The Arts as Strategy for Businesses

Art and business often operate in contradictory ways. Art tends to be about the process, whereas business tends to focus on the outcome. Art runs in a less linear path on inspiration, feelings, and less tangible drivers. Businesses want specifics, data, timelines, and proof. Considering these differences, is it possible for the arts to be used as a strategy to address organizational issues in business?

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What is meant by “art as a strategy”? Most organizations use the arts in a traditional fashion. They display art in their offices that enhance the overall decor and don’t give it much thought beyond that. They might do a team-building workshop at an artist’s studio, or bring in performers to build a sense of connection and camaraderie. While these are perfectly good options for organizations, there is an underlying potential that is often missed.

In an era of constant change, the faster people can change in an organization then the faster the business can evolve. The arts do not facilitate change, but they do have the potential to invite new ways of thinking and open up the space to imagination and innovation. Using the arts as strategy essentially puts the artists in organizations to bring a creative approach to challenges within the business and to develop unique, out-of-the-box solutions. 

What does this look like? Consider for example, Google. This company has established itself as a leader in giving their employees perks like free lunches, laundry services, and car washes. Yet, as the company rapidly expands, they risk isolating and losing employees. How is one seen in a company of 70,000 and growing? If one is not seen, then how are they valued? Retaining great talent is critical to the success of tech companies and finding ways to help their staff feel like they belong is crucial.

A sense of ownership is believed to increase engagement within an organization. Increasing engagement and a sense of ownership, especially in educational settings, has shown to lead to an increase in performance and academic success. In their 2003 study, researchers Jennifer Patten Killeen, Gary Evans, and Sheila Danko looked at schools with permanent collections of artwork, made by the students themselves, and measured the students’ sense of connectedness, active involvement, and personal investment in the learning process. They found that students who play a role in the design and aesthetics of their schools have a much stronger sense of ownership for their learning. While there are admittedly many differences between elementary school children and adult tech workers, there is a theme here that can’t be ignored.

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It’s a widely held belief in social psychology that the environment affects the individual. Numerous organizational studies have supported that theory. The physical characteristics of a workspace can have an effect on the mood, well-being, productivity, communication, organizational identification, and other employee experiences that affect their job performance. Researchers have looked at various aspects of how the physical environment affects employees in a workspace, including the placement of desks, the color of the walls, the height of cubicle separators, enclosed offices versus open floor plans, and so much more.

Critical to Google’s success is a management style that consistently extends autonomy, respects and encourages risk taking and creativity, and provides room to explore and grow – these all play an essential role in creating an innovative and thriving organization. Many organizations don’t fully grasp that concept. They incorporate perks and design elements to inspire innovation, however, simply installing new physical elements in the environment (like artwork) will not transform a company. Involving the employees in creating and taking ownership of their environments, that has been shown to empower them and inspire them to do more.

In 2010, researchers Craig Knight and Alexander Haslam looked at how creating an empowering (or disempowering) work environment through the use of artwork and plants in an office space could affect the individual’s productivity and sense of well-being.  They created four office conditions including: lean (with no art or plants), enriched (with art and plants placed in the office), empowered (with art and plants that the participant was allowed to place where they wanted), and disempowered (where the researcher came in and rearranged the art and plants previously placed by the participant).

Randomly assigned participants were asked to run through an information processing task, a vigilance task and then answer a questionnaire. The empowered condition, where the participants could put the artwork and plants where they wanted, showed the highest productivity, attention to detail, and strongest identification with the organization. The disempowered condition showed the lowest. While environment is important, what is more important is involving employees and letting them take ownership of their environment. Managing the workspace with healthy levels of autonomy and recognition is imperative to creating a sense of belonging in an organization.

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A strategic art program looks at the problem in an organization and then involves the primary stakeholders in determining potential solutions. In this case, the artist would collaborate with staff in creating permanent pieces of artwork. This could be done on a departmental level, a campus-level, or an enterprise-wide level. The beauty of an organization as large as Google is the vast potential to get people from around the world connecting with each other and creating relationships through creativity and art. Those connections have the potential of creating new conversations, new ideas, and new directions. Projects driven by professional artists, created by staff, and displayed at campuses across the enterprise have the potential to create change from the ground up.

Change is necessary for organizations to increase profitability, and change is often a challenge for individuals.  The arts can inspire and stimulate people and open their minds to new ideas and possibilities. This can lead to innovative products and marketing concepts, which ultimately supports improvements in the organization’s performance. The arts do not do this alone, but they can be part of the strategy to instigate this change. There is a level of courage required on the business end, stepping into unknown territory without a clear map of what is going to happen and by when, however, making the space for creativity to flourish is ultimately beneficial for all involved.

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Additional Resources:

Bock, L. (2015). Work rules!: Insights from inside Google that will transform how you live and lead (First edition.). New York

Killeen, J.P., Evans, G.W., & Danko, S. (2003). The role of permanent student artwork in students’ sense of ownership in an elementary school. Environment and Behavior. 35, 250-263.

Knight, C., & Haslam, S.A. (2010). The relative merits of lean, enriched, and empowered offices: An experimental examination of the impact of workspace management strategies on well-being and productivity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 16(2), 158-72.