The Myth of Control

I have one more reflection about the Technology Conference from last week. As Reggie pointed out in his post, the buzz was much more about web 2.0 than it was about traditional technology "tools." The keynote speakers and many of the concurrent session speakers were exploring the role of blogs, wikis, social networks and other ways for users to collaborate more effectively and create value for themselves and others.

What struck me, however, was the nearly universal reaction of fear from association executives. The first questions tended to be along the lines of:

What are the liability risks?
What if they [web users] do something we don’t like or want?
What if they violate anti-trust laws?
How do you know if someone joins the network?
What if they do something disruptive?
How do we know that the time spent doing these things is really work?

I know I am generalizing here, but the mindset I heard from many people was one based in fear and control. More specifically, they were afraid of unleashing something that could not be controlled. If the association is going to do something, then it must be able to control the outcome. They will ensure that people play fair. They will control the content that is created. They own the value, and they distribute it (for a fee) to the users.

I think this kind of control is a myth. I am not sure it really was an entirely accurate way to look at how associations created value in the past (although it was closer), but it seems ridiculous to me now. Users create their own value. The community will police itself in terms of fairness. The people who create the content will control it, and even then, they won’t, once people start using parts of it in mash-ups.

I think if we can convince ourselves to give up control (that we probably didn’t have in the first place), we can start to unleash incredible potential. Parts of it may be messy, but the mess will be offset by the exponential gains in value.

And it may require a bit of a new identity for associations and the professionals who run them. We need to start getting out of people’s way, maybe give away things we used to hoard, maybe follow the people we used to "lead," maybe facilitate where we used to direct. Questions of liability, anti-trust, or productivity won’t go away, but we will probably ask (and, more importantly, answer) them differently.


  1. 06.02.2008 at 7:12 am

    Good comments, Jamie. From the level and diversity of postings, it appears that the conference was energizing and challenging–my definitions of successful conferences.
    May I offer another perspective to the recurring executive “fear and control” mantra?
    I wasn’t at the conference, of course, and the comments expressed may have been precisely based on loss of fear and control. I doubt, however, that if constructive change in behaviour is the desired outcome, accusations of “fear and control” will be very persuasive arguments–based in fact or not.
    What may be much more effective–if change is really desired–is sound rationale that helps reduce, eliminate or mitigate the issues generating the fear and control behavior–human nature 101.
    Anyway–here’s my alternative perspective:
    Chief executive officers have the ultimate authority (at least from a staff role), because they have the ultimate accountability. Same for governing boards in their role.
    A significant aspect to “ultimate accountability” is the requirement to perform due diligence, particularly for new organizational activities, such as web 2.0, or any endeavor that carries new and perhaps undefined risk. It’s not only a moral or ethical requirement of leadership, but I should point out that the Duty of Care is a legal requirement, based on state corporation law. Due diligence is not some flighty concept, but a significant obligation.
    Ergo, executives must balance forward-thinking vision and enthusiasm with the appropriate due diligence and risk management. Leadershp 101.
    Since we are all people, we each do this differently. Perhaps that’s the difference. Perhaps some folks exercise due diligence and risk management more positively, creatively and effectively than others–perhaps not.
    Or perhaps the executives voicing their concerns are simply not exercising good executive discipline, ie, challenging the folks with good, new ideas to also do their homework as to how the risk and potential negatives can be overcome.
    After all, those with good, new ideas have responsibilities too, including dealing with the downsides of their ideas.
    Most folks can spot a problem when it arises, and many folks can “ideate” new opportunities, but precious few folks, in my experience, have (or exhibit) the maturity and discipline to actually do all of the grunt work to examine and prepare plans for the positives and negatives of new ideas, and communicate these comprehensively.
    Most of us have a tendency to stand still and point a finger, saying “there’s a problem/opportunity–why doesn’t someone do something”? Try standing in front of a mirror and doing this.
    As I conclude my rant, I must say I get a little tired of hearing folks who have never been a CEO and who do not hold the accountability of a CEO continually criticize CEOs over the personal passions of the critics.
    We all have personal passions, of course, and being here in the blogosphere is one of mine. But I wonder what the reaction in the blogosphere might be if there was an equal number of CEOs voicing concern over some of the personal passions (membership, meetings, IT/web, etc) that often (and repeatedly) fill blogs.
    Just a thought. Now that I’ve made myself a target–onward!

  2. 06.02.2008 at 9:26 am

    Wow. Great comment, Virgil. I think you’re absolutely right when you say that “precious few folks, in my experience, have (or exhibit) the maturity and discipline to actually do all of the grunt work to examine and prepare plans for the positives and negatives of new ideas, and communicate these comprehensively.”
    I recognize my own weakness in that area. Does that mean we discount new ideas because they come from a weak communicator? I wonder if we, as a group, can come up with some of this due diligence as guidelines for associations moving forward.

  3. 06.02.2008 at 11:51 am

    Hi Lindy! Discount new ideas? Perish the thought–new ideas are what advance and make life exciting. Don’t you think?
    At the same time, those with new ideas shouldn’t discount (or even be surprised) if some folks raise “what if” and “what about” questions.
    It’s all part of finding ways to make good idea achievable. What’s the point if a good idea can’t be implemented?
    Counterpoint: At the risk of being banished from the blogosphere, there is a Myers-Briggs type that, among other things, exists to point out problems to everyone, and having done so feels they have made their contribution. They have zero interest in solving the problems. Their role is simply to enlighten the rest of the masses.
    I wonder if this might be also true with some personalities who enjoy developing new ideas, ie, they have little personal interest in the extra effort of solving implementation issue.
    Just wondering…

  4. Nancy Mikkelsen
    06.02.2008 at 2:17 pm

    Thanks Virgil for expressing what so many folks have trouble putting into words. I like to think of it the same way my financial guy asks: what is your comfort level for risk? We each have different comfort levels.
    Me- Web 2.0, social media….I say let ‘er rip….others, however, remind me of the issues to consider. This is a new arena for most of us in the assciation world and as long as we do not allow risk aversion to become paralyzing, I think proceding with some caution is ok….but the key is PROCEEDING….

  5. Scott Briscoe
    06.02.2008 at 4:09 pm

    Virgil, far from a rant, I think you make a sound, reasoned argument.
    And I think it’s crap.
    (And yes, by all the authority invested in me by, um, no one, you are banned for the Myers-Briggs reference—yuck!)
    I’ve heard the “you don’t know what it’s like to be CEO” line from folks who I knew before they were CEOs. All of a sudden, people who had signs made with the words “We’ve always done it that way” and a big red circle and slash through them are hesitant to act on that belief.
    I reject the notion that everyone except CEOs have turned off their own risk monitors. I think what surprised Jamie was that so many folks seemed to be paralyzed by risk. Or at least semiparalyzed. It’s a big problem.
    I also don’t like the notion that most people don’t think of possible positive and negative outcomes. Again, no one will ever think of all possible outcomes — by definition an impossibility. And I’m a big believer that those with ideas need to leave those ideas pliable. But again, you can research an idea literally to death. Sometime you just have to do something.
    It’s been mentioned so often it’s a cliche, but I’ll say it again, to be inactive is the biggest risk of all. It’s ok to make a mistake. If you’re not making them with regularity, then you’re not really trying anything new. And if you’re not trying anything new, you’re obsolete.

  6. 06.02.2008 at 5:16 pm

    Hi Scott! Glad to see you’re passionate!
    I guess, at the end of the day, it’s hard for one to know what one doesn’t know–whether it’s about web 2.0 or being a CEO. That may be one of the positive learning experiences in exchanging comments based on different perspectives.
    Er,….is crap a good, green and desireable biodegradable component as you see it?
    Just wondering if I did good or bad.

  7. 06.02.2008 at 5:21 pm

    This is exactly what Anthony Williams describes as the “crisis of leadership” that is emerging with these new collaborative ways of working and doing business. Here’s a great quote from Wikinomics: “Holding back technology to preserve broken business models is like allowing blacksmiths to veto the internal combustion engine in order to protect their horseshoes”. The choice is not WHETHER to embrace these peer-production communities, but HOW and WHEN. And it’s in the “how and when” that a CEO’s instincts and experience and due diligence should come into play.

  8. 06.02.2008 at 6:15 pm

    I’m not sure it is wise for me to wade into the mini-brawl unfolding here, but I think there is middle ground worth exploring.
    I agree with Virgil that the buck stops with the Board and CEO. They bear the specific legal responsibility for preserving the integrity of the enterprise and thus they must observe a duty of care in the way decisions are made. It is a very serious responsibility, to be sure, but one that can be discharged from a more proactive posture, rather than an exclusively defensive one.
    On the other hand, I agree with Jamie and Scott that there is a growing tendency in our organizations to let the prospect of any risk paralyze us. After some recent conversations with a number of association leaders, I am worried that our organizations have become so conservative, so reflexively fearful of making mistakes that there is no longer any room to imagine what is possible. This isn’t a sustainable condition in a time when new ideas and the capacity for innovation are the only meaningful sources of value creation.
    So what’s the middle ground? When it comes to Web 2.0 or any other novel approach or inventive solution, the overarching question that senior leaders must ask is one raised by Nancy’s comment:
    What is our tolerance for and orientation toward risk and how will we manage it effectively?
    If Boards and CEOs can achieve agreement around these boundaries, then there is more room for everyone to maneuver without the need for endless analysis and with increased confidence in the possibilities of success.
    Sadly, this is a conversation that boards and CEOs almost never have, a reality that I find deeply disappointing. Although I’ve never been an association CEO, I have been (and I am currently) a director of a non-profit organization, and I fully appreciate the challenge of balancing risk with the need to innovate. The fact that it is difficult to achieve, however, does not excuse us from figuring how to make it happen.

  9. 07.02.2008 at 6:04 am

    What a marvellous conversation!
    Scott, who is skilled in his specialty, got a little deep in hyperbole, but when he said, “…to be inactive is the biggest risk of all. It’s ok to make a mistake. If you’re not making them with regularity, then you’re not really trying anything new. And if you’re not trying anything new, you’re obsolete.” I couldn’t agree more.
    And I suspect most of us would agree: new ideas and innovation are essential. That old fossil, Jack Welch (GE chair) supposedly said, “When the rate of change outside an organization exceeds the rate of change inside an organization, that ain’t good!” (I paraphrased a bit).
    May I attempt to reframe the discussion, along one or more of the following points, which as a CEO I would likely ask anyone coming in my office with a web 2.0 mantra (or any other kind):
    1. Web 2.0 is a kit-bag of tools–just tools. What’s your strategy to apply them to create distinctive value?
    2. Can you identify the risks of the strategy and a plan to manage them?
    3. Can you develop a communications plan to explain and enlist the necessary interest and support?
    4. When can we start? What’s needed to get going on 1-3?
    It’s easier (and more fun, if results and relationships are secondary) to point fingers and say things such as “fear”, “control” “you don’t understand” and “you can’t stop the force”.
    Does this sound rather juvenile–rather neener-neener, like a Saturday Night Live skit?
    If change is really the desired outcome, however, how effective do we think this sort of language will be? Wouldn’t expanding the knowledge/experience base, dealing with risk and doing the necessary due diligence be more effective (and ultimately more fun)? We might even actually accomplish something tangible.
    Your milage may vary.

  10. 07.02.2008 at 10:47 am

    Virgil’s right, guys. The “fear”, “control” “you don’t understand” and “you can’t stop the force” argument DOES, as he put it, “sound rather juvenile–rather neener-neener, like a Saturday Night Live skit?”
    Virgil, your four points are the beginning of the solution…a real dialogue that honors the thinking of both the decision-maker and the idea-guy.
    And Maddie’s post is right on. Can we fill the void in the meantime by providing some constructive leadership on the business case for Web 2.0 thinking?

  11. 07.02.2008 at 12:49 pm

    The number of people in your community or on your listserv, etc. can be expected to spend x amount per year with your organization. Naturally, it’s your goal to increase that list over time. Web 2.0 tools are a cheap way to do that.

  12. 07.02.2008 at 4:33 pm

    Great conversation. The one piece missing (other than two brief mentions by Jamie at the top) is the antitrust issue. It really does make professional associations much more cautious when it comes to inviting their members to share their thoughts openly and widely.
    So far, we’ve convinced our legal team that a safe approach will involve moderating comments and not diving too deeply or quickly into the Facebook world. We shall see.

  13. 08.02.2008 at 8:52 am

    Yes, antitrust is a major issue, particularly for volunteer organizations, where there are som many activities taking place and authority is ambigious.
    In our case, see American Society Of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) Versus Hydrolevel Corp, in which the U.S. Supreme court ruled in favor of Hydrolevel, and ASME became part of the curriculum and textbooks for the study of antitrust. Not to mention, considerably poorer.
    The case also highlighted the “Apparent Authority” issue in which a volunteer, who apparently had authority (but did not), took actions he should not have taken, using ASME letterhead.
    Whether or not “control” is a myth, there should be no question that there are accountabilities that someone will have to bear.
    Leadership 101: with accountability comes authority. The two are inseparable. One does not exist without the other.

  14. 08.02.2008 at 9:42 pm

    Like Jamie, I am finding it difficult to keep up with the dizzying array of tangents and posts on this fascinating dialogue. It is a great dialogue with incredibly thoughtful perspectives. What struck me most about the various posts was the implied assumption that any or perhaps all of these technologies are useful and vital to the future of associations. I’m not convinced.
    The world of smoke and mirrors is alive and well in the world of technology and while the “tools” are getting easier to use, in truth they continue to be less than user-friendly. (If you have a Vista desktop you know what I mean) Artful design and efficient web interfaces have improved, but spend a bit of time on a SharePoint system and the limitations of technology become painfully obvious.
    Sure, it’s probably fair to say CEO’s and Board’s are reluctant warriors in the face of technology. In part because they’ve been burned numerous times by vendors overpromising on functionality and capabilities and horrifically poor implementations that do little to build confidence in our collective technological future. So it is no surprise to me that few associations are hotbeds of early adoption. CEO’s and Boards move a bit more slowly than the rest of us when it comes to adopting new technologies. As a member of innumerable associations, I appreciate their caution when it comes to spending my member dollars. As a CEO, I am frustrated when my Board doesn’t share my enthusiasm and passion for being early adopters. Still associations fork over a surprising amount of money for technology solutions in hopes of improving productivity, delivering better member service and better target marketing and promotional opportunities. Some of the stuff works pretty well and some of it is just awful. Don’t even get me started on Mac versus PC.
    Associations aren’t the only group with fears about control—a close look at newspapers and other information services surfaces a similar conundrum. Nobody has a lock on revenue strategies in the age of citizen journalism and user managed communications. Fear about losing control is rampant among newspaper and magazine publishers, directories, newsletters and pure-play web information resources. What everyone does seem to agree on is that it is important to find ways to share, reuse, and repurpose content (at least in part) as far and wide as possible. And herein lies the rub. If controlled content and information represent a significant portion of your organization’s revenue stream, then what will replace it when “everything” is freely available? Creating new, sustainable revenue stream is surprisingly difficult work. The battle cry for associations (and other information providers) might well be, “you can have our information for free when you pry it from our cold dead hands” but as most of you have pointed out, that time is coming a lot sooner than many of us would like and ironically a lot slower than many of us wish.

  15. 09.02.2008 at 10:03 am

    Great post and comments! Similar issues came up during the eLearning Conference last fall, and any of you in attendance know I raised a few red flags myself on the issues Virgil articulated here (though not nearly as well as he has!).
    Since then I’ve discovered that at one of our live events a few months ago one of our attendees started a wiki so the attendees could post images and handouts, and share other documents to continue their dialogue after the event.
    When I saw that they did a much better job than I could have and that it was done much sooner than it would have if it had to wait on my A-B-C-prioritized To Do List, I was actually relieved.
    I wonder if it makes a difference in liability issues if our members create these networking spots?
    I’m inclined these days to provide some general resources and guidance (about understanding that password-protection doesn’t mean you should start sharing private or proprietary information, for example) and let our members take the wheel.
    After all, they will connect outside of our “official” listserv and events anyway, right?

  16. Randy
    26.02.2008 at 5:15 pm

    Nice dialouge going here but from my perspective it is missing a key element in the basics of risk vs reward decisionmaking.
    And that is reward. What will social media and networking do to advance the mission/goals of the association and the members it serves?
    Most conversations, it appears elsewhere and some here, are about the technology and what it can do. But I don’t see enough of conversation about what the technology can enable the association to do to attain its mission/goals. The risks are manageable if the rewards are significant. If the rationale for deployment doesn’t rest on attainment of mission, the risks are always prohibitive.
    Early adopters of technology love the gear and will devote personal and work time to understand, adapt, and use it. Being the CEO of an electronics association, the innovation adoption curve is obvious and very predictable. You can sell just-technology to a minority of the potential market but the majority buys solutions. Don’t get me wrong, thank god for the early adopters or we would not have the impetus for innovation, but real change comes with the majority adopters.
    Maybe old-hat now but my first involvement with my association was to start an internet based online education program in 1997 with video, testing, and much of what is common today in online learning. We wrote our own system stuck it on a Linux box and saw a slow steady adoption of it and then it took off. It worked because the solution was not about the technology, it was about finding a way to educate a mobile and overextended industry workforce without the cost of travel and losss of productivity. It was a solution to a real problem in the industry and today we have over 2000 people studying online at any one time. Today it is a solution for the majority not the technology tool of the minority.
    So from the guy in the corner office who sometimes is called a skeptic, you need to tell me the problem you can solve. And it needs to be my association’s problem not a generic one, e.g. promotion of an idea that the WEB 2.0 technology applications may produce more membership but for some associations that is not a needed solution. But an idea that says that through electronic networking the current membership can be tied tighter to your association (makes you more sticky) may be a solution for an association.
    Another example is the use of WEB 2.0 technologies in the recruitment of new people into the industry could work and solve a real problem for any technical oriented industry with a labor shortage. Use of 2.0 technologies might even help keep them in the industry because it is a way this group wants to communicate. Again, you are solving a problem not implementing a technology.
    So where do I stand. My approach as the CEO is that we can’t and don’t want to be bystanders so we are experimenting. Nothing big, flashy or over-hyped. Trying a bunch of things that are related to mission and seeing if anything works and means anything to our members.
    In the end if it is a solution it is usually worth the risk.