Case Studies

Case studies exploring fascinating additional case studies from the author demonstrating HRM in practice around the world. From the internal vs. external candidate debate to employer branding abroad, learn how companies of all sizes approach different aspects of HRM.

  • Employment Restructuring at the BBC

This case study (Nicholls, 2006) reports on a turbulent period in the history of the BBC when the Conservative government in power during the 1980s and 1990s sought to curb the organisation’s powers and reduce its running costs by opening it up to competition from the private sector. To achieve these ambitions, it also sought to introduce a range of private sector management practices with the intention of creating greater internal discipline, accountability and a sense of commercial competition within the corporation.

The Conservative government elected in 1979 was committed to restructuring the British economy and, over time, to introduce a series of economic policies that sought to reduce the size of the state and reinvigorate the private sector. Following a programme of privatisation across the public sector, experience and insight from private sector organisations were used to inform the next round of neo-liberal reforms in the remainder of the public sector. Like much of the public sector at the time, the BBC was characterised by high union density and a tradition of national collective bargaining. Furthermore, working practices emphasised strong editorial independence which contributed to the corporation’s reputation for high-quality programming, particularly documentaries. All the while, the television and radio industry itself was in a process of transformation, with a huge growth in provision and choice resulting from new broadcasting technologies and an opening up of the whole industry drawing in an ever more international range of media companies.

During a brief period of consultation, key figures in the government, including the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, sought the advice of influential figures in the world of broadcasting, including Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News International, Sky Television and a chain of worldwide media organisations. The government and the interests of those politically aligned with its ambitions started life in the Peacock Report which was finally enshrined in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. This required that the BBC purchase 25 per cent of all programming to be shown on the network from independent private producers. This was a first step in forcing internal financial discipline on the organisation. All plans for new programmes would have to be costed out in advance and, if they didn’t undercut the private sector, would either fail to gain support or be transferred to private companies for production. These and other initiatives were contained within the BBC’s response to the 1990 Broadcasting Act entitled ‘Producer Choice’. The new regime of financial control and a new reliance on budgetary rigour introduced by Producer Choice fundamentally altered the process of creative media production, not least in leading to the wholesale casualisation of the programme-producing workforce. Rather than being directly employed, producers were now sub-contractors to the BBC, increasingly working on short-term contracts from weeks to months in duration, always mindful of how to obtain the next package of work. Subsequently, these programme producers found that their careers were now tied to the fortunes and patronage of senior staff on permanent contracts and looked to be ‘adopted’ by key figures within the BBC in order to ensure continuity of employment.

Producers also sought to ensure their programme success in a competitive bidding process by becoming more guarded in protecting their ideas and future plans. If they were successful in obtaining backing from the corporation to make their programmes, they had to work with tight budgetary controls to much shorter deadlines, which many producers felt would impact on programme quality and the maintenance of previously high standards. As one producer commented: ‘what they wanted was to do more for the same amount of money. Do sixteen episodes instead of ten but for the same amount of money. That would mean we would have to film an episode in four days instead of five days and obviously you can imagine the pressures on that are that something has to give in quality and probably it’s going to be the way it is shot so creatively or interestingly, the directors would have to really minimise the shots they did. That would just put enormous pressure on the programmes.’


  1. To what extent do you think it is appropriate for public sector organisations, such as the BBC, the NHS or universities, to be subject to practices adopted from the private sector?
  2. In the absence of private sector measures of organisational ‘success’ (for example, profitability or return on investment), what measures of organisational performance might be adopted in the public sector?
  3. In what ways might the new regime in the BBC have impacted, either positively or negatively, on the types of programmes that the corporation commissions, the attitude that producers take towards their work and the experience of work for those employees who no longer work directly for the BBC?