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From Authority to Enabler

13 Apr

Association executives are often proud of the role that their association has played as a trusted source of information for their members. And rightly so because associations have developed finely tuned systems for producing excellent content. The trouble with this model of the association is that the internet is radically transforming not only how content is produced and disseminated, but perhaps even more fundamentally how trust is developed and maintained. In the age of social media and crowdsourcing, the notion of a trusted central authority is becoming, at best, quaint.

Does that mean that there is no longer a role for associations? I don’t think that is the case. But I do think that associations have to transition from being authorities to being enablers. This entails understanding what your members are trying to achieve or what they need, and determining if there are ways that you can facilitate that. Since that advice is sufficiently general as to approximate being useless, I thought I would provide some specific examples of what I mean by being an enabler.

  1. eLearning – Most associations have a strong history of helping their members to develop within their professions. If your association serves a profession with both broad and deep technical needs, then it is likely your members are looking for ways to learn new technologies or improve their skills in their area of expertise. For many professions, there will be online course providers who have developed the types of training that your members are looking for. You can be an eLearning enabler by seeking out these providers, licensing course materials, and aggregating them into a cohesive offering for your members. For an example of this, have a look at the ACM’s Professional Development Center.
  2. ePortfolios – For many professionals, the work that we do becomes the intellectual property of our employers. This can sometimes make it challenging for an individual to demonstrate their past achievements. For example, if I have made significant contributions to a particular software package, I would like to be able to show prospective employers that software, but in many cases I won’t be able to because of licensing restrictions. An association can be an enabler in this scenario by creating a trusted environment in which employees could showcase projects that they had worked on. The association would need to work directly with employers so that they would be willing to allow their products.projects to be showcased there.
  3. Mentoring – Another approach to continued professional development is through mentoring. An association can act as an enabler in this situation by creating the infrastructure that would collect information about potential mentors and mentees, assist with the matching process, and provide a forum tracking progress in the mentoring relationship. Additionally, the association could provide online tools for mentors to share best practices, useful documents, etc. Have a look at MentorNet for an example of how such a system might look.
  4. Best Practices – Whether it’s a task that is part of our day at work, or a problem that we’re trying to solve for a project that we’re working on at home, a lot of what people are looking for on the internet are ways to solve their problems. In particular, they are often looking for guidance about the best way to approach a problem or task. An association can act as an enabler in this context by providing an online platform for the exchange of information and the ongoing aggregation of best practices as identified by their members. For example, consider the knowledge base developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
  5. Local Meetings – Even in a world that seems dominated by the internet and social media, people still like to get together and discuss topics of mutual interest. Have a look at Meetup.com to see just how much of a driving force this remains — at the moment when this was written they were helping to organize 280,000 monthly meetings. And if Meetup.com does such a good job, what role is left for the association? Well, it turns out that there are still challenges in organizing a local meeting, and a significant one is simply finding space in which to hold a meeting. So, an association can act as an enabler in this circumstance by working with the community to build up a library of organizations/companies who have space that they are willing to allow to be used for professional meetings.

That’s just a few concrete examples. If you get to know your members and their needs, I’m sure that you’ll uncover many more. And this is where the future of your association lies — in helping your members achieve their goals. So start looking for those opportunities to be an enabler.

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Why Email Isn’t Dead Yet

4 Apr

There’s been a lot of talk about the death of email. The general theme seems to be that young people don’t use email anymore, they just communicate through FaceBook or Twitter or some other social media tool. And while I agree that social media tools are in fact better for some types of social interactions, they won’t kill email. The reasons are two-fold: First, some interactions are inherently individual-to-individual and that is a mode of interaction that email supports completely naturally. Second, and more important, email software has evolved to be inherently user-centric. That is, email software is excellent at letting me do what I want with email, and letting me do it in a straightforward way. Here are three examples of this:

  1. Deletion – I just got a message from my the HR department. It’s full of the usual badly chosen metaphors and bland exhortations to seek excellence. They think this is important and, if it were left up to them, I’d continue to see it and absorb its profundities forever. But in the land of email, I’m in control. I can just delete that message and it need never trouble me again. Email lets me decide what is important.
  2. Organization – How I organize email is totally up to me. I’ve seen people who just leave everything in their inbox and depend heavily on the markup that indicates whether they have read a message or not. I like to create folder hierarchies, and file emails away into what I consider to be the “right” place. In GMail, you can create various tags and use them to help you structure email. GMail even has some heuristics built in to try and identify important emails. There are lots of different email clients out there, and they support a wide diversity of individual approaches to managing email. Email lets me organize things the way I want.
  3. Tasks – Most email clients make it easy to flag emails or turn them into tasks with reminder dates and various other features that help one priortize one’s day. I personally use my inbox as a task management system. As soon as I have finished with an email, I file it away somewhere (often the circular file). So all that’s left in my inbox is stuff that requires me to do something. You can tell how overloaded I am just by looking at how many items are in my inbox. As with organizing email, there are many email clients that support a variety of personal styles. Email lets me prioritize my activities the way I want.

I think these capabilities are significant. I haven’t seen any social media platform that gives me as much control as email does. Social media has its place. It’s excellent at supporting group communication. It works well as a way of highlighting new information and encouraging discussion. But it hasn’t killed email and it won’t until it delivers the sort of user-centric experience that email provides.

Changing Your Organization

3 Feb
I notice a lot of energy around the notion of changing our organizations these days. To make them more innovative, to make them more collaborative, to make them more open, etc. But I think sometimes the emphasis is misplaced. Because the most important factor in achieving this is not the organization, its processes, its vision, etc. The most important factor is people.An organization is not open to change — people are. To have change occur, I have to be looking for opportunities to do things differently. My boss has to be open to change, and his boss has to be open to change. Rules and processes can’t make this happen. They can hinder it, or they can support it, but fundamentally it arises from the personalities of the people I work with.

And while it is possible for people to change, it’s not an easy undertaking. So the most effective strategy for change in an organization is to hire people who have the personalities you are looking for, and promote the people who reflect those values. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, this isn’t a science.

For example, I’ve come to realize that cultural fit is a make or break issue with new hires. I’ve seen numerous situations in which people had all the technical skills required for a job, but in which cultural issues made it impossible for them to contribute effectively. I think that I have gotten better at navigating these waters, but I can’t put that knowledge in a box and pass it on to others. Maybe that’s just a limitation that I have, but I don’t think so.

So what do we do? The most important take-away for me is to keep the focus on people. Organizational structures and processes can’t make this happen. In hiring, don’t just focus on technical skills — use your intuition to see whether someone has the personality traits that you need. And since culture is vital, involve as many people as you can in helping you assess whether someone will fit in.

The Agile Association

24 Jan
Is your association responding quickly enough to the changing needs of its members? If not, then you are probably seeing a decline in membership as people seek elsewhere for answers that might have come from you. How can you get back on track?

The software industry has gone through similar crises. Software projects were often behind schedule, and over budget. But even worse, when the systems were deployed, in many cases after years of work, people discovered that they were impossible to use or did not provide the capabilities that had been anticipated.

In reaction to this, a small number of people struck out in a new direction propelled by the idea that the whole way that software was developed was wrong. These become the leaders of the Agile movement and it has blossomed into one of the most popular ways to manage a software development.

What does this have to do with associations? I think it has everything to do with associations. Early on, the leaders of the Agile movement developed a manifesto representing their core beliefs about software development. Here they are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Notice that the word software only occurs once. And if you replace the word software with the word systems, you have a set of guidelines that can be broadly applied to any organization that provides products or services. This then, is the foundation of the agile association.

In the software industry, adoption of agile was slow at first. The principles outlined above were often in direct opposition to “the way things are done.” But my experience is that teams that adopt agile are both successful and happy. I anticipate that associations will likewise benefit.

Help! My Community is Failing

15 Nov

It happens to online communities of all sizes. A community is established, the invitations go out, discussions are initiated, interesting content is posted, but there just isn’t much response. The initial enthusiasm of the organizers drains away. The community is in danger of dying. Can it be saved?

In most cases, I think the answer is yes. If the original community organizers were driven by a passion that they wanted to share, then it’s very likely that others will share that passion as well. But even if there are reasonable number of people passionate about a given topic or field, it does not mean that an active and engaged community will spring into existence the very moment that the opportunity presents itself.

People are busy. It seems like they’re getting busier all the time. For someone to devote even a fraction of their time to a new activity, there pretty much has to be an obvious and immediate value that they’re going to receive. This is bad news for newly formed online communities, because much of the value in the community is, at the risk of being tautological, the community.

Catch-22.

How does any online community survive these birthing pains? There are 4 key ingredients for an online community to succeed:

  • Time: Communities are about relationships. If your online community does not spring from an established set of relationships amongst its members, then it will take time for those relationships to develop. And developing relationships in a purely online environment is going to be slower than developing them face to face. If you have an opportunity to bring your community together physically, then do it because those relationships will carry over into the online universe.
  • Core Members: You need a set of individuals who are passionate about the community. People who will reach out to others and get them involved. People who will start up discussion threads, knowing that there may not be a lot of activity. People who are willing to live with a community that for perhaps several months may consist of only a few people interacting with each other. You need to make sure that your core members feel connected to one another because they *are* the community which will seed further growth.
  • Content: Online communities for professional and trade associations will have members who come looking for the specialized knowledge and skills that have been one of the traditional strengths of associations. You need to do everything you can to ensure that they find value in the community. Over the longer term, the community will indeed move to a more inclusive model (i.e. social curation), but initially, you and your core members need to find content that will be of interest to your members. And not only do you need to find this content, and make it available via the community, but you need to use it as a starting off point for further interactions.
  • Seeding Interaction: As with the need to initially ensure that there is a good flow of content into the community, you also need to ensure that there is a level of interactivity which may exceed that which occurs naturally when you only have a small number of active users. You need to ask questions, even though you know who is going to respond and how they are going to respond. You need to make sure that those active members really do respond, even though they know there’s not many people listening. It has to be obvious that there is an ongoing level of interaction in the community, even if those interactions are not immediately satisfying your needs for new information and new relationships.

Are there other key ingredients? There may be, and I’d love to hear from you about what has worked and what hasn’t worked in your experience.

Maximizing Volunteer ROT

8 Nov

No, not volunteer decay — Return On Time. That is, getting the most from the time your volunteers have to given.

My experience with associations comes from being a volunteer, primarily with the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). I imagine that my experiences as a volunteer are probably representative of most people volunteering time for an association. So, I think that the following observations are likely true in general, and represent a challenge in trying to get the most value from volunteers. As a volunteer, I find:

  • The time I can commit to the organization varies wildly. Some weeks I am able to put in 10 – 15 hours, while others its basically zero.
  • Occasionally, I have prolonged periods of absence (say 2 – 6 months) due to other commitments.
  • Its difficult for me to predict in advance how much I can commit to.
  • My contributions often occur outside of normal business hours.
  • I am remote from the ACM’s headquarters, so my opportunities for face-to-face interactions with staff are limited.

The project management side of me recoils in horror at this. Trying to establish any sort of plan when you are faced with this level of uncertainty is pretty much impossible. But the problems go ever deeper than that. The lack of continuity in my interactions both with staff and other volunteers means that its very easy for my contributions to fall through the cracks. It also means that I am not necessarily well-coordinated with other volunteers, and so we may up working at cross purposes.

One way to help ameliorate these problems is through an online community which includes both staff and other volunteers. Such a community would allow me to:

  • become better acquainted with people
  • to share my contributions with a wider audience
  • to coordinate more effectively
  • serve as a repository for institutional knowledge
This doesn’t solve the problem of uncertainty around how much time I can commit, but I do think it means that when I can commit, my time will be used more effectively.

Is Social Media Scary

25 Oct

Over the past few months, I have been on the phone quite a bit. Dialing for dollars as they say — or, more prosaically, making a lot of sales calls. This has given me the opportunity to speak to a fairly wide range of associations, and I’ve learned a lot about attitudes towards social media. An interesting one that has come up a few times is the fact that some members fine social media scary.

At first this seemed odd to me, after all so many people use Facebook and other services already, how could having social media which has been designed specifically to support member activities be scary? But upon reflection, it makes sense to me. A lot of it is due, I think, to the amount of hype surrounding social media. This does two things. First, it means that the term social media is applied to a broad range of services and activities. So, if you aren’t familiar with these things, then it can seem overwhelming. Second, there’s the potential for a sort of peer pressure in which you think you should be using these systems because everyone else is. But that pressure is just going to create discomfort for new users.

What can we do? To answer this, I think we have to go back to the question of why we want our members to use social media. Social media is a tool, not a goal. We need to start with a clear understanding of the value that we want to provide to our members. Social media comes into play when it is the best, most effective way to deliver that value.

When that happens social media can be demystified. It won’t be scary any more because members won’t see it as social media, but just as a way to learn, or find interesting information, or share expertise, or whatever it was that was the real goal. And the end result will be members who are more engaged and more satisfied.

My Association Wish List

18 Oct
As a software developer, my goal is to create something that people will find useful. Normally, I think of this as solving some problem that people experience or helping them do something more efficiently/effectively. Of course, to do this, you have to have some notion of what motivates your potential customers. It is useful, as the old adage goes, to walk a mile in their shoes.

At AssociCom we produce software for associations. In particular, we want to help associations build online communities for their members. Now, since I belong to two professional associations, volunteer extensively for one of them, and have been involved with a few others, I am in some sense, my own customer. This is both a blessing and a curse. It means I’m passionate about what I do, and I hold some deeply cherished notions of what an association should do, and the role that software could play in that. Of course, the latter is simultaneously a curse, since it can make it harder to recognize the needs of others when they are different.

With that in mind, I wanted to write about what I want from an association. I’m hoping that others will join in and share their expectations as well, and that we’ll develop a more encompassing sense of how associations can serve their members.

Pretty much everything I would hope for from an association has to do with helping me do my job better. Software development is a broad field, with many different areas of specialization. Like anything rooted in technology it seems to be changing at an incredible pace. I can envision a number of ways that an association could help:

  • Providing a question/answer forum that would help resolve very specific and concrete problems I will run into on a day to day basis. Interestingly, stackoverflow.com does a pretty good job of this and is not run by an association. One might also look at quaora.com.
  • Providing training to allow me to quickly come up to speed on new technologies. The ACM (www.acm.org) provides a fairly broad set of online courses for software developers.
  • Providing high level guidance about choices that I might face in doing my job. For example, if I am developing a new web-based application, I might want to know the advantages and disadvantages of certain languages or software development frameworks. I still haven’t found a really good resource for this type of material.
  • Providing me the opportunity to meet with other professionals in my local area. The IEEE has done a pretty good job of this in the past, but it seems like meet-ups are the most common vehicle for this sort of in person gathering, and generally speaking they don’t appear to be organized by associations.

So, that’s what makes me tick. Your turn now!

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.