Rethink and realign: resetting your approach to data post-COVID-19

John Knell

John Knell, 4 June 2021

This article originally appeared on the Arts Council England blog as a resource for their Ambition & Quality investment principles. 

At a moment when you are trying to stabilise and rebuild, while still planning for an ever-uncertain future, it may seem like a challenge to place another item on your strategic-to-do list. But for a moment, bear with me - this is undoubtedly the most opportune moment you will ever have to reflect on how you use data in your organisation. 

COVID-19 has enforced a ‘data detox’ for all businesses, particularly those in the arts and cultural sector. Before the pandemic, you may have been collecting a lot of audience and insight data in regard to your impact, or comparatively little. Either way, March 2020 will now always be the time when your data went weird: your trends stopped trending and your feed of stats and insights dried up.   

So how much have you missed your organisational data feed? How comfortable have you been making decisions in the dark? What insights have you missed the most and, with that spirit, what have you stopped analysing, predicting and actioning? Your answers speak to the way you manage and how important data is to you or, indeed, how important the data you had actually was.

We know the sector has been hugely innovative in its collective response to the pandemic, experimenting with new ways of reaching and engaging audiences in your work. For example, a significant number of NPOs taking part in the Impact & Insight Toolkit have been using our Evaluation for Online Works Template to evaluate work they have presented online. 

As arts and cultural organisations make these shifts, now is the moment to rethink your data and evaluation efforts - to realign your strategy and support the sector to regenerate as quickly as possible. For those of you who have been thinking about this, these are some questions you may have already asked yourself:

  • Do we need new data insight and analysis types as we experiment with new engagement models and approaches? 
  • With this new pace of innovation, how can we generate a faster feedback loop on our work - between us, our artistic peers, community partners, and our audiences?
  • Are we measuring impact and gathering feedback in ways that will allow us to creatively and quickly correct any new course we have embarked upon? 

In getting the right answers to these questions and others, I would stress one mindset… Check your alignment. 

There are two distinct elements to getting your alignment right:

  1. What do you want to achieve and how will you measure it?
    Establish a clear alignment between your key strategic objectives and your evaluation strategy.
  2. Is your vision a shared and collaborative one?
    Build strong alignment across the key roles in your organisation; ensure all staff sign up to the value of data insights and understand the creative tensions in using that data wisely. 

Let’s explore these two elements.

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Strategic Alignment

It’s fair to say that most cultural organisations don’t lack data. We have feedback tools, dashboards, social media, CRM and ticketing systems. But we don’t always use that data wisely.  Instead, we find round holes for square pegs, trying to answer questions with data that wasn’t designed for that purpose, and then adapting our questions to suit the data we have.

The right questions are the ones that explore data that links directly to your strategic objectives. If you are focusing on inclusivity in your work, are you asking your audience questions about whether they see themselves in your work? Postcode data from ticketing systems will not tell you if audiences find your work cold or disconnected. 

Being able to monitor and evaluate your creative ambitions requires you to map the outputs and outcomes you need to measure, and to be deliberate in showing how they align with your key strategic objectives. But some organisations find this task notoriously difficult. Why?

"A well-led, purposeful cultural organisation has nothing to fear from a wholehearted commitment to feedback, data and evaluation"

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Role Holder Alignment

Do your staff buy into the value of data as a tool to support key decisions - the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of your activities? When ‘data’ and evaluation become the siloed responsibility of one part of the organisation, that’s a sure sign of how your organisation perceives its value. 

It is absolutely vital that key role holders create common cause about the need to measure the outputs and outcomes that truly reveal whether your organisation is delivering on their intentions and its strategic objectives, in a meaningful way. 
    
So, for a given organisation, if the Chair of the Board, its CEO, or Creative Director don’t agree on the value of data in an organisational or management context, and how it should frame decision making, then that organisation is going to remain data-siloed. At worst, this leads to conflict about the value of data and its merit, which fosters a lowest-bar, compliance-based approach to evaluation (i.e. we do this because ‘we have to’ rather than because it allows us to be more impactful and responsive to our stakeholders).  

But a well-led, purposeful cultural organisation has nothing to fear from a wholehearted commitment to feedback, data and evaluation. For example, ‘data’ does not predetermine anything about an organisation’s creative and organisational response to audience and place. Rather, it helps that organisation identify exactly where it might need to take more risks to respond effectively to local stories and need. 

The restless desire of arts and cultural organisations to innovate and make a difference to people’s lives will continuously drive us closer to insights-based data. Therefore, there’s never been a better moment to rethink and realign your approach to evaluation data. It’s time to move this vital issue up your strategic-to-do list.  

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John Knell is the Director of Counting What Counts - Culture Counts' partner organisation in the UK. This blog was originally written for Arts Council England and their Ambition & Quality investment principles. 

View the Art Council England 2020 - 2023 Strategy for more information. For more information about Counting What Counts (UK), visit the Impact and Insight Toolkit website.

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