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January 26, 2012

Quick clicks: Two-by-two edition

After rounding up some of the best blog posts on association management from the past two weeks, I found I had several pairs of posts on matching topics. So, I paired them up on the list below. Enjoy.

Community management

  • Did you know that Monday was Community Manager Appreciation Day? Well, thanks to Maggie McGary, now you do. So go give your association's community manager(s) a belated "thanks."
  • Colleen Dilenschneider explains why quality, not quantity, matters most in building your organization's online followers.

Fixing problems


Member engagement

  • Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, explains how a strong pursuit of a relational business model (rather than transactional) can be a key method for recruiting and retaining members.
  • Two weeks ago, Elizabeth Engel, CAE, responded to Mark Athitakis's post here on Acronym to say that reading fiction teaches you how to think. So it's no surprise this week that she explains what associations can learn about engaging retired members from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


  • Jeffrey Cufaude thinks a lot of organizations "missed the memo" on effective meetings. Convenietly, he recaps it nicely here if you missed it too.
  • Speaking of the future of meetings, after what she saw at the PCMA Convening Leaders and the Virtual Edge Summit, Michelle Bruno writes that the future for meeting planners is one in which "the traditional competencies (and assumptions) will no longer be adequate for the job."

Management. Virgil Carter shares five new management metrics. My favorites on the list are "flow-state percentage" and "positive-feedback ratio."

Customer service. Jeff Hurt explains how organizations are using social media for "digital customer service," like a online version of the bell on a concierge desk.

Nondues revenue. Erik Schonher points out a source of revenue your association might not have considered before: list rentals. And he offers several questions you should ask if you're looking for a list management company to manage rentals of your membership list.

Membership models. Lowll Aplebaum makes a guest appearance on the Affiniscape Blog to argue that the end of the traditional membership model is not a sign of impending doom but rather an opportunity to remake the membership model in any way we can imagine.

Strategic planning. Eric Lanke, CAE, concurs with Humanize authors Maddie Grant, CAE, and Jamie Notter that strategic planning is a term that should be done away with.

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January 25, 2012

Are We Suffering From Teamwork Fatigue?

I've read so much contradictory information about whether it's better to work by oneself or in groups that I finally needed some alone time to think about it.

Associations Now has done its bit to promote the virtues of introversion: We've run articles on the importance of finding time to think by oneself, on how introverts aren't the insecure souls the stereotype suggests, and on how social media helps introverts better engage with associations. Of course, we run plenty of articles about the virtues of collaboration too—our Volunteer Leadership Issue is, in essence, a handbook for how association boards and staff leaders can work together and be more productive. So which work style works best, in which contexts, and why?

The cheeky answer to those questions is obvious: Well, I'd have to think on it a little more, but if you want to talk with me about it, we can. (The rest of this week is booked pretty solid with meetings, though, sorry. How's your Tuesday?) What I can say is that it was a little dispiriting to read "The Rise of the New Groupthink," an essay in the New York Times by Susan Cain about how more and more activities in the workplace have become collaborative ones. "It's one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle," Cain writes. "It's another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers."

Cain points out plenty of downsides to that go-team office dynamic: Studies show that open office plans make employees sicker and more insecure, and though group brainstorming sessions produce a high quantity of ideas, there's no evidence that the quality of those ideas are any better than those generated alone by individuals. Her prescription is for "a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning" that allows us more time to hunker down, be it to generate ideas or just to knock things off our to-do lists.

It's a good idea, but how do you put it in motion? I've read plenty in the business and association press about how to create better collaborative environments; there's much less out there about how carve out more time for individual creativity and productivity. Is it something organizations can institute, or do we just hope our employees get around to it between meetings?

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January 20, 2012

How connecting differs in person and on the web

In the space of a few hours earlier this week, I came upon two articles about human interaction that seemingly contradicted each other:

In the former, Lehrer explains a newly released study that found that college students at larger universities have less diverse social groups than those at smaller universities. The conclusion drawn is that a larger environment allows the natural tendency toward seeking relationships with similar people to play out more thoroughly. As the study's authors put it, "Our findings reveal an irony—greater human diversity within an environment leads to less personal diversity."

Meanwhile, many experts have assumed that the boundless environment of the internet has allowed this same dynamic to turn the net into an "echo chamber," leaving us all increasingly isolated from differing people and viewpoints. The Slate article, however, points out a massive study conducted on Facebook that suggests the opposite is true: social networks (or at least Facebook) expose users to a large amount of novel information (i.e., ideas you most likely wouldn't have found on your own), because the vast majority of online social connections are weak ties. Simply put, the echo chamber theory doesn't appear to be true.

So, in person, opposites don't attract, but seemingly opposites do attract in the internet. The important difference between these scenarios is strength of connections. The former study examined the diversity in close personal relationships, while the latter examined the diversity in weak connections. Very different scenarios, and the evidence from each supports a fairly simple (and perhaps obvious) conclusion: strong relationships arise naturally from compatibility, while weak connections require less compatibility and thus allow for greater diversity.

So why might any of this be relevant to you as an association executive? I see a few lessons to draw, and while none of them are new or novel, the studies serve as important reminders and reinformcements of the following ideas:

Weak ties are conduits for knowledge sharing. My colleague Mark Athitakis asked "What's a Weak Tie Worth?" a few weeks ago and suggested that it might be difficult to turn weak ties into strong ones. I think both of these studies confirm that, but the Facebook study in particular further proves the great value in a large network of weak ties. Working to grow that network—and to help your members grow their weak-tie networks with each other—is a valuable goal in itself.

Growing diversity is another case for online social networking within your membership. Another reason to count the Facebook study in the "pro" column for engaging members through private online community platforms and on external social networks. It's not just a greater volume of connections that can be made online than in person; the online environment allows for the diversity of those connections to be higher, too. And we know that greater diversity in ideas and information being exchanged leads to better decisions, more innovation, and so on.

But just creating a diverse environment isn't enough. Particularly when it comes to your staff or your volunteer leadership, where weak ties that might exist need to be built into strong ties for effective work to be done. Getting a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints in a room together is the right start, but human nature (sadly) will still resist the forming of diverse relationships unless they're fostered intentionally. Cross-functional teams, task forces, and committees must be created with purpose.

I'm curious if these studies align with your experience with your relationships and networks and those you see in your associations.


January 13, 2012

The Fiction Fix

Last week I wrote about the virtues of skepticism when it comes to storytelling—why it's important to be wary about organizations that use storytelling to burnish positive images about themselves, because there's a good chance they're covering up messes that don't neatly fit the narrative. Your comments to that post got me thinking more about when storytelling does and doesn't do its job. (And as an editor at Associations Now who's stared at plenty of blank screens trying to write, I think about this a fair bit.)

So let's add one more complication here: At the Harvard Business Review website, author Anne Kreamer writes about "the business case for reading novels." By "business case," Kreamer means to say that reading fiction bolsters the kinds of qualities that we admire in leaders but which leaders sometimes have a hard time cultivating: emotional intelligence, empathy, poise, conscientiousness. There's data to back up the claim. According to one study she cites, people who read fiction were better equipped to detect emotional cues in others. Moreover, Kreamer argues, fiction is a way to experience the rougher emotions we try to avoid in everyday life, the better to deal with them when they do come up.

I like the idea in the abstract, though I think fiction is only so beneficial as a leadership tool. As Kreamer points out, people who already have "high interpersonal skills" won't necessarily benefit. And however I look at it, I'm not convinced that the novel I'm reading at the moment, Charles Johnson's Middle Passage, which is set on a mutinous slave ship in 1830, has much to teach me about leadership, even in an inverted, here's-how-to-do-it-wrong kind of way. But I don't read fiction to be taught so much as to be reminded: to remember that there are sometimes voices I hadn't considered, that some of the verities I was sure of years ago (or last month) aren't necessarily so, and that the essential but hard-won personal stuff Kreamer mentions—emotional intelligence, empathy, poise, conscientiousness—still matters. Novels aren't formal training; at best they're refresher courses.

But let me throw it to you, an association readership that I know often balances the must-read business books with less-business-y ones. Is there a business case for novels, as Kreamer argues, or do they serve to bolster the storytelling instinct that threaten to make our narratives a little too pat?

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January 12, 2012

Quick clicks: New year edition

Quick clicks took some time off over the holidays, so there's plenty to catch up on. We start, though, on a sad note. Long-time association executive Mark Bledsoe, CAE, passed away December 22. Mark blogged on association management via his AssociationOkie blog. Friend, colleague, and fellow blogger Cynthia D'Amour shared her memory of Mark. His voice in the association blogosphere will be missed.

Looking back at some of the top posts from the past few weeks, many association bloggers turned their attention to predictions and resolutions for 2012:

Words for 2012. Following a theme that she started last year, Shelly Alcorn, CAE, shares five words that will define her work with associations in 2012. As she points out, several others joined her in sharing their words for 2012, as well: Lowell Aplebaum, Kiki L'Italien, Nikki Jeske and Jay Daughtry.

Changing the world in 2012. Maddie Grant, CAE, posed a question on her blog: "How are you going to change the world in 2012?" Several association bloggers responded with posts, which Maddie has conveniently gathered up in a recap post.

Technology challenges. Wes Trochlil has followed up ASAE's 2011 Technology Conference & Expo with a series of blog posts titled "Things I heard at the ASAE Tech Conference." He's up to seven so far, with topics ranging from internal users groups to new association management systems to training.

Membership. Maggie McGary tried out a consumer membership at the Consumer Electronics Association in 2011, only to see CEA discontinue it shortly after launching it. Her account is a good example of how a new member experiences an association.

Wifi at conferences. On the NTEN Blog, Jason Samuels shares how the National Council on Family Relations provided wireless internet for conference attendees via mobile broadband hotspots. It worked, but not perfectly, and Jason shares all the ups and downs and lessons learned.

Consensus. Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE, makes an argument for the value of consensus in associations, but he also makes some important clarifications about what consensus is and isn't.

Convention management. Sue Pelletier is at the Professional Convention Management Association Annual Meeting this week, and she provides a thorough recap of the first day's keynoters: John Medina, Jane McGonigal, Sally Hogshead, and David Brooks.

Volunteer recruitment. Susan J. Ellis relates author Steve McKee's "spark plug theory of marketing" to volunteer recruitment and connecting with volunteers who "want to be challenged to solve problems in new ways."

Diversity. Elizabeth Engel, CAE, is disappointed in the lack of diversity in a collection of association CEOs in an industry publication and says the lack of progress on diversity in general is a threat to the survivial of associations.

Tradeshows. Michael Pinchera a t MPI's PlusPoint blog shares a video that gives a behind-the-scenes look at the construction of a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Marketing. Cindy Butts, CAE, offers six reasons why sponsoring a sports program (such as a local pro or college team) can benefit your association.

Online communities. Terry Coatta asks if you are promoting your online communities as "deadly jelly babies." If this doesn't make sense to you, the point is that it probably doesn't make sense to your members, either.


January 9, 2012

Reading between the lines on conflict and inclusion

The 2012 Associations Now Volunteer Leadership Issue includes a feature by Mark T. Engle, FASAE, CAE, titled "Balanced Conflict, Better Decisions," which presents research that Engle conducted on how associations can best handle conflict in decision making. One of Engle's key findings is that conflict is best handled at the committee level rather than at the board level, and I think this says a lot about the importance of creating open and inclusive governance models in associations, which we discussed here back in November.

[Engle's feature article isn't published online; see page 26 of your print edition. However, in October we published a short article based on an interview with Engle.]

In the feature, Engle stresses that the importance of the consensus approach at the association board level runs opposite to what other research says about decision making in for-profit boards, that conflict at the board level improves decision making. A quote from Steve Smith, CAE, executive director and CEO of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, sums this up well:

"Fairness and due diligence are critical within [association] committee or board processes," says Smith. "If a process is seen as unfair, such as when all views are not heard, the focus is likely to be on personal issues or affective conflict."

In other words, in the association context, if the decision-making process is un-inclusive, conflict will arise precisely for that reason.

The association model is such that, by the time a decision reaches the board level, a strong consensus should already exist about the decision to be made. All the various stakeholders should already be on board because they should have already been asked for their input. If they weren't asked, they'll question the decision. In many cases, I suspect, conflict might present itself as healthy debate on the merits of the issue but in truth be rooted in personal or political conflict stemming from a sense of unfairness in the process.

This presents a deeper question: Is the decision-making process more important than the decision itself? For associations and their member-driven governance systems, the answer might be yes. The evidence in Engle's research on conflict and decision making suggests this, and it makes yet another case for more openness and inclusion in decision-making in associations. If you haven't read the comments from that post from November, go back now and read them. They offer some good ideas for meeting this challenge.

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January 4, 2012

Resolved: Embrace Your Messes

It's four days into the new year, and with any luck you're still sticking to your resolutions to be healthier, kinder, more creative, more organized, and so on. All good things. But I hope you'll forgive me for handing you this double-fudge sundae of a resolution-wrecker: Maybe this is the year you stop trying so hard to apply order to things and instead spend more time acknowledging life's inherent messiness.

I say this after spending some time over the holidays reading the transcript of a talk that economist Tyler Cowen gave at the TedxMidAtlantic conference. (The talk—in the video above—was in 2009, but the transcript appeared late last month.) Cowen's talk is about stories—more specifically, our human instinct to organize our lives as stories. Cowen understands that storytelling is baked into our nature, but he's concerned that our need to describe our lives in terms of conflicts and beginnings, middles, and ends oversimplifies things. "Every time you're telling a good-versus-evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more," Cowen says. Good-versus-evil stories deflect nuance and complication, and it's often the subtle things you need to be the most concerned about.

The line that really hit home for me—and that got me thinking about associations—is Cowen's suggestion about what you should do when a story feels a little too enchanting to you:

Pull back and say, "What are the messages, and what are the stories that no one has an incentive to tell?" and start telling yourself those, and see if any of your decisions change.

Associations, of course, tell stories about themselves all the time: In the annual report, in the board minutes, in the marketing programs, in their internal messages. Those messages can be as simple as "We've supported our industry for decades." But what if the industry isn't the same as it was all those decades back? The decades make for a nice story, but they're not what matters—and, as Cowen implies, leaning on that story isn't going to drive you to make changes in what you do.

So here's the question for the new year (and please do weigh in with your answers in the comments if you're willing): What are the stories you've seen associations unwilling to tell themselves? And a bonus question: Where does that lack of incentive come from?

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