Tools for collaboration at RSA: blog + Tuttle

Last night the 254-year-old RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) took another step along the inevitably bumpy road to re-inventing itself as a network of thought leaders and civic innovation activists.
The backstory is here: how Matthew Taylor took over as CEO with a vision to transform an old-style hierarchical organisation by bringing the 27,000 members (Fellows) into the middle of policy and practice, with extensive use of online networking. Big problems in trying to do several things at once: change culture, promote projects for civic innovation, develop new online systems … while also running the main business and creating the best open, free events programme in the UK.

Last night staff managing the civic innovation bit – RSA Networks – invited a group of us Fellows to the bar as a thank-you for past support, and an update on what’s next. Matthew came along and was pretty frank about the challenges, while maintaining optimism about the future.

(I’m a great admirer of Matthew, and was particularly gratified a year ago with his greeting when we bumped into each other on the stairs at the hugely successful event that launched RSA Networks. With others I had been developing OpenRSA as a supportive ginger group, particularly committed to the outward-facing agenda of civic innovation. “Ah, David”, said Matthew, “where’s your badge saying chief troublemaker?” With a grin … I think.)

Maybe it was that badge of honour, or just my natural socialreporter-questioning nature, but I couldn’t resist last night joining a number of others in pitching a few toughish questions to Matthew and the staff … as well as continuing to applaud the vision.

That bit didn’t work too well, and I apologise, for my part, if I slipped into rant. On reflection, the problem was, in my view, that running a plenary session in a bar is not a good method of providing updates on a complex programme, promoting member-engagement, and starting to figure out some ways forward together, when it’s the first time you’ve met since … I can’t remember.

One difficulty all along the way with RSA Networks centrally has been on the one hand there is a lot of talk about Fellows taking some ownership and becoming a self-managing community, but on the other there’s no consistent communication or opportunities to get together. I think it’s an institutional thing, a bit like many programmes for community involvement, where front-line staff may be hugely committed to working with residents, but don’t feel they have permission from their mangers to fraternise and take risks. In that situation the last thing you do is have a public meeting … you have a lot of pre-conversations, prepare information, maybe hire a facilitator and practice relationship-based engagement.

Anyway, everything got better once we moved to what bars are for – informal conversations. There were assurances that senior staff were really committed to a fresh start, communications would improve, and staff were really, really keen to work with Fellows. Everyone agrees that however successful or otherwise the civic innovation programme is, the process of change is creating a learning laboratory that will go some way to validating the investment of £100,000 by NESTA in the programme. An evaluation report is due soon, including hours of film shot along the way.

One lesson that was strongly re-inforced last night was how difficult the notion of membership can be these days (as we will be investigating further at a soon-to-be-relaunched Membership Project, which is supported by RSA and NCVO).

A number of Fellows last night remarked, publicly or privately, that they didn’t know what their role was in the programme – unless they were project leaders.

(I should say at this point that Andy Gibson made a very welcome, positive contribution, explaining how his Mindapples project had benefitted hugely from the connections made through RSA Networks. Mitch Sava is doing very well with The Glory of Failure. There are quite a few others – plus exciting development in the regions. The issue is not so much how to develop individual projects, but how to scale up across such a potentially big network. Process, infrastructure and projects have to be interlinked).

Anyway, what is the role of a Fellow/member in this situation? Recipient of services, consultee for service improvement, project participant, or co-creator and manager of systems? RSA still hasn’t decided where we should be on the spectrum of engagement.

As I analysed here, there are tough issues of control, attitude, and ownership involved. The good news for RSA is that its Fellowship is rich in expertise in facilitation, programme planning, blending online and offline. It’s what I do as a day job, and last night I knew at least half a dozen other people there undoubtedly better than me at various aspects of this.

The challenge now for all of us in RSA is to develop at least two inter-twined strands: first, continue to create and support the ideas and projects evolving on RSA Networks; second, to create a much better framework and environment within which is it possible to scale up that programme.

Putting on a consultant-facilitator hat, I (and I’m sure others) could come up a programme of research, workshops, online  activities and more to try and achieve that. I’m pretty sure it would be greeted (rightly) with weary sighs. People need some quick, rewarding results. Small steps, not grand plans.

One idea last night was to by-pass the current technology problems** with a simple off-the-shelf blog, perhaps like that set up in the early days of the programme, and by OpenRSA.

(**The current RSA Networks prototype site is due to expire shortly, but the new system, integrated with a rebuilt RSA site, is still untested and lacks key features.)

The blog would provide a place for staff and enthusiasts, like those gathered last night, to carry on some creative exchanges and maybe highlight projects if they weren’t getting the attention leaders felt they needed. I can understand anxieties of RSA staff who, with a few exceptions, are not bloggers. They may be worried everyone will want a say, they’ll be swamped, conversations will be critical … and so on. If it were done jointly with Fellows, I don’t think that would be the case. It would be a low-risk test of the aspiration for the larger network site to be self-governing (scaling to that is a big issue, but building a core of champions is a good start whichever way you go).

However, online is not enough. It should not even be in the lead. What’s really needed is place for people to meet, and talk, about ideas, projects, the programme – whatever. RSA started in the coffee houses of Covent Garden. It has an amazing House. But apart from the bar (small, noisy) there is nowhere for Fellows to meet each other, or potential collaborators.

The best solution would be to dedicate The Tavern Room, or another space, to Fellows. Meanwhile, why not look across to the example of The Tuttle Club where Lloyd Davis is brilliantly prototyping a new social, work, learning environment, as Jemima Gibbons explains here with Lloyd. It is deceptively simple – just take a room (first over at the Coach and Horses, now at ICA) once a week, supply coffee and croissants, and let people get on with it. Couldn’t RSA find a space for that, either in the House, or elsewhere?

Lloyd says there are two golden rules: let go of control, minimise structure. If RSA could do that with regular face-to-face events, and a blog, I think we would soon see a new burst of energy in RSA Networks and a much more positive environment . If it helps to call it OpenRSA, I guess those people involved in the group would be glad to rekindle their enthusiasm. Troublemakers included.

13 Comments

  • October 10, 2008 - 11:37 am | Permalink

    Fabulous write-up David, and I think you have hit every nail going on the head!

    Of course, if the RSA themselves don’t rise to this challenge, what’s to stop OpenRSA being the blog that you speak of, and for the fellows to find a room themselves?

    One of the dangers for any membership organisation in this new, networked society is that if they don’t do this stuff, someone else will. Those that don’t run the risk of being left well behind.

  • October 10, 2008 - 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Dave, and as you say these days members can do it for themselves. In the case of the RSA, I’m hopeful staff will want to do something collaboratively with Fellows, whatever it is called. In some circumstances, however, the only way you make the case is by doing it, online and face-to-face.

  • October 10, 2008 - 2:12 pm | Permalink

    David – as usual you combine the role of reporter and analyst with that of facilitating and suggesting the ideas so well. If that is what it means to be a troublemaker then we should all aspire to it.
    Hopefully the idea of a simple blog and (say) monthly meeting space will be taken up as I do believe that will help re-invigorate the Networks as it was when we all kicked off.
    Pretty much agree with all you have said and share some of the frustration – although in my guess with a bit of guilt that I haven’t been able to contribute as much over the last 6 months.
    I think we are at a crucial stage of moving from that early adopter phase to one of more mainstream adoption of the technology and practice implied by the transformation programme embarked upon by the RSA. I think Tessy Britton had an aapropriate diagram of the Optimal time for each culture in an email she sent round last week.
    I think OpenRSA has a role to play but it was clear last night that staff and some of the fellows there wanted the blog etc closed to fellows only and OpenRSA isn’t. I still feel that is a lost opportunity for the RSA but understand the risk of washing dirty laundry in public so to speak.
    Looking forward to getting involved again and hopefully David you are still in the game! We really need those ‘troublemaker’ skills for the communication to work :-)

  • October 10, 2008 - 3:28 pm | Permalink

    David,

    My perception of last night was that it was an informal meet-and-greet session with a small group of fellows as a thank you for all the support for the networks programme and to also to be upfront about the status of the network platform.

    I agree that there needs to be a space that enables collaboration amongst fellows and RSA staff. The environment (online and after work face-to-face interactions) that this takes place in and the governance around the conversation is essential in ensuring the type of collaboration you mention in your post. The objective of this exercise is to build relationships and to also take responsibility for the role that fellows have in helping shape the networks programme.

    In my opinion the RSA staff were very receptive to all the suggestions made and seem keen to work with you and other fellows to shape ongoing (on-and-offline) discussions/collaborations.

    I am enthused about the RSA offering and networks programme and I’m sure by working all together in a constructive way great things can be achieved!

  • PeterC
    October 10, 2008 - 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks for that David, very helpful. While I agree with your final point (and a regular room in JAS sounds great – plus food available for those rushing there from work).

    For the benefit of those of us in the provices (and beyond) could OpenRSA build a VIRTUAL PLACE “for people to meet, and talk, about ideas” (coffee might be more challenging) either to “let people get on with it” or on preplanned themes.

    …via a bookable diary of events, (maybe even call it the “Virtual Coffee House”!) where as well as blogs and forums you will find regular live “Virtual Encounter” sessions, homage to Paddy and Ivy who already such run monthly Encounter get-togethers in Durham).

    Could be voice (Skype) and/or text; might need some rules (eg host/chair/facilitator) and bells and whistles (did anyone look into Chat Circles?) to make it more attractive to non-geeks.

  • October 10, 2008 - 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Michelle – thanks. For me the underlying problem with the event was twofold:
    1. On the one hand it was staff saying thank you for helping us (staff) develop this system/service for you (Fellows) … BUT for all sorts of reasons that “service” has been flawed.
    2. On the other hand it was saying we (staff) want you (Fellows) to take more ownership and responsibility for this system in future (which, sorry, is highly problematic).
    So on both fronts, despite the welcome hospitality, it was something of a bitter, if not poisoned, chalice.
    I think RSA management has to be clear about whether it is developing an offer and service to Fellows, or whether it is inviting Fellows to develop something together. If it is the latter, then any event should be a joint activity next time. OpenRSA offered that, it was initially accepted, but didn’t happen.
    OK, what next? It’s good to hear staff are receptive, and it would be really helpful if you – or anyone else – are able to broker that. Will RSA set up the blog, organise an event, or would they prefer OpenRSA or some other group of Fellows to do that?

  • October 10, 2008 - 5:35 pm | Permalink

    David,

    As I understand it the RSA team are reviewing how to provide a short term solution that facilitates collaboration while the networking platform is being developed.

    I have volunteered my time to help kick start this process, which will involve fellows.

  • October 10, 2008 - 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi Peter – I’m with you on the vision, but in terms of resources I think it will have to be RSA rather than OpenRSA (which has no resources) to realise it. Sounds like a good one to pitch to the new interim space!

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  • October 11, 2008 - 8:04 am | Permalink

    Hi Peter (again) – your innovative “virtual coffee house” ideas sparked a more positive thought about how to move that forward, and the relationship of RSA Networks and OpenRSA. You originally posted the VCH ideas on the OpenRSA wiki. How about we build on that, and see if others are interested in making OpenRSA a place where RSA members and friends can explore web-enabled social innovation and change? That would both support and complement internal RSA Networks, by linking to other external inititiatives where there might be resources and support. Maybe pitch to Social Innovation Camp?

  • PeterC
    October 11, 2008 - 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the (again) encouraging remarks David. Three questions then:

    - Where to look for funds to take it to the next stage (feasibility study): RSA Region offered to help a year ago; SIC sounds like a possibility; would it be worth trying JAS (and who there I wonder)

    - Does it have legs? My guess is that a low-cost feasibility study (by the right people – who???) would flush out whether it has legs and would be worth funding properly, or is past its sell-by date.

    - Where to build it: the idea of using OpenRSA as a test bed really appeals, especially as JAS seem to have more than enough on their plate.

    Then the question of time…

  • October 13, 2008 - 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm – thanks so much for encouragement for the socialreporter role, and sorry for delay in digging yours and other comments out of any over-aggressive spam filter.
    I do appreciate people’s desire for a non-public space … however I do think control of that space is a crucial issue. I (and others) have argued from the outset for an online space and face-to-face events at which the direction of RSA Networks, its governance and management can be discussed and worked out. RSA has failed to provide that. I can understand why in an historically-hierarchical organisation – but it doesn’t square with other RSA statments about Fellows taking a lead, creating a self-governing online community etc.
    Hopefully that’s now history. I’m really hopeful with you that Michelle will now be able to create a space for those discussions, and ways to take forward projects that have so much potential but are somewhat untended in the current system.
    But if that doesn’t work, Dave Briggs reminds us that these days members can do it for themselves!

  • October 13, 2008 - 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Peter – without knowing anything of the current finances of RSA, it would seem logical to push for a yes or no from the regional and/or JAS on the virtual coffee house.
    In terms of other funding, I guess it might appeal more if it were a proposal that could be used by any organisation not just RSA … otherwise a funder would say (understandably) isn’t this just what RSA says they are testing?
    Maybe it is something that could be discussed on the new system that Michelle is investigating.
    On using OpenRSA – I think Malcolm is right in his analysis, and people are going for closed, so it is back to RSA or another funder/partner.
    Just playing the observer/reporter here:-)

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