Saturday, November 24, 2018

Association 4.0 by Sherry Budziak and Kevin Ordonez

This book was handed to me at a recent WSAE event I attended -- handed to me not by the authors (who were also there) but by the WSAE staff executive, and with a specific request.

“Eric, you like to read. Will you please read this book and write a review of it.”

“Sure,” I replied. “But only if I can be brutally honest.”

The WSAE staff executive’s response? “I would expect nothing less.”

So here goes. Brutally honest. The book has a lot of good content but it is poorly organized and it embraces a flawed premise.

Innovation Does Not Necessarily Mean Technology

Let’s start with the flawed premise. Here’s an excerpt from the author’s introduction:

One of the advantages of being a consultant is the opportunity to see how many different organizations approach similar problems. With a finger on the industry’s pulse, we can recommend best practices, identify emerging trends and help our clients stay ahead of the curve. Over the last 25 years, technology has been front and center in our business. We have helped associations of every stripe organize and plan their technology functions and solve the sticky problems that come with the territory.

When we started out, IT was often an after-thought for clients, pushed to the back burner by more important priorities. In the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from bricks and mortar to carrying the world in our pockets. There is an app for everything from grocery shopping to picking stocks. Technology has invaded our lives with speed and rapacious zeal. We are connected to our possessions, our environment and each other in ways we could not have imagined fifteen years ago. IT departments, which once might have been a single misunderstood employee working in isolation, are now the nerve center of the organization.

We are standing at the precipice of an era that has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution -- a time when the line between the physical, digital and biological will disappear. Current assumptions about the meaning of work, culture, and even humanity will be as altered as the world seen through Alice’s looking glass.

I appreciate the literary reference, but allow me to cite another of Lewis Carroll’s famous works in an attempt to tone down the hyperbole.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

What, exactly, are the authors talking about? It’s a big, scary world out there, and you, you associations; you’re just not ready for it.

The question is not whether to take the leap, it’s how to survive the fall and the wildfire change that is certain to be a hallmark of this new era. Associations are whales, not dolphins. Turning on a dime is not in their DNA. Yet agility will be a requirement for the coming years, along with other shifts in attitude and behavior. For many association executives and boards, these new paradigms may feel as uncomfortable as the wrong shoe sizes until they are recognized as a mainstream approach.

Ah yes, the slow-moving and bureaucratic association. Later in the same introduction, the authors will read out the charges against these behemoths even more starkly.

The way associations deliver products and services may have changed, but their organizational structures have not. They continue to be locked into bureaucratic, paternalistic systems that stifle innovation and, in some cases, actually prevent it from occurring. Acceptance of the status quo is entrenched in the culture. The willingness to change is overshadowed by the difficulty and risk involved in building something new.

It’s time for a reality check. Sorry to sound like such an old guy, but I’ve been reading about how broken associations are for twenty-five years now -- and yet they still exist in sometimes surprising numbers and, based on the profiles shared in this very book, a good percentage of them are stronger than ever.

My friend Tom Morrison is one of the voices crying in the wilderness on this point. And it’s helpful that he is one of the association executives profiled in this book.

“Don’t listen to people who say the membership model is dead. There’s no other model that allows you to come together as a group of people or companies and facilitate or fight for a cause.” Morrison believes that the associations that struggle with recruiting members are challenged because they haven’t figured out how to sell the power of that group dynamic.

Maybe the association model is not only not broken, maybe its slow-moving and bureaucratic structure is one of the unique ingredients of its success. Ask the tortoise. Going slow (but together) when everyone else is racing around you is sometimes the better strategy.

But that’s not the flawed premise that I’m talking about. Be innovative! The authors seem to be saying, concluding their introduction with the following advice for association leaders:

We’ve also identified attitudes that permeate the culture of the most successful associations and help them manage the uncertainty in the outside environment. Effective leaders:

  • Value professional development. They facilitate learning through formal education as well as through experience. They encourage employees to gain insights from one another and to respect their colleagues’ expertise and professionalism.
  • Foster creativity. New ideas are expected and welcomed.
  • Promote a culture of innovation among the staff and the board.
  • Allow the freedom to act. Staff members are supported to make decisions and take risks.
  • Are unafraid to acknowledge failure and learn from it.
  • Invest in the technology they need to be successful and keep ahead of the electronic curve.
The link between the all the items on this list is implied, but I believe it is unsupported with regard to the last item. There’s a category error here. Technology may be an area where one can express innovation, but technology is not a prerequisite for innovation to take place. Valuing professional development, fostering creativity, promoting a innovative culture, allowing the freedom to act, and learning from failure -- do all of those, in whatever domain you choose, and you’re doing innovation. And sometimes, for those slow-moving and bureaucratic association, technology can actually get in the way.

And, given the advice offered by the other association executives in this book, many of them might agree with me.

So that’s the flawed premise. Innovation does not necessarily mean technology. Now, let’s talk about how the book is poorly organized.

Begging For An Index

The book is organized into 18 vignettes, each featuring one association executive and the things they’ve done at their associations to embody the book’s subtitle: “Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption.” The content of these vignettes is generally excellent, and the authors helpfully summarize each one with a tight summary of “What Association Executives Can Learn From” each association example.

These learning points, however, are all over the map. Organizing them by subject area, rather than by the association executive that implemented them, would be a thousand times more helpful, and would additionally help organize the content into several coherent themes.

Let me show you want I mean. Here, in bullet points largely provided by the authors themselves, are the 75 learning points from the 18 vignettes.

  1. Confront disruption creatively.
  2. Question everything.
  3. Seize the UBER mentality.
  4. Create opportunities for leadership.
  5. Be a big tent.
  6. Consider a more fluid organizational structure.
  7. See opportunity over challenge.
  8. Continue to read your customers.
  9. Know when to engage outside help.
  10. Cast a wider net.
  11. Experiment with new models.
  12. Remain a trusted source of information by attracting new intellectual capital.
  13. Maintain your integrity.
  14. Understand and build expertise in related fields.
  15. Collaborate upstream and downstream.
  16. Become a master consensus-builder.
  17. Consider technology to be just another acquired expertise.
  18. Governance is a journey that never ends.
  19. Leverage your chair as a champion of change.
  20. Expect bumps along the road.
  21. Build trust on transparency.
  22. Technology works only when part of a larger strategy.
  23. Leaders can emerge from all backgrounds.
  24. Broad staff leadership, buy-in, and involvement is essential for change to occur.
  25. A risk-taking culture is a must.
  26. Think like a start-up.
  27. CEOs: Run your board right.
  28. Boards: Empower your staff leaders.
  29. There is a world beyond members.
  30. Be fearless taking on the challenge of growth.
  31. A fully integrated organizational structure may not be the best path to growth.
  32. Embrace purpose, run the business.
  33. Give HR a seat at the strategic table.
  34. Recruit the best talent -- people are your organization’s differentiator.
  35. Consider a contingent workforce.
  36. Transform your volunteer labor into volunteer leaders.
  37. Become a conscious leader in diversity and inclusion.
  38. Because times are changing rapidly, it is imperative that associations be run by business-savvy leaders.
  39. Identify three to six things your members can’t do without you, and focus on just those things.
  40. Focus on Gen X, not Millennials.
  41. Make value proposition your number one priority.
  42. Resist the temptation to model the competition.
  43. Focus on only two to three large goals and use everyone’s support in executing them.
  44. Provide “just-in-time” volunteering.
  45. Manage disruption by planning for it.
  46. Show younger members the value of meeting with colleagues in person.
  47. Don’t underestimate customer service and personalization.
  48. Make advocacy a priority if your industry is heavily regulated.
  49. Focus on working smarter, not harder.
  50. Control and trust are the largest barriers to adopting a flexible work environment.
  51. Moving to an agile workplace model boosts productivity, attracts specialized talent, and reduces operating costs.
  52. Team engineering, whether in a traditional sense or with contractors, requires the right people with the right skill sets, strengths, and motivation.
  53. The path to growth is empathy.
  54. Build where you already have residency.
  55. Know your worth.
  56. Engage in philanthropy outside your work.
  57. Learn to collaborate.
  58. Understand your organization’s unique value.
  59. Focus volunteers on where they add value.
  60. Be a learning organization.
  61. Tie digital strategies to your business goals.
  62. Know your audience.
  63. Establish a culture of knowledge management.
  64. Harness big data to continually improve and provide better service.
  65. Break it down.
  66. Embrace a challenge.
  67. Get out of the office … a lot.
  68. Know your type.
  69. Enable dissenters.
  70. Recharge your members.
  71. Be your industry’s data warehouse.
  72. Monopolies kill innovation.
  73. Create a sense of urgency.
  74. Float new ideas early and see if they take hold.
  75. Use consultants to help drive change in both front- and back-office operations.

Lost yet? I was about halfway through, and stopped reading the vignettes as carefully. If you are, in fact, leading one of those slow-moving and bureaucratic associations, where on earth do you begin? Wait. I need to do all seventy-five of these things in order to position my organization for success in this era of disruption? Forget it.

It would be far better, in my mind, to organize this list (and the book) by common subject areas. Perhaps like this:

Determining Your Mission and Sticking To It

  • Confront disruption creatively. See Chapter 2.
  • Embrace purpose, run the business. See Chapter 8.
  • Identify three to six things your members can’t do without you, and focus on just those things. See Chapter 10.
  • Resist the temptation to model the competition. See Chapter 11.
  • Focus on only two to three large goals and use everyone’s support in executing them. See Chapter 11.

Living Your Values

  • Maintain your integrity. See Chapter 3.
  • Understand your organization’s unique value. See Chapter 15.

Getting Governance Right

  • Governance is a journey that never ends. See Chapter 5.
  • Leverage your chair as a champion of change. See Chapter 5.
  • Expect bumps along the road. See Chapter 5.
  • Build trust on transparency. See Chapter 5.
  • CEOs: Run your board right. See Chapter 7.
  • Boards: Empower your staff leaders. See Chapter 7.
  • Transform your volunteer labor into volunteer leaders. See Chapter 9.

Environmental Scanning and Scenario Planning

  • See opportunity over challenge. See Chapter 2.
  • Because times are changing rapidly, it is imperative that associations be run by business-savvy leaders. See Chapter 10.
  • Manage disruption by planning for it. See Chapter 12.

Understanding the Needs of Your Members

  • Continue to read your customers. See Chapter 3.
  • Focus on Gen X, not Millennials. See Chapter 10.
  • Make value proposition your number one priority. See Chapter 11.
  • The path to growth is empathy. See Chapter 14.
  • Know your audience. See Chapter 16.
  • Get out of the office … a lot. See Chapter 17.

Being Agile and Taking Risks

  • A risk-taking culture is a must. See Chapter 6.
  • Think like a start-up. See Chapter 7.
  • There is a world beyond members. See Chapter 8.
  • Be fearless taking on the challenge of growth. See Chapter 8.
  • Build where you already have residency. See Chapter 14.
  • Embrace a challenge. See Chapter 17.
  • Monopolies kill innovation. See Chapter 19.
  • Create a sense of urgency. See Chapter 19.
  • Float new ideas early and see if they take hold. See Chapter 19.

Innovation in Business Models and Practices

  • Question everything. See Chapter 2.
  • Seize the UBER mentality. See Chapter 2.
  • Consider a more fluid organizational structure. See Chapter 2.
  • Experiment with new models. See Chapter 3.
  • A fully integrated organizational structure may not be the best path to growth. See Chapter 8.
  • Provide “just-in-time” volunteering. See Chapter 11.
  • Focus volunteers on where they add value. See Chapter 15.
  • Break it down. See Chapter 17.
  • Enable dissenters. See Chapter 18.
  • Use consultants to help drive change in both front- and back-office operations. See Chapter 19.

Developing Your Team

  • Create opportunities for leadership. See Chapter 2.
  • Leaders can emerge from all backgrounds. See Chapter 6.
  • Give HR a seat at the strategic table. See Chapter 9.
  • Recruit the best talent -- people are your organization’s differentiator. See Chapter 9.
  • Consider a contingent workforce. See Chapter 9.
  • Focus on working smarter, not harder. See Chapter 13.
  • Control and trust are the largest barriers to adopting a flexible work environment. See Chapter 13.
  • Moving to an agile workplace model boosts productivity, attracts specialized talent, and reduces operating costs. See Chapter 13.
  • Team engineering, whether in a traditional sense or with contractors, requires the right people with the right skill sets, strengths, and motivation. See Chapter 13.
  • Be a learning organization. See Chapter 15.
  • Know your type. See Chapter 17.

Harnessing the Power of Diversity

  • Be a big tent. See Chapter 2.
  • Become a conscious leader in diversity and inclusion. See Chapter 9.

Using and Leveraging Technology

  • Consider technology to be just another acquired expertise. See Chapter 4.
  • Technology works only when part of a larger strategy. See Chapter 6.
  • Broad staff leadership, buy-in, and involvement is essential for change to occur. See Chapter 6.
  • Tie digital strategies to your business goals. See Chapter 16.
  • Harness big data to continually improve and provide better service. See Chapter 16.

Program Design and Management

  • Remain a trusted source of information by attracting new intellectual capital. See Chapter 3.
  • Show younger members the value of meeting with colleagues in person. See Chapter 12.
  • Don’t underestimate customer service and personalization. See Chapter 12.
  • Make advocacy a priority if your industry is heavily regulated. See Chapter 12.
  • Establish a culture of knowledge management. See Chapter 16.
  • Recharge your members. See Chapter 18.
  • Be your industry’s data warehouse. See Chapter 18.

Successful Outsourcing and Partnerships

  • Know when to engage outside help. See Chapter 3.
  • Cast a wider net. See Chapter 3.
  • Understand and build expertise in related fields. See Chapter 4.
  • Collaborate upstream and downstream. See Chapter 4.
  • Become a master consensus-builder. See Chapter 4.
  • Learn to collaborate. See Chapter 15.

Personal Growth and Development

  • Know your worth. See Chapter 14.
  • Engage in philanthropy outside your work. See Chapter 14.

There. I even put them in order for you. If you are the executive of one of those slow-moving an bureaucratic associations, and you want to better position yourself for success in this era of disruption, then start at the top of this list and work your way down. Have you clearly identified your mission and are you sticking to it? No? Then look at the cited excerpts in Chapters 2, 8, 10 and 11, and get to work on fixing it. Yes? Great! You can skip this one and move onto living your values.

Coda

And, finally, notice how much of this is specifically about technology, and how far down the priority order issues of technology come. By my count, only 5 of the 75 learning points in this book are specifically about using and leveraging technology, and, as a group, I would position that issue as 10th on a list of 13 priorities. The author’s flawed premise of “technology = innovation” really comes through when you look at the book’s content through this lens. Remember, all I did was organize and prioritize it. It is the association executives featured in the book’s vignettes that are actually telling you to focus on things that will have a broader impact on your association’s success that its use of technology.

In closing, here’s two choice quotes to drive that point home:

“Digital transformation isn’t really about technology at all. It’s about the need to anticipate and enhance the customer’s experience. That’s where associations fall short. We say that we are membership based, but are we really making it easier to do business with us? Are our products and services enriching people’s lives?”
Peggy Winton, President and CEO, Association for Intelligent Information Management

Everyone has technology, but not everyone has the right talent to serve its customers and achieve strategic goals. Even the best, most robust systems and the newest technology won’t have the intended impact unless you have the right personalities with the right drive and experience behind the controls. The process of identifying the talent and the attributes of an ideal staff may vary from organization to organization, but HRMAC and its members believe the “people” fit is more important that the technology fit.
From the vignette on M. Bernadette Patton, CAE, Former President and CEO, Human Resources Management Association of Chicago

As I said, all in all, a lot of great content. I just wish it was better organized, and didn’t try to push me towards technology solutions.

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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 eric.lanke@gmail.com.

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