Sunday, April 20, 2014

Blueprint for Professional Development in the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………….."

Dinner-vention Note:  The deadline for submitting nominees for Dinner-Vention 2 is May 15th.  If you have in mind names of the best and brightest of the upcoming generation of arts leaders - please take a moment and email those suggestions to me.  Remember this isn't so much about 'emerging' leaders, but rather leaders who have established themselves, but have not yet become the most powerful or influential.

Professional Development in the Arts Challenge:

I have long been concerned that as a sector, the nonprofit arts field isn’t adequately providing the professional skills training that we need.  The private sector has long recognized that skills training isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity -- if for no other reason than the rules of business are constantly changing and those who don’t provide the opportunities for increasing management knowledge are doomed to failure.  We’re doing better, by far, than we were a decade ago, but it seems clear to me that too few of our people have the ongoing access to the training they need.  As a field, our approach to the challenge of adequate, meaningful, ongoing professional development is piecemeal, not comprehensive.

Critical to any business of any size is the skill set of management.  Honing the business and leadership skills of senior leadership as well as that of the rank and file staff, and keeping abreast of new trends, developments, ideas and strategies in professional development training, is essential in running a successful business enterprise and competing effectively in the marketplace. Arts organizations are small businesses.

It is incumbent on our field to address the training and knowledge needs of our current and future leaders.  And yet, while we talk a lot more lately about meeting that challenge, our whole approach to providing the opportunities and access to learn how to become better, more productive, more efficient, more intelligent and savvy managers has some serious systemic problems that continue to negatively impact our progress is this area.  And those problems hamper bosses, supervisors, department heads, middle level people, the rank and file and even the trainees and interns.  While some of our people have regular access to the training they need in a way that makes sense to them, most really do not.

There are six principal avenues of professional development options in the nonprofit arts sector:

  1. University and professional programs in arts and business administration - degree programs, certificate programs, and isolated offerings.
  2. Independent consultants and coaches.
  3. Workshops, seminars, webinars, podcasts and other classes - offered by service provider organizations, management centers and others.
  4. Mentoring - from within organizations and from outside sources.  
  5. Independent self study including books, articles, case studies, online offerings and the like.
  6. Peer to peer education and learning - including offerings and networking opportunities at conferences and conventions.

These options are available either as in-person experiences or online via the internet.

In the aggregate of the above offerings there is a rich plethora of professional development opportunities available to all levels of arts administrators.  The level of sophistication of those offerings is increasing, and the opportunities are becoming more frequent and more available.  But not yet enough, and not for everyone.

And there are problems with what is available.  Not enough of our people are regularly afforded opportunities to improve their skills levels.  Not enough of our people are taking advantage of the opportunities out there.

The challenges to accessing these opportunities are chiefly:

  • Financial Affordability - In many cases there is a problem of prohibitive costs.  For most providers of the offerings (in-person or online), providing skills training is an income generating activity and they both expect, and need, to make money.  Thus, for example, University programs and independent coaches may be excellent, but simply not affordable for a lot of people - especially those who are already working.  But the real crux of the problem is a widespread lack of a line item allocation for professional development of all levels of the organization’s staff in most organizational budgets.  And even when money is allocated, it is often not enough to provide for all the training that is necessary, nor for all the people who would benefit from it.  
  • Access - There are far more in-person workshops and professional development offerings in the urban areas than in the suburban and rural areas, and thus it is more difficult for those not in the bigger cities to access in-person types of training options.  Locations can be inconvenient for some to travel to, and a one hour workshop or class may take an entire day if you factor in travel time -- and that kind of time is often unavailable to middle and lower level staff.  Then there is the inconvenience to those who might want to avail themselves of an offering in terms of scheduling (month, day, time of day etc.).  The bias towards urban offerings works against those outside those locales.  Even the online offerings are too often not "on-demand", but rather at times or dates not necessarily convenient or workable for the end user.
  • Identifying What is Available / Where and When - While there is a wide variety of offerings (both physical, in-person kinds of workshops etc., and the even larger offerings online), trying to find out what is available, where and when is increasingly difficult. There is too much out there.  I'm in the business of trying to keep abreast of what is going on in the field.  I get dozens of newsletters, alerts and the like every week, and I can't keep track of what is being offered. I can only imagine that the typical arts administrator who is not as much in the loop as I am must face an impossibly daunting task to know what is being offered.  There is no central clearinghouse of all that is offered; nowhere to access an aggregation of all that is available.  Individuals are basically on their own in identifying development opportunities that might be right for them.  Tracking down those options may often take so much time, that it defeats the incentive to even try.  Thus while there has been a dramatic growth in online offerings, including the MOCCs (Massive Open Online Courses - e.g. Udacity and others), with major universities across the globe offering literally thousands of courses - many of which would be useful and relevant to arts administrators, and while huge numbers of those courses are offered for free -it would take literally scores of hours to find the ones appropriate and right for you.  We need not only a central clearing house of arts related online skills training options, but we need to curate those offerings so that individual arts administrators can easily and quickly find what is out there that is tailored to their needs.  (And in an ideal situation, there would be a version of YELP so that those who have taken an in-person or online offering could review the same and share what was good and what was lacking.)  
  • Senior Management Bias - For far too long, the best of the skills training opportunities (including attendance at conferences and conventions where the sessions and networking opportunities constitute a form of professional development in and of themselves) have not been available to staff below the senior level.  The reason for that unfortunate reality has been the cost - of an in-person training event, a coach or of sending lots of people to these meetings and convenings.
  • Ignorance of what would be beneficial and how.  Part of the process of increasing one’s knowledge and skills level is in understanding where one needs help.  We do not have tools nor a process in place designed to help our people understand what kinds of training would be most helpful and beneficial to them at any given point in time.  That should be one of the skills taught to supervisory managers, so they could help those reporting to them gain the skills they need by being able to convey to their people what knowledge acquisition might help them perform better.
  • Limitation of Offerings.  The vast majority of offerings center on a relatively small number of management topics.  Assuming one could identify and avail themselves of the offerings, there are endless courses, webinars, presentations, symposiums, workshops, classes, books, articles etc. on fundraising, marketing, Board management,  audience development, strategic planning and even technology--  plus a few other major management areas.  But those offerings are only a foundation on which superior arts management skill sets are developed.  There are scores of other areas which our people ought to have the opportunities to learn and hone their skills so as to improve and nurture other valuable skill sets -- everything from the simplicity of how to read a financial statement (and I would venture to say half the Board members of every organization in the whole nonprofit universe, and a goodly number of the staff, do NOT really know how to read financial statements), to the more complex skills our leaders need - including the mundane (time management, how to run effective meetings, how to listen, budget planning, understanding data and research, how to conduct effective interviews) ---  to the sophisticated (how to enhance one’s charisma and leadership posture, how to recognize trends, to how to motivate people,  how to be an arts entrepreneur, how to run an innovative and adaptive organization, how to be a nimble leader, and so on and so on).  The point is that training in the arts 'basics' simply isn’t enough any more.  The need and demand for much deeper knowledge is there, and largely remains unmet.  My own bias is that we need offerings on policy formulation as much as anything else.  Nowhere can you find much help on that topic.

The most dynamic and effective leaders at all levels, understand and appreciate that there is a whole panoply of skills that are needed on a daily basis to run healthy, vibrant organizations - and that learning all there is to learn is an ongoing (and really never-ending) process.  The more opportunities everyone in an organization has to continually improve their personal and professional skills levels, the better chance that organization has in meeting the daunting, complex problems we face.  And, as management  today is a 'team' effort, the team is only as strong as its weakest link. ALL our people need access to ongoing professional development training opportunities.  It is essential not only to effective organizations, but to our recruiting and retention efforts as well.  Moreover, what you learn one year may well be outdated the following year.

The most promising tool we (and all businesses really) have probably lies in the online offerings as a way to complement the in-person offerings (which, for a variety of reasons, may not be available to everyone).

But we must address the issues of cost, access (convenience of access and scheduling), ease in identifying what we need and then finding the opportunities to address that need, and breadth of content (we’ve got to offer a much larger range of knowledge learning) -- or we will continue to have a hodgepodge of in-person and online offerings (excellent though some of them may be) which are underutilized by our people.

We have made inroads into our online offerings, and the potential is there to greatly expand what is available to our people.

Sources of potential online offerings include:

  1. Universities - both arts and business administration degree programs for a fee and general relevant university offerings at no cost.  
  2. Nonprofit (both arts specific and otherwise) class offerings - seminars, workshops, webinars, podcasts, lectures, presentations etc. -- offered by our own organizations, by nonprofit umbrella groups, by university programs and others.
  3. Independent coaches and consultants - from our field and beyond (Some of whom already create available online content.  The potential is huge for more from those coaches and consultants - and from the growing pool of experienced, recently retired arts administrators - who haven’t yet created online content professional development).
  4. Authors of books, periodicals, articles, speeches et. al.
  5. Peer networks / independent mentoring / coaching.
  6. Newly created offerings specifically designed to be online.

Our own sector’s online offerings are already increasing dramatically.  We need to manage that growth so that:

1.  The finances make sense to both those creating and offering the content, and those to whom that content is aimed.  Bottom line:  Those offering the skills training need to make money, and we need to incentivize all of those who might create valuable content to do so. Those availing themselves of those offerings need the cost to them to be affordable.

RECOMMENDATION:  Two things need to happen:  First, we have to build a culture in our sector that recognizes and embraces the idea that continuing skills training and opportunities to gain more knowledge is critical to our survival and must be available to everyone at all levels of their careers - throughout their careers.  Second, that attitude needs to manifest itself in every organization (irrespective of its size, age, focus etc.) having an annual line item in its budget that amply provides for professional development opportunities for everyone in the organization - board, staff and sometimes even for volunteers and interns.  Note:  I'm not being unrealistic; I do not envision a Utopia wherein anyone can have a professional development option at will - irrespective of the cost.  But I am talking about making a meaningful, ongoing investment in training the organization's people so that they can do their jobs at a high level.  That may require funders to recognize that the provision of professional development opportunities is a sector wide challenge and key to their grantees succeeding in realizing the overarching goals of the funders. Funders must work towards moving organizations to think in terms of professional development as an essential expenditure - like rent and salaries. Some subsidy may be necessary.  The danger in not spending the money for the sector is a situation where the very richest organizations expand their skills training opportunities while the ‘have-nots’ don’t - which will create an inequity that we will all ultimately pay the price for.

2.  What we offer needs to be much broader in terms of content and focus than what is currently available.  We have to have a much richer, deeper level of content as part of our overall professional development paradigm.  We need our skills training to at least follow (if not equal) the private sector model.  We are currently in the midst of the beginning of a major transition from one generation of arts leaders to others.  The number of organizations that have experienced a change in senior leadership in the past two years has been eye-opening. The turnover in middle level management continues to churn.  The wholesale transition isn’t something on the horizon - we are right smack in the center of it.  We need to figure out a way not to lose all of the knowledge of those that are leaving.  Offering training in the basics isn't enough.  We have to go deeper.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to mount a major effort to expand offerings that go well beyond the basics of arts administration.  Those offerings need to focus on leadership qualities as well as nuts and bolts management issues.  And we need to include the new century skills that are embedded in the new economies and marketplaces - both technological and people oriented.  We need to figure out how those who are leaving the field can share their experience and knowledge with those moving into the front ranks of our organizations.  

3.  We need to figure out some way so that all the online offerings - ours and from other fields and areas - can be somewhat centralized so if you are looking for a specific kind of training you can find out what is available in a one stop process.  That entails identifying and aggregating on an ongoing basis all the content out there that might be relevant to our people.  That will take time and money.  Moreover, we need to make sure that all that our field already offers online is made available “on demand” - not just on predetermined dates and predetermined times.  The on demand element is absolutely essential.  This almost certainly will necessitate widespread cooperation and collaboration among lots of entities, and moreover, probably will need a consortium of funders to launch such an effort.  It will take a major investment, but it promises to yield invaluable benefits to our field over a long period of time.  I would argue that the cost of not doing this is far greater over time than the cost now of launching such a clearing house.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to launch a one-stop clearing house of all the relevant skills training opportunities that are relevant to the field of arts administration (whether from our own or other sectors, whether online or in-person, whether workshops or classes, mentoring opportunities, or coaching, articles and books or peer networking.)  Everything available under one roof.  All our online offerings need to be "on-demand", and as much of our in-person opportunities that would lend themselves to putting online should be put online as a matter of course, and they should all be "on-demand".  The launch of this kind of website portal would need to be a collaborative effort of major service provider organizations and funders - both public and private.  I think, ultimately, such an effort could become financially self-sufficient by charging a very modest fee from everyone who lists their offerings, and from everyone who actually signs up and takes one of those offerings.  The people who are creating the content would have the incentive of increased income over a long term, and the people who are looking for offerings would have the incentive of saving huge amounts of time as well as supporting an arts sector initiative - for very, very little additional cost.  If you had a single site for professional development opportunities that tens of thousands of arts administrators accessed when they were looking for a specific course, workshop etc. - then those offering training courses, workshops etc. could afford to charge less because their volume would increase.

4.  Finally, we have to pay more attention to identifying what kinds of skills each of us needs at any given point in time.  The problem with our past professional development efforts is that we assumed everyone needed to the same skills.  That isn’t true.  Yes, a generalist’s knowledge and overview of the whole is valuable, but we are also increasingly specialists and we don’t all need the same training.  We have to figure out a process - usable by almost all of us - to identify what we don’t know that we need to know, as a first step in figuring out how to provide the training. By engaging in this kind of effort we may be able to develop a consensus as to the minimal kinds of skills we need to pursue.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to fund the design, testing and roll-out of tools that will help arts administrators of all levels identify what skills they lack, and what skills will help them be better managers and advance their careers.  Once developed, those tools need to be widely available to everyone at no cost.

The bottom line is that we are not simply in the business of the arts.  We are also in the business of being good managers.  Skills training and professional development has moved into the new century. I fear the arts field is still approaching the whole challenge with a 20th century mind-set.  I would hope our funders, national service provider organizations, the NEA, state and city arts agencies and literally everyone in the field will make professional development a major priority for the next decade so that we can point with pride that our managers and our leaders are among the best trained, most knowledgable and skilled in any sector.  Much of what is needed to do that is already in existence.  We need to cooperate and collaborate to make sure we organize our offerings so that  every arts administrator makes learning the business of arts administration an ongoing reality - and we need to make it as easy as possible for each of them to do that.  That will cost us some time and money. Real money.  But it will be money well spent.   Or we can ignore the demand, refuse to spend anything, deal with the problem with a band-aid approach,  and very likely be also rans in the competitive marketplace for all those audiences, and support, we so desire.  Yes, we will very likely continue to increase our skills enhancement offerings, and very likely offer better and better opportunities for knowledge enhancement, but without making those offerings easy to find, access and afford we are missing the boat.  It isn't good enough that some of our managers are well trained.  It is time to organize the business of professional development for arts administrators.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.