Wednesday 6 February 2013

Professional Scholarly Publishing Annual Conference: The (R)evolution of Value: Innovation and Sustainability. Are associations becoming irrelevant?

Harrison Coerver, author, Race for Relevance
Are associations becoming irrelevant?

That's the question that Harrison Coerver, President of Harrison Coerver & Associates and author of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations asked the audience at the opening session at the Professional Scholarly Publishing meeting in Washington DC.

Coerver's organisation has worked with over 1400 associations in their time, so he draws these conclusions based on wide experience. He believes that professional associations aren't going away. They will probably exist, but will they have vibrancy, relevance and vitality? That's not a future we all want for professional societies. So we need to do something about it.

To do this, he believes we need to face up to the "New Normal" for Associations. This is dictated by time, value, membership diversity, generational value, competition and technology. These six trends converge to create an environment where association relevance is challenged. What do associations have to do to get the situation back in balance? And how do they go about it? As a rule, associations are not equipped to tackle a changing situation, so this is no mean feat.

Executives don't have time any more. Institutions are time intensive. Meetings, seminars, events, member queries, reading publications, government affairs: they all take time. When do you hear people saying they have spare time now? You don't. Associations need to acknowledge this. There is no more time.

Face the fact: associations are competing for people's time so you have to add value and provide a good return on member investment. You used to just join your relevant association. In the 70s and 80s people started to question the value of their dues: what do they get for their money? There's nowhere to hide now.

Membership diversity
Members all used to be the same, but then a funny thing happened: they started to diversify with sub-sections within sections. Coerver cites the American Medical Association who lost members while associations in medical specialisms grew.

Generational values
Demographics are a key factor. The highest satisfaction ratings of associations come from those in their 60s. This drops as you go down the age groups. There is an ageing phenomena that needs to be tackled. Beware the thinking of 'Millennials': those born in the 80s who will find information and arrange events themselves using modern social technology, and resent paying someone else to do it.

Associations don't like to think of themselves as competitive organisations. From for-profits to non-profits, co-ops to media companies, and from the internet itself: all these traditional and not-so-traditional competitors are taking a piece of the association landscape. You have to a) acknowledge this is competition, then b) understand there are alternative propositions, and c) if competitors do it better than you do, then you are in trouble.

Associations have been slow to adapt technology and we are behind. Apps, social media are all good examples. With social media - associations have allowed Facebook and LinkedIn to own their networks. Compromised by the lowest common denominator, associations have tended to focus on the one person who still doesn't have a fax machine. A key challenge is to balance member services and satisfaction and not losing the progressive members who will get frustrated by slow progress and go elsewhere (those non-traditional competitors mentioned before, maybe?) Why can't we use the technology that we use everyday in our lives?

So how do associations fix this? Coerver recommends you adopt five radical changes:
    1. Establish a five member competency based board - keep it small and tight for effective decision making
    2. Empowered the CEO and staff - you can't run a strong association on part-time amateurs
    3. Rigorously define the member market
    4. Rationalise programs and services (learn from the music industry: think about providing singles rather than albums)
    5. Build a robust technology framework
Mismatch between model and environment
The key mistake associations make is equating the volumes of services to the value they provide to members. This is a fast track to over-extending the organisation and not delivering the most important services to members. This is about the power of focus and if you ignore this and technology, it's a short cut to irrelevance, ignore technology.

Strategies for success read like any good business methodology. Create a sense of urgency. Ask loaded questions. Use data. This is critical due to strong traditional ties to services. The best way to confront that is by putting data in front of those who are wedded to historical ways of doing business.

Invest in youth. Get youth on the board as soon as possible. You don't know what will they will say, but you have to evolve from within and learn how to adapt and become relevant to the next generation. Accelerate the adoption of technology. Associations spend more on meals at events than they do on technology. That is a scandal. And finally, harness political skills. Human capital is one of the biggest strengths. Use your board for lobbying and ensure you have the best and brightest team working for your association.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering if you ever considered changing the layout of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?