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Sunday, 9 December 2007

For me, the RSA has always seemed to operate as an organism rather than an organisation. It appeared to be a loose collection of Fellows who, like benign terrorist cells, generally didn't know each other. A cynical mind (based on a view formed many years ago), could have interpreted this as JAS dividing down the Fellows to a fine granularity and so continuing to rule. A greater degree of openness seemed to be commencing as years rolled by, but progress was still slow, and generally the JAS elite seemed pretty uncomprehending of the sheer brain power, expertise and experience that lay within its Fellowship – if not uncomprehending, then unwilling to fully harness its power. The CHC awards seemed to keep Fellows quite docile!

Then came Matthew Taylor, and suddenly all things were possible. Meetings were held, contributions welcomed, ideas flowed, projects were started, energy was released. Old drivers such as the Manifesto Challenges seemed to disappear into the mist in an "all things are possible" revolution – perhaps being replaced by the all-embracing "Civic Innovation".

New tools were talked about, and many were tried. The RSA didn't just discover the Web – it even found Web 2. And the means seemed so entrancing, for a time they became an end in themselves, rather than being seen for what they are - just a new variety of facilitating mechanisms that should be chosen appropriately. Many of these tools are still in their infancy – take video over IP as an example. Such a tool has wonderful abilities to allow Fellows from distant parts to see and work with Fellows they would otherwise never see. But it is still imperfect, young technology, unless we pay £600,000 to Cisco to have such startling quality that you feel you are in the same room as your opposite number, sharing a conference table, whiteboards, documents etc. What is clear is that these new facilitating mechanisms have a wonderfully minute carbon footprint, compared with travelling and meeting physically face-to-face.

But all this is an interim stage, and at some time, if the RSA is going to be a more powerful force in the world, harnessing all this expertise, the gears will need to mesh instead of running in an unmeshed, unco-ordinated fashion.

And that is where JAS, led by Matthew, will doubtless seek to take us as a body corporate. What follows is just one way in which this could come to pass. Forgive me if it sounds directive or prescriptive. Please define other options, or indicate that the current loose, relatively unmeshed way of operating, is what is preferred. There is nothing wrong with a talking shop if that is what the talkers wish it to be.

There will undoubtedly be a frame of reference, within which "the new vision" will be encapsulated, distilled from Fellows and staff, and put in place by Matthew's stamp of approval. Leaders lead, even if they lead in the most sophisticated way, via consensus-seeking debate. This frame of reference will represent the arena within which the RSA will do its work. It will probably approximate to the Manifesto Challenges, but will perhaps be a little tighter, more well defined. The Leader will doubtless lead in formalising this vision, determining what will be included and what will be excluded - and it may arrive in stages - evolution rather than revolution.

Projects can then be checked by their initiators to ensure they are within that frame of reference. One surely already exists, but its boundaries are quite diffuse. Projects will naturally find their own level. Some will be sub-regional, some regional. Communication will ensure that if a Region recognises a project is national or is worthy of implementation by other regions, then the regional committee can make representations to JAS, where a group of Fellows and staff – the Projects Team, assembled for their breadth of understanding, availability, and their proven project management skills, can assess these projects, disseminate some to other regions, and bring forward to the highest level in the RSA, together with the project leader, those that are assessed as being of national or international importance. From these presentations of wide-reaching, important projects, the Board of the RSA can allocate appropriate resources, including people and money, to drive such projects to a successful implementation in the outside world. There is no reason why the Project Team should not have a budget of its own to allocate to projects that merit backing, but which do not merit taking further up stream. There are other projects, perhaps started by a Fellow with a burning issue or idea, where specialist Fellows across the country or across the world, come together through the good offices of JAS – recognising skills, expertise and interests in Fellows across the world, and introducing them to each other to check that issue or idea, and where appropriate, drive it to success. Clearly this kind of interaction will bypass the regional structure and require different handling by JAS.

New technologies such as Voice and Vision over IP are likely to play a greater part with such groups, but they will just be a means to an end, and as these "means to an end" become more sophisticated, then JAS will doubtless have its own systems. One day, a project may be presented by Fellows from various countries, direct to the video conferencing suite in JAS, and be heard and seen by the top team. How powerful will that be, and what a great step forward.

In a sense, all this implies a greater degree of involvement and organisation than heretofore, but unless the cogs mesh in this way – or some other way, it is likely that the energy that Matthew has released will subside, and the RSA will underachieve. Fellows will mesh with Regions, Regions with JAS, JAS with the top team, and a separate route with its own set of cogs, will exists for specialist Fellows scattered around the world.

Organism to Organisation – perhaps that is the greatest challenge?

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