Culture Clubs: Creation, Navigation, Conversation
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Has every generation felt the pace of change as keenly as we do?
Avid watchers of PBS’s Downton Abbey enjoy the characters’ frequent gnashing of teeth over emerging technologies like electricity and telephones, as well as their struggles with children who work (gasp!) or who willfully cast aside the entrenched social structure and marry down. All seem to signal the collapse of the context for a known life – a frightening erosion of a culture which must be protected.
There is certainly humor to be had watching, sprawled out in the comfort of another century, the way previous generations handled – or didn’t – destabilizing changes that we now take for granted.
But today’s accelerated and wrenching change seems particularly, well, accelerated and wrenching. We live in a faster fast, a nower now. Moore’s law as applied to our lives poses adjustment challenges and management challenges that often feel nearly insurmountable. Add to this what’s on the immediate horizon and it can be difficult to breathe, let alone plan. This is particularly true for established cultural institutions.
MIT Media Lab’s Joichi Ito published a widely shared piece in the New York Times in December in which he stated “the compass has replaced the map.” In it, he wrote of how at this point the product map is now often more complex and expensive to create than just figuring it out on the fly – “rough consensus and running code” rather than careful MBA-managed plans.
One can find plenty of statistics to illustrate the current rate of change and its acceleration over time. Everyone from Google to Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker predicts Mobile devices will replace traditional computers before a morning’s cup of coffee grows cold - in other words, this year, or the next. Or just use the jawdropping stat du jour, something like: In 35 days, Angry Birds Space has been downloaded over 50M times.
Is that Violet clearing her throat?
Setting aside individual technology breakthroughs and achievements, it could be argued that for cultural institutions, the most destabilizing force that has emerged from this rapidly evolving landscape is not product-based, but behavioral.
This change calls for different considerations – and three key considerations come to mind immediately as ideas that should be entertained long before one more impassioned discussion about the merits of Twitter vs. Pinterest.
The first is observe the rules of engagement for dialogue. Consumers do not converse with reputations or with “names.” If you haven’t already, it’s time to rehumanize the institution – to define and understand institutional identity. The touchstones can be mission, vision and values – but increasingly institutions also have to clarify their “voice”. And dialogue implies two parties at least – a clear notion of the audience, both a psychographic understanding as well as a deep understanding of how consumers are required to navigate culture is critical in developing meaningful dialogue.
Second, approach the problem from a human perspective. This may mean that institutions have to redefine how they are being useful. And especially cultural institutions need to rethink the way they creatively use content to pull people instead of just relying on broadcasting their message out.
Finally, define the value proposition. Consumers still listen to music, they just don’t use the old models to do so. According to recent Pew Research, Kindle owners read more books than non-Kindle owners. In most cases the human activity hasn’t changed, but the models that service that activity have been radically altered. Institutions have to critically look at the issues of commodification and value and define and support the value they create.
These are challenging times and many leaders can empathize with the Dowager Countess of Grantham. If you are one of them, get out your compass – there is much navigating ahead.
This past weekend I was honored to be part of the inaugural Floria V. Lasky Symposium, hosted by the Jerome Robbins Foundation in partnership with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
WNYC’s The Greene Space provided an excellent venue for the assembled arts organizations which included representatives from the New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, New York City Center and Carnegie Hall.
This post is adapted from my keynote address.