by Edward Qualtrough

RSC CIO Chris O’Brien interview – Taming the Innovation Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Oct 23, 2016
IT LeadershipMedia and Entertainment IndustryNonprofits

Royal Shakespeare Company CIO Chris O’Brien is less than 12 months from entering his third decade at the RSC as the theatre organisation is celebrating the 400th anniversary since the death of William Shakespeare.

O’Brien has been CIO at one of the UK’s largest arts institutions since June 2014, having joined the organisation in February 1997 as Head of Information Technology. Greeting CIO UK at The Other Place, a creative theatre lab for learning, research and development on the banks of the River Avon, the CIO explains how his team has been settling into its new home at the arts innovation hub since relocating in March 2016.

Beginning life as a tin shed rehearsal room in 1973, The Other Place was the RSC’s original studio theatre and was converted into an experimental space a year later inspired by the revolutionary spirit of alternative theatre movements. Now under the leadership of the RSC’s deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman, The Other Place retains its innovative spirit and ethos and accommodates a 200-seat studio theatre, rehearsal rooms, costume store, cafe bar – and now O’Brien’s small technology team.

“There is a spirit of innovation at The Other Place, and we’ve tried to fit in with that spirit,” he said. “We still have to keep systems going. We still have to keep business as usual. It’s not an option to bring the business down, but if people were aware of how we are trying new things, and communicate with them about that and buy into the spirit of The Other Place, that gives us a lot more understanding of each other, and flexibility if something does go wrong.

“Now we’re going through a period of consolidation, and learning and evaluation of some of the things we’ve been researching and developing, but R&D in the spirit of The Other Place.”

Innovation agenda

Having embraced a certain innovation agenda and empowered the RSC technology team with a creative spirit, the challenge for the CIO is to massage and maintain that enthusiasm while ensuring all’s well that ends well and projects do not reach too far beyond the comfort zone of a large body whose users have different needs, capabilities and competencies. Its aim should be to test ideas measure for measure to ensure those that could present a benefit to the organisation don’t turn out as another love’s labour lost.

“You have to consider that there is an organisation with thousands of users here that need to get familiar with using a technology,” O’Brien said. “Within the technology team, we need to be sure that we all understand what’s going on.

“We need to evaluate something and if it works, we will roll out to the rest of the organisation. That’s how we are keeping in line with the production spirit of The Other Place, its artistic spirit.”

O’Brien insists that technology is only as good as what you are able to do with it and is wary of fads with little purpose which he sees as much ado about nothing. Recognising he gets excited by how technology is applied rather than the technology itself, he admits that every so often a technology comes along which piques his interests and as we meet he enthuses about an experimentation with Meraki – a company founded by two MIT PhD students, backed by Google and Sequoia Capital and bought by Cisco in 2012 for an estimated $1.2 billion. Piloted at their new home, O’Brien was hoping to deploy the cloud-based network active equipment – which he says is more flexible, more reliable, offers better performance and is easier to manage – and roll it out across the RSC which could then act as the platform for beacon technology and other emerging trends.

While the CIO does see examples of where IT can be the driver of innovation, it’s more realistic in a non-tech company where technology is the enabler.

“If technology isn’t at the core of what you do, I don’t believe you should just use technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “Technology is only as good as what you do with it.

“If you impose technology on somebody, it doesn’t matter how good the underlying technology is; if it doesn’t work for them or it isn’t appropriate for the situation, or you are forcing people through change after change after change, you’ve got something wrong.”

Technology enabler

O’Brien also acts as the General Manager at the Loft Theatre in nearby Leamington Spa and understands that what is produced on various stages by the RSC is how the organisation will be judged. But he is an advocate of the opportunities technology can provide and sees the role of the CIO as a communicator to espouse potential where the rest of the organisation might not see it.

“I don’t believe technology should necessarily drive the way an organisation operates, but technology will give you more opportunities to change and improve what you do than almost anything else,” he said.

“What the technology department should be doing is exploring those opportunities and promote or explore where they see an opportunity; where they can work with the organisation to see if this bit of innovation can really make a difference.

“It is a responsibility to come forward, to propose ideas to people. If IT is just seen as reactive force, you don’t move forward in your use of technology; you just keep reacting to situations, and you’re missing out on what’s happening in the rest of the IT ecosystem.

“If you impose technology, that fails too because you have an organisation that just becomes resistant. If you both work together with an open mind and respect for each other, and work together to explore the opportunities and benefits that technology affords you, that’s the way I would like to take things forward.”

The Tempest

One of the most exciting upcoming alignments of IT and theatre is a new production of The Tempest which opens at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon on November 8. Produced in partnership with Intel, O’Brien’s department has been able to get closer to the stage, working behind the scenes with the production teams. The CIO describes this as a “real innovation” and exciting for an IT team by giving them a proximity to the action that would make a king leer.

The Tempest is, I think, a game-changer in terms of on-stage technology. It’s in partnership with Intel, and we are working close with Imaginarium who specialise in motion capture and 3D-projection,” O’Brien said of the production company led by Andy Serkis, perhaps best known for his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films.

“We have been working behind the scenes with the production teams. For IT that is a shift. We’ve always had sound, lighting and automation technologies that are production technologies. While we might provide the connectivity to those systems of the platforms that they might sit on, they are very much managed by the specialist teams.

“The technologies behind The Tempest will start to bring information technology closer together with the production technologies. It is going to be a shift behind the scenes in how we do things. This really is innovation, where it takes you to in the end, we don’t know – but it will change things and my team finds it very exciting indeed.”

Shakespeare in the cloud

O’Brien explained also how the RSC is in the process of a series of change programmes based around cloud and mobile, and fuelled by the consumerisation of IT. The CIO said that the organisation is moving toward cloud technology, noting that while the well-publicised benefits of flexibility, agility, resilience and responsiveness applied, the real opportunity was to not constrain people and give them the technology they are used to using in their day-to-day lives at home.

The RSC has been migrating to Office 365 and implementing a controlled release of new functionality and options, wary that with too much freedom and flexibility comes confusion. This also involves the CIO dissolving the perimeter of the organisation while trying to maintain the right levels of information security and balance between freedom and control.

“Where is the middle ground where we can get the most out of the opportunities that a new technology is affording us, but without compromising the information security that we are the custodians of? I think that is one of the underpinning challenges of the modern world,” he said.

O’Brien noted that one of the biggest challenges when deploying cloud services is how it changes an organisation’s financial model in moving from an Opex to a Capex, with costs starting to mount if a CIO is not able to manage their operational costs carefully and running up bigger bills than they would have done previously.


Transforming the theatre company for mobility, from its mobile-first website to device rollout for a varied and disparate workforce, has also been on the agenda for the CIO. Away from the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon base, which itself is spread across a broad site, the organisation has offices in London and with staff travelling between sites and across the UK – as such O’Brien is supporting a truly mobile workforce.

Tablets have also become the key tool for front-of-house management with staff hooked into Tessitura, the bespoke arts CRM and ticketing system, to help provide a better service for customers, as well as being used in the RSC’s cafes and bars.

O’Brien borrows a phrase from CIO peer Rob Greig, the director of the Parliamentary Digital Service and former Royal Opera House CTO, to describe the Royal Shakespeare Company user base as one of “full-fat users and half-fat users”. With varying degrees of engagement, interest, confidence and expertise with technology, there are many dynamics for the CIO to consider.

“We have to be respectful of that as we roll things out, and that’s a challenge,” O’Brien said. “I’ve got to be that mediator really.

“We can’t drop behind the curve, but we can’t ignore technology that will give the organisation, as a whole, benefits. Equally, we can’t just enforce considerable amounts of technology change on to people without taking into account their needs and their methods of learning, and their modes of operation and their process – I think that’s really important.”

As per one of the main themes at the 2016 CIO Summit, softer skills like change management, communication and leadership are a crucial part of this and where O’Brien sees some of the core aspects of the CIO role in ensuring programmes don’t end up as a comedy of errors.

“You are sitting in enrolled as a translator, if you like,” he said. “What is it the organisation is trying to achieve? What is it that this technology can achieve? How do the two of them match up, and is there a match-up?

“That actually is quite a big part of what I do, but you’ve got to do that in such a way that you don’t disillusion those really creative technologists. You don’t want to stifle creativity in your team, but equally you can’t just roll out something that’s a brilliant technology if it doesn’t have a purpose.”

The board and the Bard

Earlier in 2016 in a wide-ranging CIO interview, Royal Opera HouseCTO Joe McFadden touched upon funding in the arts sector and having CEO and board support at Covent Garden. O’Brien said that technology had been on a similar journey in his 20 years at the RSC with an executive leadership who do not switch off when meetings move to technological matters, but that CIOs still needed to be aware of their role in an organisation whose mission is to deliver art to the public.

“I would say the RSC is in a really good place at the moment, not just because of the consumerisation of IT making everybody across the board more aware of technology, but sometimes it’s down to individuals as well. Our leadership are respective of IT,” he said.

“They are willing to listen and discuss. It’s a really good environment having those technology discussions.

“One of our biggest challenges is that why on earth would an organisation such as ours, with limited resources, invest money in machines or internet services when we need to invest in what’s on stage? The challenge was there 20 years ago and it’s still there today.

“That’s always been a challenge, and that is where CIOs working together can really start to deal with it.”

Arts sector CIO collaboration

By getting together with the likes of McFadden and other technology executives in the sector, O’Brien explains how knowledge-sharing, troubleshooting and collaboration helps the CIOs and their organisations grow together even though in many respects they are competitors.

“All of us have the same challenges with our organisations, and for CIOs that could be the different abilities of our users, their willingness, and building up a business case for investment in something that actually doesn’t appear to do anything. That’s one of the challenges with IT, how do you demonstrate that spending £20,000 on some machines is a value to the organisation,” O’Brien said.

“One of the things that gives us a lot of leverage is the minimisation of risk. I don’t like to overplay that card; selling benefits rather than the negative aspects of not investing, I think that’s a challenge and I think that’s something we all need to get better at as CIOs to win those arguments.

“We do share information. CIOs and CTOs from some of the arts organisations, we get together on a quarterly basis to discuss exactly these things – it could be something fairly basic or it could be something quite exciting.

“Getting together to share ideas is obviously going to be beneficial. We are competing against each other to a degree, but actually what we’re doing is we are competing against the rest of the people’s leisure options. We are also competing within our own organisation; we are all doing that as well for investments, for staff and for engagements and so on.”

All’s Well That Ends Well

As O’Brien approaches his 20-year RSC milestone, the CIO says that he has an excellent team – “the strongest I have ever had” – and is keen to use his experience to hire the best technologists and make sure they add value to the goals of the RSC. Thus it is the CIO’s role to take a more aerial view and triage the tempest of innovative technologies the organisation could prosper from.

“I think we’ve always had a good team, but employing excellent technologists is so important and then the skill as a CIO is making sure you act as that interface between the organisation and its needs and requirements, and the technologists who may not be the best at the application of everything,” O’Brien said.

“If there is a fantastic piece of technology out there but there’s no purpose for it in this organisation, I’m not going to worry about it. If somebody can prove that there is a benefit to the organisation and we can explore that, but the CIO has to have the skills to distinguish between what is the latest fad that everyone wants to pay tens of thousands of pounds for, and what is actually a sound technology that is going to take you forward.”