How The BBC is Adapting to a Netflix World | Straight Talk

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One of the world’s oldest broadcasters is carefully leveraging technology to compete for eyeshare in the new world of video – and learning valuable lessons along the way. 

As Director of Technology at BBC, I lead a talented team that serves both the Studio and Public Service organizations with the most relevant and sometimes latest technologies (more on that below). We do this across a variety of high-level departments – Content Production & Distribution, HR, Finance, Sales, and Marketing, to name just a few.

I arrived at the BBC five years ago, but I’ve worked in technology for more than three decades—first at IBM in the ‘80s, later for high finance in the ‘90s, and ultimately through the problems of “Y2K” and the dot-com era. Fun fact: As an entrepreneur at the turn of the century, I worked with an amazing team on a video-on-demand product that was going to make us all millionaires. Since it was 10 years ahead of its time, however, we didn’t  become millionaires. Yes, that went horribly wrong.

What didn’t go wrong, however, are the many lessons I’ve learned at the BBC and over the course of my career, which have served me well. A few of them follow:

1. DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION HAS NO BENCHMARKS

The television production industry is going through a huge change. BBC Studios was formed as a response to what's going on in the marketplace, namely the rise of Netflix, Amazon, and other tech giants who are spending millions to produce and distribute their own TV shows and movies. This is causing quite a lot of upheaval in an already turbulent market. So in that respect, it's becoming a lot harder in general for those of us in the world of content production and distribution.

On top of that, the BBC faces a challenge in reaching younger audiences, specifically the under-30 demographic. Obviously, that is a big emphasis for us now because those upcoming generations provide future sustainability and growth, not to mention the changing of tastes and formats of consuming content.

Digital transformation across back office systems is crucial for us in meeting these challenges. But it’s important not to forget a famous aphorism: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  We had formulated a nice, new, shiny strategy and a clear vision, followed by 20 pages telling us what we needed to do to transform. But simply put, if the business isn't ready for that transformation and if the sponsorship isn't there, it's just not going to work. So we sort of stepped back and rather than trying to boil the ocean we’ve successfully focused on targeted initiatives across processes and systems where they have the most business benefit. Almost by stealth, we have transformed the systems map across Studios.

To be clear Digital Transformation isn’t just about big digital websites and fancy apps. It’s more about how you transform the underlying work and processes to change how your business and people operate in the future.

2. TEAM BUILDERS FIND SUCCESS

I learned a lot from a former boss of mine on how being a CIO is less about technology and more about understanding the business and its strategy and building strong relationships with the executive team.

The most important thing I probably learned from her is understanding that you can't be successful with an average team. You need to spend a good slug of your time searching for and developing top talent. I've been quite fortunate that one of my strengths is identifying and bringing in the right talent. That, probably more than anything else, has resulted in a lot of success over the years.

Senior technology people are faced with a lot  of complex situations and projects. But all of that complexity yields a lot of important lessons that improve the results of the next implementation, deployment, or program. Hence, one of my key roles is to build the right teams and, while creating an environment where they feel supported and can deliver at pace, also providing them with the air cover that allows us to experiment, fail fast, flourish, and continue to learn.

To do that, however, you must have enough depth and breadth of knowledge to engage and participate in conversations with those same teams. Not too much detail, but certainly enough to be able to call out BS in a conversation! This can be challenging and take quite a few different turns in a single day—in my case this could involve discussing a production issue, a new SVOD product, or the latest update to our SAP platform. But it’s really important to have a working knowledge of each issue to better communicate with capable team members.

3. TAPPING YOUTHFUL DIVERSITY IS GOOD INSURANCE

Within my organization, we have a good mix of both age and ethnicity. We've got lots of people from all over the world. That cultural diversity brings a different approach to the way we operate. And that's one of the most important things to understanding up-and-coming cultures, demands, interests, tastes, behaviors, and speed of change.

To that end, the BBC Group has established a high profile “next generation” board that comprises only people under 30 years of age. This gives us a completely different perspective on the world in terms of media and has been incredibly successful in driving some really interesting changes throughout the business – especially since our main board members sit in, listen, and receive reverse mentoring from the “next generation” board.

Working with these younger staff members has given us a completely different perspective of the business that we are working in, what’s important in the workplace to the younger generation, and more importantly, their own perspectives on content and platforms in the new online world. By gaining this insight, you can put yourself in a much better position to effectively use technology to support issues and overcome concerns from the top down.

The Takeaways 

However well-intentioned, forcing digital transformation doesn’t work. You need to identify systems and processes that are ripe for change, ensure that you have senior stakeholder buy-in, deliver and showcase the results, and create momentum – which will increase the appetite for more significant investment moving forward.

Effective IT lives or dies on developing world class teams—finding the right people and helping them understand how their work can address challenges from the top. 

Engaging with younger and more diverse stakeholders is great insurance against being blindsided by change.