Theatre is a deeply collaborative industry. Behind breathtaking performances, inspiring dialogues and thrilling settings is the work of groups of people who came together to make a script a reality. As actress Sarah Sutton once said, "what you don't see backstage is what really controls the show".
George Tunnicliffe, Head of IT Operations at the National Theatre, knows well that the key for the successful running of his department and the wider organisation based on London's South Bank is the promotion of a collaborative culture.
Rather than sheltering in the safe territory of back-office operations, Tunnicliffe is keen on learning what other teams in the theatre are working on, even if that means leaving the comfort of his office. From actors to producers via box office and backstage, the Head of IT Operations engages with all different departments to understand how IT can best assist them.
These 'expeditions' around the theatre enable a conversation which provides Tunnicliffe and his team with valuable insights about staff requirements and how they can work together effectively. As he explains, they are "not a faceless IT department" - staff at the NT talk to him about what they are doing, the projects they are working on, and how IT might be able to support that.
Getting out of IT
"For us, managing IT at the theatre is more about understanding what the theatre is actually doing, rather than creating an IT department that looks after itself and builds with its own thing," says Tunnicliffe. "It's more about having a conversation and collaborating with the theatre, because they want to go and do their things, and we need to support them to do that, rather than us necessarily driving the business in a set direction."
Tunnicliffe's IT department services around 1,200 people. However, the challenge doesn't lie in the numbers but in the amount of activity generated. In addition to the regular performances held in the three theatres housed in the building, the NT also has touring productions across the UK, live screenings nationally and internationally, learning and outreach programmes, and other activities.
This translates into a wide mix of different users with diverse requirements and disparate ways of working, which again emphasises the need of a closely-knit collaborative approach among the different business units.
"We are about supporting the theatre," Tunnicliffe says. "And the aim of the theatre is supporting theatre itself. We're a part of that rather than trying to drive something different."
An example of how Tunnicliffe's department helps with what's going on stage is by enabling an adequate WiFi setup that can support the newly introduced 'smart caption glasses'. These special glasses allow people with a hearing loss to see a transcript of a play's dialogue and descriptions of the sound from a performance displayed on the lenses of the glasses.
To match the theatre's collaborative working culture that he and his team are fostering, Tunnicliffe decided last year to deploy Freshservice - an IT service desk which manages support and service across the organisation.
Prior to Freshservice, the NT used a software which presented multiple challenges at the time of assisting the theatre staff with their IT enquiries. The ticketing system was binary and relied on emails, creating a disjointed experience.
Tunnicliffe tells us that there was a lot of twirling through to find the right piece of information to solve problems. After logging their tickets, staff would nevertheless come around to talk to Tunnicliffe about them as the system was problematic.
"What we wanted to do was have a much directing conversation and in fact make it so that people could interact with us in any way that they wanted, because theatre is not like sitting at a desk," he says.
Instead of a member of staff reporting an issue and the IT department getting back to them in a few hours, Tunnicliffe explains that Freshservice allows them to have a more conversational approach to problems. This discussion element allows his team and staff to work together on a ticket and achieve a faster and more effective resolution.
Whereas before there was "background noise" that made difficult the prioritisation of urgent and more important issues, the new platform permits to balance ticket priorities and measure importance and urgency.
"There's a discussion element of it, where people can work together on ticket and collaborate together on things," the Head of IT Operations says. "We have a more conversational style and this software supports that."
This new system has resulted in a 62% reduction in tickets, faster response times and improved data quality. Tunnicliffe again stresses collaboration as a key element for this positive outcome.
"People can work together on a ticket and collaborate together on things using effective language. We have a more conversational style," Tunnicliffe tells CIO UK.
In 2017-18 alone, there were 10 shows on tour in 36 towns and cities across the UK, and NT Live cinema broadcasts played on 2,500 screens in 60 countries. To support the highly mobile workforce behind those activities, the Head of IT is simplifying technology services and platform delivery to focus of relationships within the organisation.
By allowing staff to have flexibility with work tools, Tunnicliffe says that they can focus on their own work and it also reduces the time they have to deal with the IT department.
"We use software as a service (SaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS), anything as a service really, because that allows us to not be so focused on the building in the South Bank. This removes the effort that doesn't improve things inside the theatre," he explains.
Looking ahead, Tunnicliffe's main challenge is keeping pace with the speed at which people work. However, this is not constraining his ongoing future projects, including experimenting with a ticketless solution for the theatre, which judging by the success of his recent efforts, will undoubtedly be a positive contribution to the NT.