What does it mean to be a scientific learned society in the 21st Century?

CEO, Mark Hollingsworth in his office reading a magazine

Welcome to my first CEO Blog. I will be using this forum as a means to regularly keep all our members, stakeholders (and visitors to our website) informed on what might best be called the ‘view from my office’, here at the HQ of the Nutrition Society in London.

I joined the Nutrition Society as CEO on 1st July 2014, and enjoyed a two month transition into the role whilst the outgoing CEO Fred Wentworth-Bower eased himself (deservedly so) into his retirement. Fred had selflessly served the Nutrition Society for 10 years. The period since I was handed the full reins on 1st September has been preoccupied with developing an in-depth understanding of all aspects of the work of the Society. This is vital to enable us to take the next most important step – developing a long-term strategic plan for the Society.

An important element of this strategic planning is to review where the Society is at the moment. The Nutrition Society has been around for 74 years and I would suggest is in a very strong position.

  • Our scientific journals are world-renowned and reporting sustained global sales.
  • Our textbooks continue to be in demand, and further editions, and new titles, are in progress.
  • Our successful Scientific Meetings present the results of the latest, leading edge research and facilitate healthy debate.
  • Our Training and Education programme is now ‘selling out’ on many of its highly rated courses.
  • The Society has a stable financial footing upon which to operate, which benefits our members.
  • Our permanent staff are first class, bringing to the work of the Society a rich mix of experience, educational and cultural backgrounds (We now represent five different European nationalities speaking eight languages!).
  • The Society is very fortunate to have many members (my last count saw over 175) who volunteer their time both in leadership and supporting roles.
  • Above all else, the key to our continued success is science – the science of nutrition – and never losing sight of the valuable role everyone involved plays in making the Society one of the world’s leaders in advancing the scientific study of nutrition and its application.

Long term view

A strategic plan requires us to take a long term view. This is never easy, especially as todays non-profit organisations find themselves having to operate within a very challenging environment. And we are not alone. I am often reminded, when I hold conversations with colleagues in industry that the non-profit sector is not in an exclusive bubble of challenges. I am frequently surprised to find how similar our mutual challenges are. For example:

  • We are both accountable to Boards who are increasingly under pressure from regulatory bodies to perform their duties to the highest standards of integrity and accountability.
  • There is continued pressure on budgets and keeping operating costs under control.
  • We both operate in markets of increasingly informed customers or stakeholders who have higher and higher expectations of value for money and/or timely and accurate information.
  • We are all looking for sustainable sources of revenue.
  • Our products and services have to be subject to continued review, and sometimes upgrade, to keep pace with the changes around us. ‘We have always done it this way’ is simply not good enough.  
  • And then there is the ‘people’ element. In seeking to develop high performance teams who can manage and cope with all these challenges we find ourselves correctly spending increasing amounts of time leading (rather than managing) our staff, looking to empower them, train them and finding innovative ways to recruit and retain them.

A 21st Century learned society

Against this backdrop, in developing the Society’s new strategy, the key question our Board of Trustees is now carefully considering is:

‘What does it mean to be a scientific learned society in the 21st Century.’

Perhaps another way of looking at this question is to consider what if the Nutrition Society did not currently exist and several scientists and academics from the field of human and animal nutrition decided to form a new Learned Society for nutrition. What would it look like? Who would be likely to join? Would it be by invitation/nomination only or open to everyone? How would it be governed? What would be the benefits it would offer to members? And how would one make the Society financially viable, taking all the challenges outlined above into consideration? 

Finding the answers to these questions is important to ensuring the long term sustainability of the Society.  Important to how strong the Society is in another 75 years, in the year 2091. This is why in developing the next strategic plan it is important we ask these difficult questions and relentlessly pursue the answers in order to make us better and stronger.

What happens next? I like to think of the words of the successful American entrepreneur and Chairman and CEO of IBM, Louis Gerstner, who said: ‘A successful, focused organisation is one that has developed a deep understanding of its customers’ needs, its operating environment and its economic realities. These are then translated into strategies and day-to-day plans.’

Therefore, as mentioned earlier, next must come this painstaking analysis leading to a new strategy and plans for the Society to guide its work over the coming years. In the meantime, whilst my role as Chief Executive is to be occupied with the day-to-day plans – measuring, adjusting, reallocating resources as necessary – I will also be actively involved in the strategic planning process, through listening to our members and stakeholders and finding out what they believe the Nutrition Society should look like as a scientific learned society in the 21st Century. I invite you to join the Trustees and me in this debate and look forward to having those conversations with you.

 

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