RSA Fellowship Council live-blog

Well hello folks, and welcome to the live blog of today's RSA Fellowship Council. Keep refreshing for updates, I'll be sharing all the discussions and activities here in the interests of open governance and general digital engagementyness. All opinions are, of course, strictly my own. Questions and comments? Tweet me on @gandy or e-mail andy[at]

1:15 So, slightly delayed by technical hitches, and we're underway. Nice welcome from David Archer, stand-in chair for today along with Zena Martin, reflecting on our first year of operations and providing a transition from outgoing Chair and Deputy Chair Tessy Britton and Paul Buchanan, to new leadership for the coming year. Lots of new appointments to the council, but rather than mis-spell everyone's names I'll just say "welcome to all of you, nice to have you with us." Big thanks to Michael Devlin too who has done such a stirling job rallying fellowship activities and leading on some key projects with us. Oh, and we have a baby here too.

1:20 More new appointments announced, this time by Lord Best on behalf of the Trustee Board. Vanessa Harrison is joining on the financial side, and lots of encouraging things around fellowship figures, finances and governance. Gosh we've been busy.

1:30 and I've nearly caught up with myself now. David Archer is giving us a pictoral history of the house and discussing some of the limitations of the RSA Great Room, and proposing some changes which the RSA would like to make. The intention is to upgrade some of the technology and equip it for flexible use, rather than the one-use seated format currently. Apparently David says there will be some "virtual stuff" in there too, but the details will have to be left to your fertile imaginations... One staff-member says from the floor that having looked at the Great Room for many years under three separate chairmen, this is the best design we've ever had, and will really be the "jewel in the crown" for the RSA as it moves to a new phase in its history. English Heritage are also happy with the proposals, which in fact will restore the Great Room to be closer to its original design. The Council is being asked for input from fellows into this, and particularly the usage, prior to more detailed plans and costings being developed.

1:35 Comment from the floor that flexible raked seating is needed to enable good sightlines for the hearing impaired, and the flat floor will cause a problem. Response from David that the flexibility is important, but the design challenge is to incorporate these concerns, plus a comment from the floor that the designs should be consistently deliver good sightlines for all speakers. Question about funding: what else has been de-prioritised to pay for this? The response is that this is an income-generating investment to be paid for out of capital, and part would need to be paid for anyway due to maintenance etc. Observations that the new space must meet fellowship needs and commercial needs and should have a good business case. David Archer is particularly interested in the possibilities to open up the space for fellowship meetings, and also open up access virtually to international audiences via streaming and live Twitter feeds, a very exciting time. Also a comment from the floor that this is a great opportunity, only done every 60-70 years, and very exciting.

Just remembered that I forgot to eat lunch. Oops.

1:45 John Elliot now reporting from the Fellows Education Network, co-convened by himself and our favourite fellow Tessy Britton. Becky Francis, Tessy and John had a meeting about creating Fellows Education Forums to draw in a range of fellows, not just those working in education, to discuss education and potentially feed in to a fellows policy forum. Trying to concentrate on the details but all I can think about is my poor missed lunch.

1:47 He's holding up a piece of paper. I think it's the minutes of that meeting.

1:48 Really good progress here, a Fellows Education Forum has been set up in Norwich, East of England and seems to be going nicely, with good local support and "splendid food and drink". Lovely. The East of England RSA Committee was very supportive too, inviting all the fellows. Not sure how many people they had, I'll try to find out.

1:51 Ah, ok. 10 fellows attended the meeting, 14 expressed interest, including some quite important people locally, and notable people in education and pupil-voice organisations.

1:53 Aiming now to identify the community issues and other contextual factors affecting education locally, create links with other organisations, and with the local communities. Next meeting on 3rd November, and aim to share best practice to help other regions set up their own groups. Support from the Chair about the importance of this project and also of connecting to local communities.

1:55 Now we have people dialling in from Chattanooga - oooh! Shifting the agenda round so they can join the conversation at the right point.

I should have had a sandwich.

1:57 Update now from Gerard Darby  on one of my favourite projects, the RSA Catalyst fund. A streamlined process has asked fellows six questions about what they want to do and the impact they think they will have, to apply for small grants to kick-start new fellow-led projects. Fellowship council representatives on the assessment panel (Gerard, Charles, Rosie and Charmian) judge partly whether the project is good enough, but also whether money would be the most useful thing, and the intention is that all interesting projects will at least receive in-kind support and advice from the RSA, which is great. (Big thanks to Alex on the RSA staff for his work making this process really work well.

2:01 Hello to Sharon from Chattanooga who has called in on Skype to discuss her project which received funding to support the project to regenerate Alton Park  (recently voted the 10th most dangerous neighbourhood in the USA).

2:02 Oooh, we have video! Sharon looks very polite and organised, with a lovely smile. (Why is dental care so much better in America?) The project sounds very interesting, using art in schools to engage kids locally, with many kids involved.

2:04 The Skype video link was short-lived, the sound kept cutting out - but we're soldiering on. Not as bad as last week though, when I got to ask Bill Hicks' brother a question about where he saw Bill's influence in the world, and then Skype denied me the joy of hearing his reply. Frustrating doesn't cover it.

2:05 Now we're seeing some fantastic artwork from the kids, really impressive and it sounds like they really got very engaged in the project. I'm seeing the "RSA Fellows rescue school" headlines now... Opening up to questions next.

Or a bagel.

2:06 Question from the floor: was it community-led and delivered or run via formal educational establishments? The answer, interestingly, is that they were keen to circumvent the council, which are seen as "holding pens" and very mistrusted. They held their own graduation ceremony for this project, which was the only graduation many of these kids will have. They worked with Bethlehem Centre and some churches, but basically the community has been destroyed by crime and social breakdown and there are few institutions and social networks right now to work with.

2:09 Good luck to Sharon, who's leaving us now - sounds like a great project. She very graciously thanked the RSA and the Catalyst Fund, without which there was virtually no way the project could have happened, and also signposted to future projects elsewhere using the same model.

Heather Wilkinson from Breakout Media next...

2:10 Heather has joined us - no video though so can't offer a comparative study of UK-US dentistry I'm afraid. Hi Heather. Her project is helping young ex-offenders and prisoners I think, by offering them meaningful employment opportunities rather than them just being "cheap labour".

Tessy has started reading my live-blog and is now collapsing with giggles next to me...

2:13 Breakout media formed in April 2010 and sought seed-funding, and launched in August. Struggling to hear the details a little bit on this Skype connection, I'll see if I can find a web link with more info... Ah, here you go. More support from Heather for the Catalyst Fund, "it's very difficult to get money for capital equipment for a project like this" - couldn't agree more, great work being done by this fund, really plugging a gap in the social investment market I think. Thanks Heather!

2:18 Now Paul, Chair of RSA Australia and New Zealand is giving us another international update - but this time he's here with us in the room! Thanks for joining us Paul... Lots of interesting things going on over there, starting with formal talks about things like "modern-day slavery" (sounds v interesting...), and major events based on fellows' interests. Now they've moved on to fellowship networking, with the cracking "Big Ideas for Breakfast", a morning networking and discussion meetup, and "Evening Enlightenment" where fellows can share their passions and network around them rather than their day-jobs. Sounds like they're doing a great job over there.

2:20 Fellows there were asked what support they needed, and the result was the "Passion Proposal Progress" fund, similar to Catalyst, which enables fellows to bid for money and also support e.g. connections, promotion, for their projects. It's a similarly small grant level, c. $2000 per project per year, but has funded some interesting projects including an environmental education centre. Lots of passion from the fellowship, but they've decided they need to support fellows in bringing focus and clarity to their projects, so they've started offering visioning workshops too to help people write better PPP applications. Latest application is from an aboriginal reconciliation organisation, which they're all very excited about.

Ooh, I passed a nice-looking sushi place on the way here. Should have grabbed some sashimi to nibble...

2:25 The Catalyst Fund has given out around £22000 so far of the £40000 pot, and they'll be adding an extra £10K from the reserves next year. There's a possibility that next year the Catalyst Fund will also offer follow-up grants to projects of £5000 in addition to the £2000 grants currently, for those that have received funding this year who can show impact. Question from the floor about the international proportionality of the grants, are we going to fund projects internationally in proportion to the size of the fellowship? The answer is that the committee will fund great projects and does not have a quota for the international elements. Comment from the floor that we should target replicability and international successes based on what's working already, but Gerard is sensibly suggesting that we need to take it step-by-step for now. Paul from Australia is keen to emphasise that it needs to be bottom-up and led by fellows.

2:30 Another comment from the floor is that in Scotland the similar Venture Fund has existed for a while too and should be recognised for its excellent work - perhaps we can get an update on that next time... All the links are on the RSA website for people who want to read more about the funds.

2:31 Comment from the floor that RSA Fellows are people with skills and we need to focus on the high skills and connections of the fellowship and prioritise projects that tap into the expertise of the fellowship, which marks us out so much from other societies and organisations. The response from Gerard and others is that RSA Support is very much about that, allowing fellows to give their skills to good fellowship projects - although I think the point is well made. Good point too that RSA Support only has 27 fellows signed up and really needs to be promoted more - another good point I think. It needs more communication and promotion and should be seen as by far the most important and valuable part of the mix. But there has been some good work done to connect fellows to projects via digital channels, and strong emphasis from the staff that the network is vital and they work very hard to leverage the support of the fellowship - but the Council must support this.

I wonder if there will be biscuits in the coffee break...?

2:37 Request from the floor that we develop a framework of criteria for the funding decisions, and particularly focus on sustainability of projects, and how they fit into a broader strategic vision of change for their particular communities. Response from Gerard that we need to avoid putting too many blocks in place though - and I couldn't agree more. But there is definitely an issue of accountability and consistency here, and the point about getting the criteria right and publicly available is important. Sustainability is important of course, and is definitely a key consideration, as is the potential to leverage further funding.

2:39 Question about what happens to failed applications - can they be sent to region reps for support and further consideration?

Awwwww, Vivs Long-Ferguson from the RSA staff has apparently gone upstairs to get me something to snack on. And who says no-one reads these live-blogs?!

2:41 Thanks from Zena to all the contributors. Bob Porrer now reporting on the regions, and begins by acknowledging that we've all been sat here for a long time and should probably have coffee and biscuits. I love you Bob.

Vivs has brought me a pile of biscuits - yay! This is real power you know...

2:43 Bob's talking about trying to assess what the fellows want in the regions, and has had a lot of good responses to the survey of Regional Committee and Panel members. He's reading out some of the points, but I've got biscuits to eat...

Ah, that's better. Thank you Vivs. :-)

2:44 Lots of interesting observations from the fellowship which I won't go into now because I'll get chocolate biscuit all over my keyboard

2:45 Now identifying what this all means in terms of support, and also the Fellowship Council. Next step is to widen the consultation and discuss the points raised with fellows to identify "the key points that need to be dealt with in our review", with a view to writing a skeleton paper about how to address these actions. Careful progress here from the ever-steady Bob and his colleagues.

I really fancy a cup of tea now.

2:47 Someone has astutely pointed out that Scotland is a Nation not a Region. Bob agrees, and apparently this has been recognised. Thank god eh, I was really worried about that one.

Now Tessy is pouring me some water to drink. You get really well looked after doing this live-blogging stuff.

2:48 Coffee break!!!

2:49 Oh, I spoke to soon. Next up are some breakout sessions addressing the following questions and setting ourselves some targets:

  1. How can we increase the number of Catalyst applications from our region?
  2. How can we increase the number of fellows registered for RSA Support?
  3. How can we encourage fellows to pick up successful Catalyst projects and pilot them in other areas?

Someone just called my name and I'm panicking in case I've been naughty

2:51 We're being divided into the groups now, but hopefully we can have some coffee first. They work us hard here you know.

(It's ok, it was another Andy)

Right, 2:52 Coffee Break!!!!!

2:52 (and 10 seconds) no such luck, someone's just asked another question. It's about the importance of our intended review of how projects across the RSA are decided, funded and managed - a vital point actually, so I guess I'll let her off. We did say we'd review the overall RSA approach to projects, and there hasn't been enough communication on that one - but there is some discussion going on behind the scenes as part of the Catalyst discussions.  The intention has always been to have a standardised process for fellowship projects, Catalyst projects and RSA staff projects - but they aren't sure if this is entirely possible yet. More discussions needed on this one, but everyone has giant biscuit and teacup shaped lights flashing in their eyes and I think they might riot if we don't all shut up soon.

2:56 More discussion from the staff side emphasising the openness of the discussions but acknowledging the difference in how staff-led projects are conceived and the smaller-scale Catalyst pilot projects - convergence is the aim, but we've only just started the journey. It's definitely not been forgotten though.

The people who had stood up for coffee have now sat down, defeated.

2:58 Some criticisms from Council-members that they feel side-lined from these discussions and are unhappy, and that it is vital to engage the Fellowship Council in this review of projects. We need tea, and quickly.

Ok, right, 2:59 COFFEE BREAK!!!!! (no, I mean it this time)

Half-time update: well, it's been a good clean contest so far, with both sides pretty evenly-matched and some attractive gameplay all round. A few stand-out individual performances too, which is good to see. Difficult to say who's going to win it, but my money's on the Australians.

3:12 Just realised I wasn't listening when my group was called. Bad Andy. Now milling aimlessly.

3:13 My aimless milling has been spotted and I've been placed in my appropriate grouping now.

I think this is a good moment for me to slow down a little and let the caffeine sink in. I'll blog the notes from the London sub-group rather than the discussions - unless anyone says anything particularly hilarious.

3:20 Very lively discussions here, mainly about governance issues and the role of the Council. Zena is bravely trying to make us focus on the three questions, the trooper.

3:21 Michael's brought the baby in. Maybe that will calm everyone down a bit. You can't be annoyed about governance when there's a baby around.

3:22 Awww, the baby's gone now.

3:31 The baby's back, and he's crying. Maybe he's upset about the lack of democratic accountability in the RSA Trustee Board.

3:32 No, I think he's just hungry

Comment from @melanieshearn via Twitter "I think @gandy types fast.  Imagine if he'd had lunch first!" I've had quite a lot of coffee now Melanie, who knows what I may say next...

3:37 I've been quiet for too long and my fellow Councillors have been missing my pithy input. All eyes turn to me and I have to say something intelligent to justify my existence.

3:38 Think I got away with that one...

3:40 Good discussions here, well done Zena. Now we're rejoining the collective to report back. I'll try to blog what the various groups say in the feedback round next.

Question from @kmachin via Twitter: "wondering why you're not using coveritlive - this refreshing the page lark is a pain" Good point Karen, I'm new to this live-blogging thing but will look into it. Jemima who normally does this taught me everything I know so you can blame her for my inadequacies...

3:42 Not sure which group this is, but they think communication is an issue for the Catalyst, the Ning is a start but we need to share success stories and communicate better, e.g. via regional meetings and AGM. Also feeling that the Catalyst application form might be off-putting, so can people share their passions and ideas up front informally to get people thinking and spot good projects? Also identifying local needs would be good so fellows can respond. They don't want to put a number on it, but suggested 60 applications as a good target.

3:46 And now the results from the Australian (well, international) jury. Different abroad, much smaller organisations and communities and identifying people's passions first - and can't assume that these passions are transferable, they can be very local.

One comment I missed earlier from @stuarthoneysett via Twitter: "I particularly like that your liveblog is followed by an "All you can eat in London" advert from Google. Targetted marketing FTW" All part of the plan Stuart, I'm making a killing on Adwords.

3:48 The Scots now, the "working core of the RSA". Support is crucial, and so is encouraging sharing best practice and getting fellows to tell their own stories. Personal invitations to join RSA Support is also vital - good point there I think. Person-to-person is always best.

Grrr, internet fail so I lost that last one, can't remember what they said now...

3:51 Leaving that last group trailing in our wake, we're on to London. We need to lead by example with the RSA Support signups, and also we should start a mentors network - and again, a direct ask from a peer is the best way to recruit people. The notion of encouraging projects to be ported to other places is also being questioned: those addressing national needs might work as pilots in multiple locations, but many projects are just locally-specific and should stay that way. We also refused to set targets - yeah, that's how we roll people. Up the revolution.

3:54 More nations and regions banter is followed by some nice thoughts from the next group on returning to the first principles of the society, the promotion of arts, manufacturing and commerce. Also important to ensure local projects flow from the central purposes of the RSA, with clear criteria for selection so people can tell whether they should apply. We should aim for fewer, more relevant applications. We should also be able to tell the difference between an RSA project and projects by other organisations like the Rotary Club etc. Point from the floor: what distinguishes RSA projects is that they involve lots of RSA fellows - but others respond that this is circular and unhelpful. Movement for clearer sense of central, core values steering our work emerging again here, a theme I've heard before.

Fanmail now from @lulabellalondon "@gandy your live-blogging skills are remarkabl....y entertaining! Guardian needs YOU! for the next election." Lucy, you're too kind. Maybe I could get David Dimbleby to bring me a fruit pie next time.

4:00 Some suggestion that people come to the RSA for something different, and we want to define what that difference is. Beats me sir.

4:01 The last group is frustrated at how difficult it is to get fellows to list their expertise, but we still need to try. Also a suggestion that, when doing big projects with the RSA, the best way is to bypass the bureaucracy of the organisation and do it yourself. (This guy's holding up bits of paper too. Must be important.) Also huge praise for one of my idols, Tim Smit, who's just been called "the best fellow of his generation" because of his support of this project.

4:02 The last group just said they agree with everyone else.

4:03 Oh no, actually they've added something: we should have an open database and web platform for fellows to share skills and support each others' projects. Now where have I heard that before...?

4:05 And now the bit I've been waiting for: Zena is thanking the outgoing Chair Tessy Britton and Deputy Chair Paul Buchanan. We've made huge progress on embedding the new Council, the Fellowship Charter, engaging fellows, and reviewing the regions - and huge thanks to Tessy and Paul for their work. Tessy's been given a huge bunch of flowers, which she is very grateful for but also worried about being laughed at on the train home, the shy shrinking violet that she is. Well done particularly to Tessy, who's my favourite RSA Fellow and has genuinely done an amazing job under very difficult circumstances at times, and deserves our full and enthusiastic respect.

4:06 And welcome new Chair Bob Porrer, and Deputy Chair Irene Campbell - congratulations to you both. Bob's opening speech now... Greater synergy is needed between John Adam Street and the Fellowship. Bob and Irene will be focusing on "facilitating productive and co0operative dialogue between all parties", accepting that there has been frustration in the past, and intending to work in an even-handed way to resolve all these issues positively. Fellowship Council needs to be developed to meet the needs of fellows, to enable them to input properly into the organisation - not an easy task, but a noble one I think. They also intend to be more visible at regional meetings, and online - and also to lift the profile of the council via the newsletter, journal and elsewhere. Bob is keen to stress that we need to be realistic about what we can achieve in a year: we're all busy and it's not always possible to progress everything we want, and we must set realistic timescales on group work particularly. But Bob and Irene will work hard to connect fellows, support project groups to continue, embed the charter, and improve the work of the Council. We need a committed Council, but also to recognise that we are all volunteers; we need support from staff and an understanding of the pressures on their time too. Most of all, Bob is keen that the Fellowship Council will look forward, not back, learning from the past but focussing positively on the future. Principles must be debated, and new ways of working must be found, and Bob and Irene are very committed to making this happen.

4:11 Lovely round of applause for Bob and Irene - welcome guys, and good luck.

4:12 Awww, now they're thanking me. They obviously haven't read what I've been writing about them all. Hopefully I'll make it out of the building before they find me out.

4:13 The next meeting will be in January - and preferably not on a Tuesday this time apparently. And in the interests of international co-operation, the next meeting will be held in Chattanooga! You heard it here first folks...

4:14 Close Big thanks to David and Zena for chairing the meeting, lovely work. I'm off to find myself another snack, and possibly an ice cream. Thanks for all your comments, texts, e-mails and tweets, and particularly for the biscuits. A draw was a fair result all round I think, difficult to separate the sides even after extra time. For my part, I hope I have entertained, if not necessarily informed. Until next time...

Public Sector Online 2010

psonline Just a quick note to say that today I’ll be speaking at The Guardian‘s Public Sector Online conference.

I’m on the closing panel at 3:30 titled “Innovation in social media”, along with Dave Briggs, Sarah Drummond, Lauren Currie and Gordon Scobbie, asking:

As more people use social networking sites to keep informed, and organisations use them to spread information and market services, what are the best ways for public sector bodies to engage with the public?

Hope to see you there - come find me on Twitter if you want to say hello.

Some thoughts on facilitation

Gosh, what a long time it's been since my last post. I've been busy over here developing Mindapples(check out our lovely new website, as funded by UnLtd and Nominet Trust), and also doing various writing pieces which will hopefully see the light of day soon. Meanwhile, I've also been doing more facilitation and speaking work lately, and it's been a while since I posted anything about that side of my and Sociability's work. I've done a fair bit of work with the amazing The People Speak over the years, and I recently spoke to my good friend Saul Albert there about facilitation as part of their research project into the subject. Here's what I said in response to his questions:

Saul: What is the first issue on your mind when you have to facilitate a highly diverse group?

Andy: People are often very suspicious of the facilitation process. They have their own agendas, and want to know immediately that the process will accommodate them. People come into the room with clear ideas about what they want to achieve, they want to see whether the day will give them that opportunity. So I'm mainly trying to read the room, get a sense of where people are at emotionally and intellectually, how happy they look about being there, and how vocal they will be if they feel the event isn't meeting their needs. Figuring out why everybody is there is the first job of any facilitator, and speaker for that matter, and it's an easy one to miss.

Saul: How did you deal with this?

I usually begin by stating my agenda very clearly, what I'm there to do and what I want to get out it myself, personally. Making it personal to me is very important: I am just one person and what I want is just one of many voices, so if I claim to be an authority or representative of the establishment, I deny people the space to claim the event for themselves.

After that, I'm really open about asking each person/group what their agendas are. I don't necessarily expect answers, but by creating a space where people feel able to say that the process isn't meeting their needs, people feel that they can articulate their critique immediately, that there's a space where they can be critical if they need to be. This means they don't sit there waiting for things to come up that they can bend into a critique. They say their piece, then they kind of forget about it and get on with the discussion. As long as people know they can influence the agenda if they need to, and they trust me to be true to that commitment, then they can relax and engage.

This might sounds strange, but there's also an important element of amateurishness involved. If I'm too slick then people feel they can't shape the structure, they become afraid of "getting it wrong". By stepping out front and being human, even making a few little, light-hearted mistakes, I give people the confidence to step forward and contribute. It's very important to step into the role of leader, and hold uncertainty.

Saul: Who do you know who does this that you admire? And what other techniques / technologies do you know of?

Johnny Moore does a lot of work in this field and I like his style. He's very explicit about what the process will be, what will happen and how it will work, so people can understand whether it will meet their needs, get over that question and then get on with it. He's quite rigorous about getting clarity on structure, which is an important thing for me to remember to do too.

Theres also the unconference approach where there's no plan, and if you're not getting much out of it, it's your fault! But you don't really learn very much in this situation, and I think people often end up having the same conversations they'd be having anyway - it's nobody's job to bring any fresh content to the party.

Saul: At your events, is facilitation all your responsibility? Who else shares that responsibility?

In one particular example where I felt this worked well, I had an 'assistant'. She was actually my client for the event, a part of the development team of the organisation, so like me, she was interested in everything working well. I gave her the task of taking notes to make sure that everything was recorded, which she did brilliantly. She sat with a laptop and wrote up notes on a projector for everyone to see. The audience could see whether their points were making it into the notes, and I would also keep an eye on them and when I saw something important that hadn't been noted, I'd bring people's attention to it and make sure it was included.

The interaction between what's happening and how it's documented is really important, because it's how people become part of the official chronicle: they need to feel that history is including them.

Saul and the team at The People Speak are evolving the art of facilitation all the time, and I really enjoy working with them because for my money they're the only people who really know how to let a crowd run an event for itself. If you'd like them, or Sociability, to run one of your events, drop me a line at andy[at]

Q: What is the first issue on your mind when you have to facilitate a highly diverse group?

- People are often very suspicious of the facilitation process.
- They have their own agendas, and want to know immediately that the process will accommodate them. People come into the room with clear ideas about what they would achieve, they want to see whether the day will give them that opportunity.

Q :How did you deal with this? 

I start off by naming my agenda very clearly, then I'm really open about asking each person/group what their agendas are.

By not expecting answers, by just creating a space where people feel able to
say that the process isn't meeting their needs people feel that they can
articulate their critique immediately, they feel there's a space where they can
be critical. This means they don't sit there waiting for things to come up that
they can bend into a critique. They say their piece, then they kind of forget
about it and get on with the discussion.

There's also an important element of amatuerishness. Not being too slick means
people feel they can shape the structure. It's very important to step into the
role of leader, and hold uncertainty.

Q: Who do you know who does this that you admire? And what other techniques / technologies do you know of?

Johnny Moore who does a lot of work with the RSA. 

He's very explicit about what the process will be, what will happen and how it
will work, so people can understand whether it will meet their needs, get over
that question and then get on with it.

Theres also the unconference approach where there's no plan, and if you're not
getting much out of it, it's your fault! But you don't really learn very much
in this situation, and tend to have the same conversations you'd be having
anyway - nobody brings content to the party.

Q: At your events, is facilitation all your responsibility? Who else shares that responsibility?

In the example I was thinking of, I had an assistant, who was also my client
(internal to the commissioning organisation). She sat with a laptop and wrote
up notes on a projector for everyone to see. 

Like me, she was interested in everything working well. I gave her the task of
taking notes to make sure that everything was recorded, which she did really
well. I would also keep an eye on the notes and when I saw something that
hadn't been noted, I'd bring people's attention to it and make sure it was noted.

The interaction between what's happening and how it's documented is important
so people see how they become part of the official chronicle: they need to feel
that history is including them.

Social media and social conventions

On Friday I spoke at Sadlers Wells at the Arts Council's Art of Digital event, Do the arts speak digital? The topic of the talk and the subsequent Guardian PDA panel discussion was "does the phenomenon and the tools of social media change expectations and relationships with audiences?" A few people asked me to blog it, so here's (roughly) what I said. Having recently published Social by Social, I didn't want to focus on the details of the tools and how to use them - anyone looking for information on technology tools and how to deploy them should check out the book. Instead I focussed my thoughts on the new ‘social conventions’ being created by these tools, and the implications on our culture and power structures as a result of all these technologies. How does it affect my relationship with my audience if the audience can talk back, and talk to each other?

I began with a story my friend Charlie once told me about a speaking job he did in Finland. He arrived to find he was speaking to an audience of one man. He gave his talk anyway, as best he could, and was rewarded with a large and pleasing round of applause from this audience member. Moderately satisfied, he gathered his possessions to leave but was stopped by a cry from the man: "But you can't go yet: I'm the next speaker!" Because that's the thing about audiences: you never know who's in them or what they might have to say.

I was speaking here to a silent audience in a darkened theatre: a common format for these events but actually a relatively recent convention. Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man (thanks to Dougald for putting me onto this) narrates the shift in the 19th Century from performances where the audience talked and participated, to a new social convention of a silent audience. But in this talk, I had a Twitter feed behind me showing the things the audience were saying to each other about what I was saying. So what are the conventions for interacting with that? Is it rude of them to interrupt me, or is it rude of me to ignore their comments?

The point is, it's not the tools that matter: it's the impact they have on our social structures and conventions. The media has changed: we already have a completely new ecosystem of news. It’s changed marketing too, with sites like Dell's Ideastorm and Skittles turning their website into a Twitter feed for conversations about their product acting as living proof of the Cluetrain Manifesto's "markets are conversations". Organisations and work have changed too: my various friends and followers on Twitter act as a distributed consultancy and community of practice for me.

I see this as a time to play with social conventions and find new ways to interact, with and without technology. A conference is a set of social conventions of audience silence, expert performance and public conversations - and these can be played with, as we do at the People Speak with things like the Twitter stream visualisation, or the talkaoke table. A blog is another social convention, in which we agree to listen patiently to what the author has to say before making our comments on their ideas. Discussion forums are flatter, with no hierarchy except a custodian keeping the space active and safe. Twitter is more complex again, a vast multiplicity of asymmetric relationships, public and private conversations and even old-fashioned broadcast. With each of these new tools comes a set of new conventions, each of which - as Rohan Gunatillake rightly observes - eventually leaks back into the rest of our society.

So if it's a time to play with convention, it's also a time to challenge some of the 19th Century assumptions about how things "should" be done. At the same time as the silent audience emerges, so too does the culture of street silence, the shift from the noisy, sociable marketplace to the silent, impersonal shop as the context for commerce, and the shift from consumer-commissioning to mass production of products. Amidst technological revolution, economic recession and climate change, all of these conventions are now open to challenge.

School of Everything is a social marketplace for face-to-face learning. We're moving from a 19th Century broadcast model of teaching to a social media approach where everyone can be a teacher. Similarly, Mindapples is about respecting everyone's "expertise" about what works for their minds. As I say in the introduction to Social by Social, it's about helping people do things, not doing things to people.

So for cultural organisations, what is cultural production when it’s not mass production? What are the conventions and power structures for facilitating social production of and around the arts? And what are the implications for expert practictioners when they are not stood in front a silent audience? Someone asked a question in the following panel about quality control on School of Everything, and also about quality in arts production, and my answer in both cases is that just because an organisation isn't taking responsibility for quality control, doesn't mean individuals aren't doing it themselves. We can all take responsibility for assessing expertise, curating content and making our own judgements; and the price we pay for moving up the power chain is that we must sit through more poor quality material. Thanks to these new tools, the choice is ours.

I believe that social tools make the invisible networks of our culture visible, and therefore possible to engage with. A good arts organisation can rally a community around a cultural event, but all the ripples in the pond become visible too and arts organisations can engage with them. At what point does it become rude for them, and me, to ignore what the audience is saying? Cultural production can create meaningful culture, but it is social tools that embeds it and makes it diverse and relevant to a wider audience.

I think the biggest issue for arts organisations within these shifting social conventions concerns the role of performance. Social media is most certainly performative: when I Twitter I speak to a larger audience than were present at Friday's event, so don't for a minute think I'm not performing when I tweet. In fact, if you want to understand Twitter you could do a lot worse than read Keith Johnstone's Impro. But there are times when it is appropriate to improvise together, and others when it is better to be silent and listen. I don't want to send text messages during a play, I want to really watch the play (unless it's a really bad play...).

Arts organisations, like the rest of us, now need to consider the role of silence and performance in all their work, and deploy appropriate tools to assist the performance and embed the culture it creates. But that doesn't mean the moonlight sonata is improved by twittering through it or making Domain Exploration easier.

Real world marketing

I'm at b.tween in Liverpool today speaking on a panel with Adam Gee at Channel 4, Andy Bell from Landshare and Lucy Willis from Battlefront. We've been talking about using online and broadcast media to create action in the real world, in relation to School of Everything and other "social by social" projects. My main point was about the intersection of social tools and media content. Battlefront helps young people campaign and then tells their stories on TV and online, and so creates action in the world. Meanwhile, School of Everything is creating action by building tools to enable and inspire people to teach and learn from each other: the existence of the tool is the trigger for creating the stories. Landshare is the model I can see emerging between the two: an integrated commission of TV content and social platform, with TV content to inspire people to grow things on spare land, and a social tool to help them find and use land near them. In other words, the TV content is creating a culture in which the tool will thrive, and providing marketing for the site.

Web 2.0 can also feed back into traditional media by creating and locating stories for cultural programming. Whatever the model of commissioning, if you are fortunate enough to be creating real activity in the world, you can use that activity to create a feedback loop which rallies more and more people to your movement. Here's how it can work:

  1. Create a tool which helps people do something in the world - share land, teach each other, campaign for change, or whatever. Write the stories you want your tool to create, and build it so it supports those things to happen, smoothly and simply.
  2. Collect stories of the activity that results by engaging with your community, and share these stories back with the community through newsletters, blogs, Twitter etc. - and also with the public through any media channels available. Tell these stories in a way which makes audiences feel they could do it too.
  3. Give users a way to share and promote their activities too, to amplify the effect of the activity and let your users help you market the tool. Help the people who have figured out how to do it share that with their peers.
  4. The stories and media activity then become valuable resources in recruiting more users to the platform, which creates more activity to use in promoting the movement, and so on. By creating activity in the world, you create news; and by telling the stories through the media, you create a culture in which that activity is commonplace.

That's what we've been doing at School of Everything: we talk to our users (or rather Claire does), find out what they're up to, and tell those stories to encourage more people to join in. The media, social or otherwise, helps us turn the isolated interactions into a social movement.

As for media commissioning, I think there's a rich seam here for media companies to invest in start-ups, and also in media content to tell the stories they support. The question of legacy is problematic - Landshare and Battlefront are commissions that need to generate stories, so what happens to their community when they have to stop "broadcasting"? So I think you also need a business model to sustain the existence of the web platform (School of Everything relies on real-world transactions for its business model), and finance it as an autonomous start-up that isn't dependent on the continuation of the commission. We need more integrated partnerships between broadcasters and start-ups. And with the mutual benefit a well-designed broadcast and social campaign can bring, a TV-financed web start-up with broadcast tie-ins looks like an increasingly smart business proposition.

So all we need then is to come up with ideas for really compelling things we want to happen in the real world, that are interesting enough to make good way to learn how to buy twitter followers. Anyone?

The Social by Social Game

David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and I ran an event on Tuesday night taking non-profits through a process of brainstorming and developing projects using social technologies for social impact. The event, called the Social by Social Game, was inspired by the Social Media Game and also by the book we've been writing for NESTA called Social by Social.

Rather than repeat the details here, those of you who are curious should check out David's excellent blog post and videos documenting and explaining the event. The whole game is Creative Commons but still in development, so please take it and rework it, and let us know how it might be improved. And if you'd like us to run a similar event in your organisation or community, please do drop me a line.

Shine 2009

The Shine UnConference for Social Entrepreneurs starts today at Kings Place, York Way, London. If you're there already, you may encounter me helping out Anna Maybank of Social Innovation Camp with a short session on developing your own SI Camp ideas. And if you're coming tomorrow, please join David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and I at The Hub Kings Cross for the Social Collaboration Game. We'll be showcasing a new event format based on the content of our forthcoming book Social by Social. We'll be brainstorming ideas for how collaboration technologies can solve social problems in your neighbourhood, and then developing your proposals into a full pitches for funding - in just 2 hours.

Hope to see you there!

Who Wants to Speak?

I've been doing some work as a host/facilitator for my friends at The People Speak this month, and in timely fashion they've just released a video of their recent Who Wants to Be? event at the Unicorn Theatre. The People Speak are the funkiest events company in London. They produce democratic gameshows and innovative event technologies to get audiences genuinely engaged in discussions. Co-founder Saul Albert is also a Sociability Associate, and their work in events ties in nicely with the online projects we've been building to engage communities and unlock the power of networks.

Who Wants to Be? is their most ambitious event yet: a gameshow in which the audience pay £10 each for a ticket, and then collectively decide what to spend the money on. Watch the video to find out what we decided this time - and watch this space for future events they and Sociability are running.


#SXSW takeaways

I've been off exploring lately. Those of you who follow me on Twitter etc. will have spotted that I was at '#sxsw' - also known as "South by Southwest". The South by Southwest Festival is held every year in Austin, Texas, and it's a huge international (mainly US of course) festival of Film, Music and Interactive content. The #kebab unpanel - photo by Benjamin Ellis

School of Everything were out in force promoting ourselves internationally, meeting other start-ups and soaking up new ideas. The flavour was very much Silicon Valley though and I was surprised at the lack of cutting edge thinking in the panel discussions. I've come back feeling that the quality of discussion in London is extremely high: hearing apparently cutting-edge panellists repeating ideas which I'd heard two years ago in London made me feel we're really at the heart of something interesting over here.

I enjoyed Steven Johnson's talk about the eco-system of news, not least because I enjoy analogies to ecology to describe business developments. I also enjoyed hearing Bruce Sterling rant about the recession, the human impact of web 2.0 and the importance of bringing your own beer to speaking gigs. And I managed to get myself into an argument with Chris Anderson of Wired about the economics of 'free' culture and the future of publishing, which actually included him shouting "screw the printers!" at me. All rather good fun, and he was nice enough to Twitter me afterwards and continue the discussion over here.

The highlight though was undoubtedly the British invasion of the conference with the now-infamous #kebab session. In the pub with Richard Pope on the Saturday night, we decided that the conference needed stirring up and hence that we should run a Brit-focussed panel about using the web to achieve social aims rather than just "how to monetise Twitter". The next morning, Richard found us an empty room to steal, nagged me into facilitating it, and we somehow persuaded Mike Butcher and others to announce it - until by 2 o'clock we had a room full of people waiting for us to do something interesting.

We ended up running "Not another social media panel" - an improvised 'panel-slam' event where anyone on the panel could instantly replaced by a member of the audience. Be interesting, be knowledgeable, or be replaced by someone who has something better to say. The result was a pleasing array of organised chaos, including user-generated name labels and a live Twitter-stream for the event following (for some reason) the hashtag #kebab. By the end of the session (via some references to monetising waterboarding and assorted US vs. UK banter) the entire panel had been replaced including me, the room was packed and 'kebab' had trended as the fifth most mentioned word on Twitter. There's some video footage kicking around in the Twitter stream, and we also ended up on Techcrunch, the Guardian and even in Wikipedia. Not bad for a little idea we had in the pub.

We're now wondering how we can start a SXSW-style event (with added kebab) here in London and rally some of the cutting edge discussions around the UK start-up scene. Anyone interested in helping out with that, let me know.

Being Interesting

I spent a wonderful day yesterday at Interesting 2008, exploring interesting things with interesting people. It wasn't like any conference I've ever been to before: much more informal, more fun, more varied. It made traditional conferences look like what they are: sterile, mannered, orchestrated sales events. Thank God for people who are happy to sit in a big room and talk to each other about things they're passionate about. Why doesn't that happen more often? In some ways this was to conferences what blogs are to mainstream media. It's personal instead of abstracted, defined by the personality of the marvellous Russell Davies and his friends rather than 'brand values', and inviting lasting relationships. Lovely.

A few quick thoughts on why Interesting was so much better than most events (and I'm still trying to work this out so please do add your own thoughts if you want):

  1. Short talks about simple things. No essays, no complexity - just 5 or 10 minutes for each speaker to get you interested in their thing.
  2. Passion. Everyone was talking about something they loved and did in their spare time, rather than something they were selling. You can pay people to do things, but you can't pay them to be interested in them. And as Russell himself said, in order to be interesting you have to be interested.
  3. Nice surprises. No-one knew what each speaker was talking about before they started, so no-one wanted to miss a word.
  4. Bring your own. No lunches provided, and though sponsors brought cake and biscuits we came for the content, not the freebies.
  5. Singing. And recorders. And electric guitars. And a ukelele. And other things that conferences aren't supposed to have.
  6. Jokes. Conferences are so bloody serious - and being serious is not the same as being interesting.

There are more of course, and in some ways it's like a magic trick: I don't want to know how it works, because if there's a repeatable pattern then Glaxo and Nike could do it too. But there's definitely a lot I've learnt about how to run more "interesting" events. Big thanks to the ever-lovely Tessy for giving me her spare tickets, and to Russell for letting School of Everything do Interesting Things in the foyer.

So here's to fewer conferences, more Interesting, and huge respect to this guy, and this guy.

Freeschool Tools

I've been rambling on about Freeschools again. Here's me yesterday explaining how to turn any community into a school by the simple application of a few post-its and a bit of enthusiasm...

Thanks to the ever-sociable David Wilcox for the video, and for his excellent accompanying blog post. And why not join the Sociability Freeschool on our new experimental freeschools site? Let me know what you think of it, and what you could teach me.


Last week I gave a talk on peer learning with Ben Vershbow of NY think-tank if:book. He's been doing some fabulous things in collaborative reading, which I think could have big implications for the way blogs and discussion forums interact. If:book have developed a hack for the Wordpress platform which places comments to the right of each paragraph of a blog post. It's based on marginalia in old-fashioned academic texts and is intended to allow collaborative annotation of academic texts - but it's such a simple tool that I think it's got much wider implications.

We've been playing with an installation of the system based on the talk we gave at, with some success.

The software itself is available for free at I strongly urge you to check it out and put it to good use!