Is Big Data the Next Frontier for Innovation in the Arts?

Crunching data sets is the norm in the tech industry. How can arts orgs use data analysis to make their employees happier and more effective?

A view of Google's Tel Aviv office.
A view of Google’s Tel Aviv office.

Universally considered one of today’s most innovative companies, Google has rather unconventional offices with libraries, coffee bars and “build-your-own” desks. Even though all of these luxuries could be considered distractions, Google recently became the third most valuable firm and is ranked number one on Fortune’s “best companies to work for” list. How is this possible? Google uses their strength of data collection and analysis to improve their office environments in a way that makes their employees happier and more innovative through the practice of “people analytics.”

People analytics, in a nutshell, is the practice of using big data to aid in decision-making that affects staff and the workplace. Google began using people analytics to evaluate the roles of managers in their company through an initiative they called Project Oxygen. From that point on, data analysis has influenced Google’s decision making on almost every level – from staff structure to office space decoration. Ben Waber, author of People Analytics, explained Google’s decision to use big data in the workplace to the New York Times: “They’ve looked at the data to see how people are collaborating… and the data are clear that the biggest driver of performance… is serendipitous interaction. For this to happen, you also need to shape a community. Google looks at this holistically.”

Who knew that data could say all of that?

Data isn’t just for the tech industry

Just because the tech industry specializes in data collection doesn’t mean that other industries haven’t found value in using data as well. For anyone who knows baseball (or has watched Moneyball), we know that data analysis has become part of the player selection process. Though the Oakland A’s haven’t won a World Series with the system they developed, the Red Sox did only two years after they adopted this philosophy.

Even the City of New York is using data to fix problems and save money. Mayor Bloomberg established the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, which analyzes data to solve problems ranging from the illegal selling of cigarettes to identifying buildings where fires are likeliest to occur. Data has helped New York be more efficient and effective with both its human and financial resources.

What if arts organizations incorporated data analysis ideas?

Big data often has a negative connotation in the arts, a field where emotion and personal choice are highly valued. But does going with your gut necessarily lead to a more innovative arts organization?

For three years, I have been using data to evaluate the integration of the arts into non-arts curriculum on Wesleyan University’s campus. We have developed surveys and coded narrative responses in order to learn what is working, identify which disciplines have the most successful collaborations, and see how open students are to experimenting with this type of learning. While our gut told us incorporating the arts across the university would benefit our campus and students, we now have data to support that idea and have tweaked our programming based on what we learned in order to make it even more successful.

Program evaluation is something that all arts organizations should be doing, but what if we took it to the next level and incorporated data analysis ideas throughout our offices? Data could benefit every department of our organizations. It could identify how members like to receive information, what type of programming has the greatest impact, and what time of year is best to start a fundraising campaign. Data could help executives justify decisions to the board and staff, by presenting statistical evidence to explain that a decision was made thoughtfully, not just instinctively – thus giving those board and staff members a reason to support the changes. Could something as simple as holding a half-hour, weekly open forum for questions and sharing make staff members happier, more productive and more innovative?

Arts organizations don’t have to give up our emotional side, but we do need to find ways to help our arts administrators become more innovative, which may emerge by creating and analyzing more supportive and engaging work environments for artists and patrons.

What can your organization do?

It’s not just free snacks and foosball tables that make an office culture innovative. Each organization has to develop their own community culture, and that process should include many elements, including data gathering and a focus on “people analytics.” With all of the natural creative energy in our field, we should be able to translate quantitative findings into valuable tools that can help an organization and its staff reach their full potential. If nothing else, wouldn’t it be good to know if the decisions we are currently making are the best ones? Data can help confirm that, too.

Has your organization started to use data to make decisions? Are there areas of your organization that you think would benefit from the use of data analysis?

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Erinn Roos-Brown is the Program Manager for the Creative Campus Initiative at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts in Middletown, CT where she oversees the program’s mission to elevate the place of art, artists and the artistic process at Wesleyan and to innovatively strengthen teaching, student learning, artmaking and cross-disciplinary exchange and inquiry.