Jemima Kiss has broken the news that Matthew Postgate has taken up the new Controller of Research & Innovation role at BBC Future Media and Technology. This is fantastic news – Matt really understands the role that Research and Innovation plays at the BBC, has had lots of experience with the politics of the organisation and its stakeholders, and is a genuinely lovely bloke as well. He has the vision, intelligence, charisma and leadership skills that the R&I team need to truly influence the future of the BBC.
The last few years have been difficult for research & innovation at the BBC, as the traditional long-term standards and engineering work of the R&D team in Kingswood Warren has had to adapt to a world in which it is often outstripped by short-term web-based innovation. Meanwhile, it has had to react to calls for it to open up its platforms and research to support a wider UK innovation community. There has been a lot of work in the last 5 years to address these issues – some successful, some not – but its an unfinished process, and Matt will have to create a new innovation culture in the organisation.
I’m sure he’ll have a lot of people giving him advice, but as someone who worked in Innovation at the BBC for 5 years, I thought it was worthwhile writing down some thoughts. I appreciate that advice from ex-colleagues can often seem tainted by unfinished politics and unsettled debts, so I’ve focused on what’s possible in the future, rather than raking over old memories. Here’s five things that would be inspiring, intriguing, or even controversial for BBC R&I to do:
1 – Put BBC R&I in a national and global context
Just as the BBC internet strategy has changed from being about bbc.co.uk to being about the BBC on the internet (eg Youtube, Facebook, Myspace, et al) the R&I team need to see themselves not as a BBC team, but as part of a network of innovation in the UK and the world. This happens a lot at the level of individual people and projects, but all the targets and evaluation of the R&I team’s work at an organisational level focuses far too much on short-term value within the BBC. This might seem a reasonable way to justify investment in a time of budget cuts, but the best companies and talented individuals in the world right now evaluate themselves and their work against their peers, regardless of whether they work for the same company, a competitor, or somebody in a completely different market. The BBC should have the ambition to see its R&I talent as part of this peer group, and measure its success acoordingly.
2 – Make the 2012 Olympics a focus for innovation
Innovation thrives when it has a big, meaty challenge to aim at. The 2012 Olympics will be a landmark event for the BBC and digital media, as its the first Olympics where the host nation will have an entirely digital broadcast network (or at least, as near as dammit). I saw Ben Gallop, head of BBC Sport Interactive, present at a Westminster eForum conference on New Media opportunities for the Olympics, and he promised that, for the first time,, at any Olympics, the BBC will cover all 4,000 hours of sporting activity across the whole event. This is the kind of challenge that motivates, inspires and draws together teams of talented people. There should be at least half-a-dozen big, meaty Olypmic-based challenges that can raise the profile of BBC R&I within the organisation and the UK
3 – Give away one amazing thing every month
The BBC has dipped its toe in the water of open source, open collaboration and open licensing of content over the last few years, but these have been fringe projects that haven’t really had the impact that they intended. Bitter experience tells me that trying to change things in a systemic, strategic way is just too damned hard in an organisation as politically complex as the BBC. Better to try and do one amazing thing every month, rather than spending 3 years pushing one rock up a hill. Pick one BBC asset, research project, technology – whatever – and give it away for people to play with. And do this every month, without fail.
4 – Make money, or even better, make money for other people
This might be controversial, especially in the middle of a global financial crisis, but some of the work that BBC R&I does has commercial potential. There needs to be ways for this work to be licensed, spun out, experimented with and commercialised where this make sense, even if this is by other people than the BBC. This was always a massively political issue within BBC R&I, as many felt that having a commercial focus would drive research away from the BBC’s core goals. This is nonsense – letting researchers explore commercial partnerships, start-ups or other exploitation routes can help innovation get out the door more quickly than the BBC can manage itself. This will benefit the organisation by putting its own innovation products in the same commercial context as external suppliers, giving them the challenges and opportunities that the rest of the market deals with every day.
5 – Make R&I a virtual network of talent inside and outside the BBC
This is similar to the first point, but is more about individuals than organisations. The BBC has, over the years, attracted an incredible amout of talent to its new media and R&I teams. Many of them have gone on to be thought leaders in their fields, and have created some of the most innovative products on the web, sometimes even for the BBC itself. R&I should encourage conversations and collaboration with any talent, not just the people working for the BBC itself. There should be a revolving door of talent working for, with, alongside and sometimes against BBC teams. People tend to leave the BBC with a sense of rejection or resentment – this is partly because of the uncanny cultural influence that such an august institution has on you, and the feeling that you are either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of its circle. Far better to see the BBC as somewhere like Pixar - a once-in-a-lifetime creative community that you’ll feel part of for the rest of your life.
I left the BBC to join Channel 4, and have relished the opportunity to do some of the things i’ve mentioned above. It might seem counter-intuitive, as Channel 4 launches its own digital innovation project (led by another BBC New Media alumni), to be offering the BBC advice, but I’d love to see the UK’s two PSB organisations competing for the best ideas, talent and projects in the UK. Between the BBC and C4 there is a wealth of experience, talent and most importantly, resources. I’m sure that Matt will turn R&I into an incredibly exciting and fun place to be, and that we’ll all be keeping an eye on what the ‘competition’ is doing, and using this to drive our own ambitions for 4IP.