My Placement at the BBC

post by Joanne Parkes (2020 cohort)

My Business Partner is BBC Research and Development. Early in 2020, I came across an advert for a funded ICASE PhD Studentship seeking individuals interested in Enhancing the Digital Media User Experiences using 14 Human Values. It was proposed that these values or psychological drivers which underpin our behaviour could be utilised in some way to shape future offerings and assess their impact rather than relying on more traditional performance measures such as clicks and view time. The studentship would be dedicated to investigating ways to delivering this.

Whilst my first degree is in Media Production and I initially worked in Radio, my career ended up being in Business Psychology where I have specialised in employee selection, assessment and engagement. This research area sits nicely at the Venn intersect of my interests so it was not a difficult decision to apply, especially as I was excited at the prospect of having time allocated to working with the BBC again by way of the placement.

Early on in the studentship however, I sat in on a presentation given by a couple of members of an earlier cohort on their placements. It didn’t seem that their skills and abilities were well used and I was left with an impression of it being not much more than a work experience. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I just need to get it over and done with and frankly, I hadn’t expected to get much more out of it than 20 credits and if I were lucky, perhaps some useful connections to leverage when it came to conducting my research.

I’m pleased to say that this has not been the case. It soon became apparent that my experience was going to be very different to what I’d heard about from 2 students whose experiences were perhaps the unfortunate exception to the rule. My industry supervisors engaged with me right from the start, setting up regular meetings which alternated between discussing their work and my studies. They sought my input on various projects which entailed everything from peer review to internal presentation of data analysis and made me feel valued for my contributions.

It probably helped that I started the studentship when my industry supervisors were part way through creating a Human Values inventory questionnaire which could be used to support several objectives such as helping to design values led ideation workshops through to assessing deliverables in terms of facilitating achievements of values aligned aspirations. My working history imbued me with directly relevant and transferable skills, giving me the confidence to review the work in progress and proffer constructive feedback which was granted more than lip-service consideration. This marked an unofficial start to working towards my placement.

Soon after, a section of the inventory was being tailored to measure alignment to some of the values in a workplace setting, specifically around ‘Belonging to a Group’ and ‘Receiving Recognition’. I could draw parallels with my previous work in the field of Employee Engagement, on measuring attitudes towards Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and again, I was encouraged to provide input towards survey items. Where this differed however was the intention behind the tool to engender self-reflection at time of answering, perhaps to prompt discussion with immediate teams and line-managers where values were not being met rather than analysis of responses at an aggregate level as is more typical in Employee Engagement surveys.

Early in the second semester, the placement was formally kicked off and I was able to be more involved in several short studies:

Study 1 (n: 153) sought attitudes from participants on BBC iPlayer’s capacity to fulfil their values using a 5-point Likert scale and used open questions to seek examples of programmes in each of the values areas (although platforms were often suggested as well, e.g. YouTube being posited for ‘Growing Myself’). This provided some insight into the values considered less well served plus an indication of group score differences relating to gender. There were some clear winners among programmes with ‘Blue Planet’ being listed most often by far for facilitating ‘Explore the World’.

Study 2 (n: 1,147) was a very short follow up survey where participants were provided with 20 programmes to rate in terms of their ability to facilitate each of the values. I helped to select the programmes based on a combination of recent ratings and output of Study 1 in an attempt to present a range of popular genres to increase the likelihood of the participant watching them. I was given autonomy over the analysis and presented our findings across the 2 studies to an internal R&D monthly sectional meeting which included the Head of Applied Research.

Study 3 (n: 15) took a big step from my comfort zone in the form of a in-depth interview on attitudes towards personalisation online. This is the first study I have been involved in where we are actively seeking to publish the findings – wish us luck!

Along the way, I have also volunteered to take part in studies conducted in other areas of BBC R&D. One (Orchestra Surround Sound) involved calibrating multiple devices (e.g. computer, phone, tablet) to create a more interactive and engaging experience with an orchestra which enabled participants to experiment with sound placement and volume. Another involved evaluating room acoustic representation in binaural spatial audio (Polymersive Reverb). Another sound specific study (Soft Clipper listening tests) related to software designed to address sound distortion as part of the BBC’s upgrade of FM transmitters. I also participated in a critical evaluation of R1 Relax and attended a workshop discussing benefits and ethical implications of applying AI&ML to thumbnail selection for programme representation. The latter was really helpful for picking up pointers on focus group facilitation (particularly in a remote setting).

As a panel member in a facilitated discussion group run by the BBC R&D Diversity & Inclusion working group which is driving a range of initiatives to identify and address challenges in this space, I shared what I considered to be challenges and benefits of my neuro divergence in the workplace. On another occasion, I participated in Hybrid Meetings User Testing, providing feedback on any issues or potential policies from my disability perspective. As much as this was another opportunity to network, it provided me a platform through which to advocate.

The work I have participated in, both that allocated by my industry supervisors and that which I have volunteered for, has been beneficial in a number of ways. Among other things, it has:

      • given me an idea of the scope of experimentation that the BBC has the resource to conduct,
      • helped me learn and practice research skills I am less comfortable with, particularly around qualitative rather than quantitative approaches,
      • given me some ideas as to how I might conduct some of my own research in the future,
      • provided me with some findings directly relevant to my research question,
      • cemented a strong working relationship with my industry supervisors to the extent that I feel a part of (and meaningful contributor to) the wider team rather than an adjunct.

A challenge with such a large organisation with many initiatives vying for attention seems to be that it can sometimes be hard to get traction for a new idea or initiative. However, many staff are still working remotely so I am not in a position to conclude if it is the nature of the organisation or a product of working in isolation that on occasion, it has seemed that proposing a cross team study has initially been akin to pushing against an opening door only to end up in a room called limbo.

On the other side, a benefit of the scale of my industry partner is reach when it comes to recruiting study participants. I was really impressed with the speed with which we were able to reach target completion rates on several occasions. This said, I have learned not to take this for granted as I have been aware of situations where colleagues have found recruitment much more arduous, so consideration still needs to be given to sampling, targeting and study appeal.

It seems almost impossible to reflect on anything that has occurred in the last couple of years without making reference to COVID19 related impacts. In my case, it has meant that there has been far less face-to-face time, but I don’t believe that this has been too detrimental as, prior to commencing the studentship, I had worked mainly from home for some years. This said, I was finally able to visit the offices towards the end of last year and a tour of the facilities has revealed options for study approaches that whilst potentially beneficial, now seem perhaps indulgent because in my mindset, the location is so novel to me.

When the placement started (and when it will end) has a very blurred timeline, it certainly hasn’t consisted of a discreet 3 month full or 6 month part time block which comes with the potential to over-commit but also comes with the potential to forget a genuine partnership throughout the course of study.

To conclude, I have gained a lot more from the placement than I had initially expected. I’ve had facetime with people well placed to support my research in the future and importantly to me, I’ve felt that I have made meaningful contributions throughout rather than (virtually) turning up in order to tick a box.