Moving from anecdotes to data through shared services

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Nik Honeysett is walking in the lush California sunshine, but also in the midst of his clients in Balboa Park - the home of more than 25 museums and performing arts venues.

I called Nik, because he is the director and CEO of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. A shared service that among other things is pioneering the use of data in cultural institutions. An area, where as Nik explains, anecdotal evidence or gut feeling is often still the main basis for strategic decision making:

  • We worked closely with one museum, who continuously chose their lowest performing type of exhibition to be set up again. They were perhaps too passionate and too close to the project. It’s not really surprising that we see this in the art and culture industry, but I know that this challenge goes beyond our industry.   

Shared services are on the rise

Shared services are on the rise. According to PA Consulting, one of the main drivers are still reducing costs, but increased organisational flexibility and scale is gradually catching up.

Shared services so far have mainly been focused on HR, finance and IT, but organizations are now increasing their scope. This is also the case at Balboa Park, where the Online Collaborative is not only a core IT department, but a complete digital service with web development, customer support, a network of freelancers and strategic consulting.

What is important to the Online Collaborative and Nik Honeysett, is constantly ensuring buy-in from the different institutions:

  • You can’t just set up a technology department and hope that everyone will buy into it, a solid governance structure is needed for it to be successful. On one hand it was crucial to show that we understand the business model. On the other, we needed to show that we could provide value through leveraging services and data in a way that each institution wouldn’t be able to do for themselves.

For the venture to succeed, it was important to get a buy-in from all the cultural institutions in the park, which are by no means similar in organizational structure or scope:

  • It was crucial for us to create an altruistic environment. The institutions that can pay more do so from the premise that they will still get a good return on investment from us, and that our existence benefits all. The alternative of each institution having to go out and hire vendors and agencies should be something they wouldn’t even consider.

Anecdotes versus Data

It’s not news. Older organizations usually struggle more to implement the use of data into their strategic decision making. And as Nik hinted to in the start of our interview, this is perhaps even more true in the cultural field:

  • In general, metrics in the cultural field have been widely overlooked, so we needed to start from the beginning with simple, easy-to-understand, but compelling metrics, such as comparing visitor numbers for the different institutions at different times to prove relationships; seeing how different exhibitions stacked up against one another; what kind of competition we could see, as well as synergies we could utilize. It became about breaking down the different parameters of the exhibitions, which are key public draws. The people who are working at our institutions are experts in their cultural domains, so that is quite naturally what they tend to focus on. Our role instead, was to focus on viewing the exhibitions from a structural perspective; breaking down the different elements that could be compared across time-periods, themes or artists. A less obvious way for curators to view exhibitions, but maybe a more obvious way that the public sees them.

Nik and his team worked with one museum, where they did an analysis of their programming over the last five years to see if they could come up with their next big success. They found a pattern between single artist and impressionist painting, which the museum was able to pursue.  

Nik and his team also started looking at the park experience as a whole, and have now started working with models of monitoring across the park and inside the institutions; seeing how people are moving through the park, and what routes they are taking. They are now looking to see if they can use this information to drive traffic to the different institutions:

  • Take the location of a food truck. This hasn’t traditionally undergone much scrutiny, or even been viewed very strategically in relation to the institutions and exhibits themselves. But when we begin to view and work with every part of the park as an integral part of the visitor experience, we can start to influence the way people move through the park, and in the end provide them with a better experience.  

Now Nik and his team are taking shared services at Balboa Park to the next level with a shared, purpose built data analytics platform that allows each institution to handle their own data and compare against other institutions in the park. This way, the project becomes about fostering collaboration that is based on complete openness and driven by data. In the end, resulting in informed decision making:

  • We have knowledge and expertise from so many different cultural organisations, so we leverage that information and make it actionable. I think this is what can be described as the outside perspective from within. Something that is very hard to achieve through the use of agencies.

Nik goes on to emphasise that it’s really more of a cultural challenge than a technological one:

  • Becoming data-driven follows the 80/20 rule, 80 percent a cultural challenge, 20 percent technology implementation, so it really becomes about showing people that it works and how it can inform every aspect of their operations and programming. At the outset, we had to start experimenting, showing that a lot of different factors play into the behaviour of park guests and museum visitors. Traditionally, cultural institutions have been highly focused on delivering a great product, because they knew their audience, and the audience was a very stable one. This is changing significantly in the field today, and it’s increasingly about drawing in different segments and acknowledging that there is increasing competition for our audience’s attention and free time. As within a lot of different fields, we have to move from product-focused to experience-focused. Not only setting up a wonderful exhibit, but delivering a great experience to the visitors. I believe that leveraging data through shared services is definitely the most cost-effective and productive way to do achieve this.

Are you interested in learning more about collaboration and innovation? Or making data actionable? Consider joining Nik Honeysett and data experts such as Kristen Kehrer for the upcoming Boye 19 Brooklyn Conference May 7-9.