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Is the pace of change really such a shock?

I’ve got Matt Biddulph staying with me and been hanging out with Paul Hammond a lot recently again and since they’re both ex-BBC colleagues, we’ve inevitably found ourselves talking a bit about what’s going on at the organisation at the moment. And it’s a busy time for them – Ashley Highfield and Mark Thompson have made a couple of interesting announcements that contain a fair amount of value nicely leavened with some typical organisational lunacy and clumsiness. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is this, which is a link that I’ve already posted to my feed earlier in the day and will turn up later on this site as part of my daily link dump. For those who don’t want to click on the link, here’s the picture:

Now this is a photo taken in the public reception area of BBC Television Centre, but I want to make it really clear from the outset that you shouldn’t be taking it literally or seriously – it’s a prop, a think piece, to help people in the organisation start think about the issues that are confronting them and start to come to terms with it. It has, however, stuck in my head all day. And here’s why…

The apparent shock revelation of the statement – the reason it’s supposed to get people nervous – is because it intimates that one day a new distribution mechanism might replace broadcast media. And while you’re reeling because of that insane revelation and the incredible insight that it contains, let me supplement it with a nice dose of truism from Mark Thompson:

“There are two reasons why we need a new creative strategy. Audiences are changing. And technology is changing. In a way, everyone knows this of course. What’s surprising – shocking even – is the sheer pace of that change. In both cases it’s faster and more radical than anything we’ve seen before.”

So here’s the argument – that perhaps broadcast won’t last forever and that technology is changing faster than ever before. So fast, apparently, that it’s almost dazzlingly confusing for people.

I’m afraid I think this is certifiable bullshit. There’s nothing rapid about this transition at all. It’s been happening in the background for fifteen years. So let me rephrase it in ways that I understand. Shock revelation! A new set of technologies has started to displace older technologies and will continue to do so at a fairly slow rate over the next ten to thirty years!

I’m completely bored of this rhetoric of endless insane change at a ludicrous rate, and cannot actually believe that people are taking it seriously. We’ve had iPods and digital media players for what – five years now? We’ve had Tivo for a similar amount of time, computers that can play DVDs for longer, music and video held in digital form since the eighties, an internet that members of the public have been building and creating upon for almost fifteen years. TV only got colour forty odd years ago, but somehow we’re expected to think that it’s built up a tradition and way of operating that’s unable to deal with technological shifts that happen over decades!? This is too fast for TV!? That’s ridiculous! This isn’t traditional media versus a rebellious newcomer, this is a fairly reasonable and incremental technology change that anyone involved in it could have seen coming from miles away. And it’s not even like anyone expects television or radio to change enormously radically over the next couple of decades! I mean, we’re swtiching to digital broadcasting in the UK in a few years, which gives people a few more channels. Radio’s not going to be fully digital for decades. Broadcast is still going to be a dominant form of content distribution in ten and maybe twenty years time, it just won’t be the only one. And five years from now there will clearly be more bottom-up media, just as there are more weblogs now than five years ago, but I’d be surprised if it had really eradicated any major media outlets. These changes are happening, they’re definitely happening, but they’re happening at a reasonable, comprehendible pace. There are opportunities, of course, and you have to be fast to be the first mover, but you don’t die if you’re not the first mover – you only die if you don’t adapt.

My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!?. The problem being that the snail’s been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren’t paying attention. Because if we’re honest, if you don’t want or need to be first and you don’t need to own the platform, it can’t be hard to see roughly where this environment is going. Media will be, must be, transportable in bits and delivered to TV screens and various other players. And there will be enormous archives available that need to be explorable and searchable. And people will create content online and distribute it between themselves and find new ways to express themselves. Changes in the mechanics of those distributions and explorations will happen all the time, but really the major shift is not such a surprise, surely? I mean, how can it be!? Most of it has been happening in an unevenly distributed way for years anyway. And it’s not like it’s enormously hard to see what you’ve got to do to prepare for this – find a way to digitise the content, get as much information as possible about the content, work out how to throw it around the world, look for business models and watch the bubble-up communities for ideas. That’s it. Come on, guys! There’s hard work to be done, but it’s not in observing the trends or trying to work out what to do, it’s in just getting on with the work of sorting out rights and data and digitisation and keeping in touch with ideas from the ground. This should be the minimum a media organisation should do, not some terrifying new world of fear!

I think this is the most important thing that these organisations need to recognise now – not that change is dramatic and scary and that they have to suddenly pull themselves together to confront a new threat, but that they’ve been simply ignoring the world around them for decades. We don’t need people standing up and panicking and shouting the bloody obvious. We need people to watch the industries that could have an impact upon them, take them seriously, don’t freak out and observe what’s moving in their direction and then just do the basic work to be ready for it. The only way that snails catch you up is if you’re too self-absorbed to see them coming.

26 replies on “Is the pace of change really such a shock?”

I think the thing that I dislike the most about this placard is that if it’s intended to make people think, it will fail. Those who think that broadband really is killing TV will just nod and go about their daily lives, safe in the knowledge that the Beeb agrees with them. Those who are brought up short are the people who are already thinking about the impact of new technology on old paradigms, and thus the least in need of something to ‘make them think’. I doubt that the people who really most need to have a good, hard think about what is happening are the type of people who are going to do it voluntarily.

Something else networks ought to realize is that they are content producers and not just content syndicators – and video content is portable to the net and DVDs and everything else supposedly eroding the audience. The audience still loves their favourite characters on multiple platforms. What’s always in the top search terms? TV shows. They can be streaming and seeded and pay per download and mobile phone and deluxe box sets on eBay. Broadcasters can use more than RF, and look at what their internal talent and resources can produce that’s unique.
Tell your BBC friends about this, too (free reg req). It’s the future. 😉

while you’re reeling because of that insane revelation and the incredible insight that it contains
Ah. Sarcasm. Your dry British humour.
I knew that.

Well said. You should have a look at this paper – ‘The Fetish of Change’ by Chris Grey
I wouldn’t underestimate how important this rhetoric is as a technique for imposing one’s will upon others. If one person is claiming that the world is moving fairly slowly, and has some sound advice on what this might look like (as you are doing here), and another person is claiming that the world is moving extraordinarily quickly, but offers some quickfire measures through which to cope with this, the sense of emergency will win purely because it is present. From here, it almost becomes *risky* not to then adopt the quickfire measures suggested by the second person. Panic becomes a safer strategy than calmness. Which explains management consultancy…

Interesting piece, Tom, and the snail device is hilarious!
I am not sure you are bring entirely fair to Mark Thompson, though. He says the change is “faster and more radical than anything we’ve seen before” and you retort with the argument that the BBC just hasn’t been aware of the change that has been going on around them.
But …. TV was indeed quite a stable medium from the 1950’s up to the 1990’s. Most innovation and change was in programming and production, but the broadcast model was unchanged. When the Internet began to emerge, the BBC was fairly quick in developing the world’s best public service Web content, although it took a while for most people (Beeb included) to realise this would not be just an adjunct to broadcast.
Regardless of how it may seem to you, me and the geeks of this world, it is only in the past few years that the game-changing online innovations have pricked the public consciousness, and we are still a little way from them becoming truly mainstream if you consider social groups beyond our own. But I take your point that the overall trajectory of digitisation has been clear for a long time.
So, when Thompson talks about a rapid pace of change compared to what came before, at least in relation to TV and broadcast, I think he has a point. If anything, arguably the BBC is early in mainstreaming the reboot/web2.0/user-generated-content concepts that Thompson was referring to. And that’s how it should be IMO – sometimes leading, not just following public opinion.
The radical, rapid change is not just in digitisation and re-packaging – that can still be done within old skool broadcast monetisation models – the real shift that has only come to the fore in the past 5 years is the socialisation of media, co-production of value, participatory media, etc. I think this does qualify as rapid change, but you are probably right that any media company worth its salt should have seen it coming and been thinking about what to do about it.
I can hardly believe I am saying this, but I think the BBC deserves more credit for what it is trying to do – as you say, it is not about the fanfares and “announcements”, but rather the underpinning work that has been going on behind the scenes – and let us not forget how very different this kind of work would be if it were led by commercial broadcasters or (God forbid) Murdoch.

Well of course there are several BBCs – the television side, the radio side and the new media side, and they don’t all necessarily agree with one another. And large-scale messages to the outside world don’t necessarily correspond that well with what’s going on inside organisations. But I should probably clarify a bit – it’s clear that the BBC has not ignored the internet and it’s certainly explored it in terms of publishing pages. They got the Radio Player out in public as well, which is also interesting. But actually these make my points even more strongly – because it makes the idea that these things are radical weird new ideas that are appearing from leftfield even more ridiculous. The organisation has been doing this stuff, for Christ’s sake! How can it possibly be a shock to them! And I kind of take issue with the idea of social media being a particularly new idea – I mean, I’ve been weblogging for seven years now. I’ve run a messageboard online for eight years. There have been creative communities of individuals producing stuff online for well over a decade. Social networks were big four or five years ago. Digital photography has been taking off for years. People have been trading programmes in BitTorrent for years, and file-sharing for longer. I don’t buy that this is particularly new either! It’s breakthrough into the mainstream is new, perhaps. But if you’re a company with as many technical people in it as the BBC, you’d think you’d be aware of this stuff and observing it and honestly able to say, “This stuff could very well have an impact on our mainstream business”. To say that it’s okay for them to look at the scene in 2006 and go, “Whoa – where did this come from!?” seems a bit ridiculous, frankly.
But I want to move a bit away from talking about the BBC to the heart of my piece above, which is not really about the BBC but about this rhetoric of radical change. Again – all this stuff has been known about for years, but fundamentally these organisations have only really played lip-service to it, jumping on bandwagons rather than looking at underlying trends, believing the excesses and collapsing with the disillusionments and not just facing up to the facts that of course there will be technology change and the seeds of it will always be around us and sure, it’s not always easy to see which model or direction will win but that doesn’t mean that you can turn around four years after the first iPod and suddenly go, “Crap, media has suddenly changed dramatically out of nowhere and we have to start doing something about it!” I mean, please! That’s just absurd!

Thanks Tom,
I think you are right on the money with your focus on the reaction of large orgs to change. Good point well made.
In terms of the Beeb, the real substantive problem (I guess 😉 is the dominance of a traditional broadcast mindset among programme makers and the fact that this hampers progress, especially with regard to the important enablers (digital content, markup, catalogues, etc) without which none of the good stuff can happen.
In terms of tracking innovation, people in the Beeb and other orgs should have been thinking about the impact of blogs etc not since you began 7 years ago, perhaps (you early adopter, you!) but certainly for the past 3 years when they started to achieve critical mass.
But in terms of mainstreaming innovation – e.g. making announcements like the one we are discussing – the Beeb walks a fine line between leading and following change. I want my beeb to lead, but not at the expense of losing retained value and quality. I still think, if anything, the beeb is commendably early to the social media party in terms of public adoption (and I define public more widely than privileged geeks/students and middle classes in rich societies).
So, I agree that “Whoa, where did that come from?” is not a valid response, and perhaps many in the Beeb outside New Media shoudl have done a better job of tracking innovation. But validating and pushing this stuff out to the public is another matter, and pronouncements that have a whiff of “the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades” about them are perhaps just part of the external comms strategy (or even a defensive posture WRT the inevitable commercial sector complaints).
Maybe we should organise a snail run à la Pamplona, where brave execs of large orgs can put themselves in the path of the social media snail and run screaming through the streets in search of new business models 😉

Change can be quite radical and non-linear though – tipping points etc – the music industry didnt have a large window to adapt to mp3, nor did the local press with online classifieds – both of those industries are currently suffering quite a lot as a result.

Not to disagree with Jamesscoops, but the music industry had a ton of time to adjust to the mp3 revolution. I know people who were swapping mp3’s in 1996/1997. So the technology really existed well before Napster, they just didn’t really pay attention until it was arguably too late.
The main takeaway for this kind of thing is now every industry needs to be aware of the technology that is out there and that is being developed.
Everyone in every industry needs to be a technologist and must pay attention to what will impact business years from now.
Anecdotally, (and I worked for awhile at a music company, so I wouldn’t be completely surprised) I am convinced that most executives in the music industry had not heard of Napster until Rolling Stone (never really the source of breaking news) did a cover piece on it. Before then they considered computers to be handy for email and a great place for promo sites.

I love the irony of the sign being a take-off of a newspaper sign. Surely newspapers have been declining longer than the broadcast networks?
And yes, you’re right, try not to be too self-satisfied about it though!

I think Tim O’Reilly has summed this up nicely with possibly his best known phrase – “the future is not evenly distributed”
Some people can grok technology quicker than others. Their present is everyone else’s near future. What seems radical to some is plain common sense to others; a natural progression of the current technological environment.
Large media organisations generally don’t do much innovation. Or they have an R&D department that does the innovation, which the large media organisation then takes a long time to pick up on, but is unfussed about, because they get to sit on the IP in the meantime.

Mark Thompson leads an organisation of c25K employees, with over 80 years of tradition and weighed down by vast organisational baggage (or as you put it “lunacy” and “clumsiness”) which partly explains his rhetoric.
Anyway are his 2 most recent public speeches, a month ago and later that night to the RTS
and their themes of power shifting to the user, the importance of managing data, the importance of content, users increasingly sharing their content and the tools to do that that different to er,
Terry Semel at CES.
well apart from Tom Cruise that is.

I so agree with Mark Thompson and think his speech is pitched perfectly but my greatest concern is that the other rhetoric, of which Tom speaks, will freak out the really good programme makers that make the excellent shows on which the BBC has built its reputation.
I don’t expect my Mum & Dad to have or even know about the latest ‘this or that’ and I don’t see why every programme maker needs to either. The content they make is already ripe for “share, find and play”, we (the tech side of the BBC and beyond) need to enable it and then we’ll see the understanding change at the same pleasant ‘slow rate’ as the technology.

Good post Tom.
Putting more power in the hands of users is a difficult thing for the BBC to cope with culturally and politically. This is after all an organisation where power and money still rests in the hands of people who are called “Controllers”(!). Part of the problem is that the BBC is still too dominated by Television, and this is the area which is most behind in its thinking. But the BBC still has some very big advantages. You are right that what it does may not be that different in five or ten years (although I hope to God the culture has changed).
I appreciate Jamie’s point, but these changes if they are handled right will actually put more power in the hands of the programme and content makers.
What’s happening here is that slow learners like me are catching up with clever people like you!

I liked the chased by a snail analogy. But the past five years have been signifigant in that broadband has kept pace with the hype. So many hyped up technological revolutions don’t arrive or don’t arrive on schedule that it is worth noting when the hype pans out to be correct.
I’m quite happen with the BBC actually. They manage a terrific website and seem to be adapting quite well. The RIIA on the other hand is a different story and I have zero sympathy for them.

I’m late to this but it’s such a hot subject and not just at the BBC. When you struggle to understand why an organisation is saying things at any one time (I had this struggle recently at the WE MEDIA conference) you’ve got to try and put yourself in their heads, uncomfortable as this may be. At the WE MEDIA conference I just could not get why three organisations who are actually trying to do stuff in the social media area were simply NOT talking about what they were doing or their people are doing on the ground , but rather reflecting corporate attitudes (that is another subject though..for another time).
This placard epitomises something for me . Here you have a media literate organisation using the creation of a climate of fear to help people “wake up” to changes, and change. This is a time-honoured, (think about the early HIV/AIDS government ads ) but not that successful a way to shock people into thinking or doing. The images people choose or phrases they use often reveal more about their corporate fears (“the tip of the iceberg”, or “the end of television”), than the real situation warrants and this is usually fairly obvious to people on the end of the messages on the ground. Sad, but true. And it is big business too.
As far as innovation is concerned I just want to say the BBC was thinking about blogging three years ago. Innovation though only gets called Innovation when it is out of the door – and by the time it is out of the door in some large organisations, it is hardly an innovation in anyone elses terms. And then something that might be very innovative will only be accepted as something actually innovative if it chimes with big strategy – so deeply frustrating for all concerned. Perhaps that is why so many innovators are leaving the BBC right now. In big corporations or structures it is considered a success to understand that future is here when it is and try to do something about it. But for those keen on thinking ahead the snail revolution beckons!

Interesting to see the Beeb portrayed this way – from this side of the Atlantic they look like the pioneers.
Though I would note that Lee Bryant’s comment about stability from the 50’s to the 90’s doesn’t apply to the US, broadcast television industry here has been adapting to technological challenges to their business model for decades – since cable television started to grow in the 1970’s. NAB conferences were all about “convergence” for years before most newspaper publishers knew what it meant. Meanwhile, local TV stations, where the real ad money is in the US, have at least as good a shot at figuring out new local online business models than the newspapers. So I’m not worried about the commercial broadcasters – they’ll do just fine. US public broadcasters, on the other hand… sigh. And don’t even ask about newspapers. Did I mention how much we envy you the Guardian?

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