Thursday, January 15, 2009

Resource Sharing

I’ve been hearing a lot and thinking a lot about sharing resources during this terrible time. I love the idea. I can’t say that I know of a lot of instances in which sharing resources was tried or worked. People refer a lot to Arts Bridge, a program that had shared office space and other resources available to a number of arts organizations. I’d like to hear from anyone who participated in Arts Bridge. My understanding is that for want of a grant, the project went under. I have heard it referred to as a “flawed business model,” but it was around for 15 years. I guess any business model dependent on one grant is flawed, but how many of us are one grant away from insolvency? My guess would be more than a couple. So how can we share resources and come up with a model for sharing resources that is not dependent on funding? What kinds of resources would we share? Staff? Storage Space? Office Space? In theory we could share everything. But, I keep coming back to the same question, if it truly would increase the resources available to us, why haven’t we already done it? I don’t know the answer, but perhaps it has to do with the fact that no one has had the time to organize it. Maybe people are sharing resources and I just don’t know. Maybe it really does need funding to work, at least in the short term. Can it work? Do we want to share? What would need to happen?

Try to stay warm.



Unknown said...

In my opinion, you've hit the nail right on the head - no one has time to organize it, particularly when it seems inevitable that this person would have to be working for free. The other problem - which seemed the more insurmountable one the last time this came up in conversation - was how to get everyone using the same sharing system. Even now, some people use the Wiki, some people use independent Google groups, some people use Craigslist and some people don't even think about sharing resources. In order for sharing to be viable, a lot of people would have to be doing it so that the pool of resources to borrow from was attractive. And that would take a massive advertising effort and a very simple-to-learn system. Who wants to design THAT for free? No one. But if someone did, you can sure bet I'd be the first one to sign up.

Nick Keenan said...

As a production manager who enjoys comparing notes with other production managers, I've been thinking for quite a while about what resources are, to borrow your blog title, collectively leveragable and which create strife or lack of collective will when we start to lack our two most precious and limited resources: time and money.

It seems to me that most theaters think sharing resources is in our best interest and we've already started some program that I think will prove the value of collective resources: most of the leagues programs are designed to share theater-going audiences, and knowledge of best practices. We're also sharing marketing resources through ad buying programs and multi-theater flex passes.

For me, the goal is to get the community to a point where something like shared storage, reuse of lumber props and costumes, and a city-wide program to easily connect audiences with suggested theatrical material that engages them. There are some pretty pretty big roadblocks to both of those ideas when you start looking at them closely.

I think the bridge to the time when ideas like that are possible is smaller projects that use our most abundant resources to accomplish our most common manifestations of waste..

We don't have money, but we do have intense amounts of volunteer energy. Each theater in our community independantly uses volunteer and energy to distribute marketing materials, run box offices, and at times even build sets, and costumes. Those volunteers do this because they get something back from the theater they volunteer for... Artistic opportunities, job skills, or a bit of ownership of the work itself.

What if companies could share that volunteer energy? Say combine a corps of 10 volunteers to distribute postcards for ten shows? Or donate their used lumber to another show loading in? I think for even this to happen, individual volunteers need to be invested in the Chicago theater community itself in addition to the companies they work with, and they need to be rewarded with: training, artistic opportunities, and a sense of ownership of the community itself.

From what I've seen, most people in Chicago theater want this kind of community of mutual support to coalesce. What's missing is enough buy-in to any one central force of coordination. Were all following our individual and company agendas and strategies so helping each other is difficult. I think with time, discussion and implementation of strong ideas, and continued dialogue, our various agendas will start to align with each other like a big flock of birds.

BenLasser said...

I have been toying around with the idea myself, though it would be difficult to start a project like this. I think what would be needed would be a collective of theaters who are interested in sharing resources, who can make it work for themselves on a smaller scale. Once a model has been established where people see that it could work, more theaters would inevitably join in.

The key is to find some companies willing to try the idea out, as well as someone who can organize a system that can indicate, what a company needs, and what a company has to offer. If i were a web designer I would have already tried setting something along these lines up, but unfortunately that's not a skill set i posses.

Nick Keenan said...

There's definitely some benefit to be had from using web services like twitter, facebook and future services yet to be designed (we're working on a bunch of ideas and uses at the CTDB, of course...). What I've found from working with them is that anything like that with a social networking component is as beneficial as the size of the social networking site. In this way, I think that ultimately the solutions that will have the most traction are the things that mostly completely integrate the face-to-face energy of Chicago Theater with networks that already have captured the internet zeitgeist - Facebook and Twitter, in particular.

I think the Wiki, in particular, is a useful repository of information, but it isn't capable of making that information as accessible as much as say, this blog does. And it doesn't show who is involved as much as a Facebook group or application would. And it doesn't spread time-sensitive information, developments, and events out to the public fast enough to coordinate an impromptu mob as Twitter does.

Also, while Web services can help organize a network like this, but only face-to-face meetings and discussions can really get people working together and for each other. If Facebook, Twitter, Wikis and Forums are Nitro... the people and theaters of the community themselves are the gasoline. It's ultimately about trust.

On the other issue... I've got three relatively small theaters who have been waiting to jump on the resource sharing bandwagon, and indeed we've started sharing resources between each other. Because we're dealing with our various strategies on the ground, that tends to be in an ad hoc fashion, so it's difficult to really gain traction without understanding the needs of the bigger community as a whole. If we had more information like that I think our collaborations and innovations - what we've learned - could be pretty easily applied and duplicated.

It feels like we need a roadmap. Some plan to know where we're ultimately going as a community so that we can individually get on the same roads and find out how to help get there. Does such a roadmap exist? Cause I'll put it on my wall if it does.

Jess Hutchinson said...

Nick, I think you're right about trust being a huge issue. I really believe that the key to building a cohesive show-specific ensemble, or a strong storefront company, or a whole community of artists working together for the common good must come down to that one thing. It's simple - but it's not easy. Some ensembles never achieve it. Some theatre companies disintegrate for lack of it. I don't know if we can build the environment I think we're all talking about without it.

My question is how do we build that trust, especially in a time as full of fear as the one we're sitting in? I think the instinct right now is to pull in, huddle together with the people you know, scurry to the underground shelter and hope you have enough astronaut ice cream and peanut butter to get you through the nuclear winter - and pray that you're not too weak to stand up once you've found the other side. While that kind of isolation can be comforting (there's a reason bears hibernate and ostriches stick their heads in the sand), I wonder what would happen if we all started looking outward - if instead of pulling in we all reach out to one another and slog our way through the fallout together. Would we be able to come through all this with a stronger voice?

But again - trust. How do we move from what's comfortable and familiar into the middle of the unknown, risking the precious few resources we have? Is the answer more face-to-face encounters? Is it a Chicago theatre Twitter mob? What will be the impetus, the thing that flips the switch from theory to practice in our community?

Unknown said...

One of the big barriers to sharing resources on any kind of an ongoing basis is that it requires changing systems. Every organization has a way of doing things that works for them. It takes far more work to change a system than it does to continue on the same system, which is why you see organizations on all levels, from small not-for-profits to massive multi-national corporations, continue to do things the same way, even when they are no longer the most efficient way. A central organization would need to do a lot of the work of creating systems to make it worthwhile for theatres, who are already stretched for people-hours to do the work, to shift over to a new approach. In theory everyone agrees with the idea of sharing resources. In practice everyone wants to do what's easy.

BenLasser said...

Kevin, I think you have a good point. No matter what industry you're in, people are going to resist change, even if that change is to their benefit in the long run.

Perhaps what could make resource sharing a more viable option is the creation of an external system that does not necessarily rely on the systems that are pre-existing. A sort of easy to use craigs list for the theater, where people can indicate when they're loading out, and what materials they have available, or people can indicate what they're looking for.

I'm willing to bet that if people made materials available during load out they would find some people willing to pitch in and help out. Not to mention if you get rid of a bunch of stuff at load in, you'll end up keeping your storage space that much less cluttered.

But again it comes down to finding someone who is capable and willing of setting up at the very least a basic framework for this idea to take off.