“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?