Struggling through what speaker after speaker acknowledged is one of the most challenging times ever faced by the association community, there was still a strong note of determination and resolve among the attendees, panelists, speakers and exhibitors at the ASAE Conference and Expo.
One such call to be open to the opportunities found in times of crisis and challenge came from best-selling author and consultant Gary Hamel, who first sounded a warning to those married to the status quo.
“Problems happen when the leaders of an association are behind the thinking of their members,” he said. “That’s when denial occurs. That’s when digging in and protecting the status quo occurs.” It’s also when most great changes take place, he declared.
Being open to experimentation — and the failure it often brings — was another theme heard throughout the event. Again, as Hamel said, using acorns from an oak tree as a metaphor: “It takes a thousand nutty ideas to come up with one or two that take root and grow into giants.”
Perhaps the most universal theme heard was the challenge to association executives to drop their belief in certain “myths” that are preventing them from moving forward. Here are just a few of the myth-challenging assertions we heard association executives and presenters discuss:
It’s not just the economy: We’d strongly advise anyone who is an executive at an association to review the most recent ASAE research report on the impact of the economy on associations. (You can download the PDF here.) After reading it, you may want to believe that yes, it is the economy as membership and participation in associations — especially professional associations where dues and expenses are covered by an employer — have been greatly impacted by the downturn. However, the research also shows there are factors beyond the economy that are fundamentally changing the association landscape. Some of them have to do with the ways individuals are organizing and sharing knowledge online, others have to do with generational shifts and others relate to the perception and expectation of the value one receives from membership in the association. Bottom line: Don’t fool yourself into believing that the economy recovering is going to translate into the recovery of an association who does not address other fundamental issues.
The solution is not technology: Of course, a stroll through the ASAE Expo hall would astound anyone not familiar with the array of technology now available to organize, administer, track, communicate with and train staff and members of an association. But presenter after presenter warned that placing too much belief or faith in a “platform” instead of into “relationships” or “innovation” can lead to failure. Charlene Li, author and new media analyst, said in a keynote address that captured the message of many of the conference panels: “Don’t trust a specific technology to be the answer. Next year, there will be a new set of technologies, so it’s not about technology — it’s about strategy, approach, being wherever your members are.”
Let go of control: The economy may have been the backdrop of the conference, but “social media” was the topic most discussed in general sessions, learning lab panels and in the hallways. Frankly, trying to decide what exactly the term means was a challenge for some association executives. By the end of the meeting, however, the message was clear: Social media is not something an association can “own” or “control.” Associations can participate in conversations and help members connect with one another — within the association context and outside it — but the idea that “social media” fits within the paradigm of association staff talking “to” the members was clearly dispelled. Time after time, in panel sessions or in the hallway, we heard examples of how associations were struggling with groups of members who were “setting up their own websites” or “planning their own ‘un-conferences.'” The best advice we heard was when someone in a hallway conversation responded to another attendee who complained about such a situation where a member had organized an unauthorized meeting that corresponded with the group’s national gathering: “That’s who I would be recruiting as a board member.”
Yes, there was a lot of fear and dispair at the meeting. But we heard a lot of optimism and hope, as well. Innovation, creativity and new business models are all going to be a part of the future of successful associations.
And the future has already started.