Thursday, April 17, 2008
Time for a big hat
It's not easy shifting from traditional linear, one to many broadcast into a world where content is consumed in a myriad of different places and times and ways, and it's salutary to Ashley Highfield that the BBC has made the transition is has as well as it has. It's been bumpy at times, true. The Graf Report was a swinging attack on many of the advances that the BBC had made, and it led not only to a drastic restructuring of our offering to the web, but indirectly to many changes internally too. BBC Jam's demise was another dark day for the BBC's online ambitions, and that too had a real impact on the staff and the whole culture behind it. However, through all those troubles Ashley has driven a large and growing dept that tries in many ways to be the most innovative it possibly can be. Of late, he's faced open hostility to the principles of net neutrality that would underpin public service internet distribution. To an extent it's to his credit that the next role he's taking on will be addressing just that issue head on. It's a fight that I think he's been gearing himself up for for some time, and the Kangaroo position gives him the power of the big terrestrial broadcasters, but the freedom of an independent company to really get to grips with the matter.
Except, well, the web was only a part of what his department was meant to be. Last year he took charge of the newly formed Future Media and Technology department, which included not just his core web group, but also the hundred of web content and systems people in television (renamed 'vision') radio (renamed 'audio') and news and sport (renamed, oh never mind, you get the idea). He also got a lot of the technical support people too, all those who weren't sold off to Siemens in 2004, and the archives too. He even got Kingswood Warren and it's Research & Development team.
Sadly, not all these additions to his fiefdom have blossomed quite the way his core web team has. For every iPlayer success, there are perhaps a dozen research project foundering for a lack of good management and leadership. I'm not actually criticising anyone here- the fact is there are no managers!
For years now there has been a void as senior engineers have left, and a succession of managers have taken temporary charge of the research teams. Some of those managers have had great visions for the future, but a combination of temporary roles, drastic and painful change, and an agonisingly slow and unpredictable relocation process have resulted in a team dreadfully understrength, over committed and with little clear picture of their role in the corporation. The three roles of Head of Research and two deputies looking at Broadcast and Future Media areas (an arbitrary and frankly meaningless distinction, but London and Manchester sounds too simplistic!) have been defined but unfilled for many months now. And now Ashley is off too!
It's probably churlish to mutter that it would have been nice if he could have made sure the R&D function was OK before he left. I understand that even he has had plans for R&D quashed. However, it is worth bearing in mind that once upon a time, the head of R&D was the head of all technology for the BBC, and sat on the board reporting directly to the Director General. Is there an opportunity here to return to that model? Could this be the BBC's chance to put innovation right at the core of its future? Who on this list could wear that hat?