This is the blog of Ant Miller, senior research manager and dilettante geek at large at the BBC.
I wail moan and cuss about the challenges and fun to be found here.
These are my personal opinions, and not those of my employer. Or anyone else here for that matter.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Relocating Research- some worries

Well there was me thinking that even if it wasn't exactly good news on the relocation front, at least it was news, so we could deal with things and get on with stuff. Sadly, it looks like we're still facing some problems. I haven't got hard numbers yet, but it's looking like a considerable proportion of the staff at the Surrey R&D establishment are sufficiently dissatisfied at the proposed move arrangements that they'd rather not stick around. This is a combination of far longer and harder commutes (which no amount of compensation can really make up for in terms of time and energy), a 'not as nice' place to work (probably a minor consideration), and a worrying lack of a clear long term plan for how and why we do R&D in all the announcements.

This last point is a bit of a shame- a real and, in many ways, an unavoidable effect of the increasingly fluid nature of the BBC. Whatever we say the arrangements will be, they're bound to be transitory, temporary, open to change. Sadly, when you've had a long term commitment and a permanent infrastructure to depend upon for many years this shift can really undermine your sense that you're valued.

So, how to fix? Not sure. We do need to have a clear (ish) statement of what we expect to do for a longer time frame. The level of detail may have to be cut to meet the needs of a changing future, but if we could have some statement of commitment to R&D with some sort of evidence supporting it in the very very near term, that would help. A stated expectation of the contribution that the corporation and the wider broadcasting industry and the nation as a whole anticipates coming from R&D will at least let us know we're wanted, and how hard we'll have to work (and hence what facilities, in general terms, we'll need).

Some sort of plan for where 'kit' might go after TVC gets sold off would be healthy too. A plan can be high level, but it's existence, and clear ownership, is essential to reassure those who's day to day work depends on what looks like being a fairly itinerant bunch of boxes over the next few years.

We could, usefully look at some more radical options for housing researchers too. We have other parts of the BBC who are distributed- so could research engineers work there? We have partner companies with facilities across the south east- could we work there? The danger, which I had thought had largely passed, seems still to be quite real. If people go in large numbers some key projects that support not only the BBC but the whole of broadcasting, could be in real trouble.

It may well be that many of these elements are in hand, and I have some intimation that innovative accommodation solutions are in the mix. This needs to be nipped in the bud though. At Christmas people go home, spend time with their families, and have time to contemplate their future. I don't want to come in after the new year to get an inbox full of leaving do invites.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Archive+Performance = Genius!

On Thursday I caught up with SSL, a Covent Garden based software engineering company, who have worked with us on a few archive preservation projects. They're doing a report for JISC n preservation strategy and challenges, and one of the concepts they've been throw to deal with is 'performance'. When I hear that I think of latency, bandwidth, reliability, but in fact what they're considering is the 'softer' idea of audience plus media in presentation- the whole 'performance' of putting on a show and what it means to audience and performer.

In archive terms this throws up some interesting examples- for instance, who of us has actually sat and watched in a large public space, with hundred of others, a silent movie projected on a big screen accompanied by a live pianist? That is performance, and it's rare, and very different. Or at least, it's rare unless Paul Merton does something about it.

Last night we went to see Paul Merton's Silent Clowns at Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall. Paul introduces a series of selected examples from the greats of silent movies, and in the second half we see a full performance of Safety Last, the Harold Lloyd classic (the one where he climbs the building).

The difference is stunning, we laughed and laughed- at one point it suddenly dawned on me I was howling and had been for minutes, and so was everyone else. No small part of the experience was down to the vivacity, exuberance, and sheer stamina of our pianist for the night, the incomparable Neil Brand. Turns out Rowan knows him from Eastbourne theatre days. Small world!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rumours III- The split and clumps

Right, so we're moving. Fine. Really, it needs to happen, and in spite of the risks, we'll do it, do it well and crack on.

But actually there's a little more to it. You see the move will be partly to W12, and partly to Salford. How that location will work out I've no idea- high hopes, but no real clue. The area is one of those bleak post-industrial, chrome and glass zones that I've no great love for (I rather prefer real places) but still and all, could well be a great gaff. The idea is to build up a media neighborhood, which might work. Hasn't quite happened in W12 (that was a plan apprently) but you never know. 'Who is moving there?' is an interesting question- it's going to be 'internetty' stuff.

The split of R&D is indeed broadly to be into linear 'traditional' broadcasting technology, versus interactive, IP driven, non-linear webby stuff. From some angles, even I must admit that this looks odd, but from others, OK. On the odd side- you'd think perhaps we'd worked out the 'traditional' stuff, wouldn't you?

To be fair though, there's a strong realisation that it's an arbitrary split, and that we expect a LOT of cross over between the two sites. This is clear to all of us who've taken a look at the proposals, and plans. We ran an excercise to try and think of all the research projects we might do in the next five years and to sort them into the two categories above, plus a 'neither' bucket. The 'neither' bucket was full, the others empty. So, we'll see. It's a thankless task predicting the future of R&D, but fun. Some people will be up north, and some down south, and they'll have much the same set of skills, and do related if different work, and build over time their own distinct identities, but right now all we can sensibly do is try and make sure we can give them each the facilities they need to do their current work.

What that work is and how that's organsied comes from the clumps- the project portfolios. These were themselves somewhat experimental, and have really only existed for a year or so, and rationalising them seems a sensible move. One problem in such an excerise is that some research is big, and urgent, and has big teams, and some is little, and niche, and quirky. Slotting it all into a small number of equal sized portfolios was difficult and not altogether succesful last time. Some were characterised by their relationships with other institutions, some by their target applications, and some by their core technologies. In such an approach inconsistencies and contradictions were inevitable, and it was a difficult task to lead some of the more nebulous groups of projects.

Now we're making fewer bigger groups, and we are, it appears, acknowledging that some of these are large and perhaps not possesed of a single focussed objective. It seems fair enough really- not all of the the management layers of R&D can be totally subject focussed. Some management is just that, management, and there's no reason why that shouldn't work.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Rumours II- R&D changes

Although the technology and new media bit of the BBC (now known, bizarrely as 'Future Media and Technology') has emerged from the latest round of cuts relatively unscathed, there are indeed some changes on the way. The largest from where I'm stood are those impacting on the old R&D area. It's now called R&I (Research and Innovation) by the way, but let's not go there.

The changes are really three fold- we're relocating, splitting into two main groups, and clumping the projects differently.

The Move- we always knew that Kingswood Warren was going to be sold, and it went on the market a few weeks ago. It's a bit of a shame (who wouldn't lament the loss of a Victorian mansion in acres of landscaped surrey countryside as a workplace- sigh) but the real worry has always been the impact on the work, not so much the sentimentality or love of the place. It has, right now, got some of the most brilliant research infrastructure and culture- studios, labs, test chambers, RF facilities, dedicated server suites, and it's own wonderful IT staff, not to mention a dedicated technical library (with real librarians- WHOOT 'Shhhhh!' sorry), and some of the most fabulous rooms for meetings and mini conferences. It is too big, and too far from the rest of the BBC though, and has been a bit of the boffin gulag for too long.

I think, personally, that in trying to fix the admittedly broken relationship with the rest of the BBC something rather awful happened. A 'shock and awe' decapitation of a difficult area was followed up with an ill planned administration, shades of the emerald city perhaps, but at least now, with these new changes, there is a recognition that not only must some things be stopped, some others need to begin. (Oblique, moi!?!). So, we're moving. Except not to a similar more appropriately sized facility in the neighborhood.

See, that had been 'PLAN A'- a new, smaller, KW nearby, perhaps on a better connection to central London. However, apparently management were surprised when that sort of thing, for the accom alone, looked like being about £10million. Frankly that appalls me. Not the cost, but that fact that it was a surprise. I mean, if you're going to sell something for £20 million (best guess at the low end of the market value for KW) and want something half the size nearby, well maybe you'll be paying about half that. So anyway, all shocked and stuff, we're not buying a new gaff. Fair enough. We're moving to the grottiest offices we have in W12- White City- the Ministry of Truth, the monstrous carbuncle, Ceacescu Towers. Yes, as Factual deal with loosing headcount, and promptly bail on their worst cubby holes, we pile in. And I suspect that the budget for fitting them out will not be free. I wonder if anyone senior will be 'surprised' by the cost.

Weirder is to come though, because we are also going to have the heavy kit- the studios, the server suites, the labs, slotted into Television Centre. That too is on my list of crap BBC buildings, and I'm not at all sorry we're selling it. At least, I wasn't, until they told me they were moving part of my dept. into it. Kind of makes you wonder just how much left hand/ right hand comms are going on. Or if there's much of a future in anything other than the shortest possible terms for the group. Ah well, I'm sure it will be fine. I know I'll do my level best to make it fine, brilliant even. But still, you know, weird isn't it.

Gosh, this has gone and got big. Ok, so more of the split and reclumping next time, and perhaps also a comment on the importance, or utter irrelevance, of the Amazon S3 European launch from a large scale A/V master archive point of view.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Rumours manifest 1- changes on the large scale

Over the last few weeks several rounds of announcements have been made at the BBC regarding our future size, shape, services and locations. I've studiously avoided any face to face briefings- I find they tend to get dominated by those who howl the loudest, and not always the most cogently- and instead I've been perusing and pondering the various written pronouncements and powerpoints.

At the large scale, I guess we're cutting our cloth more economically now- though it's sad to see TVC on the list of places to leave, I'm ambivalent. I just don't know the London TV studio market well enough to know if it really is excess capacity- though it is a peculiar context for the sale of BBC Resources (just what the prospective buyer gets for their money is a bit moot!). Personally, TV doesn't excite me that much, and since studio based drama doesn't happen so much these days, I can't bring myself to be too upset by the loss of the home of so many second rate sit coms and chat shows. From experience, it's a fairly impractical, dingey place for most of the people who work there, and would be very difficult and expensive to upgrade. Possible, but pricey, and witha risk that it would never be busy enough to justify it.

The scale down of F&L is harsh, but apparently driven by the over capacity there at the moment. Trimming News too, is arguably overdue. At times it does seem to be a very well staffed part of the operation, and it's conceivable that it could be as effective with fewer separately dedicated people and more pooled resources.

If there was anything that seemed a real shame it was the decision to cut the local radio support buses. As I understand it, these vehicles do us sterling service, and actually support a key, and often under valued part of the BBCs activities. Local radio is a bit of a 'Cinderella' in the BBC, but has colossal reach- building ,and in some cases rebuilding relationships of trust and ownership with our audiences is key to the strategy- and it seems odd to be cutting these great tools for just that sort of capability right now. Still, what do I know?

A little more about the R&D area perhaps? Next time.