Capability Building for Media Employability

The emergence of new models of delivery and production for media and communications means that academic and learning communities are having to redefine, re-imagine and re-conceptualise their approaches to the programmes of study that they offer. It is not as simple as saying ‘out with the old and in with the new’, but there is clearly a gathering sense of momentum that the status quo no longer holds. Lets’ be clear, while many think that media production and media studies, as taught subjects in many universities, are ‘bubble’ subjects that are waiting to burst, nothing can be further from the truth. According to NESTA by 2020 the number of media enabled, web connected personal devices is going to increase by up to one trillion globally. Each of these devices will take the form of a multipurpose web enabled tool that will act as both a personal communications device and a media production tool. The trick, at this point, then, is to capture and harness the energy that comes from this expansion and to invest in training and skills development for both users and the producers of new forms of media content. Digital literacy, digital capability and digital sustainability are the new priorities.

My assertion is this – should we wish to take advantage of the coming global information and communication revolution, then we have to get ready for it. So far, it seems to me, we have merely been listening to the rumbles of the battle being fought in the distant foothills. Soon the storm will be with us proper, and we can either profit by it, or we can spend the rest of our lives wondering how we can adjust to a new, diminished reality that has passed us by. So, what would the starting points be? The first thing that we need to do is audit the stock of intellectual and conceptual resources that we have at hand and that we most commonly use in our teaching and learning practice. We have placed great faith in the past on a small number of our established thinking tools, but we may have to accept that many of these existing resources may be found to be next to useless when it comes to applying them to the changed media environment. Others, conversely, that we have often overlooked and undervalued, will prove to be essential. No doubt we will have to invent and re-purpose many of the conceptual resources that we will need as we go along, and certainly we will make mistakes, especially as we attempt to grapple with the things that at this point seem so uncertain. But lets be clear, there are a lot of intellectual resources and techniques that we can rightly put our faith in, and depend on, that will serve us well in the future. Here are my five key attributes, then, for surviving and perhaps prospering the global media revolution.

Trust: My experience running a radio production course and community radio station, and introducing learners to the benefits of social media, has highlighted in my mind that it will be our young people who will carry the torch forward. But they will require our trust and patience as they develop the skills that they need to work successfully as independent, resourceful communicators and producers. We only have to shine-a-light on their work, provide them with a platform through which they can express themselves, and allow them the space to develop the resourceful and collaborative techniques that they will find beneficial. If we set up the environment in a way that they find nurturing, and then help to celebrate their achievements, then the productive capability of our young people will astound us. Our young people often lack confidence, and no wonder given the negative messages that come from many parts of the media and politicians. Some may consider that the confidence that many do display is misplaced. Confidence in the transient rather than the resilient. It is the role of academic teams, therefore, to guide young learners and to boost their confidence in their learning abilities. This is why I have been a champion of peer-learning and user-generated media production experiences, as a foundation for learning, combined with the use of experienced-based problem solving tools for encouraging independence and self-sufficiency. It is all very well learning from a textbook, but these skills have to be put into practice at as early a point as possible. The role of the tutor, I have found, is not to act as a font of knowledge, but to act as a coach who supports and encourages learners, sets them demanding targets that are engaged with the outside world, and who allows learners to profit from their achievements through raised esteem and shared endorsements.

Pragmatism: There is a simple adage that I try and follow (with due respect to John Dewey) – ‘look for the difference that makes the difference’. In learning and teaching communities there is often a considerable amount of subliminal ceremony and tradition that is associated with the learning process. Especially in the areas of media production and communication. Learners are often given thresholds tests to pass before they move on to work of a supposedly more demanding nature. As learning organisations we too often stick to a nine-to-five timetable because course administrators believe this might prepare learners for an imagined world of work – and quite where that imagined nine-to-five world of work is I don’t know. And we give learners deadlines that are generally for the convenience of programme administration systems, rather than for the benefit of the learning experience of the individual. Some of these elements are there for a good reason, but with the new Higher Education settlement, in which our resources are tighter and the expectations of the learner will be raised, we have to be bold, and strip away those things that don’t make a difference to learning. Our focus should be on demonstrable output and outcomes, rather than process, abstraction and solely in-principle expectations. If we strip the learning process down to its core components and identify, in partnership with the learners themselves, those things that do make the difference, then we can accelerate the learning process and at the same time find it easier to adapt to the changes that they and we are facing.

A good example of a pragmatic approach that can prosper in this climate is the development of media and journalistic ethics in the news gathering process. The guiding principles of accountability and journalistic integrity can be separated out from the techniques and mechanisms of the production process. Does it matter if a story is for print, broadcast or social media? What does matter is that the story is accurate, balanced and aware of the potential consequences that may follow from its publication. Therefore, it is more important in the new media economy that we promote the values of journalistic integrity and accountability to a wider audience of producers and consumers, regardless of the media that facilitates it. Transparency and the veracity of sources will matter even more as the web offers up a plethora of feeds, channels and media brands. With a vast web of co-creators of news and news-gatherers to additionally take into account. It is ironic that News International is receiving so much attention about its journalistic integrity at the point in which the model for news and information has shifted underneath the whole print media industry. The challenge of social and citizen media, therefore, is to not see this a threat but to see it as an opportunity.

Accountability: In developing a team-learning approach it is essential to think about how we overcome our mistakes and move forward when things go wrong. There is an increased pressure during any economic downturn for a business to threaten and admonish staff when things occasionally go wrong. This hire-and-fire culture of business often seems inescapable. But we should always question the long-term sustainability of this approach. If it is too dominant for too long what is lost? When a team is simply admonished or threatened what happens to the intangible awareness and institutional knowledge that the team collectively holds at that point? This delicate balance can be easily be destabilised in a blame and shame culture, and when it takes hold it stops otherwise talented people working as a team. Instead they start to blame one another, and seek to hide their mistakes. Media producers and practitioners in the emerging creative economy will need a high degree of competence and experience at working collaboratively, in which ideas are allowed to flourish and new models of post-professional practice will be developed and applied.

The focus in this future media economy has to be on continuing improvement, independent learning, self-analysis, self-diagnostics, problem solving and smart decision-making. Learners have to be introduced to the model of capability building. This is a model that is based on intelligent performance criteria, with a laser focus on outcomes. A useful model for this is sports coaching, in which achievement is raised incrementally based on a holistic examination of the wider capability of teams and individuals. Traditional linear learning models still play a significant role, but the application of learning has to be based, in this new environment, in practices that reinforce ideas and a sense of inquisitiveness. This poses a challenge to ‘critical’ models of learning, which are often based in abstract analysis alone, rather than the specific mental tools that are needed to undertake a defined task. There is a suitable balance to be achieved between ‘critical’ and ‘pragmatic’ learning models, but the shift has to be towards building the capability of learners to continue to learn in an environment where information and the means of distribution has shifted from scarcity to abundance.

Sustainability: Learning that comes in fits-and-starts is not sustainable. Likewise, a career that is focussed on occasional headline achievements wont be sustainable or sufficiently rewarding. The X-Factor model, in which people are plucked from obscurity and showered with praise, is a dangerous myth generating charade that belies the hard work and effort that successful people have to put in to achieve what they do. The media producers of the future have to balance, therefore, careers that are less secure, that will move rapidly between projects, and which will be far less certain and stable than working patterns allowed for in the past. Preparing and enabling producers and communicators of the future will require a much long-term view of what is sustainable and what is not. The models of sustainability that we build have to be both ethical and entrepreneurial. The need to maintain co-developed relationships and social networks, of like-minded producers and potential clients, is going to be a major priority in the emerging media economy. One day producers might be working for the BBC, the next they might be producing content for a hyper-local community website. The economic model of sustainability in this post-professional age will need to be worked out and tested, but it is clear that collaboration and on-going skills development will play a major role. While status has been a key driver in the traditional media organisation in the past, esteem will become more important as a method for encouraging collaboration and team-based approaches.

Creativity: The challenge for anyone contemplating the future is to keep an open outlook and to drive change through a process of innovation and creativity. Encouraging media producers to develop a creative outlook will enable them to deal with the challenges and vicissitudes of a productive career. Being able to manage the creative process through the use of divergent thinking techniques, sequential with convergent thinking techniques, will be a core and fundamental skill for media producers. Especially as organisations seek to meet the challenges of the future. It is a mistake to see creativity as simply the deployment of random and spontaneous thinking, though randomness and spontaneity may be useful techniques to deploy. Instead, creativity has to be defined as a process that is marshalled through advanced project management and planning techniques. Defining and testing these techniques on an individual and on a collective basis plays, therefore, a key part in how we build the capability of media producers themselves.

My overriding expectation, then, is that the development of a successful learning platform for the media industries is entirely about capability building. To use a sporting analogy, while the individual sports man and woman has to perform on the field of competition on the day, there is no way that they could even contemplate entering into that competition if they have not received the investment and support of many people beforehand. The people who build the stadia, the people who train alongside them, the people who raise funds for them, the people who give up their time to bus them around, the people who support and follow the sport, and so on. These all have to be invested in. This is not only an investment in resources and facilities, but also in a common sense of purpose, and in the shared collaboration that hopefully leads to celebration. It is difficult to justify investment that is on-going and sustained, but it is necessary. Would we have had an industrial revolution if someone hadn’t come up with the idea that damning a river and harnessing its power? Someone else thought it was a good idea to invest in, and so the idea caught on and led to many more industrial advances that have left us where we are today. The hard part is putting in that initial investment in time, money and creativity.

Finding the right tools to do the job, building on success incrementally, giving a laser-like focus on sustained improvement and outcomes, all require a holistic approach that challenges many of the traditional models of learning, but which achieves more over a longer sustained period. The challenge of building any media or training organisation from now on, is that it must be able to deal with change, to react quickly while also securing the core values and virtues that give it its distinctiveness in the first place. Media consumers and audiences are absorbing and bringing about change in increasingly quick cycles and waves. To not adapt to that change would be foolhardy. Building our capabilities as both individuals and as organisations, so that we meet these repeated waves of change, will ensure that we are in a position to capitalise on them. This requires a strong sense of will, self-confidence and self-determination. It is a sense of will that celebrates the talent and ambitions of our young people as they shape and define these new realities for themselves Not as observers and innocent bystanders, but fully fledged participants and change-makers.

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