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5.2 Identifying conflict

Earlier in this course, you were presented with a case study describing the failure of the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative (DMI). This is further explored in the box below, which reports back on the findings of a UK government tribunal charged with determining responsibility for the failure of the project.

Activity 10

Timing: 15 minutes

Read the description in the box and then try to identify those events which best illustrate the tension between competition and collaboration. (Hint: in terms of competition, think about the differential power relations between stakeholders attempting to avoid taking responsibility for the failure of the project.)


There should have been collaboration between the CTO, director of operations and project sponsor, with the project overseen by the director general of the BBC. However, the director of operations maintained that at a two-hour meeting on 13 May 2013, where DMI’s future was discussed, the executive board had:

  • lost confidence in the CTO’s ability to act
  • were concerned about the CTO’s lack of collaboration.

Nonetheless, the tribunal found no evidence of this in the notes of the meeting.

The CTO claimed that the director of operations gave him a choice: resign or go through a disciplinary process and face dismissal; further, that the blame for the failure of DMI was unfairly being pinned on him – a case of ‘scapegoating’. This is a case of competing to avoid taking blame as pointed out in the report of the tribunal.

Box 3: £100m DMI omnifail – BBC managers’ emails trawled by employment tribunal

Gavin Clarke

The BBC last week stood by its dismissal of former technology chief John Linwood over the failed £100m digital media initiative.

The Corporation was judged to have broken the law in dismissing Linwood and reading the tribunal’s findings makes the BBC’s defence difficult to accept.

According to the BBC, the tribunal ‘acknowledges’ the BBC has lost confidence in Linwood.

The statement proved the BBC is still fighting a war it has lost: to apportion blame for a failed IT project somewhere, anywhere, rather than take it on the chin.

The tribunal found that the ‘culture and climate also gave rise to avoidance strategies, no doubt including, on occasion, the steering of the spotlight of blame in other directions, on the part of those who felt themselves to be in danger of association with a sinking ship’.

This was the writing off of a £100m IT project spanning a decade, with layer upon layer of management, a ‘grand vision’, a failure to control suppliers, and shifting targets.

Linwood started work at the BBC on 6 April 2009, and took on a project that was already late and over-budget. By that year, outsourced supplier Siemens was terminated and DMI brought back in house.

What followed was supposed to be a fresh start – or at least a reboot for the project. A new deadline was set for DMI in February 2011 for the ‘end’ of the year along with new deliverables – or at least reduced deliverables.

But by summer 2011, the wheels were coming off and it was calculated that some £19m of projected savings would be lost due to delays and ‘other issues’.

By May 2012, Linwood was tearing his hair out, saying there was a ‘desperate need’ for a ‘senior owner’ from the BBC’s Vision Group to deliver the project.

But by September there was a new director general – George Entwistle – and a new project sponsor, Zarin Patel, while Linwood had a new line manager – Dominic Coles, the new director of operations.

It was not until 4 October, ‘once the decision to stop the project had been made’, that Vision chief creative officer Pat Younge became project sponsor.

Entwistle made it clear he planned to review the ‘relationship’ with technology but by November, Entwistle was out – thanks to the Jimmy Savile scandal. Tony Hall was only appointed as director general in April 2013.

By May, the big guns were firing. Former BBC trust chairman Lord Patten attended a BBC Trust finance committee meeting on 8 May declared his ‘profound concern’ at the massive write-off, while BBC trustee Anthony Fry promised to ‘fess up’ to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that had been monitoring DMI’s chronic progress and losses. He also promised to appoint an external consultant who would establish what had gone wrong on project control and reporting.

A two-hour executive board meeting followed on May 13 2013, where DMI’s future was discussed. Reviewing a one-page summary of the discussion of that event provided by Linwood, the tribunal said it found ‘no reference whatever’ made to the embattled CTO.

Coles, however, apparently decided to ‘take stock’ of that day’s discussions and act.

‘It appeared to us, that the executive board had lost confidence in Mr. Linwood’s ability to act as the BBC CTO and continue to run the BBC’s technology division,’ was his summary of events that day.

He started working with BBC HR director Richard Burdon on the basis that Linwood ‘had a case to answer for in relation to DMI’.

Coles’ notes of the board meeting talk of concern about Linwood’s lack of collaboration and the executive board’s loss of confidence. But, according to the tribunal, he was unable to explain why none of the content contained in his own evidence was present in the notes of the meeting.

Coles and Burdon convened a meeting with Linwood on 14 May.

Linwood had no idea what to expect of that meeting but Coles and Burdon did. Burdon, an HR exec of 20 years, admitted during the tribunal that he and Coles hit Linwood ‘cold’.

Linwood claimed he was given a choice of resigning or going through a disciplinary process and facing dismissal. Coles and Burdon denied this. The tribunal seems to have sided with Linwood.

Importantly, Linwood rejected the attempt to pin the blame for DMI on him, while calling the pair’s actions ‘unfair’ as he had not received a written warning.

By 24 May 2013 it was all over for DMI ... and for Linwood. The BBC went public on its cancellation of DMI and said chief techie Linwood had been suspended.

(Adapted from Clarke, 2014)