It was about 15 years ago, as I was planning my escape from my job in the civil service, that I became interested in the activity of networking — both personal networking (as a way of finding new work opportunities) and the creation of networks that make links between (rather than within) organisations. Over those 15 years, there’s no way I could count the number of networking initiatives (online and offline) that I’ve taken part in. Over a hundred, for sure. In some cases you can tell right off that the venture will last only a few months and then wither away; in others it’s much harder to predict. Often it doesn’t matter: longevity isn’t everything, and I enjoy the simple spirit of experimentation — “let’s try this out and see if it we can make it work this way” — that imbues many of the most unusual networks.
Are the best networks built from scratch on greenfield land or is it better to work within an existing organisation and layer networking on top of some shared history? I’ll spare you the suspense of building towards a conclusion by saying that I think both are valid, there are pros and cons of either approach, and “it depends” on the specific context. Having got that out of the way, here are a couple of contrasting examples from recent experience.
The RSA has been around for 253 years. I joined about thirteen years ago after attending a “Tomorrow’s Company” event there about the re-invention of enterprises. What appealed to me was that the place reeked of The Establishment, with a good quota of greying old men in suits from National Institutions, but that they and others were saying challenging things about radical changes needed in corporate governance and society at large. I’ve written quite a lot about RSA events here (e.g. see my notes on the Adelphi Charter), and upgraded to life membership (“fellowship”) a few years ago, so I’m committed long term.
On the other hand, while I’ve always been supportive of what the RSA does, I’ve always felt on the periphery. Apparently I’m not alone in this. In the last year or so, the organisation has made several steps to encourage greater involvement from the 27,000 fellows, and also to reach out into the broader community: “civic innovation” as the new CEO calls it. The range of activity from both within the organisation and from those fellows who are already engaged means that there’s an official blog, an unofficial one, a wiki, a Facebook group and a Google group. Which makes it quite hard to keep up and be confident that you’re not missing anything. Especially — and this is one of the downsides of working within an old, Establishment organisation — for the reasonable proportion of fellows who, being of advanced years, don’t spend much, if any, time online.
All of this activity has been building a head of steam up to an event yesterday where 250 invited fellows discussed the way forward. (I wasn’t one of them, though I’ve taken part in a couple of preliminary events and even contributed to the flurry of activity with a blog post.) Apparently this will involve a combination of top-down and bottom-up changes.
When you’re starting from scratch, meanwhile, there isn’t a top and bottom. At least, there is in the sense that some people are in the driving seat and others are sitting more on the sidelines to see how things develop — but because this is based on commitment, not history, there is more up for grabs and roles are more fluid.
A couple of days ago I attended the first ‘prototyping’ meeting of the London Social Media Café. The initiative for this came from Lloyd Davis, and I happened across it when my Facebook feed told me that a couple of my friends had joined a group that sounded interesting. Now I am potentially one of the first movers in this new network of independent creative and technology professionals.
In the subgroup in which I participated we discussed how this venture should be constituted as an organisation. How should members retain ownership as it grows? What kind of “executive group” should there be? Should the Social Media Café be not-for-profit, and, if so, could it raise enough money through grants, sponsorship or membership contributions. Most important, I think, in the early days of a new social venture is finding sufficient people who are prepared to contribute their time and energy in the knowledge that the tangible rewards for this will be modest, if there are any at all.
The Social Media Café doesn’t have the backdrop of the RSA’s 253 years of history, so volunteers don’t even have the confidence that it will still exist a few years from now. The risk is greater, the control is greater, and the baggage is much less.
Networking, like other kinds of investing, is about spreading your risks. So, for the time being, I’m going to try and keep some kind of involvement in both the RSA’s established institution and the Social Media Café’s start-up initiative.