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July 24, 2006

Beltway bias

Those of you who know me know that I started my career in the association mecca of the world: Alexandria, Virginia. I cut my teeth in a couple of international associations – one trade association, and one professional society. Like many association executives in the DC marketplace, I developed an inside the beltway bias about the face of the association industry. One of the ways this manifested itself was in my opinions about components. For me and many of my colleagues in the DC area, state affiliates, chapters or allied organizations were disrespectfully viewed as nuisances and distractions.

A little over three years ago, looking for a change of scenery and relief from the traffic, I left DC to work for a statewide association in Richmond, just 100 miles south of Alexandria. In the time that I’ve been here, this association has grown to be the biggest I’ve ever worked for both in terms of staff and budget. I’ve also gotten to know association executives at other state associations around the country and have been consistently impressed with their capabilities. Furthermore, I’ve come across some local associations with programs that absolutely knock my socks off.

My colleagues at national and international associations are always shocked when I tell them the size of our membership. Still, I’m continually asked by my peers when will I be moving back to DC, or when will I be getting back to a national or international association. No time in the immediate future, I tell them; I’m very happy where I am.

In the years since I left DC, I’ve noticed that the savviest association executives are the ones that treat their affiliates and chapters with the utmost respect. They acknowledge that they’re partners in some ways and competitors in others. But there’s a genuine modesty and conscientious decorum in their relationships with chapters and affiliates. Although we’re not connected in any official way, I’ve always been pleased by the way I’ve been treated by the national association with whom my employers is aligned. Because of this positive relationship, I’m happy to carry the national association’s message to our membership and prospects. The results of this respect are played out in other areas as well.

Truly respecting your components may require giving up some control over programs. Opening yourself up to competition from chapters in some program areas may be necessary, too. Completely turning some things over entirely to components might be a demonstration of good faith.

Do you respect your components? Or do you overtly block them in some areas? Would they be offended if they overheard your staff’s indiscriminate comments about them?

As someone who has worked on both sides of the fence, I have learned: The beltway bias is unfounded and counterproductive.

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July 21, 2006

The Four-Month Planning Cycle

I want to build on Betty's comment to my planning post from a couple days ago. But before I do, permit me to voice a concern. As we were gearing up to start this blog, I wondered how often I would say something that would probably damage any future prospects I have in the association profession. This is probably one of those posts.

You see, I hate the annual budget cycle, which, let's face it, is the planning cycle. It strangles innovation, it leads to bizarrely bad decisions, and it's way too arbitrary. I could go on, and I will... Let's start with the budget document itself. About three months into the fiscal year, the budget is meaningless. The numbers themselves -- and the assumptions that went into them are already at least nine months old, if not older. The world kept spinning during those nine months and there are inevitably discrepancies from where you are and where you thought you'd be.

We adjust. And we do this, usually, with the forecast. The forecast is essentially a new budget, but in terms of the planning, we don't treat it that way. We're not actively seeking new opportunities and questioning what we're doing. Flashback to the development of the annual budget. Sadly, it is a time when people gear up to defend their programs. We defend, we justify -- we desperately search for data to bolster our claim for the need of new staff or to keep doing what we're doing. And, unfortunately, we win a whole lot of the time. We made it. Our program is in the budget. We don't have to defend it like that again until next year. There are a number of problems there, the biggest being a cultural problem. But the annual cycle helps perpetuate that culture.

There's also the stupid decisions that an arbitrary end-of-year date leads to. One association I worked for put off the printing of a major book until the next fiscal year because of the way it would make the balance sheet look at the end of the current fiscal. The big problem was that by everyone's admission, the book would sell best at the annual meeting, which was in the current fiscal. There was no doubt that the total net revenue from the project would be better if the book were printed early and sold at the meeting. But because it meant the difference between black and red ink at the end of the current fiscal, they put it off. (It wasn't a cashflow issue, the organization had the cash to pay for it.)

The problem in microcosm: I myself just fell prey to this very thing over a STINKING $500. We needed a new camera to photograph something since the company digital was state-of-the-art in, oh, about 2000. I had put the money for a new camera in the next fiscal's budget. I made the boneheaded decision not to blow the line item in the current fiscal, causing us to scramble around to find a digital to use.

I know there are complications with doing away with the annual budget. How would it work -- or could it work -- with finance committees and financial audits? I think you do need to have short-term and long-term time horizons for projects, I just think it's a little insane to measure every project as if their time horizons were the same. Goodness knows I think cashflow is king and that you need some way to periodically measure the financial health of your organization. But read what Betty said about the freedom and energy it created when her organization focused on a four-month plan. I may not have a workable answer, but I have seen how annual budgets slow things down or even squash things. In fairness to Betty, this is my rant, she wasn't advocating anything about budgeting. But that's the connection I made when I read her words: "By emphasizing what this small group of volunteers had to 'do,' rather than focusing on what they 'planned' to do in the future, they were able to be re-energized and excited about taking the work on."

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July 20, 2006

Findability resource

A few weeks ago David Gammel wrote a post on the idea of findability -- a Web navigation issue. Yesterday, The Washington Post had an interesting online chat with Peter Morville, author of Ambient Findability.


July 19, 2006

Journalists relay what is expected from an online newsroom

A good online press room is a must for any entity but is especially important in the association world. Journalists often contact associations for remarks on various topics that affect our industry or main constituency. An annual survey conducted by TEK Group can help take the guesswork out of what reporters want in an online press room. (More than 5,000 journalists were polled with almost a 2 percent reply returned.)

According to the survey, almost 99 percent of journalists now believe a company should have an online newsroom, a 20 percent increase. Reporter's top-five most important features include press releases (92 percent), a search module (85 percent), PR contacts (84 percent), photographs (81 percent) and product information (76 percent). Reporters also want phone numbers for PR contacts, not just e-mail addresses.

Read highlights from the report here. See a breakdown of all questions asked and the reporters' answers here.

(And national studies aside, we should not forget to periodically ask the journalists we work with most often what would be most useful to them in their everyday work too.)


July 18, 2006

Planning to fail

I’m just finishing a book that’s a couple years old now, but still worth a look: Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction & Economics by UK economist Paul Ormerod. Think of Omerod as the precursor to Stephen Levitt of wildly successful Freakonomics fame; he's as accessible if not quite as colorful.

Why Things Fail goes on at some length on game theory as a learning experience and draws perhaps my favorite conclusion in the book: “Plan, predict, and control fails as a strategy, even [when] we have full and complete information.”

I draw a link from this conclusion to Tom Peters’ classic description of how to lead a business: “Ready. Fire! Aim.” The linkage is a little ironic because Ormerod cites Peters’ In Search of Excellence as an example of how people get things wrong, noting that several of the companies Peters holds up as “excellent” have since fallen from grace (a common, but unfair, criticism in my estimation, as Peters’ Excellence logic remains sage, but companies that hit it previously can also stray from it).

Organizations will never have “full and complete information,” but that doesn’t stop us from trying to get as full and as complete as we can. And plan, predict, and control sounds an awful lot like much of the strategic planning I’ve been a part of and heard about. The same conclusion leads Peters to scream “ACT!” Do something, then adjust if necessary or do something else entirely, but don’t plan perfectly because you won’t ever get there. In fact, to draw another link, Malcolm Gladwell in Blink tells us that not only are we unlikely to get to the perfect plan, we are likely to foul things up even worse in our search to become “as full and as complete” as we can be.

I don’t hate plans and planning, but there comes a time when the planning gets in the way, keeping us from the much more important work of doing.

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July 11, 2006

More on Globalization

I am delighted to hear colleagues around the world on the blog. In one comment, Gary from Australia notes that:

There is so much embedded US culture in associations that it will take a lot of work and sensitivity to move forward (for example US-centric stuff like '401k', SOX, holidays).

It seems to me that the learning is: 1) global moves will take a lot of time, 2) there is no substitute for people living in the other culture.

But it applies to people of all cultures. The perception and image of the U.S. is as dysfunctional and skewed from "the global news as our perceptions in the U.S. of other countries is because of our news. Generally, we look at the world through our own experiences and what we perceive or see. We need to find ways to bridge that gap. Sam Palmisano, the current CEO and Chairman of IBM, wrote a compelling article (PDF) about the globally integrated organization. He said that the future organizations should be focused on managing different operations, expertise and capabilities to provide clear value locally, no matter where it is. It isn’t about going “glocal”, but rather being “local,” using expertise and capabilities that can help craft a value proposition that is pertinent in the area. It means accepting that there isn’t one business model that works everywhere.

It also applies to associations. We can’t take our models, whether U.S. or Australian or Indian, and shop them around the world to find a good host. But rather, we need to understand the value proposition in a given area and “plug in” to managing the operation locally to deliver on the value proposition. Like Jeff De Cagna said in his Principled Innovation blog, technology will let us do it better today than we ever could in our past…we just need to be creative with new business models.

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Death of the Anonymous Web?

According to Hitwise, social networking site MySpace.com has laid claim to new bragging rights: Most Visited Site on the Web.

If you're not sure what MySpace is, read this.

Conventional wisdom states that the Internet is, among many other things, an outlet for anonymous communication, even though we all know that our every click and data transmission can be (and is) recorded by the computers that handle our data. Admit it: You’ve typed and sent things that you would never have said in conversation. Internet users want privacy, right?

That's why, on the surface, MySpace seems like such an anomaly. If the Internet is a place where users can be anonymous, then why are millions of people divulging personal, identifiable details about themselves to millions of other people? A plausible explanation is that there are some other factors at play, and this phenomenon cannot be attributed entirely to adolescent carelessness.

Is it possible that anonymity is not all it's cracked up to be? In previous posts to Acronym, on our blogs, and during a session at a recent conference, David Gammel and I have discussed the economics of attention, and how attention can be viewed as currency. If the attention of our peers and people in general is a form of currency, could it be that people are actually trying to attract attention, using blogs, podcasts and other social media outlets to get it? If this is true, what are the implications for associations?

Most associations recognize members in one form or another, bestowing attention on them. We have awards for star volunteers. A profile of a member with an interesting hobby in the magazine. Periodic lists of new members. But if members are truly eager for attention, is this enough?

How can associations give members the attention they crave? This is an interesting new dynamic of member relations that needs to be explored.

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Internet video is taking over as tools to teach and sell

Freedom From Smoking® public service announcements featuring Carol Burnett
- American Lung Association of California

In May, 72% of Web users in the U.S. connected at home via broadband, compared to 57% during the same period last year, according to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings. The increasing use of broadband has, in part, allowed the video explosion we've all seen on the Web recently. And maybe it's time to rethink the role of video in the association world.

We've all seen the anniversary video, the history video, the volunteer thank-you video, the trade-show highlights video, the year-in-review video. But what could we provide online in short video segments that could teach our members new things? Something where telling is just not effective as showing.

So I went in search of what associations are using video online and what they are featuring. I started with a Google Video search. Interestingly, most of the examples of association videos are used as examples on the Web sites of the companies who produced them, but are nowhere to be seen on the association's Web site. (Which begs the question to me, how many videos are sitting gathering dust on some bookshelf right now that we could all have posted on our Web site?)

But some did provide video examples we could all learn from:

- The United States Golf Association has educational videos online on turf management (and I don't even play golf but when I see the dead grass in the video I understand why aerating is so important now)
- The American Pyrotechnics Association shows members how to set up safe fireworks displays on floating barges (This is actually housed on the OSHA site.)
- The American Lung Association of California has video PSAs available online (in English and in Spanish)

I'm not advocating video for video's sake. If I'm going to try a new recipe at home, all I need are the ingredients and the instructions. But if I want to learn how to dice an onion like a professional chef to use in that recipe, it's a bit harder to learn by written instructions.

Sometimes showing is much better than telling.


July 6, 2006

Not-so-clear view of a flat world

I was at another meeting of association CEO’s last week in West Virginia. Although the meeting was dominated by trade association executives. I found the meeting interesting. One of the sessions I attended was focused on “doing business globally” which left me really unsettled. I was struck by the isolationism and shear sense of fear displayed by the executives, as well as the high reliance on government intervention to help them go global as an association.

In their defense, many of the execs were representing members who were US businesses trying to do business in other countries. However, they exhibited a limited understanding of the benefits of going global, and a “fear of the enemy”. They consistently asked for “someone to intervene to level the playing field”. The global market community offers immense opportunities for associations and their members to prosper, regardless if the member is a US business trying to do business abroad. Yes, it is complicated, but certainly not impossible as is evidenced by the hundreds of companies doing well abroad. If association leaders exhibit fear and a lack of understanding of the global market, neither our profession nor associations in general will prosper.

Maybe we need to dig down deep and ask the question if association executives are really prepared for going global. I seriously doubt that, as a profession, we are prepared to go global. In fact, I would accuse us all as being North American centric and in desperate need of understanding what it takes to bring organizations into Thomas Friedman’s Flat World.

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Trade shows an important part of business-to-business marketing mix

According to a recent Harris Interactive study commissioned by American Business Media (ABM), trade shows still play an important role in the business-to-business marketing mix - even in an increasingly digital world - driving executives to seek additional information:

  • On the web (77%)
  • By talking to a sales person (73%)
  • By calling a 1-800 number (40%)

The report finds that trade shows remain a great places to make a sale, with seven in 10 (70%) executives purchasing or recommending the purchase of a product or service directly as a result of advertising/promoting at a trade show. Respondents praised trade shows for interaction with representatives and industry peers.

Executives are committed to attending trade shows regularly: senior level executives report attending close to three trade shows per year, while mid-level executives report attending close to two per year, with an average of 7.4 days spent at trade shows and conventions in the past 12 months. And attendees are not running through to fill up goodie bags either - 61.2% name trade shows as the most engaging/involving resource for senior executives.

The complete survey and an explanatory PowerPoint presentation are available for download on the American Business Media Web site here.

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