Ending the 15 Year Anxiety Attack in Associations

At the risk of dating myself and my perspective, I am amused to see that many association executives are into at least the 15th year of an anxiety attack about digital technology. Each new wave of possibilities gives some people the shakes.

I like the perspective shared last week at Digital Now, a conference designed to help association executives cope with their fears and get on with using these technologies to do what they have always done best. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, put it simply: “Group action just got easier.”

He, too, wants to help associations keep things in perspective. It’s just that in the historical perspective of human communication, the Internet is a creative acceleration unlike its predecessors the printing press, telegraph, movies, and radio and television. Shirky describes this era as the “largest increase in the expressive capability of human beings.” And what does this demand of associations? Those with courage, creativity and openness want to convene the conversations.

Perhaps that’s another way to put an end to this 15 year anxiety attack or identity crisis. Associations have to embrace their identity as a powerful social technology in the hands of their members and stakeholders. Associations that give their members the tools they need to hold a dynamic and meaningful conversation will survive.

They will not be disintermediated…that great fear associations experienced as they fretted that others would go around them to serve their members’ needs and steal them away. They will not yield the field to for-profit portals that make a play with rich links to content and resources. They will not find their members slipping away into social media sites that satisfy their need to network at no cost.

Instead forward-thinking associations will experiment and adopt the right capabilities to be more responsive, knowledge-rich, and people-powerful. And they have every reason to trust they will make good decisions if they trust their members to own the association as their technology for group action.

One of the collective insights from the Digital Now speakers is that the inventors of these hot new digital technologies we are frantic to understand and adopt had no way to conceive of all the ways people are now using their tools and platforms. Association executives should stop fretting about keeping up with the latest technology and ask a better question: why do associations exist in any era? Associations are a social technology for purposes we have yet to imagine but our members will if we give them the tools for the conversation and turn them loose to make it happen.

Group action just keeps getting easier. That is truly great news for the future of associations.