Monday, May 7, 2018

Who Is In and Who Is Out of Your Association?

I participated in a SURGE Spring 2018 session on co-creation. Don't know what SURGE Spring 2018 is? It's an online, virtual conference put on by Association Success. Sessions were recorded and were broadcast May 2-4, 2018. While each session was being broadcast, the speakers were present in the chatroom to interact with participants and answer their questions. Go here for more info.

Don't know what co-creation is? You're not alone. In planning for our session my fellow speakers and I decided that we needed to start with a definition of the term -- and then discovered that we all had a slightly different one.

Here's mine. Co-creation is when an association and its members work together to create something that has value to both the association and its members.

The session was a fairly free-wheeling discussion of that topic. I think it was a good one, but I won't try to recap it here. What I'm doing instead over a series of posts is highlighting some the the new thoughts that occurred to me as I listened to the comments of my fellow speakers.

I already talked about two:
The Process is the Product
Design Constraints Make Innovation Happen

Here's another. Who is in and who is out of your association?

I have to phrase this one as a question because, frankly, I don't know how to resolve it. It was left unanswered during our session recording and it was asked and left unanswered again during the live chat that we engaged in during the session's broadcast.

Here's how I would break it down. Co-creation itself implies a separation between two entities that I don't think actually exists in the association space. There is the company and the customer, some with a more for-profit mindset may say, and the best companies are the ones that figure out how to co-create its products with their customers.

The natural parallel for associations is that the association co-creates its programs and services with its members. But the members are not outside the association in the way that customers are outside the company whose products they buy. At its very foundation the members, in fact, ARE THE ASSOCIATION. The staff, the Board, the committees -- the things that we sometimes think of as the association, in fact, are only bodies and structures that the members have put in place to represent their interests.

And so, co-creation becomes a meaningless term. Associations don't co-create programs with their members. Associations are members, and the members create their own programs.

Some people push back against this phraseology and, I'll admit, the terms implicit in our traditional jargon are insufficient to describe the distinctions that need to be drawn in order to understand the point. That's probably why the question winds up going unanswered. We have the words necessary to ask the question, but we don't have the words necessary to answer it.

But frequently, the people pushing back seem to be intent on preserving some separation between their association and the members it was formed (by the members) to serve. Like many in the association space the separation seems natural because the people running the association (i.e., the staff) have no idea what the people belonging to the association (i.e., the members) want or need.

If that's the case, then maybe co-creation is a concept that really should embraced, despite its conceptual redundancy with the association model. In other words, any association worth the name is already "co-creating" its programs with its "members." If it's not, then I would suggest that it isn't, in fact, an association. Instead, it's a business with tax-exempt status, and the only way to become a true association is to start "co-creating" with its members.

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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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