Monday, February 8, 2016

Why the Wild West Isn't All Bad

I recently read a thought-provoking post at the "Small Staff, Big Impact" blog. Thought-provoking, for me at least, likely in a way that the author didn't intend.

The post, Solving your App-ocalypse: Strategic planning with your technology, provides some tips for how associations can better organize and connect a technology development strategy with the mission-centric goals and objectives of the organization. In describing the unfortunate places some associations find themselves in this landscape, the post describes several scenarios, one called the "Wild West."

Like the actual Wild West, everyone is left to make their own decisions about what IT tools they will use. Often an issue in smaller organizations where people don’t have time to think strategically, staff will just use the first tool they find that solves the immediate issue, without considering other tools already in use or the long term strategy. The result is bits and pieces of information are stored in a range of places without a good way to find content after a project is complete. Additionally, because tools are not standardized, staff have no where to turn when they run into issues. Instead they’re likely to just reach for the next “solution” they find, only further compounding the problem.

And here's the provoked thought that the author probably didn't intend. Is that really all bad? I don't think so. In fact, to a certain extent, I have been encouraging more "Wild West" thinking in my small-staff association for a number of years now.

There are association environments where individual staff people have no power when it comes to technology. The boss, or the IT department, or some shadowy cabal between the two, makes all the decisions about which technology tools will be made available. It's a resource issue, after all. Technology costs money, even more when it comes to providing tech support. And the thinking goes that if the organization decentralizes that authority, not only will a "Wild West" of incompatible systems hamper the association's effectiveness, the unchecked spending and budget overruns will bring the association to its knees.

It is, in fact, the "Red Tape" scenario that the linked blog post goes on to describe right after the Wild West scenario--equally undesirable in the eyes of the author.

I agree, but the Wild West scenario has some benefits not described. I contend that by placing responsibility on the individual staff person for solving their own technology issues, it encourages professional development, innovative thinking, and better customer service.

We live in a world where the pace of technology development in the marketplace is running faster than any centralized association process can hope to move. It doesn't matter if it's the bad Red Tape scenario, or the more strategic technology planning process the linked blog post will present as the positive alternative, no small-staff association can match the innovation cycles of the Googles and Amazons of the world. So don't set up the expectation with your staff that the association is going to provide them with technology solutions that both anticipate their needs and make their jobs easier. It won't. And you don't want them sitting on their hands waiting for the answers to be given to them.

Far better to ask them to wade into the environment looking for solutions that might help them, experimenting with those that seem interesting, and sharing those that work across the organization. Decentralized is key, not just because the centralized authority is, in comparison, a lumbering giant, but because the individual staff people are much closer to the members and the real problems that are keeping them from delivering better service.

When staff do this, they learn more about the world around them, they are more attuned to possible solutions to vexing problems, and they streamline the way the association interacts with its members. Professional development, innovative thinking, and better customer service, all rolled into one.

Yes, "bits and pieces of information ... stored in a range of places without a good way to find content" is a real problem. But, there are hundreds of technology tools out there (many of them free) that don't create those kinds of problems. Anyone who has seen tools like Doodle, SurveyMonkey, or Poll Everywhere spread like wildfire through their organizations will understand what I'm talking about.

There are downsides to the Wild West. But, especially for small staff associations, I believe the benefits outweigh them.

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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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