generic attendance numbers we all watch so closely.

Through his number crunching, Neill has noticed that even organizations that have a seemingly stable attendance (the same numbers every year) are actually churning through audience at an alarming rate. It's as if more than half the audience is leaving every year, masked by the new folks coming in to take their place (half of whom will not come back).

Says Neill:

In the course of our work, our client organizations have discovered that their marketing departments have effectively acquired new accounts (some in the range of 60% to 70% of audiences as new or re-acquired) while the rest of the organization -- most of which has held itself harmless in this dynamic -- has failed to retain the audience that marketing has acquired.

If one uses the product-adoption continuum model (consumers move from awareness to consideration to choice to repeat), the consumption cycle is breaking down in the choice to repeat phase. In most product, service, or experience categories, marketing analysts would surmise that the numbers signal troubling dissatisfaction with the product (in our case, the experience) on the consumer’s part. In bottom line terms: their experience doesn’t meet their expectations.

The numbers suggest that the marketing departments are doing astounding work getting new bodies through the door -- so perhaps we should stop glaring at them. Acquisition isn't the problem. Retention is. Audiences aren't finding value in what they experience, or not experiencing the value they came for. And that's a very different ball game. Says Neill again:

We believe that organizations must transform their focus from one that is tactical to one that is strategic and inquisitive. They must be willing to engage in muscular conversations about how programmatic and audience development agendas meet audience and community needs, and whether, in fact, programs are meeting audience expectations.

Artistic quality must stop being a conversation-ender and start being a conversation-starter. Marketing processes and priorities must be equally focused on revealing what’s happening as well as on selling. Strategies should emerge from actual audience behavior, not from assumptions about what’s worked in the past, or from the latest association workshop’s menu of “silver bullets.”

Glad to have him on-line.

Posted by ataylor at 8:42 AM | Comments (1)

February 15, 2006

Beyond Richard Florida

Ann Daly has some great thoughts on the present and future of the arts ecosystem in the United States. While her comments spring from frustration at the ''creative class'' rhetoric that seemed more heat than light (a grievance she's aired before), the real power of the piece is in its recommendations for the future. Says Daly:

Once upon a time, it seemed a promising gambit to latch on to the coattails of the newly-minted, seemingly ascendant creative class. But it turns out (anyone surprised?) that the category is so diffuse as to be meaningless for any other purpose than the theoretical, or -- more politically expedient -- the rhetorical. Florida's prescription for economic growth -- in part, to build the vibrant street culture that is sought after by the creative professionals who drive business development -- has yielded no tangible benefits for arts and culture per se.

Daly sees the most recent rhetorical wave as an opportunity to not be fooled again, and to move forward on our own terms. She suggests five ''modest proposals'' to reframe and refocus our collective work:

  1. The cultural sector needs to look beyond institution-building
  2. The cultural sector needs to focus on infrastructure
  3. The cultural sector needs to think and act systematically
  4. The cultural sector needs to anticipate the future strategically
  5. The cultural sector needs interpretive advocates

Here, here. Read the details.

Posted by ataylor at 8:43 AM | Comments (4)

February 16, 2006

Inviting the elephant into the room

KCRW's The Business radio show (audio file available here, the story starts at about 21:30) has a charming story about graduate film students and their final project. Despite a tight budget and a killer schedule, they decided they needed a live elephant for the shoot. So, they got one.

The story asks the question:

Is it reasonable to ask for the unreasonable in the fear-filled world of real Hollywood filmmaking?**

To which one of the students responds:

"I think studio executives want to do extraordinary movies. They get scared because maybe someone isn't confident enough to bring them along and hold their hand and say 'you know what, it's going to be's going to be amazing.'"

I talk alot about being thoughtful, responsive, and connected to the community as an arts organization and an arts manager. But stories like this remind us that being bold and a bit crazy is also an essential part of our work...if the vision demands it.

When a creative project demands an elephant, sometimes it's our job to get one.

**feel free to replace ''fear-filled world of real Hollywood filmmaking'' with ''risk-averse, cash-strapped world of nonprofit culture.''

Posted by ataylor at 7:20 AM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2006

A powerful study on aging and the arts

A continuing study on the impact of arts activities on older populations may finally bring two elusive elements together for arts advocates: good news and rigorous methodology. The study, being conducted by Gene Cohen, M.D., has already shown significant health and wellness impacts among arts participants over the control group. Said Cohen at a March 2005 status report:

What is remarkable in this study is that after one year the Intervention group, in contrast to the Control Group, is showing areas of actual stabilization and improvement apart from decline -- despite an average age which is greater than life expectancy. These results point to powerful positive intervention effects of these community-based art programs run by professional artists. They point to true health promotion and disease prevention effects. In that they also show stabilization and actual increase in community-based activities in general in the Intervention Group, they reveal a positive impact on maintaining independence and on reducing dependency. This latter point demonstrates that these community-based cultural programs for older adults appear to be reducing risk factors that drive the need for long-term care.

The ''Creativity and Aging Study: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults'' emphasizes arts activities run by professionals -- professional conductors, artists, craftspeople -- and could translate into very large dollars saved in health services if the numbers play out (I know saving money isn't the larger point, but it's a powerful argument for public subsidy). Among the findings:

  • The Intervention Group reported better health one year after baseline starting point measures, while the Control group reported their health was not as good one-year post baseline.
  • Both the Intervention and Control Groups had more doctor visits one year after baseline compared to baseline, but the Control Group increased their doctor visits at a significantly greater rate.
  • Both the Intervention and Control Groups had more medication usage one year after baseline compared to baseline, but the Control Group increased their medication usage at a significantly greater rate.
  • At the one-year follow-up, participants in the Intervention Group reported less falls than at baseline, while the Control Group reported more falls than at baseline.
  • At the one-year follow-up as compared to baseline, participants in the Intervention Group showed greater improvements on each of the depression, loneliness, and morale scales as compared to the Control Group.
  • At the one-year follow-up as compared to baseline, participants in the Intervention Group had on the average an increase of two activities per person, while those in the Control Group had on the average a decrease of two activities per person.

We all know that cultural activity can be transformative and personally enriching. This study begins to prove the true power and potential of that belief in improving the quality of life for older populations. Details of the March 2005 progress report are available in PDF format from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Posted by ataylor at 8:24 AM | Comments (2)

February 21, 2006

The practical approach to board unity

I just had reason to revisit the wonderful writing of John Carver on governing boards (you can find a useful summary of his work here, or read the book). And I was struck again by the clarity and consistency of his approach to an otherwise hazy endeavor. If you can get past his personal hubris (one of his books calls him the ''Creator of the World's Most Provocative and Systematic Governance Model''), you'll find true insights into boards that focus, and boards that flail.

One of the most powerful elements of Carver's model is his principal of ''One Voice.'' We all know that governing boards work best when they can engage in honest and open debate, but then move forward with clarity and consistency. While other writing on board governance covers this ground in aspirational tones (''can't we all just get along?''), Carver crafts a practical approach to the challenge.

A governing board only has ''one voice,'' because its structure and its nature offers no alternative. It's ''one voice or none at all.''

In Carver's view, a governing board only speaks when it makes a decision following its accepted process (a resolution put to a majority vote, usually). Up until that moment -- in all the conversations, disagreements, debates, and modifications -- it's not the board speaking, only the board members. Says he:

The board speaks authoritatively when it passes an official motion at a properly constituted meeting. Statements by board members have no authority. In other words, the board speaks with one voice or not at all. The ''one voice'' principle makes it possible to know what the board has said, and what it has not said. This is important when the board gives instructions to one or more subordinates. ''One voice'' does not require unanimous votes. But it does require all board members, even those who lost the vote, to respect the decision that was made. Board decisions can be changed by the board, but never by board members.

While the distinction may seem semantic, it's extraordinarily powerful. It clarifies for board members that they have no individual authority over the organization, only authority as a collective. It clarifies for staff and leadership the difference between debate and decision -- only one of which should drive their work. During a two-hour board meeting, the board may speak only a few times -- even though the conversation has dragged on forever.

Of course, the ''one voice'' principal does require a lot of its board members -- that they avoid the post-game politics when a resolution doesn't go as they had hoped; that they don't plot with sidegroups on the board to block the action despite the vote to move forward; that staff doesn't collar individual board members to find a workaround that's more to their liking.

Carver's approach still isn't easy, but at least it's clear. And that's a massive step forward for anyone that cares to take it.

Posted by ataylor at 8:30 AM | Comments (2)

February 22, 2006

Mapping 100 years of music as subway stops

London UndergroundI'm rather fond of mapping projects, especially those that attempt to compress an impossibly complex ecology into two dimensions. Having to draw a static visual representation of a dynamic process forces individuals and groups to expose their hidden assumptions about how things are connected, what elements of that world are in the center, and what occupies the fringe.

Given my bias, I'm destined to love the effort of Dorian Lynskey of the UK's Guardian, who has grafted 100 years of Western music onto the London Underground map. Says Lynskey:

It seems like a deeply implausible project: to plot the history of 20th century music on the London Underground map devised by Harry Beck in 1933. Artist Simon Patterson transformed the tube map into a constellation of famous names in his 1992 work The Great Bear, but he didn't have to make them all link up. It is, after all, a tall order to find a saint who was also a comedian. But for this one to work every interchange had to be logical in the context of musical history, an unlikely prospect.

The result is fun and fascinating -- and certainly a specific perspective on how Western music fits together. As such, other individuals will have radical disagreements with the arrangements, connections, inclusions, and exclusions. Classical music buffs might be particularly annoyed with Lynskey's placement of their favorite genre:

...the different character of each line quickly lent itself to a certain genre. Pop intersects with everything else, so that had to be the Circle Line; classical music for the most part occupies its own sphere, which made it perfect for the Docklands Light Railway.

That's the beauty of maps: they offer a more productive way for us to disagree.

Posted by ataylor at 8:54 AM | Comments (1)

February 23, 2006

Programming by the numbers

Antonia Zerbisias at the Toronto Star is in a bit of bunch over leadership changes at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. To her taste, the new team is a bit too focused on business models, audience segmentation, focus groups, and modeling of past peformance in making their programming choices for the network.

Developing and commissioning series is an art, not a science. There is no regression analysis that will spit out statistics to back a go-with-the-gut decision on hits such as ''Lost,'' ''The Wire'' or ''Desperate Housewives.''

So why is CBC-TV management now touting "the PARC system, the Program Planner, the Public Value panels, the FIATS survey, and the new Audience Segmentation approach'' — tools that look to past performance and not to the future? Is this what passes for programming vision nowadays?

It's a balance that strikes to the heart of cultural programming, especially in the increasingly sophisticated and competitive world of nonprofit culture. New tools and research methods can inform our programming choices, can flag the criteria of past success, can hone our perspective on narrow target demographics. But how much do we use these tools? And how do we keep them from using us?

Posted by ataylor at 8:18 AM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2006

Rethinking the arts ecology through health care

The Design Council of the United Kingdom has been rethinking the structure and goals of health care systems, particularly as they relate to chronic health issues that require constant and personalized attention. If you squint a bit, the results of their work, published in this report and others, could also be a conceptual map for a more connected and grounded cultural ecology.

The report suggests that a more effective and responsive system would have the following qualities:

  • Distributed. Know-how, tools, advice and finance needed to be distributed out of institutions into communities and households to allow user-centred solutions to be assembled collectively and locally. In economic terms, each package of solutions would not only be particular and personalised -- just as the contents of each supermarket trolley are a personally assembled package -- but would comprise locally available and convenient resources. This was an allocational proposition about moving resources (information, advice, finance, technology and tools) into the hands of citizens/users as producers of their own well-being. It was also a geographical one of dispersing those resources spatially.
  • Collaborative. There are great benefits from maximising the scope for collaboration -- through self-help groups for example, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or the National Childbirth Trust, or through collaborative sessions with professionals, peer-to-peer mentoring, or on line forums. These benefits are both those of sharing information, experience and advice, and of being part of social networks that are so important for good health.
  • Co-created. Users, as producers, should be central to the design, production and development of services. This is not just a matter of the service package itself, but of many elements of the package and what is most appropriate. The concept suggests a creative and interactive process between users and professionals around the needs of the user.
  • Peer-based communities of co-creation. The distributed networks of collaborators would be organised not through a top-down hierarchical structure, but through light shells that set down rules and ways of operating that allow free peer-to-peer relations. The models evoked were from software (Linux and the free software movement), e-Bay, computer games, astronomy networks linking amateurs and professionals, and the Grameen micro-finance bank in Bangladesh. Each of these is a problem solving network, whose systems develop through the sharing and filtering of distributed knowledge.

Okay, maybe you have to squint a lot...but there's something in there of value. What would an arts ecology in a community look like if it followed the same principals? And how is the current structure and behavior of our arts organizations contrary to these principals?

NOTE: One particularly cool recommendation from the health services study was ActivMobs -- a newsletter, website, and social networking system to encourage small group fitness activities through existing mutual interests. Hmmmm.

Posted by ataylor at 10:21 AM | Comments (1)

February 28, 2006

Just when you thought you had this web thing down

Lots of chatter on the Internet is celebrating the evolution of ''Web 2.0,'' or the next generation of web systems and content. What is it, exactly? Depends on who you ask. Marshall Kirkpatrick offers a useful description, suggesting that Web 2.0 services and systems have the following qualities:

  • They allow non-web designers to put their own content (writing, audio or video etc.) online easier than ever before.
  • They make content more portable than ever and easier to remix, mash together or reuse in a different context.
  • They utilize this user-generated content and the economy of scale/ network multiplier effect created to draw valuable connections between related users and content.
  • They make discovery of new content more automated and relevant than ever before.
  • They have the potential to exponentially increase the amount of information that any of us are able access, store and recall.
  • And it all happens fast.

If you're interested in nonprofit applications of the new tools and systems, wander over to NetSquared, a project tracking and fostering the technologies to promote social change.

UPDATE of 3/2/06: For some tangible evidence of what Web 2.0 might look like, visit CNN's new listing of the Next Net 25, where they flag ''25 start-ups that are reinventing the web.''

Posted by ataylor at 12:00 AM | Comments (1)

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