Last week Sarah and I were lucky enough to get along to the first of the BBC's Connected Studio sessions up in Media City UK, Salford. The CS project is the organisation's latest attempt to negotiate what Project Lead Adrian Woolard terms "the tricky space between innovation and actual production". Previous takes on cracking the area include the Innovation Labs series. I participated in one of those back in 2006 in my role as Somethin' Else's Head of Digital, so I was keen to see this latest manoeuvre. In the event, Sarah and I came away very impressed, both with the quality of the ideas coming from attending teams and with the slick, highly professional and largely successful delivery of the day.
Each of the Connected Studio sessions will take on one of the BBC's so-called "products", which range in size and indeed taxonomical category from say, News or Children's to Radio or - in the case of this inaugural session - Homepage, Search and Navigation. The notion underlying the sessions is that the BBC lacks an easy framework for innovation both by internal and "indie" teams, something with which I think few of us "out here" would disagree. The Connected Studio sets out to rectify that. And before anyone gets suspicious of yet another large organisation paying lip service to open innovation and collaboration (two pet topics of ours here at UC, of course) let me point out that the BBC's Future Media chief Ralph Rivera has put over a million quid of innovation funding on the table. So this is a very real initiative. (Adrian Woolard again: "This isn't just about making staff feel better about themselves.")
The shape of the day was relatively straightforward. After an initial plenary briefing (Adrian introduced the whole shebang and James Thornett and Clare Hudson talked specifically about the HP, search and nav areas), attendees were asked to either get working on ideas either in existing teams or else "advertise" their basic concepts and pull teams together on the fly. I should emphasise that while the day took something from the hack day idea, it wasn't strictly one. Rather it was a "concept hack day", if you like; the hope was that by the end of the day teams would have ideas which, if approved (more of this in a moment) might move on to the early development phase. I particularly liked the fact that ideas in any state of preparation were welcomed, from the vaguest notion through to fully fledged paper prototypes.
While things got underway in the morning, a number of presentations took place in the "speakers' corner" area of the room and I decided to sit through these, out of personal interest but also to gauge what the BBC consider the wider context in which the sessions sit.
- Tim Fiennes discussed the broader search and homepage "market", highlighting in particular that social, search and app-based browsing had had a massive effect on the importance of the HP.
- Tom Broughton gave a very high level but extremely informative breakdown of the technologies the BBC use in this area.
- Phil Poole talked about the new kinds of take on personalisation and participation (which he broke down as Share, Follow, Save and Like); he also touched on how little "active" personalisation was taken up - only 10% of users had taken advantage of this aspect of the BBC HP V3.
- And creative facilitator Linda Cockburn gave an excellent quick masterclass on the art of pitching (keep it clear, graspable, relevant.... and pithy).
Throughout the afternoon these speakers and other CS team members were on hand to give feedback and advice on the developing ideas. The ability to be able to ask questions freely of the HP team and get open and honest answers was very well received by participants. There were also opportunities to test out ideas on real audience members. Some teams pitched in private, a recognition that IP ownership is often a hot potato in the innovation space and a prime concern for indies, although this didn't seem to be a big issue with any of the teams in attendance. I suspect that may vary at other sessions, according to the BBC "product" under consideration, but we'll see.
So, I've mentioned pitches there a couple of times, and here's how the day wound up. Any team who felt that they had an idea ready to pitch to the HP and Nav team could do so... and 23 teams did! Now I confess that, sat in the audience, hearing that 23 teams were about to pitch ideas made my stomach sink somewhat (and to be clear, it was my birthday and I was exceptionally keen to get to the drinks part of the day) but actually it turned out to be a real hoot. Teams were given just two minutes to present - and amazingly only a couple went over, and even then only slightly. The running of this particular bit of the day was exceptionally smooth, with the potential logistical car crash (23 teams changing laptops, monitors and so on) completely avoided. Most teams used paper to present, something which always gladdens my heart, and given the speed with which everyone was racing through their presentations, it reminded me obliquely of a 90-minute Subterranean Homesick Blues*. And most importantly of all, the ideas were all genuinely smart, well thought-through and engagingly presented.
Now I won't go into depth about each idea here, but instead say that a small handful of areas or similar approaches emerged:
- Hyper-local content and services
- Cross-BBC product user journeys
- Smart recommendations
- "Ambient" rather than "active" personalisation
- Sign-in-driven services
- Access to deep archive
- Time-based navigation - and "nowness"
- Editorialised packages - with potential "talent" involvement
Teams will be told over the next week who gets to go through to the next stage of funded development and here I see the real challenge in the whole initiative. If several teams cover the same ground with very similar ideas - and they did - then how to choose between them? Moreover, is there a way to bring new teams together from those which overlapped conceptually? I was particularly struck that some of the BBC teams had an undeniable advantage when it came to their presentations: they'll have had BBC strategy properly drummed into them, after all! Is there a mechanism which would allow the coming together of internal and BBC teams after the day? I certainly hope so.
It remains to be seen how the initiative pans out - and we'll be watching extremely closely. My ultimate conculsion on the Innovation Labs back in the day was that it was hugely difficult to link the ideas into overall BBC strategy and output. (Short version of my experience: the brilliant coder Adam McGrath, now at Google, and I spent a week paper prototyipng a kind of mash up of Radio 1 and Last.fm; the judges from Radio 1 gave it the thumbs up but six months down the line there was no cash for it as it didn't match the network's strategy at that point.) The way Connected Studio has been set up is specifically to avoid that and I have to say, if the follow-through is a good as the set up then it might just crack this very difficult nut after all.
* For those too young to get that particular reference: