You Are Not the Center of the Universe

I already did an overall recap post on the ASAE Annual Meeting over on the Common Thread blog with some big picture reactions to the event. Here I wanted to dig into some of the issues a little more deeply, and there's one that I have been stewing over for a couple of days now. It's an issue that I have encountered before, but it seemed to appear several different times during this meeting, and it concerns me.

It's the idea that associations are somehow entitled to exist. That we are the center of our universe, and we deserve it.

My first encounter was during a frustrating conversation among association executives and consultants related to social media. It is 2011, yet here was a group of experienced association folks gnashing teeth and lamenting the fact that bloggers and people on Twitter could throw out ideas without any credibility. Where, they asked, were the associations in that picture? Why weren't people understanding that associations are the credible source for information and insight!? What strategies could we employe to get those external voices more in line with what we were saying. How could we control or be the perfect filters or curators?

I think there is a role for filtering and curation, but the tone of the conversation startled me. Scared me even. Given the revolutionary changes we've seen through social media--where the consumers of information, news, entertainment, and knowledge have suddenly become the producers of all that--how is it possible that we would place our associations at the center of that universe, wondering how to control what's happening at the periphery?

I can certainly understand some teeth gnashing--I don't have simple answers about how to move forward in today's rapidly changing world. But I know we'll move forward in a way that acknowledges the more decentralized nature of the system. I assume, quite frankly, that the role I had yesterday is not going to be the role I will have moving forward. Not when so much is changing.

But the association community does not seem to be comfortable with that. Too often, I feel like we're framing the problem as "The world has changed and my association isn't being as successful as it was before, so we need to do our job better so we can get back in control." We need to redefine our value proposition, we need to do our marketing better, we need to do our events better, we need to do our strategic planning more effectively, we need to define our markets more clearly, we need to change our governance.

Maybe, but what about this one: maybe we need to close our doors. Seriously, why is it a given that your association must exist? All of those suggestions above presume that your association's continued existence is in the best interest of all involved. Maybe it is, but maybe it isn't, and we'd be able to determine that if we understood our systems better. Within our systems, what change is needed? What impact are we really seeking? What will growth and development really look like? Because maybe that impact could be achieved with some radical transformation of our organization (including dissolution). Maybe we need to phase out our tax exemption. Maybe we need to compete directly with our members. Maybe we should give away the things we used to sell. Maybe we need to invest in other people's credibility, rather than our own. Maybe not, of course, but these days we won't even entertain thoughts like that, because our default position is that associations, as we know them, are valuable by default.

I'm not convinced. Of course I love the association community, I think we collectively do amazing things, and I am not advocating for our demise. But I have no illusions that we are somehow more important than the system itself. In that regard, I embrace our lack of importance, because it frees me up to focus on what is needed to advance the system. It frees me up to change in ways that the system needs me to change.

Until we pull ourselves out of the conversations we're having about relevance, and control, and strategic planning, etc., I  think we're going to continue falling further and further behind. We mean well, but we end up squandering our resources on effort that doesn't matter enough. Let's not do that any more.

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  1. 12.08.2011 at 8:51 am

    Well-said Jamie. That session had maddening moments.

    We need to shift the conversation from “How do we regain control?” to “Where can we make the most significant contribution?”

  2. 12.08.2011 at 10:10 am

    I couldn’t agree more. I was in a different session on the first day that motivated me to write something similar. (We tend to do that, you and I, write on nearly the same topic in close proximity to each other — but dangit if you don’t do it better… I tip my cap.)

    I had a much too brief conversation with Jeff Hurt about it — he references the conversation (at least I think he’s referencing the conversation we had) in a comment on a different Acronym post. Jeff — if you see this, what Jamie says here is an articulate way to make the point I was trying to make to you. Would love to hear your response.

  3. 12.08.2011 at 12:59 pm

    Yep. We need to shed the patriarchial/matriarchial roles! Associations are VOLUNTARY groups- unless we open to all opinions and let members be themselves – associations will continue to lose members. Making members part of the process, positions for example, is a start. It should have never been us against them.

  4. 12.08.2011 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks guys. Scott, thanks for the links the Acronym conversations. I hadn’t gotten to those yet. Yes, I’d like to hear Jeff Hurt’s thoughts. I will say that I think it’s fine for an association to be at the hub, they just don’t HAVE to be at the hub. And in some cases, they might succeed more (along a variety of measures) if they don’t try to be the hub. Granted, that’s a hypothetical, but we need to start considering these hypothetical because things like Facebook and Twitter were hypotheticals a few short years ago.

  5. 12.08.2011 at 5:59 pm

    Amen, amen, amen, so be it! I’m totally with you on this.

    In my opinion, some associations have become nothing more than product-pushers, selling snake oil on outdated insights, obsolete knowledge and archaic best practices that are now out of context. They try to offer a watered-down buffet of services believing that they are all things to all people in their specific industry or profession.

    I see many association CEO’s who have an entitlement syndrome. “Our members will join again because they always have,” they say. They have adopted the golden calf mentality that they are the one and only primary source of all things related to their industry or profession. False idolatry reigns.

    Today, members do have options. The association is not the center of the universe, the omnipresent omnipotent and omniscient organization. Far from it. And shame on those that arrogantly think so. They need a dose of humility before their world crumbles around them.

    That being said, I do think there is a role for some associations to be conduits and catalysts for conversation and knowledge sharing (social learning). Association leaders should become the catalysts of intangible things–like ideas, “what ifs” and innovation. Realizing that the wealth of wisdom rests not in traditional subject matter experts but subject matter networks.

    For me, I see successful associations as the Greek Porticos where discourse, learning, mentoring, one-to-one sharing and emergent practices are invited, entertained and promoted.

    That’s my two cents…just sayin…

  6. Jay S. Daughtry
    17.08.2011 at 3:39 pm

    An insightful and challenging piece, Jamie. Well done! I find myself thinking about Borders and Blockbuster- 2 greatly successful businesses that didn’t adapt to the times. Other organizations or concepts were more nimble, more innovative, and more relevant in the midst of change. They didn’t re-invent themselves. So somebody else did it for them and relegated them to obsolescence. You don’t dictate or control importance or relevance. The only thing an organization has a say about is how they’re going to meet the needs and wants of their customers, clients, or members.

  7. Tom Morrison
    17.08.2011 at 7:09 pm

    Jamie… I wish people would start blogging about leaders and call them out. They are the problem. Not the association model. People can accomplish more together than they can separately and an association brings some sense of order (not control) and coordination to the process. Just like 1980 cars can’t perform as well as 2011 cars, 1980’s thinking can’t succeed in 2011 in associations. But the core of car (association), the engine, frame, wheels and body are key elements to the success of the car and are still vital today. Cars today still have the same core parts, but through technology advancements and reengineering, cars today have much better performance. The same holds true for associations. There core model for existing is still as strong as it was 80 years ago. But they have to have made technology advancements and reengineered themselves. Those I have been around who have done this are flourishing today and are the center of their industry universe.

    Just like a coach can take a last place team and all the sudden they are contenders, the same holds true when you put a bright, creative, technology driven mind in as CEO. That association will turn on a dime and the members will love it.

    As I stated in my post ASAE blog today, if you try and change associations from the bottom up, you will take a generation to make change. Change the leadership and you will see a new breed of associations that are empowered and can rule their universe.

    • 23.08.2011 at 8:10 am

      Thanks for commenting Tom! I agree that the people in authority positions are part of the problem here, but I disagree that they are as central as you are suggesting. As you might expect, I wouldn’t have chosen the car metaphor (with a book called Humanize coming out! ;-), but even the metaphor reflects part of the problem for me. Yes, cars today perform better than 20 years ago. You can get a BMW that has awesome performance AND gets 20mpg. Sweet! But cars (and their emissions) are also destroying the planet. They aren’t sustainable. If your focus is too much on making cars better, you might be missing opportunities to transform transportation.

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