As departing BBC CTO John Varney passes on the baton to his successor, Keith Little, they talk exclusively to CIO UK about succession planning, change management and the future for the corporation
“The first thing you should do when you start a new job is look around for your successor and when you have found them, start preparing them to take over your role.” This is what John Varney, outgoing CTO of the BBC believes and practises. He is leaving the BBC after five years of overseeing a massive transformation project and handing over to his deputy, Keith Little, who has been working closely with him for the past 18 months to two years.
“Succession planning should begin the minute you arrive in a job,” says Varney. “In those first few months you should find the person who will succeed you and start to put together a personal development plan for them, so they are ready to take over when you leave.” Varney says that after working for 18 years at one organisation, he decided he never wanted to stay that long again in one place and always sets a limit of four or five years for a role. “I don’t think heads of IT should be in a role any longer than that and they certainly shouldn’t expect to be there longer. It is right to set a time limit and stick to it. It enables sensible succession planning.”
Having set the strategic direction for IT at the BBC for the next four years and completed the first stages in a massive transformation programme, both Varney and Little think there is a natural gap, where a change in leadership will work well.
Delivering the goods
“We have achieved the major transformation and are now in the delivery phase,” says Little. “We know what we need to do and we have a different set of challenges going forward. Whatever happens we have a very strong foundation on which to build. Obviously I will have my own views and there will be a change in energy but we have a solid long term direction and continuity to move forward with.”
In 2004 the organisation outsourced what had been its BBC Technology inhouse IT group to Siemens Business Services as part of a 10-year, £2 billion Technology Framework Contract. The deal involved around 1,500 BBC staff, who now work for Siemens Business Services Media Holdings – which provides the staff, skills and investment needed to support the BBC’s technology requirements. The main IT priority now is finishing the new business architecture, so that it works in harmony with its IT service delivery. Technology is right at the heart of the BBC’s plans both for delivering business efficiency and for digital broadcasting and production. “The priority now is the technology and business enterprise architecture,” says Varney.
"Look at Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. If ever there was a case of succession planning gone wrong, that is it"
John Varney, outgoing CTO, BBC
In his time at the BBC, Varney and his team have spent time working on a proof of concept for the architecture and in early 2004, the BBC used the new tools for the production of the prestigious Planet Earth series. This area is a big focus for IT at the BBC now. “The benefits in terms of times and costs were very compelling,” says Little. “Planet Earth was the first really tangible project and gave us a huge boost. It was not just the very cheap commoditised kit it allowed us to use but also the IT-based process flows that worked so well.”
Little will be concentrating on the convergence of IT and broadcast production as he moves the strategy forward once Varney has gone, as well as implementing new business systems. These include business systems for HR and financials being developed in tandem with the production and storage initiatives and will use the enterprise gate portal, which is a business-focused portal for the organisation.
The business enterprise architecture, the processes and workflows that go with it for the new technology framework, will be redeployed on the new IT enterprise architecture and the BBC is working closely with Deloitte and Siemens Business Services to achieve this.
In terms of production, the corporation is also working on a number of technical innovations, including the Raman network, which is scheduled to be fully deployed by the spring of 2008. This will amplify the bandwidth capacity of the network and offer a way for the corporation to move off tape to a completely digital production format.
It is also updating its storage management, which will begin deployment next year and yet another set of initiatives will bring its vertical stack of applications together onto the new enterprise architecture.
Little is very comfortable in the technical landscape of his new role but has been learning the leadership ropes from Varney over the past couple of years. As part of preparing him to take over, Varney has made sure that Little has deputised for him as much as possible at the BBC, especially in areas outside of his comfort zone. Little says he feels most comfortable talking about and working with technology, but working with Varney has given him the chance to learn key management and leadership skills directly from his boss before taking over his role. “I have been deputising for about a year, as part of the preparation for taking over,” says Little. “It has particularly meant moving outside of the IT business, getting to know the other business leaders and the executive board over the past 18 months. Most importantly it means they now also know me, before I have taken over.”
He adds: “I have learnt so much about leadership and communications in many different parts of the organisation. Sometimes in the BBC when you meet a creative, it can be a bit overwhelming. For example, being involved in a business creativity focus group with a household name, like Alan Yentob. But this sort of exposure and working with my peer groups in different areas of the business is very important. It absolutely helps me to take on the role.”