Strategic Thinking Articles

What Comes After What We Know?

These are perilous times for associations. Fundamental assumptions about function, form, and funding are under assault by sweeping changes in technology and demographics and association managers are beginning to wonder whether they and their organizations will survive the onslaught.

Historically, associations' principal product has been information, usually delivered on paper in magazines, newsletters, and bulletins and in meetings in fancy hotels and resorts. But with the explosion of the Web, associations' lock on information has been pried open and their constituents increasingly demand net-time knowledge that won't wait for snail mail or the next convention.

New association competitors are emerging, such as Microsoft and AOL Time-Warner, who understand that the money isn't in the technology, it's in the content, and financially they can outgun associations in being able to provide it.

Associations are content rich, but they are slow to adopt and adapt to new information-delivery technologies. Too often, they think of them as an end, not a means. Get a Web site; problem solved. But the online world is a huge information maw requiring constant feeding. Stoking this content furnace requires rethinking of association staffing and internal structure and a reallocation of resources to support receiver-driven instead of sender-driven communications.

Organizationally, the traditional association model is being questioned more openly.  Why do we need members, leaders, dues, all the trappings of the past?  In the future world of associations, members may become customers who pay only for what they want or owners who get a dividend for their "dues" investment; dues may give way to small subscription fees that permit access to a panoply of products and services sold at market prices; volunteerism and leadership may become focused more on outcomes than self-aggrandizement.  For-profit models may gain popularity.  One association leader-researcher has called the 501c(6) the “dead exemption.”  And he’s getting a following.

In the past, association members would gladly volunteer time, serve on committees, and climb long ladders of leadership out of a sense of duty, loyalty, and the need for self-actualization. Today, with time more precious than money, with people scrambling to balance life and work, with leaders of all stripes suspect, associations are finding members far less motivated to pony up time unless they see an endpoint and an outcome for their efforts. This viewpoint is especially true of the Baby Boom and Gen-X generations.  And wait until the Millennials hit.  These are kids born between 1982 and 2002, who are very different from their Boomer parents and the Gen-X siblings. And there are 80 million of them.  They’re eager to volunteer but only for meaningful things. And they won’t wait to be heard.

Associations have been bastions of the white male middle class. But the waves of change are building and heading in like a tsunami. The first wave already has crashed ashore, the "majority-minority" – women. Today, women-owned businesses are the fastest-growing segment of the economy. Half the students in medical and dental schools are female, and women are populating the other professions as well. The next wave will be a "minority-majority" composed of Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, and smatterings of other racial groups who, in the aggregate, will outnumber Anglo/Caucasians by mid century. But associations are not yet discussing how to deal with these clear and inexorable trends. Unless they do, and soon, some predict increasing fragmentation along racial, ethnic, and cultural lines and an increase in the formation of associations with hyphenated constituencies.

What can associations do to remain relevant in the next century? Become the information abstracters for busy constituencies. Associations are credible destinations for weary Webworld travelers. The limitless choices of the online world are confusing, confounding, and time-consuming. People want someone to identify important knowledge and compress it into easy-to-take information "pills."

Associations need to rethink governance. It needs to be agile and aware.  And that will take a culture shift regardless of the size of the governing bodies.  

Associations must develop a sensitivity to diversity and pluralism and be proactive in promoting is among staff and members. This approach will require new training and new alliances, but associations will be helped by the awakening of the business and professional world to this cultural imperative.

Association managers should question the traditional association model -- members, dues, volunteers, nonprofit. It may well be the best for some, but new and hybrid models must emerge because one size will not fit all in the future.

Management guru, Peter Drucker, when asked how his predictions could be so accurate, said, "I don't predict. I look out the window and identify what is visible but not yet seen." That's a good model for any organization wanting to remain relevant.

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