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August 13, 2012

The board doesn't understand

Yesterday, Rick Johnston asked why associations aren't digging deeper into business intelligence, and he suggested that uninterested boards might be part of the problem.

That sentiment was echoed during conversations in Sunday's "Under the Membership Tent: Executive Session" Learning Lab at ASAE's 2012 Annual Meeting & Expo. One participant said her biggest challenge in managing member data is getting funding approval from her board for upgrading the association management system. In short, boards don't understand data management.

I have two reactions to this:

  1. "No doubt." I'm sure every membership professional can relate. It's hard enough to understand all the intricacies and capabilities of an AMS as a staffer who works in it every day. Trying to explain it to volunteers is a chore. But …
  2. Whose fault is it if the board can't see the value of an enhanced AMS? That responsibility has to fall back to the staff. It's not the board's job to already understand data management. It's their job to hire people who do.

Fortunately, one of the session content leaders, Laurie Kulikosky, CAE, director, strategic development, at the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, offered her experience: She said she spent close to a year interviewing staff about what they'd like to see in a potential new AMS. Then she presented that info to her board. She told them, "Here are all the amazing things we'd like to do, and here's why we can't do it."

Data management and business intelligence are, unfortunately, just not very shiny. They're complicated. Numbers scare people. The power of data is enormous, but it doesn't get the glory that other technological endeavors get these days. So find a way to make it shine.

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August 12, 2012

Do Associations Have Any Business Intelligence?

The following is a guest post from Rick Johnston, CAE, principal of ICF Ironworks consulting.

At a technology trends discussion on Saturday, ASAE CIO Reggie Henry asked why associations are not doing more to use their data to make just-in-time business decisions. After all, there are plenty of business intelligence (BI) tools out there, and for-profit organizations use them all the time to stay ahead of their competition and ensure profits for their owners or shareholders.

We see very few associations leveraging BI tools to make sense of the valuable data many of them are collecting. Most associations collect lots of membership data, revenue data, subscriptions data, meeting attendance data, and much more. But who is asking "What do we need to know to measure our success and adjust our operational plans in time to make a difference this year?" In most cases, the answer is nobody. But why?

My answer to Reggie's question reflects on how nonprofits are different from corporations. I contend that it doesn't have to do with size, resources, or technical ability. It has more to do with accountability. Associations have boards who care about their cause, profession, or industry but have no personal financial stake in the outcomes. Everyone tries to be nice and it's just not that important to be better than good. The status quo will suffice.

Having over 25 years in association management and having served in several association boards, I can't remember a board meeting where someone asked the really tough questions around performance accountability. Oh, we look at financial and program reports and how we could have done better last year. We have lots of excuses (the economy, staff turnover, regulations, etc.) to explain away the high-level picture of prosperity, decline, or more often simply the status quo.

We need to dig deeper into the data mine to get real insight into the what and why questions beneath the surface of year-end reports. To think more like a business and closely analyze their operations and reap the intelligence that will help them measure real results and make quick decisions that will have a positive impact. For example, someone should be asking:

  • Do our online promotions reach the right audiences and incent the behaviors (conference registration, advocacy actions, etc.) that we desire?
  • Are membership renewal rates increasing or declining in one demographic more than another?
  • What do our conference attendees value the most? What kinds of conversations are taking place?

I believe the data is often there but leaders in many associations avoid looking at it. By that I mean asking the questions that will allow them to really understand what is happening and why it happens in time to do something about it. Business intelligence tools need not be expensive to purchase or implement. The Texas Medical Association has been using relatively simple BI tools such as Excel to ask these questions for some time. I don't know where they are today, but I'll bet their constituents are better off for their having taken accountability seriously. Can you say the same?

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July 25, 2012

The 40-Year Lesson: Insights from a Retiring Association CEO

Caught in a deadline jam for Associations Now after a snafu that meant pulling several short articles, I was lucky enough to earn the sympathy and help of one of the great leadership icons of our community: CEO & President J. Clarke Price of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

Price is actually leaving us all after 40 years of service. He gave notice two years ago and will head out of the office in December to hopefully tee off on the golf courses of Hawaii and elsewhere, then delve into favorite cause-related activities. I had to cut a bunch of Clarke's comments because of space limitations in the magazine, so I want instead to share them here as advice and insights from one of our most admired colleagues.

1. Association CEOs must stop complaining about time pressures and embrace the huge responsibility they bear for the success of their association's social media strategy. "Social media is one of the differentiators today," says Clarke, who has been called a "Technology Superstar" by one of his industry's trade publications. "Too many CEOs--and occasionally myself included--dismiss social media by rationalizing 'I don't have time for that' when we really do need to be spending time in the social media universe. Whether it's blogging, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the social platforms, the CEO needs to be vocal as one of the loudest and clearest voices of the association and the profession or industry. I'm critical of myself, because I don't spend enough time being part of the social atmosphere."

2. Being an early adopter of technology tools and applications is essential, too. "It's been fun moving from a two-way pager in the early days to the earliest Blackberry to the Palm Treo to the next gizmo iteration and then to the iPhone and iPad that I use today," Clarke says. "And I still carry an old Motorola Razor that I use just because I'm just more comfortable with that sort of phone, and the battery life is great."

3. In the big, long scheme of things, people mean the most. "As a career accomplishment, being featured in ASAE's 7 Measures [of Success] book was a pretty big deal for the organization and me. But I'm proudest when I think about the people I've hired, some who are still here and some who've moved on to bigger roles in other associations and industries or professions," he says.

4. You never forget some of your earliest CEO mistakes--and what you learned from them. It's apparently a long story, but Clarke says one of his most memorable mistakes involved a simple proofreading gaff. "Proofread carefully," he warns. "... I was almost fired in 1975 because of a very sloppy proofreading job on a bylaws ballot sent to every member!"

5. Have leadership role models--a lot of them. "I don't have just one," Clarke says. "I've learned a lot from colleagues in other organizations (particularly the Ohio State Bar Association, Ohio State Medical Association, and Maryland Institute of CPAs)....[and] just observing and working with John Graham the year I was ASAE chair."

And finally--because who doesn't always want to know this when they talk one of the association world's wise elders--what's Clarke's favorite board management tip after 40 years in the trenches?

"Plan! Think through the likely avenues of discussion and be prepared for the unexpected."

I hope retirement brings you expected and unscripted joys, Clarke. Thanks again for sharing not only your thoughts with me but with so many of us over the years in the association community. I'd love to hear what others have to say about Clarke's tips and observations.

You also can wish him well and hear about the books and information sources that have influenced his past and current thinking as a leader if you join us for the education session "Conversations That Matter: What We Learn From What We Read" Tuesday morning, Aug. 14 in Dallas at our Annual Meeting & Expo. I'll be joining Clarke and another longtime industry leader, Gary LaBranche, to lead a rowdy, fun, and very practical (if last year's version is any indication) discussion of the books, blogs, Twitterstreams, and whatever other info sources (okay, the emphasis is often on books) that have jazzed your thinking in the past year. Leave room in your totebag for at least one free book from our giveaway table!

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May 18, 2012

ROI and concerns for association content curators

Diving into content curation for associations one more time. This is post number three on this topic in as many weeks, so I promise this will be the last for a while. Just a few other aspects of it worth examining.

ROI. The biggest return on investment for an association doing content curation may be intangible: bolstering your association's reputation as the best place (or at least one of the best places) to find high-quality knowledge and useful news in your specific field or industry. (This should sound familiar if you already publish a magazine, journal, newsletter, blog, etc.) Done well, this can lead to better recruitment, more engagement, and upticks in all the related products and services you offer that have real revenue attached (meetings, education, certifications, etc).

David Gammel summed it up well in a tweet yesterday (at right). If you're familiar with David's Engagement Acceleration Curve, you could plot content curation at the far left, near other content marketing and attention-driving strategies.

And like your traditional content, content curation could help boost revenue via advertising, but again this ought to be additive to the content you're already producing, not a replacement for it. If you find yourself going link crazy just to drive page views, take a look at newspapers to see how that's working out for them. And there are some other concerns with advertising next to other people's content, but more on that later.

These next few items are where content curation at an association gets more complicated than at an independent media outlet or as a solo practitioner on the web.

Diversity. Any good content curator will search a wide, diverse pool of perspectives and sources of knowledge (within a subject area, at least) and will also strive for diversity in the content he or she curates for the audience. That's just good sense for the community's general body of knowledge. But other diversity and inclusion considerations will factor in as well, such as highlighting new and underrepresented voices in the industry. This is a worthy goal for any association (and often an expressly stated one), but it might not always align perfectly with other measurements of content, so it's important for the association content curator to keep both goals in mind.

Influence. If your association is well positioned, your curation of others' content will be valuable exposure for those sources. Exposure that must not be doled out unevenly or haphazardly. An association curator's sources will often be paying members—and, specifically, paying supplier members who want to see their membership dues result in better exposure to the market. Ultimately, your responsibility lies in curating the best, most useful content for your audience, so it will help to have a clear definition of "best" and "useful" in case you hear from people who think you ought to be including their content in your curation.

Fair use. When you're dealing heavily in relaying other people's content, you run the risk of copyright infringement if you use it in inappropriate ways and without proper attribution. The rules of intellectual property law are sometimes fuzzy, but the simple mantras of "don't steal" and "give credit where credit is due" will generally steer you in the right direction. But these are doubly important for an association curator since so many sources are paying members. Even if you don't run afoul of copyright laws, could you upset members if they feel your association is taking advantage of their contributions? Possibly. Consider tools like Scoop.It, Pinterest, and Tumblr. Great tools for curating and sharing content easily. But what if you slapped some advertising on your Scoop.It page, next to all those handy links and teasers to other people's content? Some sources might not be as agreeable anymore.

If your association is curating content for your audience, I'd be interested to hear how your members are responding and how you're handling some of these issues. And if you missed the earlier posts on curation, here they are, plus one from last year:

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May 14, 2012

A little curation on curation for associations

Two weeks ago I shared a few thoughts on how the concept of curation might work (or is working) in the retail industry, and I promised to dig a little deeper into curation in the association context. That post drew some interesting comments, so first I recommend going back and reading them.

That discussion got me thinking a lot about the topic, and so I spent some time reading what others have written about content curation already (which is quite a lot). In the interest of practicing what I preach (and in not restating what others have already said much better than I could), I decided to gather and share a handful of the most useful resources I've found on content curation:

Where to start if you're new to "curation":

On the actual job of curation:

On associations' role as content curators:

More curated info about curation:

After all that reading, I came to a couple conclusions that I think can also help you approach curation at your association:

Curation is a philosophy, not a tactic. If you take some time to read some or all of these articles, you'll find that "curation" takes on a lot of different meanings and forms, depending on who you talk to. You might find that frustrating, particularly if you're looking for how-do-I-do-it-today advice, but I think curation is best viewed as a philosophy rather than a tactic. I like Rohit Bhargava's definintion, because it encompasses any range of methods that accomplish the same goal: "finding, grouping, organizing, or sharing the best and most relevant content on a specific issue."

You can apply that goal to just about any form of content that your association might produce, ranging from blogs and magazines to research and education. But make note of the wording: "the best and most relevant content," not "your best and most relevant content." That's the shift that associations have to make, from being the source of expertise to being the conveyer of expertise, regardless of the source. Viewed this way, curation is more of a new filter or lens through which to look at the things associations already do, rather than an entirely new source of value.

Real time vs. long tail. Of all the various forms that content curation can take, I see them mostly falling into one of two buckets, which I haven't seen clearly identified elsewhere:

  • Real-time curation. This is the ongoing, day-to-day form of curation. It's how you keep your members up to date. The subject area can be wide (as wide as your association's profession, perhaps), and the criteria for selection expand from "best" and "relevant" to also include "new." This form can appeal to a big audience, but it has a short shelf life, as it needs constant attention. Think "today's top news."
  • Long-tail curation. This is the long-term, highly specific form of curation. It's how you help your members dig deep into a topic. The subject area in each case is narrow, and the criteria for selection might be best described as "the absolute best" and "the most relevant." And the timeframe for selected content can go back for years, as long as the content stays relevant. This form appeals to a specific audience in each case, but it has a long shelf life. It could be maintained with only periodic updating. Think "Wikipedia."

Both of these forms can be valuable for associations to provide to their audiences, because they address two different user scenarios: the user who engages often to stay in touch, and the user who only comes to you when they have a specific problem to solve. (Of course, these aren't exclusive; a single person can engage with your association in both ways at different times.) But in either case, if your association is the place to easily find the best information and knowledge from throughout your profession, you'll keep those users (members or non) coming back.

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April 27, 2012

Curation, retail style

Do you need any further convincing that serving as the curator of knowledge for an industry is a valid and vital role for an association?

Would it help to know that one of the most successful retailers in the United States plays that role for its customers?

CNBC profiled bulk retailer Costco in a documentary that aired last night. If you missed it, check out this segment from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams (or read the transcript):

The point that caught my attention:

"Despite the idea that customers like more, Costco stocks surprisingly few items, only around 4,000. The lack of selection is deliberate. 'There's only one variety of ketchup,' [marketing consultant Pam] Danziger explains. 'You don't have to choose from a variety. They've edited it down for you. You've paid them to do it.'"

A big-box store that hasn't been performing so well lately is Best Buy. Slate tech writer Farhad Manjoo suggests that Best Buy's overwhelming selection is dragging it down, and he suggests an opposite approach to save the company:

"If Best Buy wants to survive, it's got to replace its hulking, teeming stores with smaller, less crowded, more intimate spaces. When you walk in to buy a 32-inch TV, the guy in the blue shirt shouldn't make you choose between a dozen nearly identical models. Instead, he should show you a single set, a TV that Best Buy's experts have determined offers the best features at the best price. The firm could do the same across its inventory, culling the tech universe down to a few essential, can't-beat products. In this way, Best Buy would transform itself from a supermarket into a boutique—a place with fewer things for sale and lots of friendly, sophisticated, helpful experts who'll save you the hassle of researching your next TV or PC purchase. They'll do all the work for you."

There it is again: curation. Note the similar language: "They've edited it down for you," and "They'll do all the work for you." Capturing, analyzing, evaluating, and organizing the overwhelming volume of choices in the world and presenting it to customers in a useful, manageable way. Making sense of the madness. Finding order from chaos. However you want to put it—in any context, both physical and online, both object and information—consumers derive value from and prove loyal to great curators.

I've written about curation before, and so have many others. I'll leave it here for a Friday afternoon, but I think I'll be revisiting this again soon, so stay tuned.

[Also, on a separate but still association-related note: Costco has 64 million members. At the end of the segment above, reporter Carl Quintanilla notes that "most of their profit is from the [membership] fees themselves" and that 90 percent of Costco members renew every year. Chalk one up for the membership model.]

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March 14, 2012

Who Owns an Idea?

I had an idea yesterday. Came up with it all by myself!

I confess it's not a brilliant idea---I was just thinking I should rake the leaves that have piled up in my backyard over the winter, now that it's warmer out. Well, I guess it's not really my idea, come to think of it; recent visitors to my untidy, leaf-strewn backyard have shot me looks suggesting to me that, yes, raking the lawn would be a very good idea indeed. And isn't it arrogant of me to think that this whole raking-leaves business is something I came up with? I can't really claim the ingeniousness required to invent a device instilled with so much domestic utility and obvious slapstick hilarity.

What I mean to say is, identifying who came up with an idea can get messy. Not crediting that person can get messier.

I have all this in mind after reading about the Curators Code, a supremely well-intentioned and surely doomed proposal to get people to behave better when it comes to citing sources online. The idea, co-created by Maria Popova (whose Brain Pickings website I couldn't recommend more highly), is largely motivated by the rise of ruthless aggregators that have a habit of taking other sites' content, summarizing it, and, placing the link to the original source somewhere in the web equivalent of deepest Antarctica.

"Discovery of information is a form of intellectual labor," Popova told an audience at the South by Southwest Interactive conference last week. "When we don't honor discovery, we are robbing somebody's time and labor. The Curator's Code is an attempt to solve some of that." Right here, according to the Curator's Code, I am obliged to place a sideways "s" to show that I pulled this quote from a New York Times article, and that I was not actually in Austin at South by Southwest myself, scribbling notes. It its allegedly easy to insert this sideways "s," but I'm still not going to do it. I have my old-fashioned way of crediting---linking and stating the source---and I'm sticking with it.

That said, the announcement of the Curator's Code provides an opportunity to think about how we credit people for their ideas, online or off. We've all been burned on this front, I suspect: The proposal made in a meeting that somehow became a superior's genius move six months later; the casual thought related at a cocktail party that somebody ran with and made a bundle on; the blog post that got all but thieved by an aggregator, which in turn inspired clunky new crediting system that gets dismissed and mocked. Uncredited ideas fill courts with cases and cubicles with fuming employees.

There is no correct system for crediting people with the ideas they have. But there is an incorrect one, which is not crediting people at all. To his, well, credit, Simon Dumenco noted that his idea to launch a Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation, also announced at South by Southwest, was inspired by guidelines promoted by the American Society of Magazine Editors. (Please read Maggie McGary's smart take on this, asking why the initiative didn't come from ASME itself.) So what works when it comes to crediting members and staffers with ideas---and, perhaps more important, how do you mend fences when somebody feels their ideas were poached?

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August 19, 2011

What We Learn from What We Read

Good news--people are still reading. And some are reading a lot (20% of adults read more than 21 books per year, according to a 2010 Harris Poll).

That was clear from the crowd that raised their hands to the question during the session "What We Learn from What We Read" at the ASAE Annual Meeting in St. Louis recently.

The best news--they want to read "smart," meaning they want to be mindful of what reading is influencing the thinking and actions of their colleagues in other organizations while also finding inspiration, ideas, and knowledge in less-common sources such as literature, non-business books, mobile phone applications, new-book aggregation or executive summary websites, and more.

Panelists Jeffrey Cufaude (moderator), consultant Joan Eisenstodt, CEO Mark Anderson, and I shared not only what we were learning by reading beyond the "obvious business sources" (Harvard Business Review, New York Times, etc), but also the resulting ways we've applied that learning to our work and personal insights on everything from community building to leadership to technology.

Since we all admitted our book addictions and the difficulty of narrowing the choices we'd share at the session, our panel posted additional suggested reading and sources around the room, and attendees could jot down on cards anything of interest. For folks at the session or overall meeting, don't forget to download the session materials that list even more resources or to order the CD to listen to the session.

One of my favorite parts was when we asked the audience to share what books and sources they thought others should know about--you can hear their suggestions in the session tape, and I urge you to share your own favorites in the comments section of this post.

In doing my research for the session, I ran into a quote by Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, that we used to move people into thinking beyond their own learning and toward that of their members and colleagues: "...[P]eople are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one's communities."

If true, doesn't that leave a huge opportunity for associations to aggressively curate the overwhelming amount of content for their community?

Most organizations already are trying. For instance, on the plane, I sat next to an Avectra professional who told me that the entire company is reading Race for Relevance and then will gather to talk about it.

Another attendee said that her CEO picks two books a year for the board to read, and it's the first item on the agenda because discussing ideas and new information "gets people's mental juices going" right away.

Our panel added more suggestions such as running regular book reviews online and in publications, offering virtual book/information clubs for members, creating reading-learning-applying online communities for open conversations around new books or sources, mobile apps that aggregate top news of interest, and what-I-learned-from-what-I-read education sessions.

We all have had such a tremendous response to the session that we may pitch it again for Great Ideas or next Annual Meeting in Dallas, and we're discussing the potential of an open sharing community to continue the momentum of the session.

We hope you'll join us in our virtual book nook to share your favorite reads and learning, too.

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August 10, 2011

Finding Great Idea #200

The following is a guest post from Pamela Strother, CAE, principal, Sponsorship Specialists.

How has the role of knowledge management changed for associations?

When I came in search of Great Idea #200 for "Building Meeting Attendance and Revenue" at #asae11, I walked into the St. Louis Convention Center not realizing that over these few days I would witness our massive industry accept the big shift. Oh, how it pains this Gen X'er to say it. But here I go...

Associations no longer control knowledge and content. We no longer control monetizing that knowledge. And, we no longer control how people convene!

As Sheri Jacobs (@Chicagogirl27) tweeted the other day, association members are telling us: "We want what we want when we want it in the format we want it. Easy enough"

Well, not so easy. I watched time and again what felt like senior association managers giving confessionals about how they are worried that they don't have the resources to manage a shift to our new world of knowledge sharing — and frankly even about their relevance now that they don't control the information. The good news for all of us is that being association professionals has prepared us.

Dave Lutz and Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chainsaw (@VelChain) summed it up for me: We are now the curators of knowledge and information and the hub of where people come to talk about it.

We don't post tweets with the hash tag #associations, we post tweets with the hash tag #ASAE.  What could be more valuable, and validating, at this moment in time? If your association is not a leader on Twitter, please make this your first priority when you get home. Your current and potential members are already talking about the cutting edge of knowledge without you in this space.

Great Idea #200 is not just an idea, it is the framework in which the next 199 ideas will bubble up from the ASAE community for each of the 199 Ideas series. I for one, look forward to contributing!

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August 8, 2011

One step at a time

What's wrong with baby steps?

Nothing at all, judging by several ideas shared in Learning Labs so far at ASAE's 2011 Annual Meeting & Expo. In the three separate sessions I've attended, speakers extolled the virtues of incremental improvements in their associations' work.

In "Coping and Managing as a Small Staff Executive" on Sunday, Lydia Middleton, CAE, president and CEO of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration, talked about saving time and money for her association by moving to a virtual staff model. But she didn't completely abandon the brick-and-mortar office. Instead, AUPHA is transitioning. They've reduced office space from 3,500 square feet to 900, and staff work from home two days a week.

Later on Sunday, in "Email Marketing in a Mobile World," Amy Hager, communications and online member services manager at the Satellite Broadcast and Communications Association, talked about small, simple tweaks to emails to make them more mobile friendly, such as limiting subject lines to 30 characters and changing the "view the online version" link to "view the mobile version." The latter led to a 173-percent increase in clicks on the link, she said.

And this morning, in "Is There Money Hidden in Your Data," Wes Trochlil said there's one simple change that most associations can make to improve their data-gathering practices: stop collecting data that you don't use to make decisions.

We discussed small-scale innovations here less than two weeks ago; clearly it's a theme that continues here at #asae11.

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To believe or not to believe?

The following is a guest post from Jeffrey Cufaude, president and CEO, Ideas Architects. Follow Jeffrey on Twitter @jcufaude.

How do you determine credibility?

This was the question on my mind after participating in an invitation-only session on Monday with author David Nour. David has been working with the ASAE Foundation on research and a new book, Return on Impact: Leadership Strategies for the Age of Connected Relationships.

During some fairly passionate exchanges among the association executives in attendance, the online community's credibility was challenged compared to the association's credibility: "How can you trust what you read from a blogger?" Or "Just because someone has lots of followers doesn't mean they know what they are talking about." Difference of opinion on this topic seemed to vary by both generations and social media usage.

Here's the thing: we've always had connected relationships and we've always turned to our connections for advice. John Seely Brown wrote about this more than 10 years ago in his book, The Social Life of Information, in which he observed Xerox copy repair personnel calling coworkers for insight rather than turning to the company's training manual. We can just connect differently now, and that is disrupted the traditional ways in which information has been exchanged and knowledge has been created.

But credibility was an issue long before Twitter was created and will continue to be long after the next new technology emerges. When you sit in a session at this very meeting and hear a colleague share her take on a particular issue or a peer do a presentation, you filter their assertions for credibility based on whatever criteria you choose to apply. How is that so different than reading a blog post or a Tweet and assessing its validity? After all, we didn't peer review their registration forms for the Annual Meeting to only let in vetted association executives whose every opinion can be treated as universal truth.

So yes, credibility is critical individually, organizationally, and as an association community. But to out-of-hand dismiss the information and the connections created via social media could be an incredible slight and put your own credibility at risk in the eyes of some of the very people you may be trying to engage.

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April 13, 2011

Building the right systems pays off later

I'm still in the process of processing the swell of ideas and trends discussed at the 2011 Digital Now conference this past weekend. Looking back at my notes, there's one idea that came up a few times:

Good systems (or habits) will pay off down the road.

That's a simplified idea, but here are the two examples in which it came up at the conference:

  • The Society of Critical Care Medicine tracks its members' activities with the association and within the industry down to every last detail: meetings they attend, papers they write (both for the association and outside), discussions they join, and so on. SCCM staff are capturing so much information that they have established a predictive-analytics tool that they believe will help them identify future volunteer leaders years before they emerge. Executive Director David Martin, CAE, said this is only possible because SCCM has been collecting data diligently and systematically for a decade (to the point that staff who wouldn't get on board with proper data collection practices were given the boot).
  • Fellow Acronym blogger Mark Golden, CAE, moderated a session based on the book The Power of Pull by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison. He and his co-presenters explained that one element of a successful "pull system" is the ability to attract and convene new people, ideas, and information "so that serendipitous synergies occur." Mark called it "shaping serendipity."

Coincidentally, on my flight home I read "No More Privacy Paranoia," by Slate's Farhad Manjoo, in which he discusses the clash between privacy protection and the power of systems built to use personal information. Near the end he makes a point about Google that meshes the two ideas above:

"There's something important to note about the spellchecker, Flu Trends, speech recognition, and other Google products based on data. They weren't planned. Google didn't begin saving search queries in order to build the spell-checker; it built the spell-checker because it began saving search queries, and eventually realized that the database could be useful."

So again the lesson here is to create systems or environments that foster the building and sharing of knowledge, which can open up possibilities beyond what you might be able to predict. The problem I see for associations, though, is the ROI question. Asking a board to have faith that good things will happen if it approves a major investment probably won't fly. You'd likely need at least one significant return in mind, in hopes that that might be enough to make an investment that could pay off in other ways later.

Do you have examples of unexpected benefits from good systems or practices at your association? How have you made the case for investment in systems or habits that you know are best practices but don't have clear, direct returns?

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February 4, 2011

Crafting Bold Conversations

For the third time in as many days I've heard of an organization holding a forum about "civil discourse" or "Communicating with Candor but Respect."

Obviously, the recent shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Giffords and fears that it resulted in part from enflamed political emotions and extreme partisanship have rippled across our association community as it has the political playing fields.

It only takes a nanosecond for most of us to recall an instance when heated talk created high drama and hurt or angry feelings at our board meetings, in education sessions, on our list servs, or in committee gatherings. Why else are the decisions about meeting facilitators or list serv monitors and guidelines so vital? Even those efforts are not always adequate at preventing open hostilities versus candid debate.

So what else can associations be doing to build an inclusive, open, and frank environment for the exchange of opinions, ideas, and knowledge? More training of board members, staff, and others? Stronger rules of engagement? Adoption of a tweaked version of Google's "Do no evil," e.g., "speak no evil?" An organizational Debate Team?

The issue is important as we evolve into an increasingly diverse workforce that can either divide us or boost us. Has your organization used this momentary political time-out to check the volume and "vitriol" level of the conversations around and within the membership and staff? I've read numerous appeal letters, for example, that would be worth a harder look in a calmer time. And we all know how quickly blog post comments can ratchet up emotions.

Yes, we want engagement, but do we want all-out war within the ranks or with our current "enemies"--the same ones who may well be future political allies.

I've suggested to several people that they read or re-read Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenney, and Al Switzler to generate some ideas about raising the quality, not the volume, of your organization's conversations. If you haven't read it already, here is the first chapter.

And keep a watch out for an article I'll be writing after I interview Saj-nicole Joni, co-author of The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value. The book describes ways that leaders at all levels can create, nurture, and manage the "productive dissent essential for achieving peak performance." It seems especially timely now. Click here for a video on the book.

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January 4, 2011

Beyond Blather

I like listening to association CEOs talk to each other once they find a way to move beyond the weather, traffic, and the usual "Hey, how are you? I'm fine, yup, fine" openers. Trouble is, often they don't get beyond such superficial exchanges.

They're NOT all "fine;" they're challenged bigtime in many ways--it's just hard to feel right about blurting out, "Well, actually, I'm having trouble finding someone to fill a key position on my senior team," or "Pretty good, but I'd be better if I could just figure out how to tap into more federal funding. Have you had much luck with that?"

The latter statements actually start a real conversation, a potential peer-to-peer learning experience. And yet, some leaders seem more comfortable making bland and polite replies that go nowhere.

That's why I like watching the TV show of one of our community's most visible leaders--Jonathan Tisch, chair & CEO of Loews Hotels--who interviews leaders from a wide range of fields on his CNBC show, "Beyond the Boardroom."

Over the weekend, I watched him interview George Bodenheimer, president, ESPN & ABC Sports, about everything from brand management to entertainment technology advances to shareholder concerns related to ESPN's parent company, Disney. You could tell that Tisch was really listening, learning, considering.

Like a fly on the wall, it was a great viewer experience to watch those two get into some difficult topics.

Why not commit in 2011 to cutting your standard chitter chatter at receptions, coffee breaks, and even in the elevator to a minimum and instead perfect ways to delve deeper faster into the topics that matter. You will likely find an enthusiastic, even relieved conversation partner who doesn't care about interstate hang-ups or a bit of rain either.

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October 26, 2010

Collaboration for collaboration's sake

A few weeks ago, Scott linked via Quick Clicks to a blog post by Marsha Rhea titled "Calling Time-Out on the Culture of Over-Collaboration and Over-Commitment." She argues that association executives are overcommitted to collaboration, leading to some bad side effects:

"[H]ow can anyone do quality work racing from one staff meeting to the next conference call with a volunteer committee … ? More association and nonprofit executives need to call time out and recognize the high cost of this behavior. Sure they do an amazing amount of good work in any given day. I admire their stamina and flexibility. Yet I am confident they need more wide open expanses of unscheduled time to do truly great work and lead breakthrough changes in their organizations."

I'd like to echo Marsha's concern about over-collaboration, but I'm not worried about the side effects. I worry about the direct effect. Is all that collaboration really worthwhile?

Associations are, in essence, groups of people with a common purpose, so our first inclination is to answer "yes" to that question. I've never quite understood this degree of faith in the collaborative process, though. It assumes that, because a solution was found via a group, it must be the best one. I just don't buy that that's always the case. (I come from a writer's background, though, where solitary work is the norm. Maybe I'm just biased.)

I can't discount collaboration entirely, of course, because I've certainly worked in some highly productive group experiences. But another reason I find the belief in collaboration puzzling is that we've all seen how it can go wrong: Show me an association executive who says she has never at least once seen something watered down by a committee, and I'll show you a liar.

To put it simply, assuming collaboration is always positive puts a greater value on process than it does on results. It ought to be the other way around. Surely collaboration is great in the right situations, but not all the time.

So perhaps the question isn't "Is collaboration worthwhile?" but rather "How much of it is?" How do you pick the right times and situations in which to collaborate, and how do you make sure you're doing it right?

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April 14, 2010

The next wave: semantic web

One more post from last week's Digital Now conference that I didn't get a chance to write while I was there.

For the second time in three years, the conference has brought in a speaker to talk about the "semantic web" and "semantic search," which are shaping up to be the next wave in internet structure and search and could have broad ripple effects. It could also be a huge boon for or threat to association website content, so it's worth learning about now as it emerges.

In my own plain English, semantic web and search are a form of internet data structure and search that do a far better job conveying and understanding the meaning of language than current tools do.

Right now, if you want to do research on tigers (the animal) on the internet, you'll have to sort through a lot of search results related to Tiger Woods, the Detroit Tigers, the Mac operating system, and so on. Semantic web structure and search use advanced metadata and search algorithms to deduce more nuanced meaning from text and return better search results. It can recognize that a web page that includes the word "tiger" and also the words "Asia," "feline," and "endangered," is much more likely to be relevant to your quest for info on tigers than a page with the word "golf" on it. They call it "semantic" because it aims to understand the meanings of words, rather than just the mere presence of them. It's an emerging field in which a lot of startups are developing technologies and tools (the one represented at Digital Now was TextDigger, by CEO Timothy Musgrove).

So anyway, how is this relevant to association work? Well, first check out what's been discussed recently about content curation and how it's a big tactical opportunity for associations. The argument is that associations (read: people who work or volunteer at associations) can fill the role of sorting through the avalanche of information on the web and delivering the most important stuff to their members. Semantic web and search are aiming to, essentially, automate this role by making it exponentially easier to classify and find information on the web.

Is this good or bad for associations? I'm really not sure. TextDigger, for instance, wants to provide content aggregation services, meaning you could leverage the power of semantic search to fill your website with highly targeted information and also sort through your own information in a highly specific way. But a lot of other companies out there could do the same thing without you. If semantic search tools elsewhere on the web gave people the power to find information relevant to them without having to turn to professional associations for expert filtering, that might spell trouble. (Heck, Google is already halfway there with its current form of search.)

We might be years away from semantic web and search becoming widely effective, but a lot of people are calling it "Web 3.0." And it wasn't all that long ago that what we now know as "Web 2.0" seemed far off, so this next wave is worth keeping an eye on.

I've probably done a poor job of explaining semantic web and search here, so you should check out more info if you're interested:

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December 10, 2009

Associations as value facilitators

Here's a Big Ideas Month blog post we received from Jeffrey Cufaude—thanks Jeffrey!

"The things you own end up owning you."
~ Tyler Durden character in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

What if associations shifted more of their efforts from being direct providers of member value to facilitators of members receiving value?

Associations have long prided themselves on delivering high-quality programs and resources for members, including certification, educational conferences, magazines, and journals. Most of these programs are done in-house and require a significant investment of resources. In essence, these are association-owned efforts. They create them; they pay for them; they deliver them. They are an essential part of the association’s stated benefits and identify with members.

Association staff and volunteers often express some of the not-so-positive consequences of this direct provider approach: You can’t ever kill a program around here. Once we start doing something we rarely stop doing it. We keep adding more to our plate without ever taking anything away. We try to do so much for so many that we don’t do very many things very well. By trying to be everything for everybody we end up being not much for anyone in particular.

So what’s the different between being a provider of value and being a facilitator of value being received? At its roots, the word facilitation means “actions taken to make it easier.” What is it that associations would be making easier? Members receiving the value they need in the form they want it, when they want it, and at an affordable price.

But wait you say, isn’t that what associations already see themselves as doing …? Providing programs and services that meet member needs? Well yes, but the key word there is providing. Associations see making things easier for members primarily through the lens of the association being the direct solution provider. But no association has unlimited resources or ability to meet all of the specific needs its members might have at any given time. Rather than try to do so, associations should incorporate a greater role facilitating members receiving the value they need. Doing so would complement the specific areas where it is in the association’s best interests to retain its role as being the actual provider of value.

Continue reading "Associations as value facilitators" »

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October 16, 2009

Comfort with chaos

On her blog earlier this week, Lindy Dreyer shares a piece of advice about control: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Meanwhile, Wes Trochlil makes a similar point about data collection. He says, "It's not reasonable or useful to try to collect all types of data from all of your members and customers."

And Peter Bregman at Harvard Business argues that the best way to create change is to focus on changing one thing, not an entire system. His advice: "...[T]ake the time up front to figure out the one and only thing that will have the highest impact and then focus 100% of [your] effort on that one thing."

I really liked these thoughts (you should go read all three posts), because they allude to something we often forget: Planet Earth is a chaotic place. It's made up of unpredictable environments filled with unpredictable humans who create unpredictable systems. Life is so much easier when you get comfortable with that chaos. Pick the sliver you can effectively influence, and then let the rest go.

And so I would suggest a slightly different but equally important way to phrase Lindy's advice above: "Don't get so caught up in trying to control everything that you miss your chance to control something."

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May 12, 2009

Cherry-picking Relevant Journal Articles Adds Value to Membership

Plenty of conversation is occurring about how to add value to association memberships, with much discussion focusing on delivering more knowledge and further developing members’ skills.

One added benefit I like was announced recently by the Web Analytics Association. Its Research Committee has arranged access to four online peer-reviewed journals that may interest its members. To “bridge the gap between industry research and the research conducted within the academic communities,” a project team of the committee reviews and summarizes selected articles to keep WAA members apprised of the latest research and offers an archive of issues as well. The committee also is recruiting members to write reviews.

This example reflects aspects of chatter I’ve heard lately about the need for associations to “get over” their “territorial attitudes” regarding their publications and instead focus on finding and delivering access to the best range of knowledge for their respective professions or trades—and that may mean outside of the hallowed halls of the association. Indeed, it may mean reaching out to peripheral organizations that aren’t a perfect match to all members but may hold attractive information to members involved or interested in cross-disciplinary knowledge exchanges.

A more open attitude also may prompt more association journal/magazine exchanges and wider tapping of for-profit publications and knowledge products.

Frankly, associations aren’t always good at that type of strategy, but if we want to retain the value of our reputations as comprehensive repositories and leaders in relevant knowledge delivery, then we need to re-examine what types of knowledge our members truly need in this changing economy—and whether we have to be the ones to create it from scratch.

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May 7, 2009

Shirky: Associations must be the broker of connections

Community is one of those words that an old journalism professor of mine told me to never use because it doesn't mean anything. Or, more to the point, it can mean about 100 different things depending on context, so you should always find a more specific word to use.

Well, Acronym is going to focus on community this month anyway, and we'll embrace it for all its different meanings.

First up is some keen insight from Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and a Thought Leader at the 2009 Annual Meeting & Expo this August. He spoke at the Digital Now conference in April, and I had the good fortune to pick his brain for about 30 minutes. He offered some great thoughts on how community is evolving for associations.

On gathering people around knowledge:

"With this forwarding and forwarding and forwarding possibility, the ability of organizations to use what they have and know as kind of bright, shiny objects to attract the population they'd like to be serving or addressing—whether it's their own members or potential members, or even just the sort of penumbra of interested people—means that anyplace you can get sharing to happen at low enough cost and high enough redistribution value, there's a model available now that didn't used to be available." 

On the survival of conferences and meetings:

"If I want information about a Cisco product, I'm so much better off getting it from Cisco's [web]site than I am going to a conference and hearing about it. The reason to go to a conference is to be around the other people. ... The conference business that struggled ... were the ones that assumed that a conference business was basically a way of broadcasting information to a passive audience. And the conference businesses that have done well are the ones that say, 'You're going to be in a room of people you'll be glad to be in a room with, and in the design of the conference we're going to respect that by carving out some space for you all to create value for each other.'"

On connecting your audience members to each other:

"When an association can broker introductions or can create a way that people can have conversations around shared interests ... you [the association] can benefit from that, but not if you imagine that you can control it or that you can decide whether or not [the converstation] is going to happen."

On member engagement:

"It's not clear that getting more of those mailbox members in should be a first-order goal. ... Wikipedia's ability to deliver value to people who have never and will never participate is a big part of the success of Wikipedia. ... So, the question isn't about 'How do we get everybody to participate?' You can, but what a nightmare that would be. The question is, 'How do we get enough people participating so that it ... raises the value of the organization for the whole group?'" 

With those wise words to set the stage, what does community mean to your association, and what will it mean in five, 10, or 20 years? Keep an eye out here on Acronym throughout the month of May for more thoughts on community.

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May 30, 2008

The plan for dealing with the crud

So this is my idea for how associations might go about managing centralized and decentralized content—a way of sifting through the "90 percent" crud of yesterday's post.

I like the idea of separating information into three buckets: (1) bad, uninteresting, or unexplored; (2) interesting, potentially useful; and (3) the good stuff. I think associations should offer as many decentralized opportunities as there is a call for from its constituents (and I think you have to keep in mind that it's ok to tinker, it's ok to build something with high hopes only to see nobody comes—as long as you do it smartly, the more resources you put into it the more sure you should be that it will work).

Where associations add value to their members is both by giving them the tools to create content and collaborate, and by categorizing and presenting that information. The good stuff should be explored and appear in education sessions, magazine/newsletter articles, white papers on the web or in some other way that signifies it as association-approved. With the good stuff, you're saying "read this—it may be very important to you and your job/company/interest."

Making the good stuff fit for wide consumption is a resource-intensive task. As a result, some interesting stuff will simply not be turned into good stuff. Maybe this takes the shape of peer recommendations or is vetted in some other way, but it doesn't get the same stamp of approval from the association. With this stuff, you're saying "there may be something here you find interesting." This stuff is in some way accessible and designated as this middle category on your website.

The last category is the biggest. You admit that you can't review everything. You also admit that while the association tries its best to pull out the good stuff and interesting stuff for special treatment, there is always subjective evaluation involved, and what is good to one person may be unremarkable to another. In this category, you're saying, "It may not be easy to wade through all this stuff, but it's here for you if you want to. (And let us know if something looks interesting to you.)"

How do you capture and categorize the stuff? There's tons of ways, from volunteers to focus groups to staff to technology. It's really going to depend on the resources you have or could develop. Maybe that's another post sometime, or maybe some people have thoughts or experiences to share. The important thing is to start. You don't have to try to capture and categorize everything. Start with your listservers or with the q&a's that happen after education sessions or chat in your online education courses. Start there, capture some of it, and begin to analyze it, categorize it, and use it.

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May 29, 2008

90% crud

Here's a single q&a from today's wonderful WashingtonPost.com chat with professor and author Jonathon Zittrain:

Pot Falls, Va.: Now that more people than ever can make their voice heard, are we doomed to listen to partially informed, bitter, angry vitriolic rubbish the rest of our online lives?

Cynical in Va.

Jonathan Zittrain: I don't think so. (Lee Siegel has written a lot about this, by the way, in his book Against the Machine.) Theodore Sturgeon, the science fiction writer, was once told that 90% of SF was crud. "Yes," he said, "90% of everything is crud."
So there's a lot of stuff out there that isn't that inspiring -- or that's downright hurtful or deceptive. But our technical architectures for letting people express themselves online are all over the map, and those attached to natural gathering points like online newspapers are (with apologies to WaPo) primitive. That's why I'm intrigued (but not cyberutopian) by Wikipedia: it's a genuinely new technology that makes possible a culture of discussion and moderation that's today often vitriol-free.

For those who haven't done so yet, check out an article of your choice on Wikipedia and then click on the "discussion" link at the top of the page. Chances are good that you'll like what you see. (Mileage may vary, of course.)

This is an old debate on Acronym, and I'm not really trying to reopen it here... at least not in the same form. I wanted to use the quote to talk about the idea of what I refer to as centralized vs. decentralized content. Associations have long been purveyors of centralized content—that is, content that goes out with the stamp of approval from the association. It's a book or a magazine article or a committee report, etc.

We've actually been in the decentralized content game a long time, too, with chat boards and listservers (not to mention the infamous "hallway conversations," which associations seem to universally point to as a prime reason for attending a large conference). However, members—and those who would be our members—are increasingly expecting more outlets for decentralized content. In some ways, those associations on the forefront who are able to capture this content are creating their long tail. The main argument against putting resources behind fostering decentralized content and its capture is that if it is not good, it will make the association look bad.

I think people are realizing that 90 percent of everything is crud. I think associations should continue to produce centralized content, and work hard to turn the crud ratio on its head (make 90 percent of it good). But open up and strongly encourage decentralized content—being sure the two kinds of information are apparent to those who access it—and let the crud come with the good. Find the 10 percent that is good, and use it. Tomorrow, I’ll write some thoughts about what this might look like.

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April 24, 2008

It’s all about users

More from the 2008 Digital Now conference. A common theme bubbled up in several of the sessions today: focusing on users.

Specifically, many of the thought leaders have hammered home the importance of thinking like your members and website visitors, listening to them for their needs, and asking them how your content and services should be structured.

Dan Guarnaccia, VP of product marketing at Sitecore, listed the seven habits of effective websites. Number one on the list? “Your members are in charge.” Later on, he talked about taking an honest look at your website and finding the holes – the places where your members look for content and either miss what’s there or find nothing at all – and patching them up.

Matt Loeb, CAE, staff director at IEEE, conducted extensive usability testing for the online portal for IEEE’s magazine, Spectrum. Members were asked to complete tasks on IEEE’s website and were monitored as they did. Their feedback? The site navigation stunk (in so many words). So they redesigned it.

In the same session, Gary Rubin, chief publishing and e-media officer at the Society for Human Resources Management, said he intentionally downplays the brand of SHRM’s print magazine on SHRM’s website. “People are going to our website for broad content, not our magazine,” he said. Content from the magazine and other resources is arranged by topics and categories – which is how visitors browse and search – not by what publication they came from. (Take-home test: check your association’s website. Are the names of your publications more prominent than the content in them?)

The real doozy came from Jim Bower, founder and chief visionary officer of Whyville, an educational online virtual world for kids age eight to 14. Bower argued that the human brain interprets information in three-dimensional space, and so Whyville is constructed for children to learn by moving through and interacting in the Whyville community. He said two-dimensional information (including that on a computer screen) is “an artifact of the printing press.” Whyville seems alien to most adults, but it works: Whyville has drawn 3.3 million users. Engaged users. The kids even participate in their own governance system.

The big picture: as association staff, it’s way too easy to develop deeply ingrained interpretations of everything about your organization. Don't allow this to guide how you deliver content and services to members and consumers, because they see your products in entirely different ways.

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September 18, 2007

How do they not know?

Wow... what a great post on Seth Godin's blog. Turns out, not only do we need to figure out what our members don't know, we need to figure out in what way they don't know it.

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November 17, 2006

WeAreSmarterThanMe.org

Traditionally, associations had a competitive advantage over commercial publishers because they represent both the content experts (authors) and the buyers (members). Plus, association publications could be road-tested and peer-reviewed, representing best practices if not the industry standard.

If that's your niche, hold on to your hat.

In case you missed the story in the Wall Street Journal Online edition earlier this week, London-based publisher Pearson is teaming up with Wharton and MIT's Sloan School to create a business book authored and edited by a "wiki" online community. More than 1,000 have already signed up.

The book will be called We Are Smarter Than Me. "One goal of the WeAreSmarter project," the online WSJ reports, "is to see how a wiki can organize and balance material provided by experts such as consultants and professors and managers who are using the techniques in their own business."

Like the nonprofit online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, this effort distills the wisdom of many, scrubbing out personal opinion through community-enforced rules.

Fans of James Surowiecki's 2004 best seller, The Wisdom of Crowds, will recognize the shift from forecasting to best practice.

Are you harnessing the wisdom of many to revolutionize your publication program?


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November 1, 2006

Airplanes and hospitals

It's ingenous when you think about it. I was sucked in by the headline: "What Pilots Can Teach Hospitals About Patient Safety." It's a New York Times article from yesterday and it talks about how the same strategies that keep planes from slamming into each other as they land, take off, and taxi to and from gates can save lives in the similarly chaotic environment of a large hospital.

So what connections are you missing when you keep your nose buried in the profession or trade that your association serves? Conversely, what lessons from outside your core audience have you shared with your membership recently? I'd love to hear about it.

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October 31, 2006

Hyperniche

The November Fast Company has an article I almost skipped over: "Hyper-Local Hero" by Chuck Slater. I'm glad I didn't, it's a good read, but more importantly, it had a lesson for me in my approach to association websites.

The article is on Rob Curley. The one-sentence synopsis: Curley has moved from small newspaper to small newspaper and turned dull, unimaginative websites into creative bursts of local activity by developing ideas he describes as "hyperlocal."

The difference between a small-town newspaper and an association isn't as great as you might think. Such a newspaper might server a public that is anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000—right in the wheelhouse for many professional societies and even trades when you factor in management teams. As the title of the posts suggests, I'm now thinking of association websites as a way to be "hyperniche."

Look at the sidebar "Rob Curley's Greatest Clicks." It's a dozen of his successful creations. Imagine how just a minor change—as minor as changing "hyperlocal" to "hyperniche"—could make them applicable to association:

Local Survivor Game—make it an "Idea Survivor Game" where a group of your profession/industry thinkers are challenged with a new real or semi-real scenario to offer advice. Each week, visitors vote one thinker out of the game.

Eclectic Podcast—make it "Status Quo Destroyer Podcast" where every week or month you challenge a different piece of conventional wisdom that holds your industry/profession back.

Geocoded News—make it "Niche News" where people select a particular topic from a list and get recommendations for articles to read, book reviews, education reviews (and upcoming opportunities), etc.

That's just three out of a dozen. And if there's an idea I could leave you with: When you see something interesting, steal it. Adapt it. Allow it to help you make something special.

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August 7, 2006

Breaking down barriers to thought and action

Newton Holt wrote the cover story for the August issue of Associations Now, “A Healthy Lack of Discipline.” I asked him if he ran across any other examples of cross-discipline thinking that readers might find interesting. Here is his response:

“If it worked with Reese’s cups (who put their peanut butter in my chocolate?), then, naturally, a multidisciplinary mindset ought to work for creating advanced thought and new knowledge, right? Well, of course it’s not that simple, but the same sort of playfulness (I’m not going to call it 'daring' or 'courage'—everything is 'daring' or 'courageous' these days, right down to, at least according to one reviewer, the really awful CD I just regrettably bought) that tempts you to mix peanut butter and chocolate just to see what will happen is what makes the work of the ‘multidisciplinary masters’ I profiled so fascinating and, more important, groundbreaking. Here’s a look at three more examples of multidisciplinary alchemy I’ve run across in the past few weeks.

“Religion and science reconcile. Up until age 27, Francis Collins, the leader of the Human Genome Project that mapped the entire genetic structure of human beings, was a staunch atheist. But as a young doctor, he found himself impressed by how some of his most critical patients persevered with the aid of their faith. That led to a fateful meeting with a Methodist minister, who introduced Collins to the work of Christian philosopher, author, and critic C.S. Lewis (who is perhaps best known for Chronicles of Narnia). Now, at 56, Collins has combined his disciplined scientific genius with his passion for evangelical Christianity—an interesting combination. He currently is focusing on reopening the ‘age-old debate between science and religion.’ His book The Language of God will publish in September—find out more in a London Times article.

“Chemical cuisine. The May 2006 issue of Wired featured a profile of Chicago chef Grant Achatz. Why? Because Acahtz’s kitchen looks more like a sci-fi laboratory than it does a typical kitchen. At his restaurant, Alinea, he uses lab equipment and industrial preservatives to prepare such weird (but reportedly good) dishes as a supercold applewood-flavored ice cream. He also, like many chefs, sees food as art and has prepared, along with his colleagues, some very intricate, laser-precise delicacies.

“(Non)physician, heal thyself. Finally, there’s a story about someone who for good reason would rather not be named. It shows how refusing to keep yourself confined to any specialized area of thought is not only ignorant but potentially deadly. After years and years of ‘mystery’ symptoms and misdiagnoses, an association executive with a potentially life-threatening disorder was fed up. This association executive also happens to be an avid fan of all things medical. So after misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis, failed treatment after failed treatment, she said, ‘You know what? Screw this. If doctors can be good at golf without being Ernie Els, then I can be good at medicine without being C. Everett Koop.’ She pored over Web sites, books, and newsgroups until she came across a set of symptoms—rare symptoms—that rang way too familiar. ‘One of my doctors had written off Charcot-Marie-Tooth [a rare genetic disorder] a few years ago, but I knew. I knew, but I didn’t trust myself, because I’m a nonphysician.’ What was her diagnosis? You guessed it: Charcot-Marie-Tooth.

“The last example is the one that strikes me the most. There’s the world ‘out there,’ the ‘real world,’ and the ‘neighborhood.’ The people whose multidisciplinary prowess I had looked at in the article were ‘out there’ (i.e., university researchers) or ‘real world’ (i.e., applied in the workplace). But to see multidisciplinary thinking in action—right there, in the ‘neighborhood’—and in a way that was potentially life saving really proved its validity to me.”

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August 1, 2006

The Long Tail: Embracing Subtle Shades of Gray

Alerted by reader Lenora G. Knapp, Ph.D., from Knapp & Associates, of a Wall Street Journal article critical of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail -- a new book that has been favorably mentioned on this site, I asked Jeff De Cagna, who coauthored "Associations in the Age of the Long Tail" in the February 2006 issue of Associations Now to craft a response. Here's what Jeff had to say:

"In a recent WSJ article, Lee Gomes offers a strong critique of The Long Tail, the influential new book written by WIRED Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson explaining the emergence of a marketplace of niches that is undermining the economics of a hits-driven media and entertainment culture. According to Anderson, the Long Tail phenomenon recognizes that not everyone is interested only in the top-selling books, movies or music. There is a considerable diversity of interests in the modern-day reading, listening and viewing audience, not to mention many enterprising content creators who use more powerful tools and technologies to develop the kind of genuine content variety that they and others want. (Just take a look at what’s happening at YouTube if you’re not sure this is true!) Google and other search engines, as well as peer recommendations and other filtering tools, simplify the process of finding such niche content, making it more economical and, quite possibly, more profitable to serve these very small markets. Amazon.com and Netflix, among other businesses, have benefited from the Long Tail effect and Chris Anderson’s original article, blog and book have become fodder for new thinking about content-based business models in the early 21st century

"We’re delighted to leave the detailed response to the Gomes article to Chris, who has already posted to his blog on this topic. We strongly encourage you to read what he has written. But in the February 2006 issue of Associations Now, Jamie Notter and I published an article about the implications of the Long Tail concept for associations, and we think this is an important moment to share a few words of concern about the state of our profession’s approach to new ideas, as well as some encouragement to association innovators who are as intrigued by Long Tail possibilities as we are.

"Our primary worry is that a handful of critical articles about the Long Tail will be enough to forever ruin any possibility for genuine discourse around this very powerful idea in the association community. The backlash may be inevitable but the response of association leaders is not. From our vantage point, however, association executives appear to be more interested than ever before in getting the absolute right answers to highly complex business problems. Tried-and-true solutions and so-called “best practices” seem to dominate every conversation, and the window for exploring promising or untested concepts seems to be narrowing with each passing day. You might say that something of a “short tail” has developed in the intellectual evolution of our profession. Indeed, we may operate today as a hits-driven marketplace interested only in proven ideas that are sure to work, even though such certainty is nothing more than an illusion in today’s operating environment. We no longer live in a world with very many black and white answers. All of us need to do more to get comfortable with many subtle shades of gray.

"So instead of ignoring or withdrawing from the debate about the deeper meaning of the Long Tail for associations, we challenge all association leaders to actively engage in it. We strongly believe that the Long Tail offers associations the chance to realize their full potential both strategically and financially. We don’t pretend to have all of the answers about how to tap into that potential, but we’re certain that great ideas to do that will emerge from the kind of rich and thoughtful dialogue to which we know the association community has traditionally aspired. And to our kindred spirits, the association innovators, who share our fascination with what the Long Tail can teach us, we urge you to sustain your personal commitment to pushing new ideas by internalizing the words of Albert Einstein, who we quote in the article, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” It is certainly one of our mantras for genuine association leadership today and going forward, and it should be one of yours as well."

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June 27, 2006

Attention Economy Unsession Reports

Ben Martin and I facilitated an unsession today on attention economics at the Marketing & Membership conference in Bethesda, MD. We had about 25 people in the room after lunch, yet it was a lively group! We have created this post as a place for attendees to add their notes and comments on what they took away from the session. Ben and I will also add our thoughts as the comment thread grows.

If you would like to learn more about unconferences (the model we used for the session) or attention economics (what we talked about), follow the links.

Update: Ben has posted some pics from the unsession on Flickr. Also, Jeff De Cagna has added some links in the comments to his notes from the discussion we had. Keep 'em coming folks!

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June 20, 2006

You Must Facilitate Findability

Findability is the general ability of your web site to enable visitors to find content and services on your site via navigation and search. Low findability means they can't find anything and high findability means that it is effortless to locate and access content on your web site.

Associations must develop competencies in facilitating findability. Most groups have large content collections that members want to access. Poor findability hides all of that value. Associations who are successful at findability will pay attention to their search engines, constantly tuning them based on usage and results. They will highlight content prominently based on their regular business cycles. They will talk about findability every day.

What is the findability of your association web site?

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