· 8 min read · News

Making it Happen


<b>The BBCs discomfort over that famous row with the Government has masked a renewed sense of purpose among the corporations staff. HR director Stephen Dando tells Stefan Stern whats changed</b>

What is it like being HR director of an organisation with 27,000 chief executives? Stephen Dando is too self-controlled to betray any frustration with the notoriously hard-to-please BBC staff. Indeed, throughout our time together the talk is all of talent and creativity, of teamwork, leadership and inspiration. No matter how juicy the bait dangled in front of him Arent BBC staff all a bit bolshie? Impossible to manage? Still traumatised from the John Birt treatment? the Beebs people person-in-chief remains calm and quietly confident.

Dando is a fluent and self-assured speaker. He is not one of those senior managers who wears his charisma on his sleeve. Nor would there be much point in him trying to dominate a room with his physical presence he is slim and doesnt immediately stand out from the crowd. Where he does impress is with the thoughtfulness with which he deals with my gentle probing he isnt going to be thrown by something as flimsy as a journalists question. No wonder he has advanced so far so quickly in his career: he is very good at interviews. He is a quiet but determined manifestation of a new, more confident BBC.

It was this sort of new-found confidence that steadied the corporations nerves during its vicious summertime battles with the Government. It is hard to imagine the BBC news team of a few years ago standing up to Alastair Campbell even though it has since suffered a very public cross-examination of its practices through the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly.

Today the BBC is an organisation in recovery. Having been aggressively re-engineered, restructured and remodelled in the 1990s under Lord Birt, it was ready for a bit of tender loving care. Dyke, arriving in 2000, was the right director-general at the right time. He brought in Dando from Diageo in June 2001 to broaden and deepen the cultural change Dyke had started work on with Gareth Jones, Dandos predecessor. But try telling a bunch of journalists and programme makers, who do not necessarily feel under-managed and short of initiatives of this kind, that what they really need is some more culture change. Dando appears unfazed by having to deal with a questioning audience.

Journalists are in a sense paid non-believers, he says. Its part of their professional skill-set to have highly developed critical faculties. We shouldnt be surprised that some of them and our programme-makers apply that to the organisation as well. Thats perfectly reasonable. To me it suggests that we have to be very direct with people. If we get lost in management-speak and

jargon, that tends to alienate creative people generally.

So what has the change programme at the Beeb been all about? Starting in January 2000, the One BBC project was designed to unite all the separate elements of the BBC with a renewed sense of purpose and identity. Dyke declared that the corporation had been over-managed and under-led. Cost-savings and efficiencies would have to be found in order to get the organisation in the right shape for the future, but also to redirect those savings into the core purpose of the BBC, which is to produce TV and radio programmes, online content, books, magazines and so on.

Dando arrived in June 2001. Why did he come in the first place? Partly, he says, because he felt hugely drawn to the whole public-service ethos of the BBC, and what it stands for, but also because Dyke clearly had a vision for the organisation. In the discussions I had with him, he says, it was quite obvious that he was very people-centred in the way he was thinking about that hes an intuitive people person and also because professionally as an HR person, it just seemed like a huge opportunity.

Dando takes pride in his work, not least because his HR team has been charged with leading the change programme while going through a significant process of change itself. HR was not immune to the demands from the top for cost savings and efficiencies. There has been a significant reduction in headcount and savings of about 20%. This has been achieved partly through the smart use of IT, which has enabled the more transactional side of HR to be streamlined, allowing HR managers to concentrate on the strategic issues.

Dando is pleased that change has not been regarded as an HR initiative within the corporation. Theres a lesson for HR there, I think, he says. We mustnt be too possessive about this work. You need

wide line-management ownership of the cultural change process.

One of the HR teams other big achievements is the complete revamping of the BBCs induction process. Dando himself attended the one-day induction a course called The Bigger Picture. He felt an opportunity was being missed. We recruit 5,000 people a year, he says. When youre going through change as we are, induction is a huge opportunity to give people a really inspirational experience about the organisation.

Dandos team took a new approach, and now the process is a four-day, residential, non-negotiable induction. Every new starter on a contract of more than three months will go on it. At a time when youre trying to build the culture its a really powerful lever, he says. After a week in the organisation they feel connected. Theres no faster way of breaking down barriers.

Around the time he arrived the debate was really whether there was more to be done, because the One BBC work was well under way. Was there, Dando asked himself, more he could add? After a good look around, the answer was an emphatic yes. The One BBC initiative had suggested significant opportunities for cultural change, but hadnt really focused on what cultural change really means. Therefore Making It Happen, the subsequet programme which the BBC is now in the middle of, was very much focused on the cultural issues.

Dando says that this was less a declaration of good cultural intentions and more a focus on how to direct the BBCs culture towards improving what it already does best. And were really looking at how we do things, how we interact within the organisation, but with a very strong focus on our creativity, and on our audiences so its not change for its own sake internally, but to underpin what it is that we are trying to achieve as an organisation.

Launched in February last year, some of the early initiatives in the Making It Happen project attracted predictable mirth and scepticism in the outside world, where nothing goes down better than a BBC management story. Cut the Crap yellow cards, like those wielded by football referees, were available for staff to wave at any colleague who seemed to be getting in the way of progress. But behind the reported gimmicks, Making It Happen has been a much more profound enterprise. Most significantly, the process has involved the contribution, feedback and responses of 10,000 BBC staff over a third of the total workforce which is unprecedented for the organisation.

Greg told everyone that one of the things for this to be successful was that people had to feel involved, Dando says. This is change that comes from within. He said that everyone who wanted to have a voice would have one. That was a big thing to say to an organisation of 27,000 people.

The process that Dando designed to let everyone speak was called Just Imagine. In all, 10,000 people came to those sessions. Who would have believed it? he says. Its probably one of the biggest staff consultation exercises carried out in this country.

The feedback from the Just Imagine process influenced a blueprint for change over the next five years, which was unveiled to staff earlier this summer. What was fantastic about that process, he explains, was that unlike a lot of organisations where a top team says, Here you are, weve decided what your values are, these are the values that have come from 10,000-plus people who work in this organisation. The values, put together, back up the corporations vision to become the worlds most creative organisation and a new sense of purpose to enrich peoples lives.

These are fine words and only time will tell their significance. But the encouraging news about change at the BBC is that it is largely a homegrown exercise, not the blueprint of costly consultants. Under Birt the BBC became famous for its reliance on management consultants, especially those clever chaps from McKinsey, who at one point were said to be billing the corporation for several millions a year. Was the consultancy bill really as high as 20 million a year, as some of the rumours suggest? Im not sure how accurate those figures are. I wasnt here at the time. It is clear theres been a shift in emphasis, is all he will say on the matter.

Dando, with Dykes backing, has taken an entirely different approach. We have far fewer consultants working in the organisation than we did a few years ago, he says. His view of change is refreshingly simple: If it is to work, it has to come from within. And that means understanding your organisation. Consultants cant tell you how to do that.

At this point, he illustrates his view with a tale from the Beebs top table. Not long after Dando joined the corporation, the BBCs executive committee asked two of its longest-serving colleagues to go away and think through the major change initiatives of the past 10 years, and try and discover what could be learned from it all today. The twosome came back a month later and gave a guided tour through all the change initiatives. Out of that discussion came some quite penetrating insights about the organisation, about what works here and what doesnt, and those insights led to some very clear characteristics for the change programme that were in now. It really defined it in many ways. People are much more inclined to come with you if they can sense there is something being built from within rather than the latest bit of thinking coming in, Dando adds. Of course youve got to make sure you stay open as an organisation to the good things happening out there that you can also learn from. And weve done some of that. But weve done it with a clear view about the things that need to characterise this change process and make it work for us.

Perhaps the biggest element in all this is the question of leadership. In May the BBC announced its biggest-ever leadership development programme. In partnership with Ashridge Business School, the BBC is planning to send between 6,000 and 7,000 of the corporations managers through the programme over the next five years. This too was a response to a very strong message that emerged from all the consultation and feedback that has been going on at the Beeb. The staff have been crying out for clearer, stronger, more purposeful leadership at every level.

Its going to address all of the key leadership skills across the spectrum, Dando says. Strategy, decision-making, people development, coaching, feedback and so on will be important parts of it, as will the emphasis on the communication aspects of a leaders role in a changing organisation.

This is not out of character for the corporation. The BBC invests a healthy amount in training and development, maintains Dando. We are, using the jargon, an upper quartile investor among major organisations. In cash terms, thats in excess of 50 million a year, and thats how it should be. Not least because weve got a very important role to play in providing training. Go anywhere in media and communications in this country and youll find people everywhere you go who have worked in the BBC.

Where does it go from here? And how does Dando plan to proceed? In my experience people in the BBC need and like to be listened to, Dando says. Its an organisation of story-tellers. And that can be very productive if we can create an environment in which people can express themselves, be heard, have a voice. I think thats one of the things about the style of the change programme were introducing thats worked incredibly well.

But before this becomes too much of a Greg and Stephen love-in, Dando is at pains to point out that change really has to be a team effort. A lot of change programmes are written around individuals the change heroes. Clearly Greg is an important figure in all of this, hes brought a distinctive style and hes made it a key priority. But one of the things we work very hard to do is make sure there is very broad ownership of what we are trying to build here.

I obviously play a key role, he admits, but the whole of the executive committee is very together on what we are trying to do. Weve put this work in many peoples hands, so its the strength of that collective effort thats really taking us a long way.

In terms of making change work, the BBC is going to be worth watching. Its only a third of its way through a five- or six-year process. And we, the licence payers, will always have an immediate sense of how healthy the corporation is by looking at its output.