For he’s a jolly good Fellow?

Centralised or distributed?

“We’re at A, we’d like to be at C.”

Laura Bunt, Networks Co-ordinator at the RSA, is standing in front of a large projection of a diagram illustrating three different networks: the first, marked ‘A’, shows a number of lines radiating from a single point; the second, ‘B’, shows a handful of smaller clusters, simplified versions of ‘A’; the third, ‘C’ is a block of diamond shapes – a fishnet of connected nodes.

The RSA or rather, to give it its proper title, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, is one of the UK’s oldest and most respected membership organizations.

The Society was founded in a Covent Garden coffee shop in 1754 by William Shipley, an artist and teacher. Shipley’s co-founders included the leading progressive thinkers of the time: Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson and William Hogarth,. The aim of the Society they set up was to award premiums to innovative liberal arts and science projects, and “to stimulate enterprise for the common good”.

Today, the RSA has a global “Fellowship” of around 27,000 members and a civic remit “to develop and promote new ways of thinking about human fulfilment and social progress”.

This afternoon, we’re in a meeting room at The University of Westminster for an open workshop intended to explore the practicalities of creating a truly networked RSA. Twenty-five people, Fellows and non-Fellows, are sitting around four tables. In the middle of each table a pile of cling-wrapped plasticine and bags of Lego hint at the fun to come.

Since November 2007, the RSA Networks project (backed by NESTA) has been looking at new ways to engage and empower Fellows. The first year was intended to be one of “chaos” – a period of experimentation and innovation – followed by a year in which ideas would “coalesce”, allowing a clear roadmap for a third phase, “leadership”, to emerge.

We’re half way into the second year and possibly still at the “chaos” stage.

The ambition of the RSA Fellowship team, says Laura, is very much to build a strong distributed network. She likes to think that the Society’s internal office team of ten is there to support and be fully integrated with RSA Networks. She admits that the realization that a distributed network was needed and how that network might interact with or even “become” the RSA was not a firm idea at the onset but one that has developed organically over the past 18 months.

Another Laura, Laura Billings, who’s the RSA’s Senior Fellowship Researcher, starts to talk about practical developments. Two clear ideas have come out of the Networks project so far:

  • To create a Fellows Charter which will define expectations and responsibilities of Fellows (written and ratified by the Fellows)
  • To develop a taxonomy, a tagging system, written by Fellows (sounds a great idea but I’m not at all clear how this second will work in practice).

It all sounds good – but there’s a lot of anger in the room. The Fellows are restless.

First up, Paul Springer, who argues that the lack of accessibility at the RSA’s London headquarters (the rooms of this vast building that Fellows are allowed into amount to “the library and a tiny airless room in the basement”) is indicative of the attitude to fellows; although he adds that: “The fact you want to go from A to C is wonderful. That wasn’t even being said a year ago”

Laura and Laura listen with the worn patience of parents who are watching their children throw food over the kitchen as they try to feed themselves. It’s an ugly, messy thing, this feedback process. But once you’ve started on this particular road, it’s difficult to turn back.

But Paul’s comments are just the tip of an iceberg. There are others in the room who are also angry but can’t seem to be bothered to comment. Is it possible they might be giving up on the whole project?

RSA council member Malcolm Forbes stands up to give a brief presentation about the social media tools that have been introduced since the Networks project kicked off. There’s a wiki on Wikispaces, a news stream on Twitter, plus Google and Facebook groups. The Facebook group grew quite quickly to 600 members, but then plateaued. The wiki has been relatively inactive since early 2008.

The RSA is dealing with the same problems faced by many businesses today: What does ‘networked’ actually mean to us? Just how networked do we need to be, and why? How do we become more ‘networked’? How do we manage a networked organization? Do we need designated ‘leaders’ or just ‘co-ordinators’?

When I speak to people during the breaks, frustration is a key word. And also a growing sense that the workshops, seminars and ‘tasks’ (from setting up a Facebook group to building a model with plasticine that represents “the RSA you want to see”) are now simply a diversion from the real goal of getting this 250 year old organization to actually open up.

I get an image of RSA CEO Matthew Taylor with a pack of more or less amiable but hungry dogs. He keeps throwing out balls for us dogs to chase, but what we really want is a bone.

The Fellows I speak to seem to agree that the problem rests largely on Matthew’s shoulders. One points out that Matthew’s background as a Chief Advisor on Strategy to Tony Blair means that he is used to operating in a political, rigidly hierarchical world, seeing things very much in ‘top down’ terms.

There’s no denying that Matthew is intelligent, charming and has impeccable left-leaning credentials, but its completely possible that he feels uncomfortable with any full abdication of responsibility, and the idea of truly letting the “natives” run riot.

From where I’m standing, it seems that The RSA has flourished under Matthew Taylor: The Society has a stimulating programme of thought-provoking events, and a reasonably high profile in the media. But ninety per cent of this is Matthew-led. It’s Matthew who capably chairs virtually all the discussions, and gives interviews on behalf of the RSA across press, TV, radio and web.

When you go to the RSA website and read the blog, all the entries are by Matthew (in fact, it’s called “Matthew’s blog“). If you click on “Who we are”, you get a three minute video of Matthew. Meanwhile, over on the “Fellowship” page, you are given the opportunity to “Meet a Fellow” : this is a four minute video of one (1) Fellow – not very representative of the 27,000 who make up the RSA.

Of course, this is by no means all Matthew’s fault. I’m sure it was his marketing team who encouraged him to write the blog. And the blog’s wonderfully un-ironic tagline “Politics, brains, social action and the day to day life of the RSA’s chief executive” must have been written by someone in PR.

A few days after the workshop, there are signs that a message of some sort may be getting through: a new thread on membership has started up on Matthew Taylor’s blog, one to which comments are invited – and, for the first time, the RSA’s Chief Executive is responding.

Maybe there is hope for change after all?

9 replies on “For he’s a jolly good Fellow?”

Jemima … thanks for this and funnily enough I had completely given up on the likes of Twitter, but your tweet today was the one in a million that caught my attention, and so I might have to reevaluate my cynicism.

As mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been following this RSA Networks project from the sidelines as I’ve been involved in some research for NESTA, which you kindly participated in. My research has actually nothing to do with this project, but it has been mentioned in passing by some of the people I have met along the way. So I can’t help wondering whether the RSA team are in denial about what has actually been achieved – I think debacle is about as good as it gets as far any flattery I’ve heard is concerned.

I thought I share some of the themes I’ve heard raised as they seem to reinforce what you are saying above.

Firstly, there’s a need for some gap analysis between Matthew’s vision and member aspirations … as the RSA has its fair share of amateur historians/genealogists that simply like to have FRSA on their stationary. There’s also a question mark as to whether it’s realistic to believe that you can build bottom-up grassroots activism from the top-down … and this is liked to the current ‘culture’ of the institution and make up of its membership. From what I understand Matthew tried to do something similar in the Labour Party, so it would be interesting to know why he thinks that the RSA is a better platform for his vision?

I think it’s worth pointing out that those who question the means, are necessarily challenging the ends and that includes myself. However, I think it’s fair to say that the RSA team appear to have only begrudgingly engaged their detractors as proactively as they engaged their champions and advocates. This is a mistake if they are truly committed to facilitating and promoting collaborative approaches to social innovation, as well as reaping the benefits of doing so. You are better placed than I am to explain the why to them, as well as suggest that they might be better off starting to learn to walk the walk first, rather than just talk the talk … and this as applies equally to Matthew as it does the management team. Then again, maybe this project can be seen as part of that learning process, particularly if they admit to their mistakes and learn from them … although it will have been a fairly expensive learning process!

It’s also questionable about whether this is a territory that the RSA can actually own, given what the ‘institution’ has become rather than what it once was, and what Matthew would like it to be. I’m not doubting the good intentions behind the initiative, but the RSA runs the risk of looking like granddad at a disco, particularly when its team attend or speak at all the Social Innovation 2.0 meet-ups. I just don’t think they are part of that community, and I don’t think that those that have been turned on by what’s happening in the Social Innovation 2.0 space really care that much about the RSA as an institution or their networking initiative … there’s just far more exciting, collaborative and innovative things going on to capture their imagination, interest and involvement.

What seems to be missing from the RSA’s mission, and for that matter most of what gets showcased at the Social Innovation 2.0 meet-ups, is some kind of evaluation criteria based around the assessment of Social Impact.

I would be interested to know how they initially planned to evaluate the projects’ success and whether any kind of social impact assessment played a part in this. It’s just that I can’t help thinking that they probably missed out the important ‘where are we at’ bit, rather than starting with the more sexy ‘where we want to be’ of Matthew’s vision and moving swiftly on to the ‘how do we get there’ plan, and thus made the mistake of putting the technology cart before the collaboration horse.

The point being that there are cheaper ways of simply facilitating member-meets-member match-making programmes, including Facebook and LinkedIn Groups, or even a platform like NING. Call me old fashioned but providing better facilities for more face-to-face opportunities for their members at their venue would have been more productive place to start in achieving the vision than the facilitation of online networking, e.g. take a leaf out of the likes of Alfred Place et al, or even the 123 Pall Mall facilities of the IOD. So In understand the frustration of the members above having been to the RSA’s pokey members bar, and eaten at their restaurant which failed to meet expectations in terms of the menu’s promise and its delivery. A canteen and dining hall style arrangement would definitely be better value and probably more conducive to attracting the need breed of social innovators/entrepreneurs to their venue.

Maybe the solution is for the RSA to forget about owning the territory but ask instead what it can do help facilitate social innovation by leveraging its resources, facilities, members and most importantly Matthew – possibly it’s greatest asset right now. So they need to rethink the means to their social innovation/civil action ends, i.e. think more collaboratively about how they as an institution work and partner with other entities, initiatives and individuals that have similar ends in mind … but perhaps very different views about the means of achieving them. So rather than try and kick start action by members from the bottom-up, they should instead lead by example and take their members on a journey. This should also help introduce some relevance and breathe life into a institution that currently hasn’t seemed to have aligned the latest version of its vision with its membership proposition and its activities as a conference venue.

Ultimately, I have no axe to grind. I’m certainly not some political blogger trying to score indirect points through Matthew, as I not only think that he could make a difference here and through the RSA, and also hope that he does. However, I’m less convinced about what they are currently doing is either productive or profitable in the broadest sense of the term. I actually think that the should start again having learn from their mistakes before moving on, but very much doubt they will take my advice.

Hi Justin,

Thanks for your thoughful comment and I’m glad if anything I’ve said via Twitter has helped you re-evaluate the network!

I’ve only just been drawn into the RSA conversation and as a Fellow clearly have a vested interest in making it work, but I agree there are a whole heap of problems. But, for me, it’s the fantastic legacy/history of the RSA that while being a potential millstone, also makes it so worth saving.

I love your point re missing out the ‘where are we at’ bit – I think this is a really tough bit of navel-gazing for any organisation that, as you hint, is all too often left out of the ‘becoming more networked’ process.

As a founder mem of The Hospital, I’m not sure about the Member’s Club/Meeting venue model, simply because that market is already very crowded and the RSA would need to physically construct a new space or at least carry out a great deal of expensive renovation if it wanted to compete in that area – and Fellows’ fees would need to quadruple to cover this.

There are so many issues and I could bang on but hopefully we can chat more about this offline over a beer/coffee at some point!


nicely put :-)

I think I mentioned the ‘frustration’ word! For my part a great deal of that frustration wasn’t directed at the RSA – it was at the stop/start process of the day, a little hindered by the desire to be creative in obtaining feedback and greatly hindered by what seems to be a great deal of baggage.

For many of the things that have so far been discussed I can’t help but think well get on and do it. You want to use other told to network and organise projects? well use them – there’s plenty out there. You want to organise meet ups and discuss ideas and projects? well do it!

Of course it seems that this is what is now happening anyway (in fact thats how the meeting happened in the first pace I think?). Where I see the RSA having value, both for individuals and ultimately more broadly within society is in being able to link together people with common interests, complementing skills and experiences. This does assume that its a membership made up of particular kinds of people, but thats personally why I joined – it seemed like a network with which I had a lot in common, and so far the few people I’ve met have been interesting and often relevant to me.

It looks as though the debate is heading towards the ‘linking Fellows’ direction. How that best happens is likely to be complex and I hope the debate can now move to more practical ideas and methods – including being able to do it effectively online.

Thanks Mike,

I didn’t want to point any fingers but yes, you did mention the ‘f’ word.

Linking fellows is surely the obvious, clearest solution (for now, at least), and it would be absolutely great and it is essential that this happens.


Oh dear!

Jemima … think you are right about not completely competing with the Members Club model, but the RSA could provide some better meeting facilities for members. Facilitating face-to-face is an important part of the mix and I would have thought essential for civil action/social innovation.

I would start by simply making the restaurant more like a canteen with larger dining tables, not least because their menu is pretty pretentious and sets expectations they can’t deliver. They provide buffet style catering for the events so it would require little to do something similar in the restaurant. Alternatively turn it into a cafe and dispense with more formal dining.

I also think the members bar/cafe is just too small and they need to rethink the balance between providing member benefit and conference venue revenue. Anyway, got an email from RSA House on Facebook today inviting me to the “RSA House Wedding Showcase”:

“Our dedicated team at the RSA are delighted to be opening the doors of the House on Sunday 1st March 2009, showcasing our facilities for Weddings and Civil Partnerships”

This summed it all up for me.



All the above rings so true. Picking on a couple of points…
– Large tables in the cafe: what a nice simple way of encouraging people to sit next to strangers and talk to each other – in a “safe” environment. Bit like being a student (ie someone whose world is open-ended).
– But this rather leaves out those without the privilige of JAS on the doorstep, for whom there are of course public and private houses (but not so many traditional coffee houses these days). Indeed, for instance, there are monthly meets in the dusty corner of an old Durham hotel.
– There is also the web for tapping into this bulging vein of unconnected wisdom. Another Justin is part of a small group in the NE who were hankering for a suitable networking site, held off when RSAN looked like it might be the answer and, just in the last few days, launched a Ning (!) site “hosted by” the NE Region (meaning we hope they will come from far and wide). – would be interested to know what Mike (who was supportive of the VCH concept a while back) and others would make of our embyonic efforts…

Thanks Justin, thanks Peter,
I’ve just signed up to the north east virtual coffee house network so look forward to seeing how it goes.
Until the RSA cafe facility is extended, it’s clear that virtual is all we have to go on!

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