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.

Seven Strategic Issues and Opportunities for Associations

Associations and nonprofits should be continually scanning for strategic issues and opportunities. While some issues on their short list will be unique to their mission and field or industry, there are a number of issues that are universal and result from important drivers of change in our society. Signature i has identified seven universal strategic issues and opportunities that are proving significant in 2009 for our clients, listed in order of the priority they seem to have.

1. Strategic focus on value promise. In challenging economic times, all organizations reassess and recommit to their core value proposition. For businesses, this means close scrutiny on strategy and return on investment. What’s more relevant for associations and nonprofits is to scrutinize your value promise. Simply put, are you delivering the value you promised your members in your vision and mission? Or have you become bloated with programs and services that just don’t make sense in these times? This is far more fundamental than the related and important conversations about new business models, image building or brand, and even social responsibility.

2. Network building and collaborative technologies. Don’t miss the real message in all the buzz about social media. What matters is creating a lively and connected network that can communicate, learn and act together. Social media is just the latest in a long and necessary series of developments in collaborative technologies. The priority will stay on any technologies that can make widely distributed groups experience a sense of community and shared purpose.

3. Vision execution. What’s your reason for existing and is it worthy of the time and resources you need from members and other stakeholders? If it is, can you lead change to make the vision happen over time? Associations stumble in two ways when it comes to vision: the visions are either too anemic to matter or they do not have the capacity or drive to execute a compelling vision. All the questions about organizational structure, culture and governance are simply critical building blocks to support vision execution.

4. Stakeholder collaboration and accountability. Yes politics have become very complex and the problems very wicked. The only way to effect change is through stakeholder collaboration and accountability. Organizations that can organize people for political power have always had influence. What is changing is how wide organizations now have to cast their nets to collaborate with stakeholders. No one does anything significant alone, and these days it can be downright surprising who can best help you get any important job done.

5. Continuous renewal of learning. Professions and industries widely recognize that the knowledge that brought them to this point will not sustain them through the changes ahead. They are asking very fundamental questions about the knowledge and skills they value, how they have structured learning programs and processes, and even where they fit into a complex world that prefers multidisciplinary solutions. They look ahead and see great possibilities and realize they cannot build the capacities they need quickly enough without major transformations in schools and universities, professional development, certification and lifelong learning.

6. Inclusivity. Human evolution is a long story of differentiation, adaptation and integration. We just have to evolve at a much faster rate today because we cannot escape our interdependence. Our populations are more diverse. We do have to meet the needs and perspectives of different generations. Inclusivity values differences in cultural and personal perspectives as a force for transforming our self-limiting mental models into a global mind capable of a more creative, innovative and interdependent world.

7. Global collaboration and interdependence. Curious to place perhaps the most powerful driver of change in the 21st century last on even a short list of important drivers of change for associations. There just seems to be more appreciation today that associations need a clear value promise and organizational identity before they presume to collaborative leadership on a global scale. When the world is a very large stage, thinking and playing small just do not work. Organizations have a maturing understanding of the role they must play as a responsible member of a global community.