Technology is about people: Nesta’s Digital Culture panel

Alyson Fielding
5 min readFeb 4, 2016


Nesta’s Digital Culture 2015 survey is the third annual study of how arts and cultural organisations in England use technology. I went to their panel event in London to hear Mia Ridge (British Library), Ros Lawler (Tate) and Lucy MacNab (Ministry of Stories) discuss findings from the past 3 years of data collection.

Four themes stood out for me: use of data, business models, mobile, and engagement.

The findings from the 3 years of surveys from around 900 organisations show the cultural sector is changing and adapting to technology. Despite the impact of cuts, some organisations — a top 10 per cent — are having big successes in both day-to-day working and riskier research and development projects.

But for others, use of digital/technology has declined over the period.

Use of data is getting less common

Fewer organisations are using data to inform what they do online.

“…only 40 per cent now use data to develop their online strategy, compared with 45 per cent in 2013. These drops are fairly consistent across organisation sizes and art and cultural forms” — Digital Culture 2015

Data and research are essential to understanding audiences. Together, they help organisations focus on the things that are working, and to change approach or stop doing the things that don’t work.

“You need data. I don’t see how you can have an effective online strategy without data.” — Ros Lawler, Tate

Technology is still not at the core of business models

45% of organisations believe digital/technology to be essential or important to their business model. Which means 55% don’t believe it’s important to their core strategy.

Digital and technology are about people: what they enable people to do, and how technology supports they way people live. Embedding technology into a business model is about understanding your audiences and your own needs as an organisation. To exclude digital, or to silo it into a separate strategy away from the main business model will not help an organisation to succeed.

“It’s not about digital strategy, it’s about the organisation’s strategy and how digital contributes to that” — Ros Lawler, Tate

Websites need to be mobile-optimised

40% of responders to the study don’t have a website that works well on mobile devices. This is a change from 2013, when around 67 per cent didn’t. But there’s clearly more to do here. Mobile use to access the web and the internet is increasing. Audiences are using mobile devices more and for longer. They have different expectations for their experience on a mobile device.

“Mobile isn’t about small screens and PCs aren’t about keyboards — mobile means an ecosystem and that ecosystem will swallow ‘PCs’” — Benedict Evans, 16 mobile phone theses

There’s some low engagement and barriers to doing more

10% of organisations do no email marketing, have no website or Facebook presence.

And although many organisations are doing well with online marketing and fundraising, some have not been able to do more to transform their organisations.

Online is more than marketing and fundraising. It’s at the core of business strategy, organisational make up and the things an organisation does within and externally.

In the study, the top barriers stopping change include: lack of funding, digital responsibility at the top of an organisation, and in-house technology.

“You have to have [digital] representation at the top” — Ros Lawler

So what do we do?

It felt clear to me from the findings and the panel discussion that technology and new ways of communicating and collaborating need to be at the heart of arts and cultural organisations. Technology needs to be built into business models and strategies. Organisations need to be rebuilt around the way people are using technology and online platforms and services. And doing the basic stuff better — such as using web analytics, continuous user research, and using clear English — could improve experiences for most users engaging with arts and cultural organisations.

Working differently

For an arts organisation, this means structuring the business to:

  • put the needs of users at the core
  • learn from users continuously
  • use data and research to see what’s working
  • make small incremental changes and improvements over time
  • enable a flat organisational structure
  • adopt an agile way of working

Becoming open

At the panel discussion, the room wanted to know which organisations were in the top 10 per cent of organisations that were succeeding. That data isn’t public as far as I know. I hope it can be opened and shared in the sector. There’s much to learn and understand, and there was a big hunger to learn from the people attending the event.

People in the sector need to share what they did and why, what didn’t work, and what they learned. They need to be able to do so without fear of affecting future funding, or losing face in front of peers.

How many organisations use Slack to talk to each other, or to share with other organisations in the cultural sector?

“There’s a gap in finding ways to share lessons.” — Mia Ridge

Accept risk and responsibility

These big changes need to come from the top of the organisation. The CEO needs to be the sponsor of change. She needs to be bold in adopting new ways of working, and enable her team to feel empowered to make changes tool. She needs to create a culture of openness, sharing and learning from failures. She needs to take the responsibility so that her team can work in new ways without fear of blame if things fail.

This culture needs to be embedded in the way every single person in the team works. They need to have a shared understanding about their organisation’s plans, and about who their users are and what they need. Individuals need to be able to contribute ideas to the day-to-day work, longer term projects and the business strategy. They need to make iterations and improvements quickly and easily.

Sharing and collaborating

The CEO needs to enable teams to work together. This might mean using online tools and services such Trello to talk and plan together. It might be Google Drive to collaborate on documents in real time with colleagues and suppliers. The way IT works in some organisations isn’t working. Old strategies, old kit and outdated browsers are holding back change. Is IT set up to help people work in the way they want to? Can they work and collaborate easily in real time, whether they are based in the office or remotely, on whatever device they choose?

Funding needs to go into changing core business around technology and people. This is difficult at a time when funding cuts are biting deeply. But without a solid foundation, how can organisations adapt, build and respond to new audience needs?



Alyson Fielding

Stories. Tech. Play. Making stuff with Arduino and paper-bound books. Currently: culture / government.