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Technology, governance, and the year 2000.

Technology, Governance, and the Year 2000

Wouldn't it be ironic if high technology - that "thing" we associate with precision and accuracy, the panacea to our human frailties - were to make associations more personal? Indeed, by achieving efficiencies in the handling of information, technologically sophisticated organizations have the potential to focus on values, trust, and commonalities of interest, rather than on operational encumbrances.

Participants in the 1990 ASAE Foundation Think Tank (see sidebar, "The Think Tankers"), charged with developing a portrait of association governance in the year 2000, kept coming back to a discussion of the impact of technology on association governance: on the nature and variety of governance structures; on the decision-making process; on the association's role as information manager; on the changing dynamic between association staff and volunteers;

on the relationships of special-interest groups and of allied groups.

As you might imagine, association governance isn't the easiest topic to dive into. It's complex and on first pass doesn't feel exactly compelling - that is, until you reach agreement about its definition and then explore its significance to the health and well-being of associations and their executives.

Under the watchful eye of a perceptive and knowledgeable facilitator, Glenn H. Tecker, and with the helpful assistance of an astute and speedy graphic recorder, Leslie Salmon, this group of "think tankers" worked hard but had fun in addressing the challenge: sharing their insights about association governance issues and the quality and process of decision making. (For information about how your association might make use of a think tank, see sidebar, "Facilitating the Think Tank Process.") Find out from the following highlights of the two-day discussion why accountability, representation, leadership, and consensus decision making were selected as the four most basic properties of governance.

Rose is a rose is a rose

TECKER Let's start by developing a common understanding of what we mean by "association governance." ROLAND Governance means managing the process of issue determination and resource application within a consensus organization. STEIGER Governance is the activity and actions accorded by the membership to be monitored, created, and/or managed by the association for the benefit of its industry or profession.

An association is effective only to the degree that it looks at governance as something the board and staff are endowed with. VanBREMEN Governance is accountability ... of members to leaders to staff to other stakeholders; it's consensus, unity of action with all stakeholders. STEIGER Consensus means that even people who disagree are not left out. BLOCH Governance is the process of understanding and helping to define constituents' needs and building consensus to get something done. The process is not that different in corporations. DUNLOP The process is similar, but in associations governance tends to be more active, dynamic, robust than in corporations. ROLAND The overriding theme in an association is "don't tear things apart" - cohesion is essential. CHERNAK Governance consists of two types of consensus building: that which results from compromise and that which results when an organization puts aside self-interest for the common good. VanBREMEN Consensus building in an organization also means finding the common self-interests. DUNLOP Governance is structure and process that provide overall direction and oversight and ensure the association operates in the long-term best interest of members and their profession or industry.

Governance is crucial in the chain of accountability to stakeholders; when governance is robust, accountability is strong. ROLAND I liken governance to a consultancy: We have clients who pay us to do something; it's a fiduciary responsibility. What is an association if not a vehicle for problem solving? PASTIN Governance becomes a framework of rules and restrictions. A part of governance ain't that pretty at all. A large part is associated with inefficiency and is meant to impede. ROLAND Yes, it impedes so that you don't act precipitously. DUNLOP And its highest value isn't necessarily efficiency. TECKER Have we traded expediency for involvement? PASTIN In associations there's always a tension between common and individual agendas; governance keeps the association in shape, allows for the balancing of the agendas.

Where to from here?

TECKER How does the confluence of three variables - namely, enhanced information technology, more diverse and more stakeholders, and changes in the landscape in which associations operate - affect governance? How does this confluence affect the structure, process, and behavior of the partners (i.e., members, staff, board) in governance?

Structure, process, and behavior are the arenas of change. In the year 2000 how will governance be different in these areas? STEIGER We're in an information-empowered society. Ubiquitous information is available globally. We've become the data base for an industry or profession. When we talk about the year 2000, we have to look at ways the association allows this trend to be positive. TECKER If data traditionally accessible only to senior staff become electronically mounted, what happens? ROLAND Our governance and membership already have total access. We're now in the intelligence business (i.e., making sense of the information) as advocates of the private sector. We have to pay attention to message and strategy and tactics; we have to manage information that doesn't violate the rights of our members.

You're asking the members of your association to give up proprietary rights of information - it's a transfer of power to the association, which requires us to be ethical in how we collect and manage information. Competitiveness within trade associations is diminished. BROWN Technology can build a sense of community that is nongeographic. Technology rips apart traditional boundaries. GRIFFIN An association's governance is influenced by the environment, and so it's not the same in 1990 as in 1994 or 2000.

Some of the changes we see in the landscape are globalization, environmentalism, consumerism, defining niches, better-educated consumers, international influences, product stewardship, and mergers and acquisitions.

In 2000 competitors will subjugate their interests to a broader good and consider what are the right things to do. We'll see sharing, partnerships within and across industries. Associations will be more responsive to the external environment. DUNLOP Governance is also temporal - it has to reflect what the association needs at that time.

Associations are segmented markets, which creates diversity. They then have to respond to different needs and create a new structure to represent the diversity. This is what drives changes in structure.

Structural changes

TECKER How will the structure of association governance be different in the year 2000 as a result of change forces (information technology, diversity of stakeholders, landscape changes)? * Using a computer metaphor, we're moving from a CPU to a network, to LANs and WANs. Servers hang off the network - that is, it's accessible by all members and users. * With more accessible information, members will be more active. Access is improved both ways; we'll be sharing the data base. * Information is a great democratizer - small members will have the same access as large ones. Research will be developed more economically, efficiently. * This represents a real opportunity for associations, because industry data bases will be operated by associations. * Staff will play more of a service role, and the role of staff and members will be more clearly defined. * The association is the intelligence network. Staff will be more responsible for process; volunteers and membership, more responsible for content. GRIFFIN The lines of responsibility between members and staff will be clearer. We're going to have to trust people to reflect input of members accurately, responsibly. DUNLOP Disaggregation is a trend. As a result of shared data bases, some associations are moving to decentralized authority. The staff is accorded more power and influence as we get more complex. They know more about process than volunteers. TECKER If there is a shift to members giving more authority to staff, why do we observe resistance among volunteers? ROLAND I represent a market-driven association. We strive for peer professional staff, but there's still a dichotomy. GRIFFIN There's the traditional tension; the volunteer's need for power and recognition; and we simply haven't examined governance before. STEIGER Xerox says that hidden agendas are only powerful as long as they're hidden. With decentralization, there will be fewer hidden agendas; consequently, political agendas will be less influential. TECKER Separation of power is something people are comfortable with. Do elected leaders pressed by time search for maximum control with minimum involvement? ROLAND No, elected leaders have great involvement, predicated on long-term understanding of the problems and having access to information. STEIGER A shifting paradigm is going to create a different structure. The question is whether decentralized decision making can be diffused into the old structure. BLOCH In a decentralized organization you reach a comfort level with less control but more involvement in understanding the market. You're less hung up on the control and instead focus on the issues. DUNLOP Change in governance structure becomes a problem of scope. If you go from a homogeneous to a segmented member base, then your boundaries become permeable. So you think about increasing the scope. Membership is "fluidizing." So the issue for governance is, who do you put on board and what power do you give them?

Process changes

Scenario: Today process is politicking, forming coalitions committees. Governance is a trailing, not leading, indicator - a lagging factor, not a change agent. Changes in the landscape, in information technology, and in the market create a new reality. Governance then changes to reflect the new reality.

The governance process must make an organization's assets support outcomes members want. It must bring information to its constituency's attention. It must promote participation of the best and brightest, the most talented. VanBREMEN The traditional process is that you earn your way to the board through years of experience. Since many women cannot be involved early on because of family commitments, women can end up being excluded because they haven't had the opportunity to accrue the experience. DUNLOP If the purpose of governance is to reflect the membership, then getting experienced members on the board works. If the purpose is to lead the association, then you want the ability to reach out and select board members on grounds other than just experience. GRIFFIN Governance in my association reflects my values, the culture of my profession or industry, my position. Board selection is based on representation, experience, and position in the organization. You design synergy through sensitivity.

We're not going to have common governance. In the future we'll see a wider variety of structures, commitments to different sets of shared values. STEIGER The people who get elected and the nominating process will change. Already some associations are doing nominations and balloting electronically. TECKER Technology has democratized the decision process. Tools like needs assessment may reduce the need for a group whose opinion serves as a data base.

In other words, direct information may replace the opinion of the group and thus alter the role of the group. And it may change the process and the kinds of people you need on the board. ROLAND Decision makers will be looking at information in the abstract. BLOCH Once you get beyond a very simple decision, judgment, human trust, and the like come into play. You need to get a sense of who a person is and what he or she is about before you're willing to endow power. STEIGER If technology facilitates business decisions, then "pressing the flesh" can become a purely social function. VanBREMEN Which may have the effect of evening out the contributions.

Behavior changes

Scenario: In the year 2000 we'll need to do things differently in order to get on-line member input; we'll need to keep members informed differently. These differences will affect policy and discretionary authority.

Staff jobs will be redefined to sort through the data and to present options; the role of governance will be to select from the options. GRIFFIN That's where the concept of trust comes into play. The plethora of information will begin to force people to reevaluate their roles, their governance structure and process. Structure and process will be realigned in a fashion that aligns with the values of the members. STEIGER We'll see more collaborative decision making. I don't think governance will sift through information. Instead, those with a vested interest will read through the options and tell you what the options are, not the other way around. Synthesis of information will happen at a lower level, and we'll see more communication of a consensus mode. ROLAND With the increase in information, more information will be acted on at a lower level, thus freeing the board to make decisions of a higher order. DUNLOP For that to happen, we have to be comfortable to trust the systems in place. TECKER Association governance has been described as having three roles: oversight, legislative (policy), and adjudicatory (navigating among positions). What will the board spend its time doing? Adjudicating choices among diverse groups? DUNLOP To some extent, yes. And that may depend in part on the degree to which local and state groups get involved in governance - another dimension of stakeholder diversity - and on the changing role of affiliates. TECKER In some associations, segmentation of diverse interests is determined by other than geographic dimensions. What is the impact on governance of the future growth of special-interest groups? DUNLOP Once you form a group, it demands staff resources. The basic foundation of how you organize governance softens. BROWN Associations have the potential to provide a point of connection for individuals for whom traditional points of connection have disappeared. Associations can help influence a sense of affinity. GRIFFIN Global associations are preserving the values of the group and the similarities of the values. TECKER Then are associations an excellent place for groups whose shared values transcend traditional lines? STEIGER Yes. The upcoming generation doesn't have loyalty to a company, so where do they hang their professional pride? With an association. DUNLOP Many institutions in our society aren't as permanent as we thought. Associations are probably more permanent, viable, stimulating, more effective. And you know from the start that you share some values. TECKER Will the need for belongedness put limits on or add balance to the rationalized (data-base-run) side of association governance? VanBREMEN We'll have more opportunity to get to know each other on a personal level. Governing bodies may talk more about values than about facts. GRIFFIN Governing bodies will discuss these values and be checking. Governance will serve a different role: to reflect and preserve values and to discuss opportunities based on values.

Editor's postscript

Not all that glitters is gold. Information management in the context of association governance does have its downside. Here's a sampling of concerns identified at different points in the discussion:

VanBREMEN Technology affects representation because it affects the ability to get feedback.

Association executives get fired either for giving too little or too much information; I for one am going to err on the side of too much. A side effect of information technology is that more information can lead to more hassle factors. For instance, how do you focus on policy issues when you're distracted by mounds of data? PASTIN Another downside to all this information is the potential loss of legitimacy. As the IRS has demonstrated, associations have managed information that is quite sloppy. Associations still need to justify their activities in relation to their purpose. CHERNAK There will be a widening gap between the information haves and the information have-nots.

Independent thinkers. The harmony of opinion that may appear to be represented in this article is partly a function of editing. While on the one hand the group came to consensus on a number of points, their diverse perspectives, on the other hand, were crucial to the synergy of the exercise. Take, for example, this short but provocative exchange:

ROLAND The closer you get to fact, the closer you get to good decision making. Information technology enables us to make this happen; perception becomes reality. BROWN We're assuming that we make bad decisions because we don't have data, but a good portion of bad decision making is actually due to other things, such as values and will. So I don't see our decisions changing dramatically as a result of information technology.

Or this heretical (among this group) comment: PASTIN I think the riveting change is political and economic, not technological, at this juncture.

Or this refreshing reminder of our differences: CHERNAK Let's not forget that as we move toward 2000, not all caterpillars become butterflies the same day.

PHOTO : Facilitator Tecker ponders while Roland postulates.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:forecast on the quality and process of associations governance decision making in the future; includes related articles
Author:Mahoney, Ann I.
Publication:Association Management
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Doing the right thing.
Next Article:Reaching out.

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