Organisational issues of 21st-century systems and #RSA

This was first published (August 27, 2010) as an open letter on posterous. I'm reposting a (slighly shortened) version here as posterous no longer exists and I need to refer to it.

Hi Kellie.


A year or two back, I was involved in a workshop relevant to your interest in 21st century organisations. It was organised by a group connected to the RSA, and the day involved exploring issues related to the formal, long-established, RSA and a complementary informal network.

It was definitely not a typical talking shop. I think it would have appealed to you. We were divided into three or four groups and started in a fairly normal warm-up way of telling our neighbour what we knew about the RSA. In theory we had all brought with us an object that was in some way was representative of the RSA, so those objects were included in the discussion. Then we had to express what we had described using Lego and plasticine - and our brought objects.

During the course of the day we developed our ideas about the RSA and about the network, their similarities and differences, their present relationship with each other, areas of difficulty, and how these difficulties might be overcome. At various points in the day the groups got up to visit the models forming on the other tables, and to have them explained. (There were photos and video recordings – perhaps they still exist somewhere.)

I was grateful to be included as I found it a rich learning experience and many of the lessons I learned that day are still with me. I was intrigued by the similarities and differences between the different models. They were all very different and yet each expressed the same very simple emerging truths. In each case the established RSA was represented as a formal, organised structure (lots of lego there). The network was chaotic, flexible and organic (lots of plasticine). The two systems (the established RSA and the network) looked like different worlds, existing side by side, but initially not connected in any way.

It was a long time ago and I write from memory so what I write as the final conclusions are my impressions, not necessarily what others remember as truth.  My memory is that we concluded that it was difficult for the established system to reach out to the new one. That makes sense to me. It is comparatively easy for people who are involved in a new, evolving and largely invisible network to look at an older visible well established structure (one they may even have experienced for themselves - or something like it). It is not hard to make reasonably well informed judgements about it.

It is almost unimaginably difficult to do it the other way round. It is not a matter of like-to-like. I think it is more like one group standing on the White Cliffs of Dover and the other group out in a flotilla of rowing boats. It is not a simple matter of distance between two groups. The cliffs are fixed and, also, they are easily visible from the sea long before the boats can be seen from the shore. If the distance between the groups is to be reduced then it makes sense for the people in the boats to do something about it.

In the models that we had constructed, various kinds of stepping stones and suchlike were built out from the chaotic networks to the formal structures. I don't remember much in the way of traffic between the two - but at least it was possible. I think the models have relevance beyond the RSA.