May 10, 2012

The disrupted membership organization model

Like you, I belong to a few membership organizations. Some of you know that most of my career has been spent working inside them as well.

TEDx Singapore: can we now have
a conference that never ends?
Since the 1980s and earlier, most engineering-related professional organizations have lost members at a devastating rate. Those groups are shadows of what they once were. Participation in local chapters and large conferences, and number of people willing to plunk down $100 bucks or more a year, has diminished. What has changed?

You may be surprised to learn that not long ago, companies paid for dues when employees joined professional societies. The first day on the job, your boss might tell you that one of your responsibilities was to go to a local chapter meeting. He (pretty much always "he") would be there. In fact, part of his work time was being spent writing a technical paper that he would present in front of a crowd of peers at an upcoming conference. The company would pay fees and travel costs without complaint. Cincinnati Machine, in the 1950s, had a chapter right there in their company. Try to get dues covered by the company today!

Though it's easy to spend $100 on a short trip to Target, it somehow seems like a lot of money to part with for something of vague value. The current value proposition is invariably "networking, education, and discounts." It's not exciting, aspirational, or unique.

"I don't have time." Employees are burdened with so much work that they hardly ever get off at the end of an eight-hour day. Then they are much more involved with family and home. The Little League game or ballet class is more important to them than it might have been to our dads back in the day.

The engineering workforce in the last 30 years has shrunk too. Take a look at the US Department of Labor's tables some day. The tools that make us so much more productive today mean that fewer people are needed.

Professional organizations have fought with all their might to stave off the losses. Growing has become a faint hope.

But in the age of the internet...

First there were the BBSs (online bulletin boards), chat rooms, and listservs (round-robin emails that would keep you informed about a subject from people who also wanted to know). Then there were forums on Yahoo, Google, and on hundreds of websites. By the time the membership organizations got their own interaction apps on their websites, people had moved on.

For many, LinkedIn is now the default. It's more intuitive -- I think -- to learn than Yahoo or Google groups. With the ability to jump into the cloud to discuss something with the millions of people using LinkedIn, a small forum on an association website is of little interest, if you even know it was there. In defense, those organizations eventually went to LinkedIn and formed groups. Now many have twice as many members of their LinkedIn groups as in their home organizations.

Whoa - marketing opportunity, right? Let's drive those people in LinkedIn to join our organization! Never all that successful an effort. Eventually one must realize that you don't "drive" anyone on the internet. You can invite, attract, or flirt, but the citizen of the cloud decides and determines everything.

The social sphere
Today's membership organization model was created long before 1880, when the ASME was founded. Why would we expect it to fit the way we live now 130 years later? It fits the blossoming of the industrial revolution, not the onslaught of the digital revolution.

Leaders and managers in those organizations are struggling so mightily to preserve an antiquated model that they can't see what business and professional relationships, learning, and discounts have become. Networking has become a web of virtual relationships. Learning has become a discussion group, webinar, or YouTube search results. Discounts are expected to be 100% off -- free.

Individual membership dues isn't a revenue stream with much opportunity for growth anymore, but leaders and managers of professional organizations have difficulty letting go. But having so many fewer members on the books, members are all around them, from the far reaches of the world. While they may not give money, they give the gifts of their attention, coaching/learning, and influencing. The more committed of them may go to the trouble of officially joining and contributing money.

So if the old membership model is trashed, what happens? Do those organizations die? This will take creativity and "fresh eyes." To run an organization, put on live events that still draw paying customers, and give vendors access to an interest group still takes money. In the union of two worlds -- the traditional and the virtual -- something will emerge from leaders who experiment, innovate, and cultivate centers of gravity that have distinct identities and roles.

What do you think it will look like?

1 comment:

Matt Wrye said...

I believe the discussions and learning are going to move more and more online. With the online forums, a person can fit the discussion into their busy lives when they have the time. The time isn't dictated to them through the need to be at a specific meeting.

With that being said there still is great value in the face-to-face interaction. Principle #1: Directly Observe the Work. Go and see. Going to a conference and seeing and asking questions and touring an area is still very valuable. What I have seen is most people meet through organizations and then set up more one-on-one type of benchmarking visits. One company will bring a small group to visit another company and learn what they are doing. The visitors get to have more personalized questions answered and gain more value from the visit.

Some people are even meeting through the online forums to set up visits.

What the organizations can do is help connect people with their specific needs. Kind of like a library.

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