Reflections on the BBC’s new beta ‘Knowledge and Learning’ product

Fjord Family

For anyone who’s ever had any exposure to anything by the BBC, it’s clear that the organisation has an absolutely vast archive of content at its disposal. We were excited to see that the new ‘Knowledge and Learning‘ product launched on April 18th, with a remit to unlock the learning potential of BBC content.

BBC K&L

So far so good. I can only assume that behind the curiously sparse menu is a whole roadmap of future developments and expansion, which is exciting in itself. But I can’t help feeling like this is a small, niche (yet complex) silo compared to what it could be instead: a hugely rich home of content that could bolster and enhance almost everything across the BBC.

What if, behind episodes of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, appeared carefully selected archive material from the First World War? What if, alongside news stories appeared links explaining complex historical patterns for those who aren’t so familiar with, for example, the intricacies of the relationship between North and South Korea.

While any moves to bring to market a better ‘Knowledge and Learning’ proposition are welcome, I can’t help feeling that the BBC as a whole has a huge information architecture problem. It has a meta-structure of its main ‘products’: News, Sport, Weather, iPlayer, etc etc, then each ‘product’ splits into its own structures.

BBC Menu

And so on. And naturally enough, as with many organisations’ structures on the web, it reflects almost exactly how the BBC is structured internally.

This is a shame, simply because it misses the point of how content behaves on the web, on mobile, on screen. To illustrate the point rather eloquently, Quartz offers a new alternative to structuring content. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a new ‘digitally native’ business news service, and among the first to be brought to market on a responsive design platform.

The top level navigation here is grouped by ‘obsessions’, which change over time according to what’s happening in the news, and these group together into stories that naturally sit with and complement each other.

Quartz

Compare and contrast with the BBC’s news product, split up hierarchically into quite static categories. It’s easy to see how Knowledge and Learning could go in a similar direction.

BBC News

Of course, it’s easy to critique the BBC for something like this – it’s a hugely complex organisation compared to Quartz, but still, if you try to categorise knowledge or information by whether it’s ‘news’ or ‘sport’ it’s easy to miss tricks. By making your outward facing entity for customers reflect your organisation, you’re not going to inspire them. And you’re going to perpetuate an organisational structure that should probably evolve.

Quartz have been pretty brave about dealing with this, and posits an interesting lesson for any content provider. Basically, don’t do what you’ve always done. What’s to stop organisations like the BBC from organising themselves around strong cores of expertise, accompanied by softer ‘edge’ teams whose job it is to find links, make connections and nourish ‘obsessions’.

It’s not hard to see how archives could evolve in this way too – an old ‘obsession’ can easily be put away, and the content associated with it knitted together into a new obsession at a later stage. I’m convinced the BBC is already thinking about how to do this, of course – there’s always way more under the surface that we don’t know about. I wish them well with Knowledge and Learning, but equally I’d love to help them restructure and try something completely new for content…

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