From good to great?

December 31, 2012 by
Filed under: The RSA 

Whilst I don’t for a moment imagine hoards of people having their festivities dampened by anxiety about my writer’s block, perhaps I should explain the longest break in my five-year blogging history. Perhaps I have finally run out of anything new to say, or is age mercifully draining me of the conceited drive to share my humdrum thoughts with the world?

The explanation I choose concerns the RSA. I am loath to fall into management speak but the Society is at the ‘good to great’ crossroads with some hard thinking to do about which direction to follow now. It is this that fills my free thoughts and which I want to share over the next three days. Some may feel it is inappropriate to be this open but, as I recently told a Radio 4 audience, I believe modern organisations ought to behave as though they are operating most of the time in a glass box.

Before going on I should defend the self-serving nature of this dichotomy; is the RSA even good? Let me pick out six developments from the last few years

An important measure of research impact is profile (after all there little point writing something brilliant that no one reads). Over the last few years we have moved from a strike rate for national media coverage of no more than one a year to more like one a month, and we also gets lots more profile in specialist outlets.

Whilst the RSA used to rely largely on its own funds to finance research, not only do we now raise most project funding externally, but we have a wide variety of partnerships with organisations ranging from RBS, to the Technology Strategy Board to the NSPCC and including several local authorities, Trusts and Foundations.

The RSA’s lecture programme is universally recognised as being exceptional and our on-line content, particularly RSAnimate, world-class

Across three dimensions we have a much broader span of projects than ever before and than any other thought leadership body of our size. Our research outputs range from deep conceptual exploration of the foundations of human thought to highly practical research on the needs of young entrepreneurs. Our subject matter stretches from exploring new ways of manufacturing low waste products to mapping the social networks of deprived communities. And our methodology spans traditional desk based research to a trial form of community based rehabilitation funded through a payment by results contract.

There has been a fundamental shift in the way we work with Fellows. Up and down the country, and in the stronger international chapters, RSA Fellows are working together to develop innovative and charitable projects, often benefiting from the support of RSA staff or the Catalyst Fund.

Our ambition continues to grow. In 2011 we recruited a small group of RSA Academies, which is now starting to coalesce into a strong family of schools.  This year we have made a small but significant investment in internationalising the RSA’s work. Of the several promising developments resulting our student design awards – the oldest such awards in the world – are being replicated (albeit on a smaller scale) in Malaysia and the US. And this year we completed a significant refurbishment of the building without at any time having to dip into our long-term reserves.

‘So, what is the problem?’ I hear my reader ask. It boils down to two things. Whilst we have many good outputs and some significant impacts (our work on pensions, for example, has definitely shifted the debate) there is still the need for some breakthrough projects that both put the RSA on the map as an organisation which unquestionably shapes policy and public discourse and also raises awareness of us among those who don’t have direct contact with the Society. Second, the different parts of what is an amazing organisation need to meld together better to fulfil our promise to be the ‘the kind of organisation the twenty first century needs’.

The more I think about this the more I come back to the same word; ‘Fellowship’. I will explain why in the final post in this series, but tomorrow’s themes are myth and mission.



  • Edward Harkins

    I think you encapsulate the Big Challenge in 2013 for the RSA is the need for ‘some breakthrough projects’. I might even go as far to narrow that down to the need for a single breakthrough project. Much else will follow when that is achieved.

    For my own part I have steadied and stood slightly back from a couple of intended Fellows activities here in West of Scotland. That is because I see the need for further robust analysis on ‘what difference will this make, what will the unique impact be? That, IMO, is a local Fellows’ version of the need for breakthrough for the RSA at national level.

    Meantime, at this great time of Hogmanay, I can only commiserate with those of you who are not in or around Glasgow ;-) But anyway ‘All the Best When It Comes’ (‘It’ being the New Year bells at midnight)

  • Andy Gilbert

    “Good is the enemy of great” – a thought provoking quote by Jim Collins (author of Good to Great).

    How many Fellows are happy with “good”? How much discussion is actually happening about what “great” is or could be?

    In terms of even engaging with RSA how many fellows are active (I speak as a recent convert after 12 years of inactive fellowship) or bothered about making a difference?

    Let’s make 2013 a great year.

  • Fiona Beddoes-Jones

    Well said Matthew, I expect every Fellow would agree with your comments thus far. I would like to add to them if I may; not only does the RSA need to become ‘the kind of organisation the twenty first century needs’, it also, I believe, needs to become the kind of organisation which both individuals and organisations want to align themselves with in terms of greater collaboration and mutual support.

    The Fellows are already aligned, no news there, but how do we set about significantly increasing the membership? As business schools both here and abroad significantly contributed to the ‘greed is good, competition, (rather than the customer or the community), is king’, I wonder whether they should be taking the lead in not only working in greater partnership with the RSA, but also in actively encouraging their MBA, DBA and DBM students to become proud Fellows and active project participants?

    These intelligent and articulate people would become the ‘next generation’ of Fellows and they are all likely to achieve significant positions of influence, leadership and responsibility in future years.

    Socially responsible, ethical and authentic leaders are what followers want and what organisations need. Which business school will be the first to rise to the challenge I wonder?

  • Robert Burns


    “The gods make mighty those who bow to their yoke”

    How ‘great’ or ‘good’ you want to become is a matter of who and what you are willing to sell out to achieve it.

    Happy New Year :-)

  • Antony Kalogerakis

    Happy new year Matthew!

    I’d like to express my gratitude on behalf of all us of us whose life actually gets better and better thanks to the RSA.

    You (all) have excellently planted and fertilized seeds from which -I am very confident- the specific breakthrough projects you are dreaming of will soon arise. As for the expanding phase -well- I believe the heart of the organization to be strong, focused and beautifully bonded. In the name of the ’21st century Enlightenment’ many of us have already been pricelessly inspired and educated. Which means that the RSA is on the right track and -yes- a more coherent form & functional structure may be the natural occurrence, but let’s see how that will emerge.

    Thank you for living with me!

    All these wishes,

  • Daniel Vennard

    Fully agree with your analysis. An admirable list of achievements – but with a relatively loose sense of connection between the strands. I agree that clarifying the two or three of the RSA’s big ideas to invest behind will yield the most success. But for this to work it must be coupled with an agenda to stop/dial back on the smaller strands. Simplification of work will also unlock the resources to be able to over invest in the big game changers. I look forward to reading your forthcoming posts on the topic. Proud to be a fellow and excited to think what this approach could make possible.

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  • Andy Gibson

    Hi Matthew, thanks for this series of posts, it’s good to start the New Year by stepping back and assessing things.

    You might be interested in this perspective from Silicon Valley: The gist is that in a hyper-connected global market (which is where the RSA should be playing), being ‘great’ isn’t enough: “Everything has to be excellent to matter.” I think if we want the RSA to matter to people, we should aim to do something better than anyone else in the world.

    Being the best in the world at anything requires deep specialisation, and preferably a unique ability that competitors can’t replicate. So I think the most important question for us is “what can the RSA do better than any other organisation in the world?” This means going back to our core assets and understanding what we can do that other organisations can’t, and focussing on those areas rather than being ‘good’ at a range of activities that many organisations could have done. Some of our work is ‘excellent’ (Animate, the Journal, some of our projects and research work, our historic brand and heritage), but how much of our work could only have been done by us?

    So what is the RSA uniquely good at? We are a ‘Society’, a coming together of some 27,000 people with different skills, networks and expertise to achieve things collectively. I think remains the RSA’s unique proposition: we have been a crowd-funded, networked organisation since 1754, at a time when other organisations are desperately trying to turn themselves into what we have always been. We also ‘encourage’, meaning we aspire to accomplish more by encouraging other people to do things rather than doing everything ourselves (we could call this “harnessing human capability”). Then there is the “Arts, Manufactures and Commerce” bit, which is slightly less specialised but conveys a clear sense that this is about making tangible things in the world that can be touched, seen, bought and used – which puts us in the world of practical action and experimentation. Our charter also includes references to “research”, “education” and “inspiration”, all of which signpost us towards thought leadership, sharing knowledge and disseminating best practice.

    So I think starting from these core attributes will help us clarify how to take the Society to the next level. If we want the RSA to be excellent on a global scale, we need to focus on what we do better than anyone else, and do things in a way that an organisation without our assets would find hard to match. It’s an exciting time for us and the opportunity is there, we just need to figure out what we’re brilliant at and focus on it.