Un-hitching the horse from the back of the cart
The New Writing Partnership story (now Writers’ Centre Norwich)
Chris Gribble is a chief executive brimming with almost schoolboy enthusiasm about literature, his organisation and his people. He laughs with pride and glee as he effortlessly repeats the mission statement of what for the last 5 years has been New Writing Partnership and has now been rebranded the Writers’ Centre Norwich:
“We are a literature development organisation that’s committed to the exploration of the artistic and social power of creative writing.”
Reminiscent of a young Russell T. Davies, Chris’s eyes sparkle behind his designer glasses as he enthuses about the organisation he has helped grow.
“We run literature events, projects and creative writing prizes and competitions including a creative writing prize, Ventures; our literary festival, Worlds; Refugee Week events; readings and a talent development scheme called Escalator Literature. We run creative writing workshops and courses covering poetry, (live literature, performance, comedy and form), prose fiction and non-fiction. We also run schools workshops and library events”.
One would be forgiven for thinking that the uses for technology in an organisation based on literature and writing would be modest, but Chris boldly claims the organisation is now in a way based on changes that have been brought about by an IT project, in this case, the Arts Council’s AmbITion project.
Looking at the organisation through the prism of technology has co-incided with a radical and fundamental shift in the way the organisation works: the organisation’s marketing effort has been picked up and placed in the complete opposite position in the structure of the organisational plan. A renewal of the organisation’s values, its ways of working, the way it connects with its audiences, and even its name have come out of looking at the digital development needs. In short, the effect of auditing the organisation’s IT has led to an overhaul of the organisation itself.
By the end of the organisation’s digital development, the outward signs of technological change were: a new website, a new CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system, and a new set of desktop computers. Good, but not revolutionary. However, the changes that came alongside it were even more profound. Chris claims the thought processes kick-started by thinking about digital development affected marketing, staff roles, the organisation’s name, the way they put together programmes, the scope of the programmes and the way they find audiences for them.
Firstly, here are the basics; the technological changes:
As Chief Executive Chris Gribble explains, developing a new website was the final part of the project, although planning for it informed all the earlier parts…. “We were very aware that we needed a new website because the previous one was quite narrow and deep and static and didn’t support images or other technologies very well. And you couldn’t easily import other technologies onto the site. It wasn’t very design driven, it didn’t allow us to talk to our customers or for them to talk to us. It didn’t really allow us to identify our customers or our users of any sort. It was difficult to work with and it was basically a window front and nothing else. And it wasn’t a particularly attractive window front at that. I wanted to bring some of my digital experience to bear and look at how we could use new technology, both to find out who our audiences were, to let them find out more about us and engage with us, and to overcome some of the issues of not having a venue, around virtually and presence, how we could teach online rather than ask people to come to Norwich – which is at the end of the railway line. Rather then bring people here from all over the country we wanted to look at how we can host events, teaching experiences and other materials online in order to be able to derive added value from all of the people we brought here and what we did with them here, that we could then share in different ways and different platforms.
“So what we did, we had to do in the right order basically, which is why the website was commissioned last and is the final thing to be delivered – we developed a new mission statement, we developed a new business plan, we developed a new marketing strategy, we commissioned and undertook the work to look at our CRM system and see how that related to the marketing strategy, we then did the branding work and we took all that into the new website and we have a much more accessible website entirely focused on the different audiences and stakeholders that we have, basically built in a fairly porous way, which is enabling us to pull in the best of other platforms on the site and allow us to display the personality of the organisation and the personalities of the people who work here as a means of having a dialogue with people on the website. It is driven by a blog with micro blogs of certain events; all of the commissions and the mini projects that we run around these things are built in, the authors need to produce material for us for the website, which can be used for that. The fundamental model is that there is a private area, a semi-private area and a public area of the website and we will be able to communicate internally as a team, almost like an intranet on the back end of it, and then just shift work that we’re doing into the public zone just by clicking permissions etc. so that people are able to see a lot more of the background work that we do, the discussions we have and the material that we work with. We will use YouTube, Vimeo, flickr, Twitter and all the usual stuff but we are trying to plan it in: rather then a “lets get on there and see what we can do with it” approach, we’ve had lengthy discussions about what we will do with it and how we will then use it on the site; we want to bring a lot of stuff in basically and make it a fairly active website and a key point in our communications, right across the board. We are also quite committed now to reducing the level of print and really focussing on developing communications based on the website and based on our CMS [Content Management System], which will be pointed at directly from our new website, and schemed in a similar way and related to that”.
An interim website, reflecting Writers’ Centre Norwich’s name change has been developed, whilst the new website is being completed.
Chris is sanguine about the use of social networking services like Facebook and Twitter. He’s not fazed by them, but not fixated on them either: “I think that they are only as useful as the customers find them – we want them to be useful to them. It has to be that way, there’s no point in us reinventing the wheel or for people setting up endless subgroups of everything. We’ve been lucky to work with IT specialist and BBC blogger Bill Thompson who’s a board member now. We are wanting to piggy back on the best of what is available and what’s on offer, and generate added value for people’s current engagement with those sites and those technologies rather then kind of echo them or set up parallel structures to those. So, yeah, we are aware of the dangers of over communication and of flogging rather then blogging the way through to people, because we’re all kind of involved in that those worlds anyway and we know other people who do that and none of us particularly like it, but equally we know that as a means of reinforcing a sense of community and allowing other people to develop a feeling of community with us, they can be useful tools still”.
The Box Office
The organisation has also installed a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Chris remembers the previous arrangement with irony: “When I arrived, our entire database was a set of Excel spreadheets of different sorts and at different stages of disrepair and misery. I then forced everyone to move across to Access which only increased the general levels of misery and general bafflement all round. And then we did some work on what we needed: we’re not a venue, so to have a Box Office system is difficult for us. We did analysis of 2 years worth of work on what was ticketed, what was price-ticketed and what was free-ticketed, and what was totally open and walk-up and we realised that however many forms we handed out to people at events, however many partners we had, we were just leaking information all the time and we were never going to be able to keep track, despite our best efforts and the huge ‘Access’ database we had, we didn’t really know who was coming to what, how many times, where they were going through and what they thought of it and how they related to anyone else who was doing that. So we went out and got some advice and we worked with Heather Maitland and Pam Henderson and we looked around systems and specifically at a range of options from standard box offices and partnering with people like ‘Theatre Royal’ in Norwich and with the UEA. Heather did an options appraisal and a risk analysis for 4 or 5 key options and my marketing manger went out and visited people and Heather pulled-in contacts that she’s worked with for years, and between her and Bill it all came together.
“We looked at Patron Base and we looked at a range of others including TS.web, which is now called Iris. And once we’d recovered from the shock at the cost of some of those systems and the fact that they were so inflexible for organisations that didn’t have venues or that use a series of venues we kind of thought we’re never going to get there and find something that’s going to work for us. We wanted something that would allow us to have a single database for everything and would allow us to segment things and analyse the free event attenders as well as the paid event attenders, would allow us to pull in data from partner organisations when we run large scale events with partners, who do box office for us. But then close to the end of the game, TS.web were taken over by Iris and they suddenly became very interested in offering us a model for that, and that’s where we’re going; so it’s a flexible semi-bespoke system that will be integrated into our website and will allow customers to print off tickets at home themselves, track them individually and allow us to segment market directly to them and it seems absolutely fine. I genuinely was worried that we would never get there with that so at the moment I am a cross between relieved and slightly in love with TS.Web. That won’t be the case I’m sure, I’ve never met a marketing system or a database that never had problems. But at the minute they’re great! So we will actually know who everyone is that we work with, we hope”.
It is a recurring challenge in the arts sector to find a suitable box office system, especially in the price range that a small organisation can afford. Chris did not look at Open Source options such SugarCRM and CiviCRM, but even these, while nominally free, often come with a relatively high price of customisation. Equally, Chris was afraid of having a “complete” off-the-shelf “solution” dumped on him:
“It was one of our concerns when we came to the tender of the website that one of the companies we went to were offering a great solution, but it required an organisation with more internal knowledge and capacity to continue developing it. It was really an all-singing all-dancing hugely sophisticated WordPress blog template that they were offering us. But they would jut leave it with us. Deliver it and leave it, and I didn’t feel confident as an organisation that we could handle that. And I felt the same about the CRM. I didn’t particularly want something that would involve us. I know we are going to have to do training for it, which is fine, but developing a community around it requires a level of sustained expertise to make it work for you”.
Something quite ‘neat’ – literally – has happened to the organisation’s desktop computers: the clunky towers have disappeared, to leave simply screens, mice and keyboards. Chris feels this is an example of how technolgy in arts organisations need not complicate life, but can actually simplify things and “de-clutter” an office. All the processing is done by computers in a different room, connected by ethernet cables.
“We are very conscious about not being driven by the technology, but by using it to explore what we do, both on the business critical side and on the creative side. We have got a bit more kit, yes – you need the instruments of what you do – but I really do believe that technology need not complicate things particularly.
“For example our new internal “thin-client” model will vastly simplify stuff, and it will mean that we don’t have staggered licences for different Microsoft and other products. It will mean that we don’t have different versions of the same stuff hanging around. It will meant that we don’t have big harddrive boxes sitting under our desks forever where random stuff can come in and out of and where people ignore the protocols, and everything will be on a virtual server and we will be able to work wherever we want, including out of the office, and we will be able to tap into it and have the same desktop. It will really clarify things. It clarifies the backup function too; it will enable us to (with a few kind of tilts and switches) better move forward to some sort of cloud system if that’s then what we want to do”.
As mentioned above, however, the new technological “kit” is only a small part of the changes that Chris feels thinking about IT has brought to the organisation.
There are two main elements that are crucial to understanding how Writers’ Centre Norwich works; the first is partnership-working and the second is marketing, which now – though not always in the past – grows out of the partnerships.
Chris Gribble explains: “Everything we do is in partnership: in fact the organisation itself came out of four key stakeholders: the University of East Anglia, The Arts Council of the East of England, the city council of Norwich and Norfolk County Council. Out of the whole range of our work we do very little just on our own. We go from the full spectrum of literature through to working with readers and libraries right across Norfolk in partnership with the library service, through to schools education programmes involving refugee and asylum seekers, through to development programmes with new writers, emerging writers and writers in education, through to master classes for experienced writers, through to an international seminar with writers from all over the world; some are in partnership with the UEA, through to major events of partners including people like Ian McEwan and Martin Amis and high profile public events; so it’s a fairly diverse mixture with a huge range of partners”.
As described above, the logisitics of tracking many partners like these effectively had previously been daunting, but a full-blown partnership approach started to look more realistic to Chris after he considered a better form of IT solution.
“After the first few meetings of AmbITion it just dawned on me gradually that this could be a real whole organisation opportunity to change where we faced. Initially we kind of felt we were based inwards and we told people what we did and we hoped that they came and we tried to find out if it was good afterwards. Now I think we are in a position where we turn outwards, we actively seek partnerships we go out and talk to people and we do things in response to a need that we’ve talked about, and we let them – our partners and our audiences – partially drive what we do as well. Digitial development for us has been definitely not a systems process, it’s by no means just “a new website”, and it’s by no means “let’s podcast something”. It has been quite a considered transformative process for us.
“It seemed clear fairly early on that that didn’t just involve recording everything we did and paying someone extra to stand with a video camera, but it involved changing how we worked with an organisation and changing how we talked to our audience, what they thought of us and what they expected from us. How we communicated as a team internally, how we considered digital technologies and how we needed to get over the concept of adding it on to what we did. And then looking at what we did and where we hosted it”.
“Of course what we discovered was the vital element in a sense was not even the technology itself but the vision, the preparation work on a marketing strategy, finding out who we wanted to communicate with, when and why and how we work with partners, how we work with free and ticketed events, and so on, and that really gave us a really clear indication of what capacity we needed for a CRM and then we went out and got the advice.
“Now, with the new intranet themed like the website the staff can talk to eachother and share information, then effortlessly share that information with the public too, they can track their audience in new and more effective and detailed ways, and with the new website their audience has a better and fuller impression of us and can talk to us more easily.
In this way, the enhancement of partnership working, and thinking of the audiences as partners, has enabled a much more effective marketing effort. Previously, the organisation was stuck in a model of creating products and then finding audiences for them. This is a common pattern in arts organisations, especially public funded ones. Chris is particularly dismissive of a tick-box mentality of setting up events and then getting a quota of audience members to attend. He now feels this was a cart-before-horse approach. What the technology – and better communication with partners – has enabled him to do, is to unhitch the horse, lead it to the front, and put the cart in its proper place. For Chris the new model has not been fully tested, but he is keen on this “single vision that’s about being artistically led but audience focused.”
“Because of this approach our staffing structure is now different, we are now set up differently to work with people in different ways, but ultimately we wont know for another year and a half in terms of the work we do. I do sense we will be a lot more responsive, we will run a lot more year-round developmental work, that we are in a position to plan and develop collaborative work with a longer range to it because of the changes we’ve made. We’re a much more coherent organisation, we’re no longer doing stuff and having people come; we’re not building and hoping they come. We are talking to the client as we build. That’s the difference”.
Especially in what Chris calls with ironic euphemism “the current climate”, to him it does not make sense to build a house and then try to sell it. Far better to secure the customer first, and then build it to their specifications to heighten satsifaction. What makes this possible is better communication, through technology.
“What I hope in the short term to medium term is that more people will be able to access the same output, and in different forms and at different times and it won’t be necessarily physically banded in that way and if that works as I hope it will, then ultimately it will lead to more output because we will have more engagement with people and they will ask for more.
Indeed, an awareness of technological development and the new technological landscape uncovers a whole growing market in itself:
“We want to pursue proper partnerships. We are doing a county-wide digital mapping/blogging project in April with the BBC and they’ve got a fantastic new digital suite there which is opening this month with the largest HD screen in Europe and all sorts of fancy kit, and there are huge opportunities there. We’re talking to Norwich University College of the Arts: one of their fine arts specialists 2 or 3 years ago set up a Computer Gaming course. And they are setting up lots of new work around Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) and they want to talk to us about technology for that sort of work and bringing our world into their world of animation and ARG and computer gaming, and we’re looking at collaborative projects working with the UEA about devloping online writing communities because they have a specialism in creative & critical thinking and the relationship between the two. We want to look at things like using Ning communities and E-publishing forms to look at how their creative writing masters students can co-edit and co-develop and co-publish in a form that isn’t a great big anthology once a year that ends up in boxes in their offices, and that’s what we’ve been able to do through this project. And that is where we are heading ultimately”.
The staff and the office
Chris feels that – as well as retaining all of his staff during the changes – the ethos and atmosphere are much improved from the old days.
“I think that we’ve kind of opened up more. This has been quite a challenge, and thankfully it has been relatively straightforward because we’ve had a lot of support; it’s kind of getting the whole organisation to realise that the means of communication that we use with each other is just an echo of what other people see and it is similar in structure to what customers and audiences and stake holders see so we can actually talk to them in the same way that we talk to each other and that’s a good thing, and that people will perceive our character as people and as an organisation if we are just aware of the kind of similarities between how we talk to each other and how we do our work and how we publicly project that. The organisation feels happier because it is much clearer about where we are going and what we’re doing and why, and it has solidified our thinking around it; my marketing manager no longer feels that marketing is being dragged along by the project, she feels as though it has an essential role alongside it, which is always a challenge. Whether she will always feel like that is a different matter! But at least she has got staff to back it up and she has got a really clear structure and has got both the website and the internal mechanisms which are focused around talking to individuals and groups of customers which all the projects need to acknowledge now instead of going straight to their own core audiences.
“We’ve been really really lucky with the consultancy, and my staff have really enjoyed working with Pam and Heather. We’ve developed enormously as a result of that. I am kind of investing core funds for Katy my marketing manager to continue mentoring with Heather, because that has just immensely strengthened her sense of what she can do with marketing and how she can be at the centre of things. I’ve gone on to do coaching with Pam in order to take things further and Bill Thompson has joined my board and has been creatively letting off creative bombs in my board meetings – in a good way – and its really kind of lifted us. So we feel very positive about it”.
He admits it was not a breeze the whole way through:
“It took them some time during the kind of lull periods when things were developing and researching to see the value, particularly with the marketing side of things; I had to do a lot of work to keep morale up and things like telling them “this won’t go on forever, this is part of the process towards this that and the other” and the same on the creative writing side as well; we did an awful lot of consultation work, I did a lot of development work on the business plan and it’s only in the last 3 months where the implementation has happened that they have really seen the impact. They’ve seen the impact in the staffing changes, and the organisational changes, but they’re not as keenly aware of the link to AmbITion as I am of that. They’re more aware now that their job titles have changed and their contracts have changed, our appraisal process have changed. But they generally feel very positive about that. It feels like a more transparent organisation and we all know what we are doing basically.
Ringing in the changes
The staff have gone through significant alteration of their roles in order to make the new approach work.
“Basically up until a year and a half ago we had three major programmes, we had the national writing programme, we had our international summer event and our series of professional development opportunities for writers, and around the edges we did a lot of community work with City of Refuge and various things and basically I had one member of staff running each activity. So as part our international event we’d often run workshops, as part of our development plan there were workshops as well, and as part of our national programme there were workshops as well. They were all being run by seperate people at different times of the year, marketed by different people as if they were brand new things, to audiences that were often the same audience across the board. But we had them in silos and we were repeating the marketing effort time and time again. We weren’t able to share information of who was attending and doing what. And so basically we got rid of the project managers (the people are still here, just in different roles). We basically looked at the organisation: support roles and communications and resources and finance and then creative roles and a creative writing team and we basically split our work up into community and engagement work on the one side and artists and art-form led work on the other side, so everything to do with education, refugees and asylum seekers, libraries, reader development and that kind of work went with our community engagement coordinator, and then everything to do with individual development of writers, international events and exploring the art form of literature through conferences, seminars and lecturers etc went with the artists and art-form work. We got a new assistant to support both of them and there would ideally be a creative writers manager on top of that to allow me to act with a bit more of a free flowing reign as chief exec. So that effectively is how we’ve changed.
“We’ve put marketing right at the heart of everything we do; we no longer market our events, we are moving to not marketing individual events as it were on a one-off basis, but we are marketing to audiences. We do a lot of work on the database to define who is whom on there and how they interact with us and why, and we’re going to kind of tailor communication along those lines. Everything – for example all the workshops for writers and all the workshops for readers – is being marketed to the same audience, no matter which project head they might come under, because people don’t care that they are going to a workshop that’s part of New Writing Worlds, or as part of New Writing Season, or as part of City of Refugee they just care that they are going to a really great writing workshop if they’re an emerging writer, and if they are a reader they don’t want us to market writer workshops to them, they want to do library activities or join us for reading groups or see stand up performances, or performance poetry or go and see Martin Amis etc. So that’s how we’ve transformed ourselves; we wanted to use the available technologies and the advantages of the new media options to take us as far as we can with the newer relationship with our audiences and also with our art form and not look at technology as something to achieve something that we’ve already decided we want to achieve, but to try and let that lead us in exploring the capacities in what we can do!”
What’s in a name?
Chris had not originally planned to change the name of the New Writing Partnership. He says it just seemd to be an obvious step with the degree of other changes taking place.
“We had changed a lot from the early days when I arrived. The staff had brought in more money and we were doing a wider range of projects and we were no longer the same organisation, although we had the same name, and we suddenly realised we’d changed our values, we’d changed our activities and the nature of our activities and it just wasn’t reflected in our name or who we were and we couldn’t find an escalator pitch or a mission statement that fitted any more. Our old mission statement just didn’t match what we are now doing, so at that point we decided to look at where we are going with technology, where are we going with audiences and what we want to do across our performance stuff and who are we as an organisation and what are our values. All of that kind of stuff which does sound tedious and mangagmenty, but it allowed us to sit down and say, what do we think is important, who are we, where are we going, what are the key things that characterise us, and then say what sort of name is going to suit us and how will that work from what we are doing in the sense that we want to be flexible, we want to work in partnership, and we want to provide an understanding of who we are and provide clearer means of communication, and so it all contributed to the creation of the name the Writers’ Centre Norwich.
“Writers’ Centre is not totally descriptive, but at least you know it’s about writing and it’s about writers and it’s got Norwich in there and you know where we are and we’re trying to reduce the levels of fog between us and the activities that we do. We’re going to be doing advertising in traditional and online forms and we’re going to be doing lots of generic data capture work, so we can get people’s details, we’re going to be looking to draw a lot of traffic to the new website to capture details that way and analyse them, and the new CRM system will allow us to segment properly and then communicate in different ways with different audiences and target newsletters, rather then have generic newsletters that go out monthly. We’re working with partners, we’re doing a big blogging project with the BBC which is going to get regional TV and radio coverage and will allow us to drive a lot of people both through there and our website and capture data I hope”.
The role of AmbITion
Chris is grateful to the Arts Council’s AmbITion project itself for giving him the context and inspriation to make all of these changes.
“I spent the first year in this job consolidating and pulling things back together and making things happy again and then I spent a year trying to make it all work, or rather half a year realising I didn’t want to run someone else’s programme for ever then 6 months trying to persuade the board to let me change it, and AmbITion was just a brilliant way of saying: this is the platform we have, this it the support we can get to really change the way we do things and run a better organisation and run a different organisation, and because there was the support there and because there was the money there, and because there was a wider structure there, it was much easier for the Board to buy into it and for us to make those changes”.
Indeed, Chris feels that had the leadership on digital development not been present, the organisation would absolutely not be functioning as well as it is: “I think that we really couldn’t have done this without the infrastructure as well as the ethos of AmbITion. I think it has been really important, far beyond the finance element of it; what has been more important is the ethos that it’s brought with it and the willingness to let us really explore what we could do with this project and not to look on it as “money to do something on the internet with” basically. Because that would be really dull in the end – it would be lovely for a while – but it would soon be out of date.
“I think that with the help of Bill and the consultants we’ve used the structural and physical, and financial and technological resources that came from AmbITion in a really valuable way for us. I don’t feel that we’ve had to do anything that we didn’t want to. I don’t think we have done similar things that other organisations have in a way; we haven’t done a big web project, we haven’t installed a single new system that will answer all of our prayers, but equally we haven’t done anything that hasn’t been really valuable to us and pointed us in the direction in which we want to go. So yeah, I feel very positive about AmbITion!”
Looking back on what his organisation has achieved, Chris remembers some of the hesitancies that digital development gave some people, including some his board members:
“The more traditional writers on my board were a little bit more worried about it then some of the others. They thought it meant that we would only be doing work online and that everyone would be writing computer games for instance and blogging all the time and no one would actually do any high quality writing, which wasn’t the case. But they rapidly came to see that that wasn’t the case. I don’t think any of us really appreciated the full-scale consequences of embarking on the Ambition programme but it’s great how everyone held together”.
In terms of the next steps, Chris is eager to break new ground:
“I think that one of the changes – one of our 4 key artistic priorities for the organisation – is to find new ways to engage with writers and audiences through experimentation with new media and digital technologies; that’s now kind of enshrined in our 3 year business plan; the board have given up their last doubts that that actually means we are going to ignore writers and writing from now on. And the next stage of the process is now basically to achieve that and to look seriously at the work we can do, whether it is teaching online, which is not new, but is new for us, or experimenting with the technology to do what we know we are good at, and to get better, and for more people in a more distributed way to engage with it. It’s a real shift along those lines”.
If he has any advice for other organisations in the same position, Chris says it would be this:
“I would say definitely that I‘ve found it’s been invaluable to have support at board level and to have external eyes in terms of my consultants. It’s a little like that old saw of replacing planks on a boat while you’re at sea, you need to be sure that you really want to do that, and not because you are being driven to do it”.