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Simon Saunders (right) at BBC Charter select committee. Click on the image to watch the video — “fail fast” from 10:42:15

Last Tuesday (10th November), I was called upon to attend the House of Lords communications committee‘s inquiry into the renewal of the BBC Charter.

This session saw Mike Flood Page, former BBC TV and digital media executive producer, and I give evidence in relation to the BBC’s technological innovation efforts — particularly with respect to the development of iPlayer and the failure of the much-maligned Digital Media Initiative (DMI).

At the core of discussions was whether the BBC should continue a role in technological development. After all, this is an organisation that’s spending public money; it is therefore crucial any project it invests in is able to justify its own cost to the taxpayer.

I would argue the organisation still has a key role to play in technological development in the broadcast sector. But the BBC needs to make big changes to how it approaches projects if it wishes to safeguard taxpayer investment; most importantly, it needs to take a lesson from technology startups and be prepared to quickly drop any project that looks set to fail — appreciating that there is no inherent issue in failed projects as long as lessons are quickly learned.

Throughout its history, it’s fair to say that the BBC has played an important role in broadcast technology innovation in the UK. Particularly in radio, aiding in the development of radio wave propagation techniques in the first half of the 20th century, to spearheading the DAB rollout in the second.

But today is a very different world, with the BBC increasingly being called upon to serve a more diverse number of objectives at the same time. The organisation therefore need to reconsider, reassess, and recast its goals, taking in to account the platforms it needs to reach users on.

iPlayer is a great example of where lessons could be learned. One of the more successful recent BBC developments, at launch iPlayer was vastly superior to anything its competitors could offer. This was a great achievement, and a shining example of what the organisation can achieve once it commits to a project.

But at the same time, many of the challenges it faced and had to invest internal resource to resolving were simultaneously being invested in by external parties. Other solutions existed that, while perhaps not a perfect fit for the organisation to use ‘off the shelf’, could have helped reduce development costs and time.

Public organisations have been criticised in the UK for a perceived over reliance on external consultants, but these criticisms are misguided. The issue is in what areas organisations like the BBC are choosing to rely on external resources.

For example, while the BBC may consider the ongoing efforts to transcode and upload its content library as a task that needs to be handled internally, the initial efforts to develop the iPlayer network technology could have been offloaded to external technology experts who were already tackling these challenges.

There’s also a key need for, where projects are being handled by internal resource, for the organisation to take lessons from agile working methodologies and adopt a ‘fail fast’ culture. Aiming to rapidly produce proof of concepts, without fear of dropping those that look unlikely to be successful, will ultimately avoid — much more significantly costly — long-term project failures.

Of course the biggest example of where the current culture failed is the Digital Media Initiative, which managed to spend £98 million of investment across only two of its five years — and considerably more across its other three. For a project that seemed to be doomed for much of its lifespan, the counter-productive impact that a culture that fears failure delivers is starkly obvious.

At the same time, the BBC has a role to play in future technological development. Through its non-commercial yet high profile nature, it is in a unique position to drive developments in areas many commercial broadcasters would not. However, this also requires much more intelligent and considered management of investment — and a far more honest appraisal of success and failure.

Click here to view a transcript of the session.

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