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Friday, 21 December 2007

2008, here we come. Where next for RSA networks...

Hi all

On an earlier blog I said that we would share our initial thinking of the RSA networks project priorities in the next three months or so. So - I apologise in advance for the length of this posting, but I hope it generates some fruitful discussion about how we are proposing to go forwards.

Before getting into the specifics, I'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone who is contributing, creating, and generating with us. We always said this was going to be a learning process, and I hope you feel that there is a genuine openness to collaborating in new and exciting ways. That said, we need to be careful that 'learning by doing' doesn't become a veil for 'making it up as we go along', so the following proposed priorities and areas of work are offered in the spirit of trying to give some structure to what needs to happen next, if we are to build on everything we've done together so far.

A major priority between January and April 2008 has to be to get some of the rich discussions happening on the RSA networks platform to turn into more substantive pieces of work. A number of early ideas are gathering real momentum, with meetings being fixed and connections being made. Our network facilitators will be really focusing on this in the new year. By the way, if you're interested in joining our staff team of facilitators, we'd welcome you with open arms! See here for more information.

But the RSA networks project was never simply about getting new collaborations off the ground. There's a bigger game to play here too, and that is to fundamentally remodel the relationship between the Fellowship and the organisation. Many of the ideas that emerged on the 22nd, and in conversations around that day, were focused on the 'how will it work?' part of the Open Space question we used.

Looking across all these discussions, we think that we can spot some common themes, and between January and March we want to set up 'developer groups' around each of these themes, made up of interested Fellows and key staff members, in order to imagine how things might work differently in the future.

These themes include:
  • Offline interactions - remodelling existing meetings e.g. lectures, and introducing new ones, e.g. the 'let's do lunch' idea. There's a meeting arranged for this on 25th January, to bring together Fellows and staff interested in discussing ideas. To find out more, check out this page on the platform.
  • Use of space - what can the RSA do to facilitate spaces and places to meet, both in London and beyond. Malcolm Forbes has volunteered to arrange a meeting to explore this theme, so watch out on the platform for more information.
  • Online tools for collaboration - a developer group began the work that led to the platform in this first phase of the project, and we want to maintain that group as we move towards the launch of the new website, and the growth of the platform. Anshuman is organising the next meeting for this theme, and will post on the platform when he's found the right date.
  • Fellowship recruitment and welcome - what kind of Fellows do we want, and what experience should they have in their first year of Fellowship?
  • Fellow-to-Fellow opportunities - there were lots of ideas around mentoring, sharing experiences and offering support, ranging from meetings, to Fellows funding other Fellows' ideas
  • Links between emerging networks and the Programme - what kind of quality framework should the RSA have in place to determine which ideas to support more substantially? Laura Bunt has started a discussion here about this question.
As we hit 2008, we will be working up more detailed plans for the sequencing of these workstreams and will of course share information and updates on these for those Fellows who don't wish to get directly involved. There's an awful lot of work implied by these themes, and it's very important that we get the pace right as well.

A really central principle of the RSA networks project is that we want to 'eat our own medicine' - in other words, that the project itself is a co-created effort between Fellows and staff. I'd be very interested in your thoughts about how to make these proposed 'developer groups' work most effectively. Some thoughts we've had from you already is to set up wikis for each; others have suggested that we set time limits for conversations to provide some clarity about the terms of engagement; and of course it's essential that everyone is clear about how any final decisions are made, and by whom.

I know that we haven't always got this attempt at co-creation right, but I hope you feel that this proposed way forward chimes with our aspiration. And I'm sure if you disagree, you'll let us know!

So all that's left for me to say for now is a very Happy Christmas to all of you. I'm really looking forward to working with you all in 2008. All the best

New report on Teenagers and Social Media very revealing

In a new report on teenagers and social media by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that there is a subset of teens who are 'super-communicators' -- teens who have a host of technology options for dealing with family and friends, including traditional landline phones, cell phones, texting, social network sites, instant messaging, and email. They represent about 28% of the entire teen population and they are more likely to be older girls.

Very striking is the percentages of teenagers who prefer telephone and face-to-face contact over email. The level of sophistication of using multimedia methods of communication is one that many adults are enjoying too! Lots of time juggling required tho, whoops, though....

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Membership in a networked society

The RSA Networks site is really taking off, and I've dived into the flow with a joint proposal with Simon Berry to look at what social networking will mean to membership organisations. That's led to additional discussion on what it may mean in future to be a member ... of an organisation, political party, or trade union. You can join in here - site registration is currently open. Here's the proposal, also on the wiki.

Membership organisations and associations are at the heart of civic life, but research suggests few recognise the coming challenges of a more networked society. Organisations may be bypassed as members use social media and networks to find information, services, and ways to organise. Or - like the RSA - organisations can rethink their current structures and relationships to members.
This project will invite forward-looking civic organisations to join RSA Networks in exploring the implications of social networking for civic institutions, and the practical implications of using social media, creative events, and new ways of organising for civic innovation.
We will draw on work already undertaken by the NCVO Third Sector Foresight Unit, and with their agreement invite the Unit, and practitioners involved in their technology network, to join us.
Some of the greatest opportunities for innovation lie in rural life. Ruralnet UK has pioneered the use of online systems for the past 10 years, and chief executive Simon Berry FRSA is a co-sponsor of the project.
We will run a workshop early in 2008 to co-design project plans in more detail. However, from discussions to date we would expect the project to involve:

  • Collation of current research and thinking about membership organisations in a networked society, in association with NCVO Third Sector Foresight
  • Development of briefing and workshop tools to help organisations think what the future may hold, and what they can do.
  • Events - hosted initially by RSA if possible
  • Collaborative work on online systems, skills development, and organising creative events.
If you think it is a good project idea, do throw on a comment here - or even better register on the site through the above links. It is currently open to non-Fellows.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The RSA Networks site is rubbish!

There. That's the elephant in the room dealt with.

But you wouldn't know how flaky this first version of the site is from reading the brilliant discussions and project ideas that over 150 patient, benevolent fellows have been posting to the site, and then discussing with passion. Warts and all, the site does seem to be buzzing!

After the event on the 22nd, Andy and I were amazed by the levels of participation and activity that exploded on the site - so at least the prototype we built didn't obstruct that! To be honest, we didn't expect that kind of success immediately, and so it's taken us a bit of time to collate that feedback and respond.

So I am very pleased to echo Anshuman's announcement, and let you know that we are going to be starting the next few rounds of development tomorrow - fixing some of the niggly problems and usability issues that have frustrated many users. There are also a few obvious bugs that we hope to squash, and some basic gardening work like creating an FAQ and some help files - all of which we hope to do before Christmas.

I have written a few posts on the RSA Networks site laying out the three stages of this plan:
  1. A pre-christmas bug-squashing fest, where we aim to get the most obvious design and usability issues fixed.
  2. An early January development cycle, during which we aim to implement some feature requests and try out some experimental collaboration processes.
  3. A hand-over to a production team, who will take the prototype into production.
We are also going to be organising an event in late January, where we are hoping to reconvene some of the groups who met on the 22nd to take stock of the development so far, to look at which features should go into production, and to make decisions on other key issues that have been flagged up during the consultation process. As soon as we have a date for that, we'll send out an announcement with more details.

Of course, as with the first development cycle - which was great fun, we are again asking for your help in shaping the process itself as well as the technology.

We are still looking for the magic combination of factors, and the right way to ask the questions that will start to really activate projects, to move from 'discussion' to 'action', and to 'mesh the cogs' of the RSA - as Don calls for in his post.

Your ideas on those fronts, and comments on the three development phases, as well as your continued use and feedback on the site are much appreciated!

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?

Friday, 7 December 2007

Are RSA Fellows co-creators or just users?

The key issue for development of RSA Networks, as I see it, is what staff mean by collaboration and co-creation. Clarification is crucial as decisions are, I believe, currently being made about development of the online system that could set a pattern for the future. There's some discussion on an earlier post which I think is worth flagging up more visibly here.
The briefing paper for November 22 said:
If Fellows are to move from the periphery to the centre of the organisation, then it is essential that as Fellows, you are fully engaged at every step of the process, as collaborators and co-creators along with the staff of the organisation.
RSA web manager Anshuman Rane has responded quickly and helpfully under that post, but for me it leaves open the issue of whether Fellows are seen essentially as system users - with development decisions taken by staff - or as co-creators.
Dominic has contributed some ideas here on a model which would enable Fellows to make more strategic input.
I think co-creation involves being in the same place at the same time to develop ideas and make decisions together. Will that happen? If so, how and when?
I feel it is worth pushing the issue not because I think there is any bad faith involved: far the reverse. I believe RSA staff are doing everything they can, within the current context, to start doing things in a very different way. RSA developments are fascinating because I believe many membership organisations will face similar issues.
The problem arises, in my experience, because terms like consultation, engagement, co-creation can mean one thing if you are sitting within what's traditionally been a hierarchical organisation (give members a bit more of a say but keep control). They mean something entirely different if you are outside the core, yet want to make a system-changing contribution. It's not just a matter of language, but culture and mindset.
The only way to make progress is to talk about it ... and that can't be done solely online. Do RSA staff have any plans to invite Fellows back to follow through on the co-creation promise?

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

First thoughts on RSA Networks system

I believe RSA staff and developers of the RSA Networks system may be taking stock this week, with a view to further development, so it could be useful to feed in some first impressions and issues. It's been an enormous achievement by Saul, Andy, their team and RSA staff so far - so this is all meant in a wholly positive spirit. Here's my thoughts (please add yours):
  • It's currently difficult to see where new discussions are taking place, and what's the difference between a project and discussion - but I'm sure that can be dealt with.
  • We need ways to message people privately, to follow up issues/ideas that may not be of interest to everyone. Again, easy to implement I believe.
  • More facilitation and hosting is needed, to respond to issues raised about the system, but more importantly to help join up conversations which are inevitably spread around the place. Online communities need community development. It's not clear if anyone is responsible for overall development as well as specific project support.
  • While the system looks as if it could develop into a good place to fly ideas and find interested people, moving from discussion to action needs a lot more attention. How about getting together a small group of people (already discussing this issue on the system) to think through what that would involve? I think it is more than more online tools and meetings: it needs formats - systems to bid for funding or support, a market place, mentoring - or whatever. NESTA have already indicated their possible interest.
Beside these specifics I believe there are two strategic issues that need to be resolved quickly: degree of openness, and system ownership.
  • It's currently not clear whether the system will be open only to Fellows. If that is the case, it will be a good place to gather support from Fellows - but many projects will have to move "off system" to involve other parties essential for real civic innovation. If it is to be open to others, on what terms? Maybe we could have a system where only Fellows can propose projects and invite others in, then project leaders decide how private or visible their projects are. Meanwhile there's not much motivation to propose a project if you don't know who will be able to participate in the longer term.
  • The over-arching issue: who's system is this? RSA staff have put a lot of emphasis on the RSA Networks programme being by and for Fellows. If that's the case, shouldn't the online system - and associated processes - be "owned" by Fellows, or a Fellows/staff partnership? That partnership would then decide on issues of open-closed, hosting, system developments etc. If Fellows are just being asked for comments, with decisions taken by staff, nothing much will have changed from past practice.
The strength of the system is that it is pretty intuitive to use, and can be developed in many different direction because of the underlying modular structure (Drupal, I believe). So - great architect, more features needed .... but who is the client that makes the decisions?