Archive | September, 2011

Communities of Practice

29 Sep

Don’t blink. You are likely to miss something. There is so much change happening in the way we communicate and collaborate within associations that it is difficult just to keep up. Luckily, one of the advantages of all this change is that it helps bring your members closer together, and helps them to benefit from the collective power of the whole.

Take for example the problem of continuing education within associations. One of the main ways in which professional organizations have served their members is through formal continuing education courses. In the past, physical presence at a training location or (at best) a computer-based training system,where members have little or no contact with one another, were considered the most efficient ways to keep members informed, their training current.

But formal courses are not the only aspect of the ongoing process of education that has become part of almost all of our careers. The members of your organization have a huge body of knowledge about the practical realities of working in the field. What is needed is a way to leverage this knowledge; enter communities of practice.

Most association members are dedicated individuals who want to do their part to help the greater good of the community, and will work together to help one another when called. Taking advantage of online tools, we can network these individuals together and have everyone benefit from the collective expertise of the entire membership. Properly executed, members are empowered to be more active and collaborative than ever.

When you start your search for tools that will make this possible, the “usual suspects” are the first to come up in conversation: Facebook, Twitter and now even Google+ has caused rumblings among the tech savvy folks in your organization, be sure of that. Each have their advantages, and each have their own limitations. However, on the whole, these services are addressed at the public as a whole. Although they provide some control over privacy, they are not geared to creating inherently private communities. And although they provide some measure of support for collaboration, they have not been designed to support the types of interactions typical for sharing and curating knowledge.

At AssociCom, we are building technology to solve this problem for associations, and give them a secure way to communicate and collaborate with/amongst members. Focused squarely on the needs of associations, organizations and societies, we empathize with the unique needs of those groups to extract the most value out of social networking, and keeping that value where it belongs; at the domain of the org itself.

Discussing a solution to a problem is only the first step; taking action and learning is the next step. That is why we have created the ability for associations to try our software for free, or have the option of joining one of our existing networked groups to experience private social networking first hand. We encourage you to try one or both, and ask us any questions you have along the way. With the tools, strategies and practices of associations changing every moment, it helps to have access to a support system with their finger on the pulse. We are happy to be that support system, so feel free to lean on us anytime. We’re here to help.

Social Curation

22 Sep

I work as a software developer. Every day it seems like new technologies come along and I don’t want to ignore them because my own personal experience is that some of them will make a huge difference. They may help me automate some process that is currently done manually, or they may provide some service or feature that I would have to build myself otherwise. In a few rare cases, they change the way that I think about software development, and so the way that I do my job changes substantially.

But its hard keeping up with the changes. I have Twitter feeds set up from other developers that I admire and trust. I’ve got Google Reader set up with a bunch of RSS feeds from source that I have found reliable. I use Google Alerts to try and track developments on specific topics. And yet, in many cases I end up finding about new developments in a conversation over coffee, or an email from someone I used to work with.

How I wish there were a way to gather together the best and the brightest, and have them create a repository of what they have learned, what they think is interesting, what they think is groundbreaking. I’m not aware of such a community for my particular area of endeavours, but when I look around at many associations, I see just that kind community. Unfortunately, in many cases, associations fail to take advantage of that potential.

One way to harvest the bounty of your members is through social curation. Provide a way for them to identify what they’re reading, what they’re using to solve their problems, what they think is the next big thing in their field. Look into mechanisms for rating and recommending content. Maybe consider packaging some of the most highly related material into your magazine, if you have one. Or use the most highly rated authors to find people to come and speak at your conferences. Your members are thirsty for knowledge, and in an interesting apparent paradox, are also probably the best source of that knowledge.

Social curation is something that we at AssociCom are tremendously interested in. We’ve experienced ourselves the difference it can make, and we’re passionate making it available to others. If you want to find out more, give us a shout.

The Value of Customers

14 Sep
The recent conversations on #assnchat about what associations need to do in order to deliver value to their members got me thinking about some interesting experiences that I have had in the software industry. One, in particular, seems relevant to the challenges facing associations.

I’ve been involved in a number of startups in the software industry. What’s interesting about startups is that at the beginning you build something based on your own ideas about how something should be done.  And normally, you are testing it and trying to use it in realistic ways as you go through the development process. In the best of all worlds, you actually fall in love with what you’ve built because it does what you want it to do so well.

And one day, you think its good enough to actually have potential customers try it out. If you’re lucky, you get a lot of positive feedback. But even in that case, you’ll find that people have lots of suggestions and questions.

I remember one situation like this very clearly. We had gotten the product installed for the customer and, overall, they were quite happy. There was one thing they were having a little trouble with though. I read through the emails from them and talked to them on the phone, and it seemed to me as though they didn’t really understand how this one feature was supposed to work. So, I would patiently explain to them what they needed to do. And they politely thanked me for the information.

About a month later, I had the opportunity to go visit this customer and they invited me in to see the product being used live. It was pretty exciting to see it in action. And then came the time where they needed to use the feature that had been problematic for them. As I watched the poor soul try to get the software to do what he wanted, I realized how completely I had misunderstood what their problem really was and how thoroughly we had failed to understand what it was really like to use that aspect of the product.

Based on that experience, we were able to significantly re-work that aspect of the product and come up with something that actually did work out in the real world.

There’s been a lot of talk about delivering value to customers on #assnchat, but I think to really understand whether you are delivering value, you have to be out there with your customers. You need to understand what it is they are trying to achieve and how your products/services fit into that. And the acid test is to watch them, in real life, as they go about their jobs and see whether you really do make their lives easier and/or better.

Associations as Businesses

12 Sep
Over the past few days, there has been quite a bit of conversation on Twitter amongst myself, Tom Morrison (@tommorrison), Jeff De Cagna (@pinnovation), and several others about the extent to which associations should be run like businesses.

In that Twitter conversation, I may have come across as arguing that associations are not businesses and I wanted to provide a more complete sense of my thoughts on this. And just to establish some context, I should say that I am not, nor have ever been an association executive. I have been heavily involved as a “senior” volunteer at a couple of associations over the past decade or so. But mostly I am a software developer who has helped co-found a couple of companies, and has had senior roles in a few others.

I think the main idea I wanted to get across is that I don’t think associations and companies are exactly the same thing. There are things that successful companies do well which would help associations provide more value to their members, but there are significant differences as well.

First, a typical company exists only to satisfy one function: monetary return on investment to its shareholders. Most associations I am familiar with are non-profits and their primary function is much more broadly defined: to  provide value to their members.

Interestingly, those members are also usually responsible for electing the governing board for the association, which is itself in many ways similar to the board of directors of a typical for-profit company. And the board of directors is elected by the shareholders. This reveals another interesting difference between associations and companies. The association’s set of customers is identical to its set of shareholders (i.e. members), but in a typical company the overlap between customers and shareholders is usually quite small. So, associations have one constituency where companies generally have two. This means that in an association the shareholders (members) have a much greater vested interest in the products/value that the association creates.

Related to this, the membership of an association is usually a group of people bound together by some common interest and often some significant fraction of the membership have significant experience in that area of knowledge and are willing to share it. That willingness to share experience/expertise is not as common amongst the customers of a company. The extent to which an association is concerned with capturing, aggregating, filtering, and distributing that experience/expertise is yet another difference from companies.

Being bound together by common interests also means that the members of an association are essentially a natural community much more so than is typical for the customers of a given company. That sense of community is what leads to things like statements of ethics, and a greater concern for how that community can contribute to the overall development and welfare of society as a whole. I believe that this aspect of being a community is a significant difference from just having a set of customers.

As I mentioned above though, there are lots of things that associations can learn from businesses. My sample set is not gigantic, but my sense is that many associations don’t think of themselves as delivering products, and so they lack some of the infrastructure that is typical in companies to ensure that they are delivering value to their customers: product managers, brand managers, customer personas, requirements capture and analysis, quantified customer feedback loops, etc. These are the areas in which I think associations really should behave like companies and which will help them become more successful.

Turning Customers into Members

8 Sep

Back when I was a student, one of my professors told me that I should join a professional association in order to help me develop in my career. So, I went ahead and joined with vague expectations that it might help me find an interesting job, look good on my resume, or help learn skills that would be useful out there in the real world. And shortly thereafter I got a nice welcome package that described all the benefits of belonging to the association, and I started getting a monthly magazine.

Reflecting back on this, I realize that I was, at that point,  a customer.  I had paid some money, and had some expectations of getting some tangible benefits in return. Although I was technically a member of the association, I really didn’t have much of a sense of belonging to anything.

A number of years later, a colleague/mentor of mine asked me to get involved with one of the volunteer boards at the association. As a result, from time to time I got to fly across the country, meet with the staff at the association’s headquarters, meet with the other members of the board, and, of course, actually get involved in trying to plan out some aspects of the association’s future.

And so, I transformed from a customer into a member! I felt like I actually belonged to something, and that I was helping to build it and make it better.

I believe that the source of the transformation was this sense of belonging. And I think that the basis for feeling that you belong is interacting with people, getting a sense of who they are, reaching out and helping someone in need, and in turn, find helping when it is needed. The root of belonging is community. Associations need to use whatever tools they can to create opportunities for members to meet, interact, share, and collaborate, both in person and through technology because it will help turn customers into members.

At AssociCom, we’re passionate about online communities and we’d love to help you build a vibrant online community at your association. Have a look at our website to learn more about AssociCom, or even set up a free trial to see how an online community could work for your association.

Stay in Touch

8 Sep

I was working on my laptop between sessions at the recent WA-ACTE conference near Seattle when I overheard a nearby conversation:

– Did you hear the keynote speech?
– Yes, it was excellent. I wish I could get a copy of that presentation.

My ears perked up because we had just the solution.

Tim Knue, the Executive Director of Washington Association for Career and Technical Education (WA-ACTE) had the foresight to create an AssociCom community web site for the members attending their summer conference. Attendees could see who else was attending, could message one another, discuss and comment on the conference, ask questions and see conference information.

The solution to the wish I overheard was the community’s web based document sharing library which allows any member to upload documents and web sites.

James Pullman is WA-ACTE’s Social Media Consultant. He had the keynote PowerPoint. We quickly put a “2011 Conf. PowerPoints” folder in the library on the Community site and uploaded the file. Result:

  • Immediately every conference attendee could download the keynote.
  • No sign up sheets with incomplete and illegible emails.
  • No one had to email out an 8.3 MB presentation.
  • The presenter did not have to type emails from a pocket full of business cards in a plane on the way home.

James gave the file a short description and tagged it “presentation”. Later other members could add other tags they preferred to search on. They could also:

  • comment on it
  • engage in a discussion about it
  • ask questions about it
  • create a poll pertaining to it
  • flag it if they thought it was inappropriate or incorrect
  • add it to their personal web based community library

A web site provides information to members, but a community site with discussion capabilities and a web based library becomes a focus for member interaction and engagement.

It is farsighted to realize that the conversations in the hallway after a presentation can go on 24/7/365 with the aid of a well-designed online community. In fact, they could lead right up to the next WA-ACTE conference.

As I left the conference, I said to Tim, James and others I had met. “Stay in touch.”