Planning for When Things Fail

A recent article in Wired magazine by Robert Clapps focused on failure of things:  helicopter parts to car tires.  It is a good read and carries with it lessons.  One of which is very important to the arts:  failure can be costly and dangerous. Every physical thing in an arts organization from the stage lights to the copier machine to the building itself will eventually fail or need maintenance.  As technology is frequently outdated, technological failures can happen through breakage but also through communication incompatibilities, discontinuation of support from the manufacturer or author, and through failure of a connected system that enables the technology.  There are several different aspects to failure and avoiding additional loss when it happens, indeed many large corporations have entire departments dedicated to failure and maintenance analysis, risk assessment, loss mitigation, and analysis of these issues.

Whether you are looking at a minor failure causing inconvenience or a major failure that endangers lives it is incumbent upon arts managers to minimize risk proportionate to the danger to people, operations, and physical collateral.  Most of the arts sector has a replace it as we go mentality with a budget for facilities and equipment maintenance and replacement.  Some organizations also rely on insurance to mitigate against catastrophic equipment failures.  There are sometimes even departmental or organizational plans and schedules.

If not present already, incorporation of a regular organization-wide facility, technology, and equipment assessment should be a high priority for organizations of any size.  These assessments can then be used to accurately determine how much risk and what type of risk is present and how likely failure will be to happen.  Risk assessment should be given a monetary value that reflects the type and severity of the nature of the potential failure and assigned proportionate weight in budgets.  For instance, a technological failure resulting in a breach of network security can lead to personal information of patrons being compromised and not only effect the finances of your organization but also those of your patrons.

It is not enough to rely on a vendor to determine risk in many situations.  Software companies of all sizes test for security but it is notable how often failures occur.  Vendors are frequently the authors of software, the testers for the products, as well as the salespeople and support staff.  As such it can be difficult to get an unvarnished assessment of the true strength of software from vendor.

To combat this you need to do your research.  When reviewing any new or existing piece of technology, hardware or software it is wise to take a multi-format approach.  Read reviews and talk to colleagues in both your field who are using the product but also those in the software field.  Often times there are chat boards that can also offer illuminating insight as to the strength of software based on or interfacing with another piece of software (such as Apache for databases).  Any system is only as strong as its weakest component and, at an application level, you will be looking at not only the strength of the application but also the operating system that it was written for, their age, and their compatibility with other applications (including operating system based security, application based security, and network security.)

Finding a balance between planning for the future and available money can be a challenge but on the other hand planning for the future can also save your organization money, heartache, and increase efficiency over time.  Nonprofit Technology Network and Idealware both have resources and education for technology planning and can help get you started.  If you have additional resources that you would like for your colleagues to be aware of, please post them in the comments!