The missing link in multimedia

November 14, 1997

The UK is failing to produce a generation of cross-disciplinary managers essential to avoid 'multi-mediocre' learning packages Terry Speake and James Powell argue

The worldwide demand for advanced learning media is burgeoning. An estimated five to ten million developers will be needed over the next ten years. San Francisco alone is training 60,000. But the United Kingdom is not training the cross-disciplinary managers this new industry will require. This is the UK's Missing Industry.

The convergence of media, computing and communication technologies is expected to create new media forms and with them, a redefinition of the industry's production processes and professional territories. These territories, either real or perceived, were indicted by Rachel Cooper and Mike Press in their book The Design Agenda (1995), for disabling the UK's competitive edge in global markets. Cooper and Press found that engineering, management and art-based creative professionals often failed to work together effectively.

Convergent technologies blur the borderlines of traditional professional disciplines, demanding new and additional skills from content providers, designers, computer programmers, trainers and management and requiring multidisciplinary teams to work together.

The convergent media should of course, over time, grow its own skill base. But it is clear that transitional management in the period up to the millennium will pose particular challenges for the UK's convergent media production base.

Our report for the Training Technology Unit of the Department for Education and Employment, Skills for the Missing Industry, highlights a number of important issues for the training and education sector of the UK convergent media industry, and scopes a way forward for industry, education and government.

During our research we met some extremely creative people: video producers, programmers, graphic artists, sound specialists and educators. Where their skills have been brought together creatively, the whole was clearly more than the sum of the parts and they produced learner-centred and empowering products. There were also situations where such harmony and transdisciplinary working had not been achieved. This often led to multimedia learning developments which failed to excite, or to support high quality learning. The proliferation of "multi-mediocre" or "awfulware" is only too apparent.

The report cites production companies whose management structures appeared to inhibit creativity, where the drive for profit overshadowed the creative process. It is symptomatic that companies rarely evaluate their products in a formal manner because of budgetary and time constraints (although informal evaluation and testing is common). After the project is signed off, it is on to the next one with little looking back.

History tells us that this is a familiar pattern in the development of any new technology. Society needs to adapt to each new innovation. New markets will surely follow once the new medium is properly bedded down. The market for convergent media learning products is, after all, immature compared to print, video or television. Technology is bound to dominate the landscape until producers gain confidence in its potential.

But this economic model does not explain why in the UK we constantly fail to recognise the potential of our own innovators, why our designers are not valued by British industry and why other countries profitably exploit the UK's talent. We found that clients are rarely equipped to commission cost-effective learning media because of their naivety about the capabilities of the medium and their unsophisticated procurement skills. Production companies spoke, for example, of a move away from dealing with clients' in-house training experts to dealing with business managers who may purchase subjectively ("I don't like green") or on price alone. The companies did not regard academic sources as particularly useful in helping them deliver better products. There was criticism of the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme money absorbed by the academic community for multimedia development, which the Government could have used to support new companies.

On the other hand, those interviewed did not seem aware of developments in academic research or, if they had experience of such research, felt there were no real business applications for what they had seen. There is a real opportunity here for academe to reposition its material to make it user-friendly for developers.

The major finding of the study is that creative leadership is the key to maximising the quality of the output from creative teams. Leading, co-ordinating and integrating the skills of creative people requires a management process very different from that normally taught in management schools, as John Whatmore argued in his 1996 report for the Roffey Park Management Institute, Managing Creative Groups - what makes people good at it.

If the UK is to develop a competitive convergent media industry, it would do well to concentrate its efforts on developing a new breed of leader, a creative leader of creatives.

This form of leadership is not about authoritarian project management of the old school. Managing creatives is the art of motivation, integration, protection, and the provision of order, purpose and foresight for people who mainly work in an autonomous self-directed way. One of the leader's skills is to get the team into the right mood to reveal their creativity. Creativity does not occur where there is poor morale, or where creatives feel they cannot take risks, or if they feel they may be blamed if it all goes wrong.

Many further and higher education institutions are still only providing media chosen specialisms within the current paradigms of arts, management or science disciplines. We should be preparing students for the cross-disciplinary teams which will equip the UK to compete in the global convergent media production industry.

Our report also emphasises that clients should become more professional in the commissioning of convergent media products and in their handling of creative design teams; that companies might promote successful future educational media developments by examining their organisational and human issues as well as the functional ones; and that Government may wish to examine ways in which further support and encouragement could be given to the emerging industries.

The UK, more than any other country, has the potential, individual disciplinary skills, creative management capability and deep convergent media knowledge to develop a globally competitive convergent media industry.

Skills for the Missing Industry can be ordered from the DfEE (Tel: 0345 60 222 60 quoting OL250) and will be available on the DFEE web site (http://www. dfee.gov.uk/) later this year.

Terry Speake has spent most of his career in design management at the BBC, and recently joined the research and graduate college, University of Salford. James Powell is professor and director of the graduate school, University of Salford.

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