Interim evaluation of the RSA networks project

Hi all

I've just posted the interim evaluation I wrote for the RSA networks project on the networks platform - see here.

Here's what I said - and for ease of access I have also attached the file to this post.

"I've attached here the interim evaluation I wrote for the RSA networks project at the end of February. Thanks to the RSA's partnership with Nesta, we have been able to evaluate and document progress towards the vision of the networks project as we go along.

I'd welcome comments and reflections on what is said here. Please do bear in mind that (a) this is an interim evaluation - the final piece of work will be done in april/late may, and (b) i have been honest, in the spirit of inviting constructive engagement with some of the issues I outline here.

As the project has unfolded I have been impressed - and sometimes overwhelmed - by the scale of ambition at senior levels of the organisation for the RSA networks project. As I say at the start of this evaluation:

"It is nearly one hundred years since Schumpeter wrote of firms as the primary agents of production and economic progress, and many of our business models and value systems continue to be governed by his worldview. And yet, new technologies are creating opportunities for collective action that have never before been imagined. Notions of membership, identity and belonging are changing dramatically, with people increasingly reporting a search for authenticity amid a world of brands, competing messages and demands. In Ulrich Beck’s words, ‘people demand the right to develop their own perspective on life and to be able to act upon it’.

We need to understand much, much more about what this ‘new collectivism’ might mean for organisations of the future. The mediating role that they have played in our lives is looking increasingly redundant as each of us as individuals find tools to work together in new ways. Current business models, governance, and patterns of organisation will be challenged by these developments in a way that has not been seen since the emergence of the mass production model at the start of the 20th century.

How organisations respond to these shifting patterns of allegiance, underlined by new modes of connection and engagement, remains an uncertain question. In this context, the RSA’s desire to remodel itself to be fit for purpose for the 21st century should be celebrated; and the RSA networks project should offer a rich seam of learning to the many other organisations that are beginning to wake up to the need to reflect new realities in the ways that they operate, and the ways that they engage people.

The RSA networks project was conceived of as the engine of change for the whole organisation. Our ambition was that through the learning of the project, we would have a clear sense of how to make the RSA a modern, exciting and dynamic catalyst for civic innovation – and to be some way down the road in reaching that destination."

I hope you enjoy reading this. And do please drop me a line or comment here if you would like to talk to me in advance of the work I'll be starting on the next evaluation report in a month's time."


Evaluation_feb08_v5.pdf119.09 KB

Leadership and communication

My two abiding impressions of the project (in which I have been involved since the University of Westminster meeting) are that: 

-- There is a need for leadership: the project feels to much like people/Fellows are being given space to play but the 'grown ups' are elsewhere and not stepping in to give direction and take things forward. I have had a similar experience at UN Summit events. I note that aspects of this point have been addressed in the interim evaluation.

-- There is a need for central, well-edited communication: the project has so many touchpoints online (as noted, positively, in the interim evaluation) that it is very hard to know what is going on. Certainly, being able to post and link to things to create an ad hoc and timely network is good. But at some point someone need to create and edited overview of what is happening and ensure that this communication is well designed. 

I have given my feedback directly on the RSA Networks site/tool which, while impressive given the limited development time, doesn't act as a call to or organiser of action.  

[Apologies for ASCII-formatting. HTML tags don't appear to be working in this form.]

re: interim evaluation of the RSA Networks project

Sophia - thanks so much to you, Matthew Taylor and others at RSA for being prepared to share openly learning from the early phases of RSA Networks. It shows, to me anyway, how important leadership, culture and individual attitudes are: whatever the investment in technology. As Steve Dale said It's the people who matter.

I hope we can use the lessons that you highlight as a part of the framework we need to help others on the same path. Meanwhile, the act of publishing openly sets a standard for what's needed to get a useful discussion started.

Where else can we learn from

Thanks, David, for your response. It really is all about the people, and the relationships we can create. And that needs to happen through the smart blending of online and offline activity - which as you know is a something we are constantly learning about.

I remember working with a designer once who said that when you are in 'fog' - working on a project where you don't fully know what destination you are trying to reach, and where you're not entirely sure of how to get there - you need to hold hands and support one another. I've always thought it is a lovely analogy and I think that's what we're dealing with here at the RSA.

I guess one of the premises of this membership project is that we aren't alone in needing to find our way through the fog. I'd be really grateful for other people's ideas about membership organisations who are also at the point of recognising that they are in the fog... Ian Gilmour helpfully reminded me about Amnesty as an example of a membership organisation seeking to create activists. I wonder if the Labour Party is another example. Who else should we be engaging in this work, and more specifically the work of the RSA in trying to transform itself to be a genuinely relevant membership organisation for the 21stC?

re: where else can we learn from

Sophia - I was chatting yesterday with Paul Webster of NAVCA - the national organisation for local infrastructure orgaisations, and that's one good route to local community and voluntary orgs. Last night I was along at the Royal Society of Medicine at a new members event - Ann is an associate. They were very keen on the associate's role as a way for the profession to connect with other interests and vice-versa. That may be the case with some other professional bodies.

I think we need to map the landscape. To help with that - from your perspective - who might NOT fall into our sphere of interest? I think our focus is membership orgs involved in socially beneficial activity beyond just member services? I guess we wouldn't be so much interested in organisations providing mainly personal serices. How about Institute of Directors, for example?

re: where else can we learn from

It might be a bit too far off subject, but what about the rash of current social networking sites that are getting people to take action for the better. If you sign up, you could be classed as a member...and they might have some insight into moving people to action. Although I guess the key difference in comparison to what the RSA is trying to achieve is that they tend to be focussed on individual actions, as directed by the site / network, rather than self-initiated networked projects and don't tend to have a face-to-face component. But anyway a couple of examples: (more self-initiated actions on this one)

re: where else can we learn from

Thanks Laura - I think you are, very helpfully, looking at the other end of the issue ... as Clay Shirky said at the RSA, organising without organisations.

For a broader approach to organising online there is, for example. For the face-to-face element you can use ... or do a bit of both using a Facebook group as we did with OpenRSA ...Facebook messaging -> meeting -> Facebook -> blog, wiki, Google group -> meetings

You can even set up a Freeschool. I think we are just at the beginning of increasingly cross-platform tools that enable people to find each other, share a passion, fundraise, donate, meet, take action. The challenge for membership organisations is to work out what additional benefits they bring by way of more tailored services, consistent support, reputation/identity - whatever. It's no longer enough to say information, events, meeting space, online space ... because increasingly people will organise that for themselves.

There's plenty of people in the online world advocated organising without organisations, and providing the tools ... it's really helpful to have someone like your on the inside of an organisation looking out so we can cross-check perspectives. Any ideas on how we could we find some other membership/Fellowship people in other orgs?

re: where else can we learn from

I should also have mentioned unltdworld which I blogged about here.