Strategic Management Articles

Self Forming Groups -- Association Threat or Opportunity

More than eight years ago, in an article entitled "Preparing for an Open-Range Future" in ASAE's Association Management magazine, I said, "...Associations that adopt an organizational model that facilitates self-forming groups and encourages them to communicate freely can retain competitive advantage. But this is not a well-worn path. Those that are trying it are poised at the edge of the jungle with a machete."

That piece was written before blogs, vlogs, wikis, podcasting, iPhone, and social networking entered our vocabulary. These years later, the path into the "jungle" is longer, if not yet well-worn. Yet, associations still are struggling to respond to member-created organizations, events and content.

A prime example is the Prometheus Circle retreat, a ten-year-old small group meeting originally created under the auspices of ASAE' Executive Management Section to allow participant-designed content and more in-depth sharing on both a business and personal level among association executives. Over the years, the retreat drew a loyal following, but it was too small, in ASAE's view, to justify the staff resources to support it. When ASAE announced that it was no longer going to offer Prometheus, a group of volunteers stepped forward to put it on. They found a site, hired the long-time facilitator, and marketed the meeting, which was held in Keystone, CO 2007 and Coeur d'Alene, ID in 2008. Association executives who attended have deemed them the best two of the ten retreats. They have more than broken even, allowing seed money for the following year. Attendees agreed to continue to do the retreat themselves, even though a potential supporter had stepped forward. The reason? More freedom, less overhead, and a passionate desire to keep alive an experience that enriched participants. The 2009 session is in the works.

A great success? For the participants, yes. But shortly after the 2007 Prometheus Retreat, a conversation began on the Executive Management Section listserve that raised questions about ASAE's allowing the use of its lists and listserves for marketing a non-ASAE event. Some even suggested that the Prometheus attendees were an elite and influential group that limited participation and might be pursuing their own agenda with ASAE member resources. There was spirited debate. Prometheus participants rose to the defense arguing that it was anything but an anti-ASAE rump group; that ASAE blessed the retreat and offered CAE credit for it; that it was open to anyone who chose to register; that, as any ASAE member, they were entitled to use ASAE communications systems; that they hardly were an elite and influential group given that virtually participants were executives of smaller associations.

After a month or so, the discussion died out. But why was there such angst among some in the first place? The answer lies in the very nature of self-forming groups. They tend to be small, leading to concerns about elitism. They can be narrowly focused and short-lived, leading to concerns about supporting resources. But they are clearly a force that with which the association community must contend.

One of the Prometheus Retreat participants said that there were a number of self-formed special interest groups in her association's field that were asking for recognition from the national organization. Initially, the association's response was to reject the overtures. But after discussing the situation with her peers, she determined that inclusion, not exclusion, was the best course of action. Why? Because with or without the association's blessing, the groups would form anyway, and it was better to have them in the fold than outside it. In the case of the Prometheus Retreat, ASAE showed similar understanding in its response to volunteers' desire to continue the meeting. In both cases, self-formed groups create content that is highly valuable to the field in which the members work. Also, in today's blog-populated world, it is unwise for an organization to ignore or try to suppress member/customer-designed associative environments.

This case is clearly made in Citizen Marketers, a book by Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell that details the affect that individuals using electronic publishing methodologies, such as blogs, can have on organizations. This affect is both positive and negative. Some blogs, such as Dell Hell, create a firestorm of criticism. Others, such as StarbucksGossip, are cheerleaders for the company/organization, but do point out opportunities for improvement.

A new term has entered the lexicon, too - crowd sourcing. Loosely defined, the term means using a large community of interested parties to address a difficult question. This, too, is a type of self-forming group. Companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Novartis Pharmaceuticals have used this methodology to pose thorny problems needing solutions. Often, the solutions create significant income for the company without any remuneration demanded from the problem solver. In the Norvatis example, a pharmaceutical scientist responded to a challenging question from the company in an electronic forum and spent three weeks creating an answer. His compensation? The thrill of the challenge. The benefit? Millions of dollars for the company. The question? How can associations use this concept to create answers to compelling questions?

Association chapters and special interest groups are on the front line of the self-forming future. In a project on the chapter of the future for a large international professional association, we and our partner Mariner Management and Marketing, a Laurel, MD firm specializing in chapter management and development, recommended a new model with self-forming structures based on program and content delivery. Our research showed that the association's members, especially younger ones, already form business and personal social networks in both real and virtual space. They communicate face-to-face, by phone and email, and with social networking platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, You Tube, Wikipedia and LinkedIn. They form those networks around four principal connection catalysts: issues, interests, discipline and location. Issues are timely and often short-lived (e.g. regulation and family dynamics). Interests tend to be avocational (e.g. collecting, travel, sports). Discipline relates to their profession or specialty (e.g. education, problem solving, career development). Location tends to be the place where one lives and works, but increasingly takes on global characteristics as technology encourages inexpensive and easy connection in your pocket.

Business Week magazine has looked at who is engaged in social media use and what they are doing. It reported, not surprisingly, that the primary users of social media are members of the Millennial Generation, people under age 26. A recent study by Grunwald Associations, a market research firm, reveals that 9 to 17-year-olds spend nearly as much time on social networking (9 hours a week) as they do watching TV (10 hours a week). What they are doing mostly is posting personal messages and photos and downloading and uploading music and videos. This demonstrates that the most powerful of the four connection catalysts is "interests."

But how many associations are using these social networks? According to a 2008 survey by Principled Innovation, 24 percent of respondents reported that their association has a blog, 31 percent have an "official" presence on a social network and 14 percent report using a wiki. While there is great interest in social networking among associations, they lag behind the corporate world. A 2008 study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research and Inc. Magazine showed that social media usage among the 500 fastest growing U.S. companies has doubled to 77 percent from 2007.

There is a cautionary note here: beware falling into the trap that "most of our members don't do social networking." Remember that mantra in the early days of the Web and email? Associations need to learn about the future of "associating." Today's buzz is all about Web 2.0 and social networking. We see a great opportunity for those associations that adopt these tools and make them available to their members but they are also a great threat to associations that do not adopt them and have communities form outside the association that are faster and more innovative than the ‘traditional' association format. However, social networking is about both a virtual and a physical presence.

A good primer for association executives is Wikinomics - How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams. Bottom line: social networking is here to stay. The next generation of members will demand it because it's been in their world since childhood, and they thrive on collaboration. 

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