Thursday 30 July 2009, 17:34
It is 21 years this summer since I started working on In Business, thanks to a sudden crisis. The programme's previous presenter had been tempted to a more lucrative job in television, and the vital deadline of the Radio Times billing was looming. That was when we decided what ought to be in the programme, and who the presenter would be. And though the presenter has stuck, this is still a familiar deadline, I'm afraid.
In Business had started some time before, in the 1970s, at a time when business got short shrift from BBC News. The powers that be must have thought it too boring, too specialist, too incomprehensible for a general audience.
Economics coverage was mostly restricted to a canter round the monthly economic indicators and a routine daily mention of the ups and downs of share prices as indicated by the Financial Times Index.
Business was a distant world. Radio 4 had woken up to the fascinating intricacies of the financial markets in 1971, when a long postal workers strike badly affected the City of London. The deputy editor of the World Tonight, Vincent Duggleby, was alerted to this, commissioned a piece on it, and very soon after that the Financial World Tonight was born as a separate programme, with Vincent at the helm.
In Business came a bit later; the first series was commissioned by Radio 4 after BBC governors were badgered at a 'Meet the BBC' meeting to recognise that there was a lot more to business than the City. That has turned out to be true.
Nevertheless, despite the explosion of business broadcasting in the past 20 years led by the American networks and then taken up round the world, it is still those perpetual motion machines the financial markets that get the most attention, in minute detail.
Leaving In Business (and its sister programme Global Business on the World Service) ample room to pursue some of the longer term trends. In particular, that means addressing the endless story of change: high technology crashing into the established way of doing things in companies, industries, countries, over and over again.
It's strange but true that the new millennium in 2000 really did seem to usher in a whole new world of business activity, reasserting the significance of the dot-com bubble even after it burst so apparently definitively the same year.
And organisations are still busy learning how to cope with the new wired-up interconnected, interactive world... look at the confusion in the global media industry at the moment if you think the implications of the Internet are now out in the open.
But it may go deeper than mere business models, such as shifting retailing to the web, or not.
Some 10 years ago the great management thinker the late Peter Drucker told me that he did not think that the computer had yet begun to effect the way organisations were managed. At the time, it seemed to be a crazy remark, but thinking about it afterwards it made more and more sense.
Henry Ford transformed industry after industry with his adoption of the production line in Detroit 100 years ago. Theoretically, the interactive information generated by the computer network should be having just as much disruptive impact on business now as Ford had then.
But few pre-existing companies seem to have changed their shape, size or business model to reflect what they now know about the clients and customers.
The mass production corporation tells itself it is making things its customers want to buy, and giving them a choice. But big companies seem to erect walls around themselves to keep the customer at bay. They commission market research rather than themselves go out and ask questions, and they mainly want customers who want to buy the things they make, not the other way round.
Inside the company all is ordered and predicable, punctuated by meetings and lunches and access to the company car parking space. Outside, in the real world, there is fearful chaos.
Big companies seem scared of the individuality of the people in the market place. They long to bring order and branding and simplicity to the disorder of real life.
It is something you see vividly in India at the moment, where the country's 12-million roadside hawkers and tiny corner shops are fighting to prevent the spread of the big corporate supermarkets.
Company Man and Company Woman see chaos on the street and in the bazaars of India, when what I see is huge choice and enormous convenience... backed by a remarkably efficient supply chain getting produce from the wholesale markets to the streets. Choice and convenience now under threat.
Business people get business qualifications that give them the tools to bring what they think is order to the chaos of the real world, in the same way that the whiz kids in the financial markets thought they had packaged up sub prime risk so that it wasn't risky any more.
The 21st century post-Ford lesson that business may have to learn is that the real world is full of millions of individuals with individual needs who want their individuality respected and served. The network computer makes this sort of intimacy possible, if companies were to learn how to use it to craft the mass market products for a clamour of different preferences.
Providing goods and services in this way was not possible when I started doing In Business 21 years ago. Perhaps we ought to make a programme about it. Perhaps that's what we are doing.
Peter Day is presenter of In Business
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