Towards a 21st century enlightenment organisation


It is a few months now since we launched the new RSA strapline, 21st century enlightenment. Rather than throwing money at an expensive but superficial rebrand, the strategy has been to focus on  an expression of the Society’s underlying focus on human capability and gradually to add the strapline to the various RSA materials and outputs. At their last meeting, the Trustees agreed a visual refresh for the Society and this too will enable us to embed  in the brand.

So far, at least, I think we can be pleased with progress. Tomorrow I am delivering the annual Edward Boyle lecture at Leeds University. This will be the latest in a series of talks I have been invited to give on 21ce. This comes on top of the YouTube viewing figure for my lecture, which now stands at 305,000. Furthermore the Society gets regular letters and e-mails from a variety of people who think that it  is a powerful notion which chimes with their own work. As we had hoped, it has enough substance to feel substantive and distinct but is broad enough for people to interpret in many different ways, of which my annual lecture is only one.    

Over the festive season my thoughts start to turn to the next annual lecture (that is, assuming Fellows still want me around!).  I suggested a few weeks ago that one possible topic was the need for a different, more deliberative, form of democratic decision making.  But I now have another idea playing around: ‘towards a 21st century enlightenment organisation’.

Partly, this comes out of the experiences of trying to increase the RSA’s profile and impact, partly also the thinking I did before my NCVO lecture last month. It also relates to a challenge given me by Lord Nat Wei, David Cameron’s Big Society advisor to explore what might count as a Big Society organisation. 

It is a truism that if we are not just to cope with austerity but to advance as a society we need to get much better at tapping into human potential. But organisations – especially large ones - systematically waste human potential. This is not primarily due to ill will or bad leadership, but simply because the things that large organisations tend to require, such as bureaucracy, hierarchy, and a strict division of labour, all tend to squander human resources.

This is, of course, well known and a large library could be filled with books offering theories and stories designed to help organisational leaders get the best out of their managers, staff and clients.

Can the idea of 21ce offer its own way of thinking about this? It starts from two ideas: first that we need to foster an enhanced idea of citizenship (more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social), and, second, that in seeking to do so we should draw on the much more nuanced, and social, model of human nature which has emerged from science  and social science over the last 20 or 30 years.  The case made in my own lecture was that from these two ideas flow a third, namely that we should critically examine the way we think about the core enlightenment values of freedom, justice and progress. 

But what does freedom, justice and progress mean in an organisational context? Could answering such a question help organisations think afresh about how to reconcile the imperatives of organisational stability with unleashing the potential of people? Taking just the question of defining progress, most organisations tend to think of success simply in terms of expansion or - in the commercial sector – profit. But, on the one hand, size is not always, or perhaps even usually, the best way of measuring impact, while, on the other, John Kay has suggested in his book ‘Obliquity’ that profit may be one of those complex goals which we are less likely to achieve if we target it too directly and exclusively.   

I am acutely aware that if I was to talk about organisations it would take me into an area of research and practice which is deep and wide and in which I am a novice. I can usually rely on my readers to suggest good sources to help me start to climb the learning curve so, come on you organisational experts and consultants, what do you think I should read first?

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