Paper published in 2012 by Don Pinchbeck, one of the group that founded the Virtual Coffee House in 2007
The “famous five” who started the VCH came at it like this: Some of the 5 were invited to a RSA North East Committee Meeting, which seemed pretty dead and certainly depressing. Attendance at events was falling, and very little was happening to take their place. It felt as though no-one knew what to do. No-one was volunteering to come on to the Committee, so it was full of “old codgers” who really wanted to go away and retire from active duty.
Immediately following this meeting, we met and the view was that “things can't go on like this”, so we decided to set up an informal, active group in order to provide “life” for those Fellows who didn't find the Committee's output met their needs. It was additional, not competitive – bit of a skunkworks, if you’ve come across this way of working.
We called it the Virtual Coffee House (VCH), and wrote up what we would like to see - a copy of the original document follows – Peter Churchills Vision paper, which still guides us in a general direction.
One of the group - Justin Souter - suggested that he could set up a web facility called the Ning as an on-line foundation for the VCH and the RSANE Ning site was born. The RSANE Committee later endorsed what the VCH was doing (two of the famous five then joined the revitalised Committee) and the two now work in a happy state of co-operation - in fact one member of the original VCH Group is now the Chair of the Committee, another is a RSA Trustee Board member, and a later VCH joiner is now a member of the Fellowship Council.
As stated, the group had/has a vision, written up by Peter Churchill, one of the original VCH members, and a copy of this paper is here.
We ran, in 2007, a four-way video-conference across the Region, using locally sourced (begged and borrowed) equipment. It worked, and the potential was clear to all. However, in those days, video-conferencing was both expensive and flaky, and limited by available bandwidth. Our request for funds to continue this work was turned down by JAS Where did we fail?
Well – apparently no-one in JAS understood what we were talking about!
Therefore we failed to convince JAS of the benefits of what we were doing.
JAS ploughed its own course, which subsequently failed. The Ning really became a saving grace. Its value was recognised by other Regions and to our horror, each set up its own Ning – not the intention. We wanted one Ning as a unifying facility for Fellows in all Regions/Nations and International chapters. This splintering proved to be to the disadvantage of the Fellowship who were then unable to learn from each other's activities.
We ran a number of training sessions on the Ning, video-conferencing via skype, Twitter, and the use of Linkedin and Facebook. The drawn out, throttling way of communicating with Fellows via JAS-managed snail-mail caused some poor attendances, but one in particular, held at the Sage, was a decent success. With the learning gained, it could have been much better - more hands-on, less “chalk and talk”.
We find Ning is limited in some respects - maybe needs a Netvibes-like front end. We find we keep missing important stuff until someone draws our attention to it. It's messy. For example, we’d like one place to visit for all RSA Projects, including Catalyst Projects. They’re all over the place, and mixed with research reports on the RSA website.
We haven't succeeded in enabling the ning links with video-conferencing sites to work effectively.
Because we failed to win support from JAS (John Adam Street, RSA HQ) to finance our efforts, we have pulled up ourselves by our own bootstraps. If we had received support, we would have been well ahead of where we are today, but we achieved more with peanuts than JAS achieved with over £100K. We had the expertise to deliver hugely for that kind of money.
It now seems that for the first time, JAS has one or two technically competent people who realise the value of user informed projects (eg the new Interim IT Head). Even now, we believe there is much to be learned from RSANE experience.
Initially we failed to monitor who joined the Ning and why. There was some contamination by people offering, shall we call it, personal services! Authorisation was then placed with one individual, (Peter Churchill) who is rigorous in his work - challenging, seeking reassurance, even references before approving any request to join.
Once a Ning becomes contaminated by interlopers, it quickly becomes run-down and virtually useless. We believe that this has been the Scottish experience. Initially we had to cleanse our own, which we did.
RSANE is a vast Region stretching from the Scottish Border to the Tees. It really needs slick video-conferencing facilities (including document sharing) to enable Fellowship to take place region wide, or even across Regions. That costs money, but would pay handsomely. It is also a reducing amount of money as costs fall, quality improves and bandwidth increases.
Some Fellows already use video conferencing in their businesses, especially for international meetings, with huge savings in cost and time and improvements in efficiency. Fellows have typically neither time nor money to be tearing 50-100 miles to attend a meeting. We still feel it is sad that we failed to persuade JAS to fund this work or provide this facility.
Include video-conferencing facilities especially for those regions and nations (including International) that cover huge territories. Specialist Fellows will almost certainly be located in geographically dispersed locations, and video conferencing is increasingly the method of choice for such groups to converse and develop projects. As Fellows and JAS employees become more involved in project delivery, such facilities will become ever more vital. Imagine a Citizen Power project running in Newcastle. Video conferencing would enable experience and expertise to be readily accessed from JAS and its specialists by those involved in Newcastle.
Keep developing the Ning until a replacement has been developed, trialled and proven. See what can be done to unify the Nings – perhaps via the RSA version?
Recognise that snail-mail (especially the limitation of only four mailings per annum) via JAS was OK in the days when Fellows paid their dues and watched JAS deliver on their behalf. It is now a severe and damaging restriction on a Fellowship that increasingly wishes to be actively involved, and JAS wishes to involve, and flies in the face of modern communication techniques.
Data Protection is no reason for keeping this restriction - one letter asking Fellows if they wish/are happy to be contacted by authorised Fellows of their Region using telephone, email, Skype etc - is all that is required. Mind, JAS needs to put in place an efficient system for keeping the database up to date. A Committee member recently telephoned a Fellow. His wife answered, and in tears said “My husband died 6 month’s ago. I keep telling the RSA, but they don’t seem to get the message. Have you any idea how upsetting this is”? Such inefficiency is unacceptable. For most purposes, Fellows should be able to update their own personal details, entering as much info as they wish to disclose.
The attitude of JAS to its Fellows is indicated by the term “Network Managers”, which irritates many Fellows. They are Network Facilitators, and this title would position them much better. There appears to be insufficient trust exhibited in its Fellows by JAS staff. This needs to change. Whilst JAS staff appear well-educated and intelligent, it is sometimes obvious that they lack solid experience – something that Fellows, chosen for their achievements, have in spades. New ways of relating are still developing, and it would be helpful to work through how this can be accelerated.
And let’s not forget - enable ongoing training for Fellows in social media, especially when the new Fellowship platform becomes available.