Monday, November 13, 2017

Automation Is Not Always the Answer

I had an interesting conversation this week with a colleague on the subject of membership engagement tracking. It's not something that every association does, evidently, but it is something that my association does. We track many of the activities that our members participate in for the purpose of determining which are and are not highly engaged with our association.

We were talking about why some associations don't do it, and she mentioned her belief that some shy away because of how complicated the task can be, and how difficult it can be to find an automated solution for it. Their AMS (association management software) system may not have that capability, she said, and trying to build it where it doesn't already exist could be time and cost prohibitive.

Well sure, I replied, that may certainly be a case. Our tracking system, after all, is not incorporated into our AMS. It's essentially a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, updated a few times a year by a designated staff person, who, admittedly, has to pull information from a variety of different people and places in our organization to do it. It's time-consuming, but it gives us the information we're looking for, and we've used it to good effect in our organization -- reaching out to engage those less engaged, and adjusting our marketing strategies to better target them.

And that's when something else hit me. Automating our process within our AMS -- basically re-programming it to scour what would have to be a variety of different participation databases (some already digital, but others currently analog, which would have to be made digital) so that all the right ones and zeros could be put into the right fields, and then formatting a report that could be run at the touch of a button -- doing all of that, is utterly out of the question for an association of our size and budget. No question.

But that didn't stop us from creating our own, workable process for membership engagement tracking.

Too often, I've found, a desire for automated processes stops important work from getting done inside an association, and this struck me as one of those cases. An automated process can return tremendous economies of scale once the investment has been made to create it, but just because that initial investment is too much for an association to contemplate does not mean that the process can't be conducted via other means.

Specifically with regard to our process of membership engagement tracking, the knowledge we've gained from our efforts is valuable enough that, dare I say, even if we didn't have access to Microsoft Excel, we'd still be tracking what we could in a drawer full of three by five index cards.

Sometimes, doing it old school is not just the only option, it is, in fact, the best one.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Man at Work by Klaus Turk

The Eckhart G. Grohmann Museum of Industrial Art is an impressive building of art on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a native of Milwaukee and as someone with several professional connections to MSOE, I have been inside the building many times and have always enjoyed the minutes I have spent perusing and contemplating its art collection.

Man at Work is a coffee-table sized book that showcases and describes the museum’s collection in some detail. Its subtitle, 400 Years in Paintings and Bronzes: Labor and the Evolution of Industry Art, gives you some sense of the scope of what is ready to confront the casual viewer who visits the museum. As I have described to many a friend and colleague, it’s generally not until you move onto the museum’s third floor that you begin to appreciate how deep this tradition is in the history or art -- this depiction of man at work -- and how illuminating this collection is on that penetrating subject.

The book, however, is a bit of a disappointment. Not in its colorful reproductions of this wonderful collection, but in what it has to say about it.

Here’s an example -- the reproduction, with the author commentary that accompanies it.

Unknown: Large Hydraulic Forge Press With Workers, oil on canvas, 39x31 in., signed

A hydraulic six-post forging press is shown. It is capable of producing force of up to 30 tons on workpieces. In the operation illustrated in this painting, large blocks formed in the steel mill casting house are initially heated to a glowing state and forged at the ends to form two end supports, or plugs. Each end plug is hung from a chain loop as seen in the painting. Then the rough workpiece between the end plugs is lengthened to a six-sided shaft with continual pressing in the forge, guided by transverse movements of two overhead cranes and the turning of the piece. The turning of the forge piece is accomplished by the chain loop at each end. The worker in the foreground supervises the lengthening process with a measuring stick.

There are literally hundreds of pages like this. Colorful and abstract renderings of heavy industry processes and the men who skillfully carry them out -- accompanied by commentary that penetrates no deeper than a surface level description of the work being depicted. Exploration of such artistic concepts as composition and color are almost entirely absent, as is any illumination regarding artistic intent or sociological significance.

Typically, the only places where these concepts get any play is in the short introductions that head each thematic section of artwork. But even here, the intense artistic motivations that drove the creation of these wonderful pieces seem to be recognized as subservient to the much more useful role of these paintings and sculptures as accurate records of historical significance.

Metal Processing

After melting, forging and rolling, the finished metal becomes raw material for the metalworking industry. This is a widely diversified industry which produces a variety of both capital equipment and consumer products. Artists have not found the metal processing industry to be as appealing a theme as mining and ore processing. The spectacles of fire and smoke are diminished in metal processing, providing less drama. The symbolic confrontation between work and the power of nature is also less of a factor.

In spite of this, art history comprises a considerable number of visual pieces featuring the metalworking sector, including examples in the Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection. These examples range across the spectrum from allegorical works … to portrayals of grinding and polishing, wire drawing, construction projects, the building of industrial installations, machining and shipbuilding. All these pieces afford a view of the intermediate production and work processes. They combine machines and tools with human effort, mostly performed in large manufacturing plants. The technologies they portray are not always historically accurate, but they generally reflect the working atmosphere of industrial production.

As such, they are not primarily historical technical documents, but rather reflect an artistic impression of the complex system of industrial production, including a sociological view of the work environment in which the workers spend a great deal of their lives.

It was a pity for this reader, who is much more interested in the “artistic impression of the complex system of industrial production,” than in “historical technical documents.”

In service of that former interest, here are the few examples that really stood out for me.

Gärtner, Fritz [German, 1882-1958]: Bread and Iron, oil on canvas, 29x43 in., signed

Both allegorical paintings by Fritz Gärtner reflect a cultural view common in the period between 1900 and 1945. Agriculture and iron production are combined in the same scene to emphasize both sources of national wealth. Implicit in the scene is mining, which makes the production possible. Gärtner’s style yields an idealized and romanticized picture. A grain field in the foreground has been harvested and the sheaves set up to form stock. The industrial complex looms in the background along the banks of a river. A bridge, heavy with traffic, spans the river symbolizing triumph over nature. From the right bank of the river a new expressway bridge is under construction, its cantilever projecting over the water. Two blast furnaces at the center release a fiery glow and a pair of recuperators occupies the right side. A forest of smoke stacks dominates the entire scene, the resulting fumes nearly eclipsing the sun.

Gärtner, Fritz [German, 1882-1958]: Fire and Grain Sheaves, oil on cardboard, 27.5x39 in., 1914, signed

The [second] painting stresses a romantic view through its nocturnal version with a combination of royal blue and gold colors. It also emphasizes the unceasing power of production, in contrast to the interrupted farming in the foreground.

Looking at these paintings with my modern eye, the last thing I thought the artist intended was a positive message about national strength. To me, the juxtaposition of the by-products of heavy industrial production with the output of human agrarian effort more easily lends itself to a mournful interpretation. One age passing to the next. And the visual similarity of Gärtner’s Fire and Grain Sheaves and Van Gogh’s Starry Night is too obvious not to receive a comment.

The sociological meaning of this next one is too important to keep even the author of this work from providing its context.

The construction of the Autobahn, or German national highway system, was driven by the Third Reich and based partly on earlier plans from the 1920s. It not only created employment for a large number of the unemployed and demonstrated the increasing power of the Third Reich, but also created a major military transportation asset. As with other major projects of the Hitler regime, the workers were subjected to enormous propaganda. Many artists were commissioned to document the construction activities. … Bridges are the favorite subject of those who paint Autobahn construction scenes. In a special way, bridges embody the art of engineering, the productivity of construction, and the resulting accomplishment.

Mercker, Erich [German, 1891-1973]: Teufelstal Autobahn Bridge Between Jena and Gera, Germany, oil on cardboard, 16x20 in., signed

Here Mercker intentionally presents a more impressionistic rather than a technical documentary view of a large Autobahn bridge construction. The power of the construction is emphasized by the view from below. The goldlike color of the bridge, together with the brilliant blue sky, results in an edification of the project normally seen only in religious structures. The “Bridges of the Führer” became the symbols of the new Nazi rulers.

In these few examples, we see that these painting contain a richer tradition than simply that of documenting industrial processes and construction projects. A more enjoyable book would have been one that explored both with equal rigor.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, November 6, 2017

A New Kind of 80/20 Rule

Most people are familiar with the 80/20 rule. If not, Google it, which, oddly in my browser, consistently provides the definition from Wikipedia in a box at the very top of the search results. Maybe I should cut out the middle man and just start searching for things on Wikipedia? But I digress. Here's the definition given: "The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes."

In the association world, I've heard this principle cited for many phenomena, appropriately or otherwise. 80% of the volunteer positions are filled by 20% of the members. 80% of the revenue generated by the association is based on the activities of 20% of the members. You probably have your own examples. Well, I'd like to propose a very specific 80/20 rule in the realm of association education activities.

Spend 20% of the time delivering information from the podium, and let the participants spend 80% of the time discussing and contextualizing the information to their individual situations.

I've recently returned from another association education conference where I wish the organizers would have adhered to this rule. By my count, I spent 315 minutes listening to people speak from the podium, and 45 minutes in structured discussion sessions with my fellow participants. That's the opposite of my new 80/20 rule. 88% of my time spent listening ad 12% of my time spent discussing.

I feel strongly about this. Why? Because, as my most recent experience showed once again, the hard, tangible value that I received from the conference came not from the 315 minutes I spent listening to other people talk, but from the 45 minutes I spent trying to applying new information to my real situations and the real situations of my peers. Now, almost a week later, I remember very little of the information presented to me from the podium. I do remember, however, what we talked about in our 45-minute discussion session, and I have a concrete takeaway from that discussion that I plan to use in my work.

So, please, if you're in charge of planning an association education conference, give my new 80/20 rule a try. There is a place for podium presentations -- especially for the new ideas or new perspectives that they can effectively introduce to us. But if you expect me to do something with that information, if you expect me to actually change my behavior, then you'd better give me time to hash out the details with my peers. They, more than any outside speaker you can find, can help me problem solve around the issues that are really holding that change in behavior back.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, October 30, 2017

The Joy of Membership Interview

I was recently interviewed by Joy Duling of The Joy of Membership blog, for The Movement Summit, an online event she is creating and hosting, which will be happening live next week, November 6-10, 2017. Click on either of the links above if you're interested in learning more or perhaps participating.

My interview, along with many others that Joy is collecting for the event, is on the often thorny problem of member engagement. In it, I elaborate on some of the related themes that I've explored on this blog.

For example, the importance of defining the rules of engagement:

You really have to define the rules of engagement with your members. In a very professional, but very transparent and above-board kind of way. Member engagement is a term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and so you have to be really clear about it. Are you talking about increasing attendance rates at your conference? Are you talking about increasing the number of members that serve in your leadership structure, either on committees or on task forces? Those are two very different kinds of things.

My own focus is primarily on that leadership angle. Trying to get more of our members involved in the different aspects of our committees or our task forces or, yes, even on our board of directors. In that space, it's really important for you to be, again, above-board and transparent with the member that you're bringing in, about what job it is that you're asking them to do. What is the time commitment involved? What are the expected outcomes that their involvement are going to have? They have to understand what they're getting into from the very beginning.

And the value of interpersonal connections:

I've come to rely more heavily on the value of interpersonal connections. There is no limit to amount of email you can send to a member. There is a limit to how many emails a member is going to choose to read. Those are two dynamics that often work at cross purposes in the larger objective of  increasing the level of engagement with your association. It's kind of like fundraising. If you want somebody to give money, you have to ask them to give money. You have to reach out with a personal appeal and see if you can connect them into an engagement opportunity. It's important for you to be a face rather than just an email or a text message coming through. 

But, this powerful tool also has a limitation to it, because you can only ask a member to do so many things. Like most associations, our association has at least dozens of opportunities, whether they're leadership opportunities or member programmatic opportunities, for people to get engaged. And, to pretend that someone's going to get engaged in more than three or four of those things is probably unrealistic in a lot of ways. And yet, again, many of our structures are designed to blast messages out to everybody. Even those who are already engaged with this laundry list of things that people can get engaged in. I've just not seen a lot of success driving up engagement numbers with that kind of broad approach.

And the fear that many associations have of trying something new:

In a lot of the associations that I've had experiences with there is a hesitation to experiment with either a new program or a new twist on an existing program because there is a fear of losing face in front of the members. This is a half-baked idea, and we're not sure how people are going to react to it, and it's important for us to maintain the reputation of this association, so we better not do that. I just feel the opposite. That, in most of my experiences when you do attempt something new or unique or innovative or different, yes, it's not always going to resonate with people, but, almost always, the people that you're pitching it to appreciate the creativity and the effort that went into it. And that helps build bridges to further conversations and new opportunities to find a project that actually will work for them.

It's a great conversation and I had a good time recording it. I hope you'll give the interview a listen and let me know what you think.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha

I took a class in college on the Bible as literature, and this edition of the Bible was the recommended text for that course. Indeed, my copy still has the price stamp from the college bookstore on its first blank page -- $27.95.

Now, years later, when I had set out to read the entire thing, I knew that, unlike many of the books I read, I had no intention of composing a long and detailed review of my experience for the pages of this blog. That would require far more effort than I was willing to offer this experience. And indeed, after the first seven hundred pages or so, the reading became so tedious that I purposely moved onto other books, simply trying to knock off ten more pages of the Bible every day I could. With the books of the Apocrypha included in this volume, the total page count topped out at just over 1,900.

Why? Simply so that I could say whenever asked that I had, in fact, read the Bible. Yes. The whole damn thing.

Of all the things I could cite, therefore, let me reference only three. First, this early paragraph in this edition’s preface, which, to me, serves as a more than adequate warning against believing that you have achieved any true understanding on the words printed on these pages.

The first English version of the Scriptures made by direct translation from the original Hebrew and Greek, and the first to be printed, was the work of William Tyndale. He met bitter opposition. He was accused of willfully perverting the meaning of the Scriptures, and his New Testaments were ordered to be burned as “untrue translations.” He was finally betrayed into the hands of his enemies, and in October 1536, was publicly executed and burned at the stake.

We know that the meaning of the words we read in the Bible have been argued and fought over for centuries. But contemplate for a second that, regardless of the English edition, we’re not even reading them in their original human language. Which, of course, presupposes the idea than any human language can adequately contain the transcendental truth of the omnipotent, timeless creator of the universe. Any way you slice it, keeping your focus on the cultural influence of these words, and not their literal meaning, is the only reasonable way to approach them.

Second, this excerpt from the editor’s introduction to the Book of Philemon, which contains one of the most shocking apologetics for human slavery that I’ve encountered. Here’s the situation:

What should be done when a runaway slave who has robbed his master repents of his misdeeds and becomes a Christian? The Letter to Philemon, a resident of Colossae in Phrygia, is a model of Christian tactfulness in seeking to effect reconciliation between Onesimus, the runaway slave, and his master, who according to Roman law had absolute authority over the person and life of his slave.

And here’s what the editor have to say about it:

When it is realized that in the ancient world slavery was regarded as a legitimate and necessary segment of the social order, and that severe laws punished those who interfered with the rights of slave-owners, it is not surprising that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attacked the institution of slavery as such.

Stop. Read that sentence again. Only this time, in place of “the ancient world”, insert “1850s America”. Now, is the first half any less true? And is it or is it not surprising that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attacked the institution of slavery as such? Okay. Let’s keep reading.

At the same time, Jesus’ teaching of the essential worth of every human soul … and the church’s recognition of the brotherhood of all Christian believers … were destined to reorganize society. This Letter to Philemon reveals yet another side of the apostle Paul. In a situation which involved no doctrinal or ecclesiastical dispute, he writes with a delicate appreciation of the legal rights of Philemon, while inculcating at the same time a principle … which would soften the harshness of slavery and eventually operate to banish it altogether.

So in other words, slavery in the ancient world was okay because Christianity, through a series of tepid and deferential entreaties to slave owners, eventually accreted enough human sympathy to banish it as an institution. Well great. I guess all the uncounted millions who lived lives of abject suffering pale in comparison to such models of Christian tactfulness.

But this really shouldn’t surprise any critical reader of this text. Slavery may be the most visceral example of the dynamic of gods who care almost nothing for human suffering, but the Bible is littered with other less obvious examples. In fact, as I came to understand, when you dismiss the editorial frame that the prefaces and book introductions attempt to impose, and when you approach the flawed English text directly, you find a surprising number of examples of a very impersonal god. Here’s my third citation, from the great Book of Job:

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. Does not the ear try words as the palate tastes food? Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open. If he withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land. With him are strength and wisdom; the deceived and the deceiver are his. He leads counselors away stripped, and judges he makes fools. He looses the bonds of kings, and binds a waistcloth on their loins. He leads priests away stripped, and overthrows the mighty. He deprives of speech those who are trusted, and takes away the discernment of the elders. He pours contempt on princes, and looses the belt of the strong, He uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light. He makes nations great, and he destroys them: he enlarges nations, and leads them away. He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth, and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in the dark without light; and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.

So impersonal, in fact, to be almost entirely absent. Because here, as in many other places, all the things that God is said to be able to do can alternatively be seen not as the exertions of an all-powerful agent, but as the inscrutable whims of an infinitely complex system.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, October 23, 2017

Peer Surveys Protect the Status Quo

Like many association professionals, I suspect, I belong to a number of associations myself. One of those associations -- comprised primarily of the staff executives of associations that look and behave like mine -- recently conducted a survey of its membership. It was a survey designed to assess and illuminate the practices of all its association members with regard to one particular area of strategy and management.

What that area was isn't important for the purposes of this blog post. What is important is how I reacted to the results.

First off, let me say that I like filling out this kind of survey. Especially for an organization that I believe accurately represents a peer group for my association. It's great, in my opinion, to benchmark what my association is doing against its peers and competitors. So I dutifully filled in all the fields, hit submit, and waited patiently for the results to be tabulated and published.

When those results appeared in my inbox, I remember feeling a small measure of apprehension. I think my association is doing well. But is it? What will the marketplace of my peers say? Are others achieving more or less success that we are?

As I scrolled through the results, examining chart after chart of tabulated results, however, my apprehension quickly went away. For question after question, I saw, the strategy and management of my association was squarely in majority. We did this, and so did the majority of our peers, We did that, and so did the majority of our peers. Great!

It wasn't until well after I closed the document and safely filed it away in my "Benchmarking" folder that I began to reflect on and question my reaction. I was reassured, I realized, that my association wasn't an outlier in these data sets. That, I suppose, was a natural reaction, but it made me think how I would have reacted had the opposite been the case. What if I had been the outlier? What if the majority of my peers were doing something different? Would I have interpreted that as some kind of call to action? As a pressing need to do something different in my association?

No. If I am to be honest, I have to admit that if the results would have shown my association to be different from its peer group, I would have either dismissed the survey as faulty, or figured out a way to convince myself that what we were doing, although different from most of our peers, was right and appropriate for our situation and our association.

That's how powerful the barriers to change are in most organizations. Even reliable data isn't enough to overcome it. In either case, with a peer survey that either reinforces or contradicts our practices, I would've had my association keep doing the same old thing.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, October 16, 2017

When Action Items Aren't Action Items

Last week I wrote about a message my Board chair and I had crafted to help frame the discussion at our recent Board meeting. With a Board that was committed to maintaining a governance role for the organization, the message was designed to help them determine and decide the pertinent strategic questions that were to be addressed at this point in our annual strategy and execution cycle.

Essentially, the message reminded them that the year's strategy had been set, and that the Board's job at this meeting was not to re-invent that strategy, but to review the action plans that had been put in place by staff. If those actions plans were adequate to the strategic tasks, then, see where Board members could help execute them. If not, then determine and provide the additional resources that would be necessary. At the end of the blog post I said I would be curious to see how our Board members would react to the message and what kind of discussions would ensue.

Well, now it's a week later, and the Board meeting in question is in the past rather than the future. The reaction of our Board members was universally positive. They are all very busy professionals, leading companies and divisions of companies in our industry, and they have all readily embraced the tenets of the Governance Policy we recently put in place.

That policy says the Board is in charge of determining the ends the association will achieve and the staff, under the leadership of the CEO, is in charge of determining the means for how those ends will be achieved. The message and the discussion frame it provided was viewed as a simple and welcome extension of that principle. We're not hear to tell you what to do, they seemed willing to say. We're only here to tell you if the things you're doing are the right or wrong things.

So that's great. The Board members all reacted positively. But as for the discussions that ensued; well, that's where things get a little more complicated.

A typical pattern for these discussions went something like this. The agenda would turn to a new strategic objective. Something the Board had said was important for the organization to achieve in the coming year. Staff would give a short report on the action plan that we were following to achieve that objective, even citing, when appropriate, places were individual members of the Board could get engaged and help move the action plan forward.

The Board would then discuss the action plan. Almost always, quick agreement would be reached that the action plan was appropriate and should be pursued. But also almost always, a number of suggestions would be made for how to improve the action plan. Those suggestions rarely included the requested actions for individual Board members to take. Much more frequently, they included new and somewhat speculative ideas. Actions whose resource ramifications were sometimes uncertain and other times unknown.

None of that is bad, per se. Often times, our Board members, as members of the association we work for, and of the industry that the association represents, have really good suggestions that staff needs to take seriously. They are the eyes and ears of the marketplace we're trying to serve, and they can absolutely help us get more quickly to the tactics that will help us best achieve our strategy.

The problem, as I see it, is therefore not with the suggestions themselves, but with how to position those suggestions in the context of Board discussions and decisions. In other words, are they action items? Are they the kind of Board decisions that should be duly noted in the minutes, and to which staff resources should be assigned in order to ensure their execution?

The day after the Board meeting, as I sat down to hobble together the minutes from the scribbled scraps of paper I had kept at my side during the discussions, my first inclination was that they were. They were action items. But as I began to transcribe them as such, I started to doubt myself. Really? This relatively minor suggestion, this simple tweak to a staff-level action plan, this was an official action of the Board? This is something I would have to document for posterity and then report back on at the next Board meeting?

That, I realized, was not in keeping with the very message that my Board chair and I had offered at the very beginning of the meeting. We are not here to micromanage the staff. Only to review their work and to decide if it has the adequate resources to succeed. For a Board as committed to a governance role as mine was, and with nothing but the best of intentions, the results of many of its discussions at our most recent Board meeting had a decided management feel.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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