BBC creating an app store for employees that links mobile to legacy

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez March 16, 2014
Summary:
The broadcaster's head of business systems delivery was speaking at an Ovum event in London last week

The BBC's digital endeavours have had varying degrees of success to date. Although products like the iPlayer, the BBC's online playback app, is hugely successful and a leading and innovative product in the online broadcasting market – which has led to others playing catch-up (excuse the pun) in recent years - it also recently revealed that it has wasted over £100 million on a failed Digital Media Initiative.

With taxpayers and politicians keeping a critical eye on the organisation – both because of IT cock-ups and a string of other embarrassing revelations that have emerged in recent years – the BBC needs to do everything it can to make future projects a success. Another £100 million IT disaster would likely raise even further questions about the organisation's governance structures and whether or not the licence fee is being put to proper use.

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However, as Stuart recently reported in a post on the BBC's digital ambitions, the organisation's latest Director General, Tony Hall, is wise to the fact that technology is changing user expectations and user behaviour – where mobile is playing a key role.

Hall said:

“A bit of video I was looking at recently stuck with me over the past few months. It showed a toddler sitting up holding a magazine. She tries to swipe it – she tries to expand it – she bangs it to try to make it play. Nothing happens. And in frustration she throws it away. To a toddler a magazine is a tablet that's broken. 

“That's how this generation is growing up. It will have a totally different set of norms and behaviours.”

This mobile effect is not only changing consumer behaviour, but is also disrupting things internally at the broadcaster. The BBC's Head of Business Systems Delivery, Mark Kelleher, was speaking last week at an event in London hosted by analyst house Ovum, where he explained how he is confronting this challenge by creating an internal app store for the organisation that will be relatively low cost and reach a broad number of people. The project is also not about building new systems, but instead managing data properly and creating interfaces that link to legacy platforms.

Making things easier with mobile

Because the BBC has a number of contracts in place with suppliers to build mobile applications for its public facing services, most of the development for its internal app store is being carried out by the same companies. Kelleher has a team of four people within the BBC and has so far delivered 16 applications – costing approximately £25,000 each – with up to 30 more planned over the next year.

He explained:

“The challenge is that we have got lots of old legacy systems, finance systems, HR systems, production systems. They are quite difficult to use and we can't use them anywhere apart from inside the BBC. The data is okay and we use them, but its quite challenging when it comes to simple use of them on a computer 

“What we are not doing is building completely new systems that happen to have a mobile interface. In this phase of our mobile approach we are trying to do a lower cost, but big change initiative that just says we are going to provide a load of mobile apps that are going to be wired into the back of big systems and will allow those big systems to be used more simply. It will allow users to get hold of the data and information and use the assets inside the systems flexibly on their mobile.”

Kelleher said that the aim of the project is mostly to create a simple user experience for employees, as the legacy systems currently look and feel like they were “built in the 1950s”. The app store has been launched internally and is currently being used by the BBC News division, which was chosen as the first team to get access as they have extensive experience in using mobile applications for production.

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Although the apps are mostly allowing users to get access to standard back-end systems, such as HR and finance, Kelleher does envision that the organisation will start to develop applications that are specific to the BBC's needs.

“We are moving on to other apps that will be unique to the BBC in the next phase because people in Television have come to us and said that when executive producers need to approve a programme before it goes off to broadcast – that's quite difficult to do today, they have to get something by email, get a video from somewhere else. 

“With an app we can put that all together, watch a video and click approval, which then goes and talks to the back end systems. Very good.”

Approach to development

Kelleher said that the BBC probably has at least 500 use cases for internal mobile applications, but is deciding on the order of release and importance based on feedback from the users. For example, staff are asked to prioritise what tasks they carry out within the finance system and the most popular tasks will be developed for mobile first. He added that the BBC isn't trying to replicate a huge finance system into a mobile application, but is instead creating applications for these simple tasks.

“The applications are aimed at the internal mass market and they are very simple. For example expenses claims would be one application – you get a little bit of value from a lot of people.”

The BBC is also hoping that the cost of development for mobile apps will get less as time goes on, as it is using the creation of the app store to get to grips with the data sets that are contained within the existing legacy systems.

Kelleher explained:

“What's interesting about this is that we are starting to develop some reasonable components - things like a definitive list of all the BBC buildings that we can link to, or a link of all the cost codes on the finance system. So if we have an application that needs those two things, we can now just link those two sets of data together, which makes it an increasingly lower cost as you go on. 

“Ultimately we will have a whole library of standard sets of data - some application in the future will use 16 of those sets, for example, and all we will have to do is tie them all together.”

Lessons learned 

Kelleher said that as the project continues, he is becoming very aware of the dynamic nature of not only the user needs but also of the market place. Gone are the days of tendering for a solution and having a few years to deliver it to the enterprise – technology departments need to be constantly aware of what is required and what is available to provide it.

“In the old days you could survey people, come back in five years and say 'here's the thing you wanted', and it was more or

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less okay. Now you go and ask people what they want and in six months time they will want something completely different, which is being driven by the internet, smartphones and people's expectations. 

“I used to think that the younger you were the quicker people's expectations changed, but there's no data that I've seen that tallies with that. In other words, it's not actually about youth now – it's people of all ages, across all work groups that are using smartphones and the internet, and that's why their expectations are changing. So if we stand still they get more and more disappointed. 

“You need to be constantly finding out what the latest technology is and what people want, which doesn't mean you have to keep switching things, but it does mean that you have to be flexible. Future proofing is a challenge, you can no long take five years to design a solution. You can take five months to design and make flexible.”