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Planning the future now: association executives and consultants consider the profile of the association of the future.

IN 2002, ASAE ADDED THE "FUTURE MODELS" e-mail discussion group to its array of list-servers. For nearly a year now, the online conversation has erupted from time to time into almost real-time exchanges among association executives and industry consultants who exhibited passion and insight, and contributed many rich resources for information (see sidebar "Recommended Reading") about the form associations might take in the future-in fact, whether or not associations will even be deemed necessary by tech-savvy younger generations who already develop communities of interest on the fly. Susan E. Fox, CAE, executive director, American Association of Law Libraries, Chicago, got so intrigued with the conversation that she prepared an ''Annotated Summation" of one of the more impassioned threads of conversation-how people will associate in the future-and posted it to the list-server. What follows is a summary of some of the major points of that discussion articulated through the postings of the participants--and a fe w additional comments requested via e-mail-and organized in question-and-answer format.

Lewis M. Gedansky, director, Center for Operational Excellence, Project Management Institute, Newton Square, Pennsylvania: Does a baseline association model exist and is there a correlating typology or taxonomy association model?

Henry L. Ernstthal, CAE, consultant, Emstthal and Associates, Washington, D.C.: There are any number of ways to slice and dice the association community. For starters, you have trade associations, professional societies, affinity groups, and charities.

Susan E. Fox, CAE, executive director, American Association of Law Libraries, Chicago: I suspect it would be a worthwhile exercise to develop a graphic representation of an association-nonprofit taxonomy, if for no other reason than to illustrate the complexity of the field.

I highly recommend Henry Mintzberg's classic text Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organ izations (1992, Prentice Hall) to anyone interested in organizational structure and the basic principles of organizational design.

Douglas M. Kleine, CAE, executive director, National Association of Housing Cooperatives, Washington, D.C.: Association structures have undergone a lot of customization in years past, with many operating in ignorance of some portion of their own bylaws. It has really been only in the past 20 years in which some of the fundamental issues have been scrutinized. Even then, such scrutiny focused more on processes affecting programmatic change and a parallel focus on what the board does or should do rather than on structure--unless structure is identified as an obstacle to the desired end.

Gedansky: An organizational structure merely supports the delivery of the tangible and intangible value wanted by members and other customers to fulfill their known and unknown needs. An ideal organizational structure only exists for an extremely brief period of time. That time usually occurs when you start to think about the change; and by the time the change is in place, it is no longer the ideal structure, because the market has moved on with regard to needs and expectations.

As people become more used to getting what they want, when they want it, and in the form that they want it, associations--and, of course, any business--will need to be forward thinking, flexible, and responsive. Personally, I think associations and businesses can better meet their member and customer needs by focusing on flexible processes more than on organizational structure.

Fox: This leads me to believe that this discussion of organizational models represents something of a watershed in association nonprofit management, a maturation of the field, where we are now gaining deeper perspective by stepping back from a close examination of processes to concentrate on the true basics of organization effectiveness: that of design.

Bruce Butterfield, CAE, president, The Forbes Group, Fairfax, Virginia: The real issue is how people will associate in the future. How will the association community respond, for example, to the Wi-Fi, always-connected world? How will we approach the Millennial generation, which was born with an Internet password? Will those people care about association governance, politics, leadership ladders, membership, dues, commitment, and involvement?

Dadie Perlov, CAE, principal, Consensus Management Group, New York City: No one except leaders care about any of those things today, no matter what age or technological connectivity they have. Innovative organization models do exist, and while almost everyone loves them intellectually, they carefully explain why a particular model wouldn't work for them. Revolution requires leadership. When that is in place, on the staff and volunteer side, things happen. When good things don't happen, it is just as often the staff who resists--and for exactly the same reasons that volunteers do.

Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist, Principled Innovation LLC, Arlington, Virginia: We need to create value not just for a new generation of Americans with vastly different approaches to associating, but to a broader world that will be fundamentally different going forward than it has been in the past. This question of value creation is one that we dance around. Does it seem too corporate? Are we just so consumed with issues of governance, policy, politics, and so forth that we don't really know how to transition from sustaining the bureaucracy to actually being about value creation? I don't believe that we'll ever make the conceptual leap unless we begin to embrace some new frameworks for making and executing strategy. The old strategic planning system prescribed pathways to follow from the center of the organization. Instead, associations need strategies that guide discovery and allow us to capitalize on emergent opportunities. We need to use our value-creating strategies to tap into the distributed intelligence of the Millennials and other generations.

Ernstthal: Aren't we confusing association in the social sense with purposive group action?

Ernstthal: It is one thing to be a member of multiple social, affiliative, free-form tribes and another to come together to accomplish a jointly agreed-upon goal. Joint voluntary cooperative action of any significant scale requires some degree of organization and continuity. That is not to say that our current mailboxers (members who primarily want involvement through mail, fax, or computer) might not find community elsewhere, as indeed they do now, or that some governance process might not be more efficient and effective than the current model-let's hope there is.

Perlov: Joint voluntary cooperative action does require a degree of organization, but it does not necessarily require continuity. Some of the best examples of associations that achieve a common goal have been short-term, very specific, and totally focused on a clearly identified outcome. It is that sense of urgency in identifying and dealing with strategic issues that most of our current associations lack. That, coupled with the desire for longevity and survival, is the real culprit (as witness the March of Dimes failure to declare total and complete achievement of mission and go out of business when they conquered polio) and makes us feel the need for a future models think tank. The association of the future, in the best of all possible worlds, will have a true purpose that matters to members, potential members, customers, and so on.

Ernstthal: Given the best of all possible worlds, you would be right. But this isn't it. In an imperfect world we do not operate on pure rationality. We join and stay members of organizations that, in a rational world, could not or should not exist. And we do so for a variety of self-serving and self-delusional reasons. We continue to work within old models of organization, behavior, structure, action, because it is comfortable to do so even when it is dysfunctional by any objective measure. And every once in awhile, something right happens and a group of leaders recognize the need for change before death and disaster looms up in front of them and significant change occurs.

Butterfield: It's really not about mail-boxers but about participators and associators or whatever we want to call them. My point is that the connected generation will need something other than the traditional association experience to get them involved unless it's around a transcendent good or a clearly defined end, which is attractive to Millennials but that can be provided in other venues. The staples of association product and service offerings (trade shows, print publications, educational seminars) are losing their luster and will lose it even faster as the next generation hits the workforce. As for governance and politics, forget it.

If we're really going to talk about new models, let's put some forth. Here are some examples that come to my mind: a reciprocal association (such as a reciprocal insurance company) owned by its members who profit from its successes financially; an online association that has no physical presence; and various types of for-profit associations with a bottom line of value and return on investment. How about short-term memberships (a month, a week, a day) instead of a year or a lifetime? How about making membership an intelligence-gathering and interpretation benefit instead of a discount coupon?

Jeffrey Cufaude, principal, Idea Architects, Indianapolis: Small Pieces Loosely Joined (2002, Perseus Publishing), by David Weinberger, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Man Manifesto (1999, Perseus Publishing), examines the phenomenon of the Web and certainly represents what I see happening in a lot of associations. Even smaller subsets of community want to form meaningful relationships and networks with each other while remaining somewhat loosely joined to the larger umbrella cause, purpose, or association. Henry [Ernstthal] often refers to the American Medical Association's declining membership--while medical specialty associations have grown in number--as an example of this. Richard Florida, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class (2002, Basic Books) asserts that "the creative class people that I have interviewed...do not desire the strong social ties and long-term commitments associated with traditional social capital. Rather, they prefer a more flexible, quasi-anonymous community where they can quickly plug in, pursue opportunities, and build a wide range of relationships."

Where I have seen associations suffer is when loosely joined is anything but loose. The rigidity with which some staffs and boards have structured their organizations really discourages innovation and initiative among the members. It is next to impossible to plug in quickly and connect with others in a manner that you might desire. Until organizing principles like these are fleshed out and agreed upon, I think the discussion of structure is useful but operating somewhat without deeper connection.

Fox: Jeffrey makes one of the most important points in this discussion because he gets at a new organizing principle also discussed by AlbertLasz16 Barabasi in his recent book Linked: The New Science of Networks (2002, Perseus Publishing). Barabasis theory of interconnectivity and the idea that "the fittest node will inevitably grow to become the biggest hub" has far-reaching implications for associations and how they are modeled. To me, this theory should be at the heart of all our new models. The fluidity of interconnectivity described in this book illustrates the social, economic, and intellectual bonds that make or break every association.

Bernard N. Bourdeau, CAE, president, New York Insurance Association, Inc., Albany, New York: I'm a lot less pessimistic about the future of associations than many of my highly respected colleagues who have contributed to this conversation. Associations have always adapted to technological innovation, and I suggest that this is all that is going on today. I see nothing fundamentally new in the needs or desires of people to associate. The fact that more people under the age of 25 prefer instant messaging to e-mail is interesting, but no indication that the sky is falling. Just as with e-mail (and the fax machine before it), we will monitor the instant messaging technology and evaluate its appropriateness and suitability or our organization. If it appears likely to achieve critical mass among our members, we will incorporate it.

Virgil Carter, executive director, ASME International, New York City: Why don't we change our focus from future models to future outcomes?

Carter: I see four outcomes that are especially relevant.

1. The lack of time and priority for many Generation X, Y, and Millennials to work their way through association leadership chairs or association Web sites) looking for value and beneficial return suggests making projects out of the opportunities for volunteer participation. This would consist of finite time commitments and predictable deliverables at :he end of the project.

2. The first outcome suggests the necessity for an increase in professional staff involvement and initiative in creating association goods and services.

3. Both of those outcomes point to the importance for physical associations to increase their support for virtual communities of practice and for other types of community that support voluntary common interests across distance.

4. Associations with global interests will have to deal successfully with my previous point if their globalization goals and visions are to have a chance for success.

In the end, associations in general and professional societies in particular have only four potentially sustainable assets upon which to capitalize with successful future models: knowledge, community, advocacy, and representation.

Fox: Virgil makes a good point. I am one of those netheads who logs on with the morning coffee and logs off moments before hitting the bed. Like many, I belong to a large number of virtual communities, but they do not replace--nor would I want them to replace-the physical communities I belong to. As often as not, the virtual communities enhance the physical community. Look at this ASAE discussion, as case in point. We are human beings; we need to congregate: see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. Even those of younger generations who are sending instant messages to their friends in the dorm room next door are doing so to augment, not to replace, their interpersonal relationships. It's easy to leap too far over the digital breach and assert that people will no longer demand a physical presence.

Bourdeau: There will always be associations. The relevant question for all of us is whether the associating will be through our enterprise or some other. Change comes to institutions incrementally or in an evolutionary way. A new model does not get imposed but rather evolves. So, there is no right answer and there is no magic model. There will be points made by brilliant minds that I perceive to be relevant to my association and equally brilliant points I perceive to be irrelevant. In other words, my future model will be custom-made by drawing on the insights and experience of the best minds in the business.

I think the most relevant question is: "Which forms of associations and associating will advance the greater good and the respective missions and visions of individuals' associations with others?" Whatever will achieve the desired results is the way to go. If that is an existing or association model, more power to us. If it isn't, so be it.

To review the ongoing discussion--or jump into the conversation--go to www.asaenet.org, click on "networking list servers" on the home page, and click on "go to lists."

Recommended Reading

It's not surprising that the participants of the "Future Models" listserver do a fair amount of reading about emerging trends, challenges to organizational performance, and the future of organizations. Here is a compilation of some of the latest books on their collective reading list:

* Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, by Duncan J. Watts (2003, W.W. Norton & Company).

* Zero Space: Moving Beyond Organizational Limits, by Frank Lekanne Deprez and Rene Johannes Tissen (2002, Berrett-Koehler).

* The Future of Knowledge: Increasing Prosperity Through Value Networks, by Verna Allee (2002, ButterworthHeinemann).

* The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Falling Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin (2002, Viking Press).

* Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, by Jim Collins (2001, HarperCollins).

* Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam (2000, Simon & Schuster).

* Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, by Howard Rheingold (2002, Perseus Publishing).

* The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer (2002, Harperperennial Library).

* Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson (2002, Touchstone Books).

* The Future of Ideas, by Lawrence Lessig (2002, Vintage Books).

* The Community of the Future, edited by Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, Richard Beckhard, and Richard F. Schubert (1998, Jossey-Bass).

* The Organization of the Future, by Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, and Richard Beckhard (1997, Jossey-Bass).

* Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert Neelly Bellah et al (1985, University of California Press).

* Good Society, by Robert Neelly Bellah (1994, Random House).

* Proceedings of the First Continental Congress, 1774 (1975 edition, United States Government Printing Office).
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Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Panel Discussion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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