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Where did the BBC go wrong?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that having some kind of ‘best practice’ (enterprise) risk management system will keep you out of trouble.  Well, it is if you read the standard risk management stuff, books on reputational risk management and the like.  But as the BBC’s reputation stands in tatters it’s worth asking what went wrong.  Is it the process? Or is it the content?

First of all we need to reiterate that it’s pretty well recorded that the BBC does all the usual ERM stuff.  I wonder what was in the risk register about pulling programmes in case they caused a fuss or not naming paedophiles to avoid getting sued.  They probably sounded like pretty good risk controls in the workshops.

Second, the layers of senior managers between Newsnight and the unfortunate ex-Director General, Jeremy Paxman’s ‘cowardly and incompetent’ ‘timeservers’, are basically compliance guys.  They were put in place as a result of an organisational dash to risk aversion following the David Kelly affair.  And they were kept on while the rest of the organisation was cut back to live within the licence fee as extensively (sorry, ad nauseam ) documented in Private Eye.  Much good it has done the corporation.

It will be interesting to see how the BBC deals with these clear failures in organisational risk management.  I don’t think this is a failure of the Kodak sort (see the forthcoming review in another post of the IRM’s publication on risk culture) – it’s not a rabbit in headlights response to a changing world.  It’s a  lack of imagination to see how risks play out – a very common failing in most risk management systems – and it shows that hiring lots of compliance people to protect you from risk will not necessarily work.

So it’s a bit of process and a bit of content.  This comi-tragedy raises many of the points which trouble me, and as this site develops there will be much more about them.  But a proper risk-aware culture ought to be a key point: Clouds of Vagueness will focus on this as a remedy for poor process.

And a last word.  As well as challenging risk management ‘best practice’ the sorry affair of the BBC also shows that people who think more regulation is the answer to any system failure – such as the financial crisis – may be well off the mark.  Who knew?

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