Strategic Thinking Articles

Lines and Silos and Squares, Oh My!

All of the moves toward partnering and collaboration seem to focus on associations' external relationships. Meanwhile, internal partnering and collaboration remains mostly talk, in many cases.

Ask most associations to show you how they're organized internally, and they'll pull out a chart that looks like this.


Protestations that teambuilding occurs across functional lines aside, there's siloing all over the place in this traditional hierarchical model. Everyone may be cordial, but the focus is on territory. A better model comes from nature, which prefers circles to squares. It would look like this


In this "cellular" model, the partnerships are clear and real. All structural elements of the association work in concert. Each has individual strengths that contribute to the overall strength of the organization. They are not distinct and independent. In this model, teambuilding is not just within the staff; it's among members, leaders and staff. It allows common ends to be the organization's focus instead of parochial outcomes based on territorial concerns of departments and committees. Members also can see themselves as integral to the success of the organization, rather than a mass at the top of a pyramid of hierarchy. This can encourage greater participation from them because they can see that they hold the organization together.

This cellular model carries down into staff organization, as well.

Here, the staff is formed into strategic business units (SBUs).

They should grow out of the association's mission. An example is an organization whose mission is "to improve the skills and knowledge of providers in the real property transaction, effectively advocate member concerns and standardize products for industry use." Strategic business units in this mission are continuing education - including meetings, publications and the web site - government relations, and standards development. Each of these businesses gets support from non-income generating areas such PR, marketing and finance and administration, which function as internal consultants whose "fees" are built into the strategic business units' budgets. All SBUs and "consultancies" are encased in the organizational "cell" and function together for the common good. Collaboration is clearly the outcome.

Details: Bruce Butterfield, CAE, President and CEO, The Forbes Group, 703/691-2440,

This article was published in the January 5, 2001 issue of Association Trends magazine

Bruce Butterfield is a CAE, FELLOW, ASAE, and PRSA, and is president and CEO of the Forbes Group.

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