Managing rapid change
Reflecting on NAB’s centenary, Matthew Quade, TSL's CEO, discusses what the media tech industry can learn from the accelerating pace of change over the last 100 years.
When you're building or updating a broadcast facility, every decision is about change in one form or another.
What's different now from when NAB first met as a group of 16 radio stations in Chicago 100 years ago, is that change is a daily phenomenon. Every day is not just different from the one before, it's more different. Change is not only rapid but continuously rapid and seemingly ever-accelerating. It’s never been harder to keep up with change, which is why at TSL we have managing change and adaptability at the forefront of everything we do.
We also recognise that change and the effects of progress are global and not always the same or evenly paced. In the same year that NAB’s inaugural meeting was held, experimental broadcasting took place in Sri Lanka, leading to the foundation of the second national broadcaster in the world as Colombo Radio and then Radio Ceylon (now part of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation). Some of the most advanced mobile payment systems are in developing countries. One of the most significant developments in media and communication is Low Earth Orbit satellites bringing high-speed broadband to communication deserts. You could hardly find a more global phenomenon than development in communications. At TSL, we have a direct presence across the globe to ensure we can respond to change in local markets.
Progress is typically driven by demand and the need to solve problems, but it doesn’t just happen. It needs the right approach to be successful. It’s also driven by new technologies solving the problems that older technologies can’t, laying the foundation for the next generation.
Manufacturers often drive change in our industry – from the founding of the original BBC in 1922 by a consortium of radio manufacturers to rival manufacturers working together to develop standards for managing the transition to IP some 90 years after that first NAB meeting.
Practice versus theory
As a manufacturer and solutions provider, we at TSL have a duty not just to drive change, but to help our customers manage and adapt to it.
My career has been built around managing change in both positive, sustainably growing organisations and in situations where companies have been in distress. Without a good strategy for change, the latter of those two scenarios is likely to be increasingly common.
There’s no silver bullet for managing change, but there are some strong guidelines I’ve adopted over the years.
Every industry has its priorities and its boundaries. In broadcast, reliability and robustness are critical. There’s no point in introducing change that will threaten either of these imperatives.
“We’ve built the world’s best-looking airliner with more automation and technologically-advanced features than ever before. The only downside? The wings tend to drop off.”
With fast-growing companies or organisations feeling the pressure to modernise and a need to change quickly – sometimes driven by a desire to ‘be the first/best,’ to drive productivity improvement or simply to keep up with market ‘noise,’- it’s tempting to try and make such change in one giant leap.
But there’s rarely such a binary change on offer. Forty-six years into NAB’s history, Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” was achieved as a “small step for man” at the end of an incalculable number of other small steps or incremental improvements.
The shift from analogue to digital took years in broadcast and other media-related sectors. In some places, it’s still happening. With digital media production, it could never have happened all at the same time. Instead, it progressed through incremental improvements, like analogue tape to digital tape, analogue video signals to SDI, and analogue audio to AES/EBU and embedded SDI.
Sometimes, there were significant roadblocks, such as format conversion. Without the massive power of modern processors and FPGAs, it was sometimes easier to convert one digital format to analogue and then back to another format in digital. Sometimes, analogue was employed as a sort of “universal translator”, and there was nothing wrong with the technique as a practical problem-solver.
While this might sound less than ideal, it did have a significant advantage: allowing for reliable fallback positions.
Graceful fallback positions
Imagine if a broadcast facility had invested in state-of-the-art but somewhat unproven technology that could flick a big switch and transition from analogue to digital in a single dramatic step. And then imagine – it’s not inconceivable – that something was wrong, and it just didn’t work. There would be no fallback position. Launching a new facility that went badly would likely be a disaster. You would not want to go down that path.
The broadcast industry continues to face transitions of a similar magnitude to the shift to digital with the move to IP infrastructure and the increasing drive towards remote production, use of the cloud and virtualised solutions. The key to managing this is identifying the incremental steps, fallback positions (your plans B, C, D…) and almost certainly looking to employ a hybrid solution en route to the assumed final destination.
Importantly, that final destination is actually likely to move and develop as you progress, so the chance of you having identified it correctly at the outset is slim in an era of rapid change anyway.
An example of this would be that at the height of the .com boom around three-quarters of the way through NAB’s century, you could have attended NAB and seen and heard a lot about how mobile phone networks were going to be the future for distributing broadcast content. Some manufacturers even famously made that bet and recruited executives and other talent from telcos, only for this change to be superseded by the move to IP. An incremental move and a fallback position leaving room for adaptation to a change in destination would have been far less damaging.
Another example would be to look at the practical reality of the majority of efforts to build green-field all-IP broadcast facilities. Invariably these have had to compromise when theory met reality and have ended up as hybrid facilities in practice, with various incremental steps implemented to ensure the reliability and robustness broadcast demands retaining proven workflows.
Use your knowledge and experience to map out the real world
Knowing what does or does not work in the real world is the key to credible change management. All sorts of frameworks and philosophies exist to support change in every business area, but religiously adopting and following a single framework theory is never the most practical solution or likely to produce the best outcome.
Whether it’s quality control, change or project management, such methodologies are, in my experience, most effective when used to guide, not control. They can’t see and manage the actual, practical situation so they must be treated as guidelines, not guarantees. Staying flexible, open-minded and adopting the best practice from a wide range of what are actually complementary methodologies (though they will often be selling themselves in competition to one another!) to suit the specific circumstances of your situation is the best way to proceed. It has the additional advantage of better supporting all the stakeholders involved, not least your actual users, who can otherwise feel alienated by a rigid adoption of a single methodology into which they don’t see themselves fitting.
Never forget your users – if they don’t feel ownership of the change being implemented it will hurt the chances of success for that implementation.
There’s nothing wrong with a reality-grounded pick-and-mix approach to problem-solving. So don’t let the theoretical perfect be the enemy of the practical good.
Flexibility means choice
The “incremental improvement” approach has another beneficial side effect: it gives customers a choice. Even if moving towards an IP and/or virtual environment seems inevitable, there are multiple ways to get there. Some customers might prefer to virtualise or move to the cloud the parts you can’t see, leaving conventional user interfaces and workflows on the surface. This would keep hard-learned skills relevant and improve productivity during the changeover. Gradually, you can introduce new, IP-based and/or virtualised methods and benefit from the productivity gains. But there’s no need to frighten anyone; within reason, it can go at your customer’s preferred pace.
It’s ironic that the biggest changes are often enabled by the things that aren’t supposed to change at all: standards. Standards provide a degree of compatibility and interoperability that innovations can build upon. Think of HTML and all it has enabled. Think of XML. AES67 and SMPTE2110 in broadcast IP.
Modularity based on standards can lead to a fabric of interconnected devices, some specialist and some off the shelf. But you know they will work together. Build software management layers on top of this, and you can have the best of all worlds, including the modern imperatives of efficiency, productivity and improved sustainability.
As NAB celebrates its centenary this year, the pace of change is as fast as ever. Managing this successfully requires a global outlook, flexibility and adaptability in approach driven by incremental improvements and fallback positions, often taking hybrid solutions as the first steps towards the desired destination. Based on industry best practices, informed by experience and the most appropriate learnings from a variety of approaches moderated by pragmatism, you can build highly effective, reliable and robust facilities. Couple this with flexible, modular and scalable products, and you will be able to face the changes of the future with justified optimism.