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A Ramble though the history of the Virtual Coffee House - and the future

Dear All

Attached, as requested, is a ramble through the history, lessons learned and experiences encountered when the VCH first came into being, complete with more up to date notes. Sorry that the document isn't structured. 
At times it may seem critical of JAS and others  - please forgive me if it comes across that way. I have attempted to be factual, and this is my view of what happened.
I really do believe that new ways of working are developing, and we are between Situation A - Sleeping Fellows with JAS doing the work, and Situation B, where, in some circumstances, Fellows increasingly take the lead, from Fellows on the Board setting strategy, and the JAS executive helping Fellows deliver it. It will require working through new relationships, using new technologies. We are not yet there.
What I do believe is that Matthew Taylor has set a vision which has, during the past four years, dramatically improved the standing and visibility of the RSA in the world in general, made it a more practical organisation capable of the delivery of more than research reports (think and do now seems to be the message) and is standing on the brink of up to 27,000 achievers with vast experience delivering real value to the RSA and the world in general. 
We're playing with a new Fellowship Platform, but are really providing just one of the tools that will enable Matthew's vision to become a reality. I could see a day when JAS will pilot new initiatives, and then Fellows will deliver in volume. For example, once the Citizen Power project is proven, and the methodology set out, it should be possible for Fellows all over the country to deliver it in their locality, with JAS specialists able to advise, based on experience gained from the pilot. 
I trust this gives some perspective to what we are about. If we wish to check if a facility is required or not, look at it from the longer term perspective I have set out above. Then we're likely to get it right. Without that perspective, we'll likely to deliver only what is needed now, or in the short term future.
Tell me if you think I'm wrong!
Best regards
Don P 

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Replies to This Discussion

thanks for taking the time to pull this together and share it Don - all too often this type of relection and sharing of stories of the (social) history of organisations is lost as people move on or simply forget... so as a relatively new fellow, great to be able to better understand some of the story of how the RSA is as it is today.


Agree with Adrian - absolutely!

Thank you Don for posting these lessons from the setting up of The Virtual Coffee House - which I believe was the first ever RSA network to use the Ning platform (and the inspiration for all those that followed)!

Some of us were arguing at the last Fellowship Council that there should be an alternative route to power/ influence for Fellows who don't like committees, or don't "click" with their regional/national reps for whatever reason: just to open up the options, and ensure a *truly* diverse network.

VCH is a great example of disenfranchised Fellows seizing the initiative and making things happen.

I really hope others read your story - it would be great to have more comments and feedback.


Don, that document is just what I was looking for! Just a few (almost) insurmountable opportunities but I'm beginning to get a feel of how we can approach a solution that satisfies both "church and state". I'm beginning to see the real requirements.

All we have to work out is the best way and place to discuss them so we can move to a set of solutions but that are not going to cause alarm and despondency with one group or other. 

Looking through the various sources of information I can see a theme of "us and them". Any solution that is not simply "us" will not fly. And by "us" I mean the real "us",  "JAS and the Fellows".

Can someone provide me with the top 10 requirements of digital engagement? If we can get agreement on that then perhaps we can move forward with less fragmentation.

A few questions might help.

1) What problem is Ning solving?

2) What problem is Twitter solving?

3) What problem is Facebook solving?

4) What problem is Linkedin solving?

5) What problems are still unsolved?

Hi John

Just a few comments to get the ball rolling:

1) What problem is Ning solving?             It created a space, independent of Committees and JAS, where Fellows could find out what was happening, request support, and express their views. It was intended that there should be only one Ning, but fragmentation occurred, which was not helpful. JAS covered over their failure to establish an official platform by hitching a ride on the Ning, setting up their own, and hoping all other Nings would subsume into it. JAS also won some approbation by paying for the Nings when Ning commenced charging. Ning has deficiencies, but it's really the best we currently have. 

2) What problem is Twitter solving? Some Fellows find twitter useful. I don't, but we need to keep an eye on it as we all know that Twitter can be a powerful viral medium for the naysayers.

3) What problem is Facebook solving? It forms a pseudo platform for Fellows who use it, and maybe use no other platform such as the Nings. 

4) What problem is Linkedin solving? If forms a useful platform for those Fellows who are business orientated and already use this platform. I find myself pulled into it repeatedly. But it is cut off from the mainstream of communication amongst Fellows.

5) What problems are still unsolved? Bringing together all these various platforms (some might object to the term "platform") into one solid platform that delivers what Fellows and the RSA believe is needed. Apart from sucking in the best features of the above 1, 2, 3, 4, I believe we need a video conferencing set up with whiteboard, wp etc facilities so that like-minded Fellows across the country, maybe across the world, can unite around projects in their specialist areas of expertise. A front page that enables Fellows to find easy access to all the various platforms, blogs, twittering, events, requests for support - eg netvibes could and should become a RSA standard for all Fellows who use the Internet - and those who don't are becoming distanced by the day - and stay until the new platform comes into being and is seen as providing all these features and facilities..

Don't hesitate to add or contradict this view. RSAde representatives and those more formally involved do need to know.

Thank Don. The unsolved problems are relatively simple to solve technically with a few caveats. For example, Ning is really a walled garden, and some pretty unnatural acts have to be performed to add functionality to that base... although it is possible. The underlying problem is that Ning's add-ons are limited and under control of Ning in terms of availability and capability i.e. if it ain't there you won't get it any time soon. Ning is a social networking facility, not a social collaboration facility and the missing functions, the problems to be solved, seem to be primarily in the collaboration domain.

There are a number of alternatives of which the main contenders I believe are Groupsite and Wordpress , both of which provide more function than Ning "out of the box" and both of which provide escape from the walled garden, inasmuch as you can seamlessly link to other sites i.e. a whiteboard or conferencing system without leaving the main site.

Groupsite, like Ning, is a hosted-only site, with some customization possible but not too pretty. Wordpress, the engine driving RSA Blogs and Matthews blog also has a limited walled garden hosted version but to provide the functionality you suggest would need its own hosting. However, as many, if not most, of the top 500 websites are running under Wordpress its flexibility is amazing. Wordpress also comes in a so-called multi-user version which means there could be a master site with subsites, that could vary from being totally independent ( not recommended!) to inheriting much of the parent site. For example a whiteboard could be added to the parent site and it could then appear to be part of all regional sites, whereas the Welsh site could have its own Welsh language pages without frightening the rest of us!.

Any change from the current Ning environment would be disruptive I admit, and if this is a show-stopper then a possible solution would be to "wrap" the Nings inside either of the two suggested solutions. Its a pretty ugly solution architecturally but could be made to look relatively seamless with some ingenuity.

One other thing I am concerned about is that the existing networking tools are pretty open... I've found a number of meeting minutes simply by googling. Some things are best discussed in a more quiet corner until they are ready for general release. This conversation is one of them. If we had a secure platform that was limited to RSA and Fellows we should encourage everyone to limit Twitter and Facebook usage to simple links to the real material... but maybe that is a pipe dream when the FBI and the Met conference call on open lines. 

However nothing can be done without resources, people and/or money. Not a lot of either... but then do remember I'm ex-IBM so the GNP of Belgium seems like petty cash. Is this something that might be eligible for Catalyst? I've got both the time and the skill (without funding) to do much of the prototyping but not to roll this out into any sort of pilot.

And finally, what is planned in the "new platform"? If we knew what products and tools they are planning to build it around can we help by prototyping and piloting using their technologies. I'm sure the JAS staff are working flat out on all aspects of this. The last thing they need is a bunch of rebels turning up and calling their baby ugly. I'd much sooner help their baby learn to walk and talk. 

Some of us (including Don, John and Roxanne) have been discussing these issues on Linkedin ... and I think this is a better home. Thanks Don. I've posted a comment there suggesting people move across.

I think it would be a big help if Don, John ... maybe Jemima and Roxanne? ... could work out some terms of reference for the Linkedin group who have already volunteered to help. I'm happy to assist if I can do anything useful.

The question I have is: where will the work lie on a spectrum between something quick and Fellows-led that helps people address "how can I find out what's happening, and engage" ... and a joint effort with staff to get a better online platform for the next year or so until the big one is built?

So many things I could pick up on, but just to focus on one for the moment...

John asked some very relevant questions about the problems (aka otherwise unmet user needs) that the various platforms solve.

I realise that this may seem argumentative, but I feel it is important to set off in a different direction. I don't feel it is helpful to offer personal views about those platforms or the people who use them, especially when our own experience is very limited.

Sorry to pick up on this from you Don, but these are valuable examples:

>>2) What problem is Twitter solving? Some Fellows find twitter useful. I don't, but we need to keep an eye on it as we all know that Twitter can be a powerful viral medium for the naysayers.

What YOUR use of this is like is not relevant. Statistically, Twitter has taken over as a means of two- and multi-party inter-personal communication from email. Yes, it does offer the opportunity for negative messages to be spread widely, but it also offers the opportunity for positive ideas to be shared and developed rapidly.

>>4) What problem is Linkedin solving? If forms a useful platform for those Fellows who are business orientated and already use this platform. I find myself pulled into it repeatedly. But it is cut off from the mainstream of communication amongst Fellows.

Again, you haven't answered the question. LI is NOT populated by business-oriented people, it IS populated by predominantly work-oriented ones. There is no reason why someone who doesn't currently use the platform cannot start doing so. I am sure that LI would be able to quote statistics of new users each day who clearly demonstrate that this is the case. How is it cut-off from the mainstream of communication amongst Fellows? Perhaps we should see some statistics on this before making such a claim. Personally, I see more relevant activity here than on any of the other RSA-used platforms with the possible exception of Twitter, which seems to me to be the most active even if much of it is not relevant to me.

While I'm sure that the historical issues are worth understanding, I don't actually find the constant reference back to them helpful at all. They refer to a time when most of the contemporary tools for collaboration didn't exist, when many professionals had still not engaged with them, and when the mission of the RSA was in a very different 'embryonic' state. It also predates the appointment of some important new members of staff.

Incidentally, there are MANY collaborative platforms available, where collaboration is about building something rather than venting. Forums like this one and LI serve as a vent for a lot of people, but the simpler solutions, like Google Docs, and the more complex ones, like DeskAway, allow far more constructive work. Let's not limit our exploration of a solution to our narrow and subjective experience from a long time ago.

Best wishes
Graham Wilson - 07785 222380 |

 To a large extent I agree with Graham. The implication I get from the discussions so far is that we need to do something and we need to do it now. However, so far the discussions are tending towards "what" rather than "why". I was asking somewhat simplistic questions around "what" to see if I could surface some "why"s. As a noob I don't have the advantage of history - although the more I find out about the backstories the more challenging - and even entertaining - the opportunities become.

I have found that by examining the tools used I can get an insight into any tacit requirements. If I can mangle Henry Ford, "if I asked the customers what they wanted they would all be riding a faster horse." 

The networking tools selected so far by the rank and file indicate the following to me:

  • The fact that they are essentially free and readily available suggests that there is either insufficient funding to provide the basic capabilities or frustration in the formal communication provided between the Fellows and JAS.
  • Is there frustration with the value of the voice of the Fellows. Is it that the Fellows think that better tools will let them "speak louder" and get them better air time and credibility with JAS? cf. speaking louder in English when faced with a non-English speaker.

I have met several situations where providing better tools have improved credibility but in general the first rule of computer science applies: Computers let you screw up faster. It seems to me that if there is a "voice" issue then that is the first thing to be resolved.  I'm not saying that better tools are not a good idea just that a screw driver is not the optimum solution to drive a nail.

If the problem is organization of material then there are better tools than are in use now.

If the problem is navigation of the material then ditto.

If the problem is discovery and interests/skills fit then there are much better tools available.

If the problem is that no matter how much lipstick you put on the pig JAS don't want to make pies then tools won't help.

And yes, there are many tool solutions out there... from the previous discussions I suggested some incremental but cheap/free solutions as a way of moving forward ... but until I see the real problem statement, policies and strategies to solve the problems within the strategies then any change may be both incremental and possibly in the wrong direction. 

And yes, as an avid Google user the Google application suite meets most of my needs now but it is a paradigm switch from where we are now.

But I always keep in mind George Santayana's quote " "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"

Just to modify Santayana "Those who never knew the past may be condemned to repeat what happened". There is a "political" and organisational history which militates against Fellows doing stuff in some areas. However, times they are a'changing.

Ah, its all in the translation :-) But that is a good distinction. Well I'll await the a'changing times with interest then if that is the more "political" thing to do.  

Perhaps the difficulty here is that RSA is (at least) two different organisations: staff and Fellows. Think two different events in adjacent spaces. One is a well organised conference with presentations and facilitated workshops. The other is more like an where it is up to the participants to self-organise and run sessions for each other ... or just hang out and chat.
The spaces, logistics, hosting and experience of each is very different. If you know what to expect, it's OK. You can choose whether or not to go ... but it can be a shock if your aren't forewarned.
I think it may be easiest to see Fellowship as an unconference where we have to organise our own workshops (projects, meetups etc) not least because staff haven't time to run the show while also organising the big event (no criticism intended).
Of course the split isn't that clear. Staff do organise or facilitate many excellent offerings for Fellows ... and Fellows do participate very substantially in many of the more formal activities of RSA.
I use the analogy because trying to get a clear purpose and comms strategy may be like trying to get an unconference into an auditorium, with an agreed programme. There are many different views of what the RSA is for, and many more on the role of Fellowship.
That's why the Virtual Coffee Shop analogy is useful. It can exist next to the more formal dining (to change the analogy).
If we accept the different styles and requirements, I suggest we need to figure out how to host and facilitate our own virtual space, with support from staff, freeing them up for many others duties. Otherewise it's going to feel like a poorly organised conference, or a very flat unconference.

David, I find that a very useful analogy, although it does seem at odds with the perceptions and voice of the issues that I have gleaned from these discussions over the last couple of weeks. The implication I had read into the discussions was that the Fellows needed tools and facilities to understand and contribute what both the staff and Fellows were doing - although I'm still struggling with the concept of the Fellows doing their own thing outside of the RSA proper.

Coming from a lifetime of conferences I am very comfortable with the concept of the main conference, organized and managed by a central body with a charter and mission but with the venue providing space and a mechanism for the delegates to meet in Birds of a Feather (BoF) groups during the conference.

All that was needed in that situation was a set of spaces - coffee shops and bars worked well :-) - and a notice board to announce the location, time and intent of the BoF group. Interested parties turned up, discussed common interests and either inwardly digested or went back home to their funded environment and used the contacts made to work on some mutually beneficial project.

There was often just a tenuous connection to the aims and purpose of the main conference and more than not with the main conference organizers totally unaware or involved in the subsequent projects.

However, I got the impression from these discussions that the Fellows expected more from the central organization, the RSA. This seems at odds with the Policy and General Conditions for Handling RSA Fellows’ Networks and Fellows’ Activities document ( ) clearly states that any Fellows-initiated activity is absolutely the responsibility of the Fellows and should not expect help from the RSA. (Actually, reading that document gives me some concerns about the whole purpose of the Fellowship but that is for another discussion).

If what I read in there is so and the conference metafor is useful then all we need is an agreed "bulletin board" where anyone with a subject of interest can announce to Birds of a Feather the subject and the ways and means of follow up. With the previously mentioned policy document clearly stating that any Fellows work must be self-funding then anything more sophisticated than that will cost real money. Even Ning - which started as a free facility - costs real money now although I did see some reference to the fact that JAS were picking up the tab for that now - a precedent or a one-off?

On that basis, if I wanted to announce some project of interest that I thought other Fellows might wish to be involved with I can make my own arrangements for communication and collaboration tools - [this is not an endorsement] I personally find the Google toolset more than adequate for all my many joint-effort needs outside of the RSA - and just announce the subject, ways and means on a common bulletin board.

With this model, all we have to agree on is the bulletin board mechanism...

Politics - the art of the possible.


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