posted 16 Jun 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 9
The knowledge: Euan Semple
Running the unusual line between rebelling against senior-management expectations and over-delivery on objectives seems to be Euan Semple’s forte. Since his appointment as head of KM solutions at the BBC, he has jumpstarted collaboration and knowledge sharing among employees on a budget that would make most software vendors squirm. By Sandra Higgison
After winding my way through a maze of buildings, hallways and doors, I eventually reach the entrance to Digilab, the department where Euan Semple works as head of KM solutions for the BBC. Inside, sitting amid the stack of whirring servers and computers, and listening to the strains of New Order rehearsing in a nearby studio, it really feels as if I’m in the belly of the Beeb. And as Semple talks about his pioneering work to help employees communicate and collaborate, it is clear that the tools he has put in place, and his enthusiasm for his work, drive much of the innovation and knowledge sharing at the broadcasting company.
I’ve often heard Semple’s name mentioned by other knowledge managers describing their sources of inspiration. Many are trying to emulate his success at embedding new tools and encouraging more collaborative behaviours at their own organisations. Despite his obvious flair with IT, Semple insists he is not a technology person.
A glance at his desktop and a skim of his personal blog, however, hint otherwise. While he is certainly no spod in a cheap suit, he has an understanding of technologies that some people have trouble even pronouncing, as well as an ability to talk about them in practical terms with straightforward language that few can match.
While these technical skills take him a long way towards meeting his objective to help like-minded people find each other at the BBC and build their own communities of interest, Semple’s passion for networking and meeting people is also crucial to his success. At a higher level he says that his biggest inspiration is the power of evolution: humankind’s ability to route around damage, survive negativity and head in a life-enriching direction. In this vein, Semple has a view of what the future will look like and works to prepare his organisation for what he sees as inevitable, while also striving to make the web a more habitable place for his two daughters to explore.
As he describes his work, it is easy to sense his disapproval of the ‘knowledge management’ label, and I realise how, by his own admission and despite his achievements, he must be a manager’s worst nightmare. Semple resists ‘corporateness’, studiously avoids ‘real’ meetings and advises his peers to seek forgiveness after the fact, rather than permission beforehand, when getting things done. This informal approach to working with such an intangible, fluid and personal material as knowledge may fly in the face of more rigid methods based on 2x2 matrices and formulae, but it works, as Semple has shown during his 20 years at the BBC.
During this time, and partly as a result of his initial placement in operations, technology has been a means for Semple to get things done. “We had fun with it, were creative and didn’t worry about the rules,” he says, “If a machine broke and you needed it in order to go on air, you put in another. It was a more pragmatic approach to technology than conventional IT, which is risk averse and focuses on economies of scale.” Digilab was set up seven years ago with the advent of low-cost technologies that could be used to make programmes cheaply, which helped spawn the docusoap. “These tools were considered sub-professional by some and an opportunity by others. Digilab was set up to harness that interest.”
Semple started using the BBC’s intranet and website to keep people informed of his developments and maintained databases of who was interested in what. From his earlier career as a professional musician in rock bands and his work at the World Service, he had developed a strong sense of the differences between what was structured and ordered, and what was made-up and collaborative. About three years ago, Semple started writing papers about these experiences, which were picked up by senior managers in their search for a head of knowledge management.
Once appointed, Semple realised that the business expected him to bring in big corporate information systems to solve its knowledge needs. He, however, was more interested in individualistic, organic models and networking.
“I orchestrated a move out of the technology department into HR, as we are more about organisational development than IT,” he says. At the same time, the intranet was changing ownership and he was concerned that it would fall into the wrong hands. “I felt it was important to keep it as loosely owned as possible. It also meant I could begin to implement things without asking anybody but myself.”
Semple was quick to address an issue he had spotted as a manager. “As staff members spent all their time in cutting rooms, they shared more information outside the organisation and with people in other countries than they did with each other. We had to give them an infrastructure or mechanism to talk to each other online,” he says. “I wanted to introduce social computing tools on the intranet and started with a bulletin board.”
Taking a leaf out of Andy Boyd’s book, who was undertaking a similar initiative at Shell, Semple created talk.gateway to allow people to ask questions, find solutions and connect with each other. “Instead of giving it a huge marketing push, I wanted news to spread by word of mouth,” he says. “It’s in the nature of these tools that people need to trust and get to know each other online if they are to work.” This is a subject Semple is passionate about. “If you make systems too serious or too business like, people won’t use them.”
To describe talk.gateway, Semple uses an analogy of trying to build a collection of Cotswold villages with lots of footpaths between them. “You know where the pub and church are, you’re comfortable in the environment and you can locate yourself,” he says. “Corporate systems tend to be more like
The bulletin board is largely self-policing, self-organising and self-managed. To achieve this, Semple says you need a large and diverse group of people. “There’s always an early-adopter hump to get over until enough people are using it. Different interests must be represented for the environment to work as an ecology.” By not pushing the tool too heavily at the start, employees heard about it, used it, found solutions to problems and told others of their experiences. Talk.gateway is now the second most visited site on the intranet, with 8,000 people connecting to it each month, out of approximately 25,000 staff. Discussions range from procurement issues to debates on the BBC’s decision to broadcast Jerry Springer the Opera.
Next, Semple brought in Connect, which is similar to BP’s people-finder tool. “I wanted employees to have a presence on our intranet that would reflect their interests and backgrounds,” he says. “It’s only been going for two years, but it already has ten per cent of the BBC population in there.” Employees can set up interest groups on any subject, and Semple’s next project is to combine Connect with the bulletin board. “This will let groups set up a forum and manage how closed or open it is,” he says. “People can have conversations that respect the ownership and privileges of the group.”
Web logs (blogs) were the third tool to appear. While many companies still debate their value within an organisational setting, the BBC now has 150 employees blogging. “A big leg-up was when Richard Sambrook, director of World Service and global news, started a blog, which is fan-bloody-tastic,” says Semple. “It’s really authentic. In his own voice he writes about the real issues at work, the challenges his department faces, and external factors and influences. It’s really brave.” Sambrook currently tops the BBC leagues, with 8,000 visitors in just over a month.
Semple’s personal experience with blogs has influenced much of this work, and has also had him presenting to the deputy director general about the impact of external blogs on the BBC’s business. Indeed, his views on the future of citizen journalism against mainstream media are powerful and, although not for discussion here, make for compelling reading on his blog, at http://www.euansemple.com The site’s title reflects his initial reticence about stating what he felt was obvious.
“It was Socrates who said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man.’ You start to notice things when you’ve got somewhere to write about it. You become more aware of what’s happening.” Blogging at the BBC and in a personal capacity has not only given Semple an outlet for these musings, but has also created a large network of contacts and friends. One of the arguments against blogs is that they kill face-to-face time. “They refine your face-to-face time,” Semple counters. “As a consequence of blogs and networks, I have met some really interesting people. Business is based on relationships, and this way you actually talk to the people you want to talk to.”
Although social computing tools such as talk.gateway and blogs have been well received at the BBC, some question whether time spent on them is of value, especially when the threat of redundancy is hanging over some employees. “A letter in our internal newspaper said that the people with time to waste writing blogs should be the first to go,” he says. “It kicked off a huge debate, as others said it was up to them what they spent their time doing and that they found it valuable. It raises issues about what is productive. People go for cigarette breaks and chat on the phone. We employ them and should trust them to get their work done to a standard we’re happy with.”
To facilitate more formal engagement between employees, Semple introduced wikis about six months ago, which allow groups to work collaboratively on a project or document online. “We have about 400 people using the wiki, mostly to do procedural work on policies or manuals,” he says. “Any collaboratively written activity with Word is a nightmare, as people save it on a server hoping others can find it and everyone spends time checking who wrote what.” Once again, take-up is based on word of mouth and has received positive feedback. Semple’s next job is to join all these tools together using aggregation software so that people can have relevant updates from the blogs and bulletin board sent straight to their inbox.
With all these tools off the ground, Semple runs workshops to encourage employees to use them. Although the BBC may have a naturally conversational, individualistic and reasonably web-savvy culture – and Semple recognises that many of his peers are working in tougher environments – not everybody has taken to these tools like ducks to water. “Some are very enthusiastic, others are interested, while a third group, which is getting smaller, looks horrified and bored,” he says.
The warning he passes on to managers and employees is that this is what it will be like when their children start working at the BBC. “It’s going to happen anyway,” he says. “My eldest daughter is seven, she watches me blogging and asks what I’m doing. She now has her own blog. I first got into them because I was conscious my kids would spend more time than I have in this virtual space. If I wanted it to be habitable, I had to make it habitable. It’s like the Wild West: if you leave it to the gunslingers, then you can’t live in it.”
It is such foresight, passion and enthusiasm that have nurtured uptake at the BBC. “This isn’t going to happen if you don’t care about it,” he says. “You have to give people a real sense of ownership by not intervening too much. They’ll develop a sense of collective investment and see that these tools work.” The feedback from some employees is testament to the success of this approach, as they say they simply couldn’t do their jobs without them. “Almost everything we have done that’s been really useful and has stuck has been done by people who really care about the business, understand the context and have been ready to get their hands dirty. And we haven’t spent much money,” he says.
As Semple ponders his future at the BBC, he realises that in the coming 10-15 years, more companies will want to follow the example he has set. “I’d love to modify the workshops I do for the general public and turn the web into something other than just porn and e-mail,” he says. Demand won’t be slow in coming. Semple is already a popular speaker on the conference circuit and registers 300-400 visits to his blog every day. He counts some of the web’s leading minds among his close circle of friends and has the ability to engage, entertain and educate with ease. Whether he chooses to stay at the BBC or plough a new course, he is sure to shape the virtual space into a safer and more productive place.
Euan Semple can be contacted at email@example.com