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June 17, 2008

Maybe the world would be better off without associations

This is the first in what I hope will be a short series of posts on my thoughts on how associations are affected by the concepts outlined in Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody. This post is admittedly still a bit under construction, but I hope that by posting it now and getting some feedback that I'll have a better thought out post to follow along shortly.

In medieval Europe, scribes were an esteemed and privileged profession because they performed a function that was very much in demand. Only a few people could read and write, paper decayed, and texts had to be copied by hand every few years just to ensure their continued existence, not to mention disseminate them to a wider audience.

A major innovation occurred when the printing press came along. Suddenly, an entire book could be printed in the time that it took a scribe to pen just a few pages. Their skills rendered less efficient by technology, scribes found their way of life challenged.

Scribes tried desperately to hang on to their preferred position in society, but ultimately they were unsuccessful. Perhaps nail in the scribes' coffin was a that a book extolling the virtues of this learned profession entitled "In Praise of Scribes" was reproduced using -- you guessed it -- the printing press.

It turned out that the printing press was just plain better for society because it was more accurate and efficient than an army of scribes.

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky contends that the internet makes it "ridiculously easy" for people to organize themselves, collaborate and create things. This has historically been the role of associations. One of our most fundamental responsibilities as association executives is to effectively organize people. We help to advance our association's mission by organizing staff and volunteers to collaboratively develop and produce products, services and activities that support it. How much value does our profession add if organization happens organically and efficiently on the internet, as Shirky contends?

In the final analysis, the scribe profession died because society deemed that the printing press was better for it. So my questions to you are: If the social web is a more efficient way to organize ourselves to solve society's problems, are associations still in society's best interests? If the printing press harkened the demise of professional book copiers, do you think the social web foretells the end of the association profession?

I don't often make them, but I have a prediction on this subject. Before I make that prediction, though, I'd like to hear your thoughts. I may just change my prediction based on your comments.

Tagged: ; ; ;


Matthew Rathbun said...

I think that any entity that doesn't keep up with the times will cease to exist. That's the real problem IMHO with Associations in this day and age. They were primarily a means to facilitate the resources available to people with careers or organizations that were in common. With the internet, it's bringing all those folks together.

Having said all that (and I can only speak to my current association) I think there are only about 10% of the members who aren't so lazy that they engage the internet to find information on their own. As an educator I have job security, but it maybe independent of an Association, one day.

KareAnderson said...

Somewhat unlike the scribes'situation associations have time and ability to the adopt social media tools that could strengthen the ties amongst an existing community.

Methinks the meetings industry (including associations world) will be spurred to adopt when

1. two or three groups use, say one or two tools (online social network open to all but participation limited to members, exhibitors, speakers or something like that) and experiences member growth and media coverage

and/or online only (at least at first) entity "steals" a chunk of members of some association, as I suggested last year

Shirky's book has far-reaching implications for many sectors and I, too, enjoyed reading it.
Kudos ot yu for starting this conversation!

Kare Anderson said...

apologies for the awful typos

David M. Patt, CAE said...

Associations have existed since before the printing press and they will continue to exist.

They'll need to adapt, as they always have, to newer modes of communication and service.

New technology does not necessarily replace the old. It often adds to what was already there.

Books, newspapers, and magazines may no longer dominate, but they are still useful and desired.

Face-to-face communication, the core of association activity, is still sought for business and social reasons (try kissing someone online - is it satisfying?)

Other communication vehicles simply enable conversation when face-to-face isn't possible.

We're talking about change, here, not extinction.

Hatch-Eric said...

Modern associations aren't scribes... they're Fitness Freaks!

As a tech provider for the Events Industry, my employer wants me to find associations who don't know how to use their tight resources wisely to make good Web 2.0 tools. Most actually do want that.

Web Communities are not poison to the Association World. They are gyms filled with workout equipment.

Using the gym metaphor, it is true some people have their "home gym", but they usually don't have dozens of exercise machines, personal trainers, or maintanence staff.

In the same way, association members have home computers with connections to the Web and helpful "non-association" communities. However, an association should have more tools, more experienced and (hopefully ;-)more helpful staff, and better connections than any newly minted Web 2.0 Community.

Some events and some associations will die. However, the people who were a part of those groups will look for a place for face-to-face interaction... maybe with another association!

Ben Martin, CAE said...

No disrespect, but... Some of these comments seem to imply that associations have a monopoly on face interactions and therefore, associations are somehow insulated from the threat. This is a fallacy. Anyone can bring people together in real life. In fact, social technology is a highly effective springboard to highly targeted face to face interactions.

Hatch-Eric said...

you are right: face-to-face meetings are being facilitated through online communities. Acting like Secret Revolutionaries, they dislodge the power of networks from associations and elite friendships.

Associations tend to foster the relationships that already exist, which makes it more difficult for the "Revolutionary Crowd" to want inclusion. Since new participants are hard to find, associations should pay their staff members to create and manage more Message Boards and Blogs. Then, as you have previously discussed, all of the contacts from those Web 2.0 connections are an association's new membership base.

So, yes, Web 2.0 communities will and do have very specific meetings. As they grow, large associations could become less important. However, the best associations should ask their staff and members to GO TO THESE MEETINGS and stay involved with the non-association websites. Why not partner with the smaller guerrilla orgs.? Pretty soon, I think the most forward-thinking associations may try to "buy"/"merge"/integrate with them.

Lindy Dreyer said...

@hatch-eric: You say that pretty soon most forward-thinking associations may try to "buy"/"merge"/integrate with Web2.0 communities.

The thing is, if Web2.0 communities figure out how to monetize their existence (and there are a lot of very smart people making it happen) then the Web2.0 communities might buy/merge/integrate with the associations, and effectively transform the whole association model.

I believe that the issue comes back to control. The associations who proactively transform their culture and their business/governance models to willingly share control with a much broader constituency--those are the associations that will escape the fate of the scribes.

Tim White said...

Never been a big fan of associations--even less so these days. Seem to represent the most traditional of the traditional mindset (with you being the exception, Ben). Sorry...

But, if you're as big a fan of Clay Shirkey as I am, then you will love this video of Clay at Web 2.0 in San Fran...

Ben Martin, CAE said...

@Tim - So you're pulling for the online communities? Seen that video a few times. Keep looking for the mouse!

David M. Patt, CAE said...

Online communities are associations. The question is not whether or not there should be associations, it's what can an association look like.

Hatch-Eric said...

without question, the online communities do the work that associations do, at least a slice of it. As well, "Association" is not a trade mark; it's a place holder for "Group of People who think that Getting together will Make them money/ increase their enjoyment of life/ help them fulfill their destiny/ allow them to act like the Mob without the killing and other nefarious deeds".

I believe that Associations tend to be like "The In Crowd" at my schools. If you aren't in, don't expect people to invite you to come. It's counter-intuitive for business relationships to be closed. Unless you are unethical, I probably will gain something from networking with you... and even if you're not ethical, I will belittle you in front of your peers. Oh, wait, I am having flashbacks to elementary school!

Mike Hatch said...

Think about this.
In the past week I have attended two exhibition and conference executive conferences - ECEForum and IAEE's Sr.Executives Roundtable (SER). At both, several association execs independently commented at various times that only 8 to 10% of their membership actually attend their annual conventions. What about the other 90%? How do they engage and feel a part of 'their (association) community'?
I believe with the internet, and the social and professional networking tools available via the internet today, it is inevitable that it will dramatically change the way we learn, engage with peers, collaborate and share ideas, and do business with each other on almost all levels. And further, that associations can still be the catalyst and the central resource for much of this if they step forward and take the lead.
Here is one possible example: Music concerts often fill arenas and stadiums with tens of thousands of people that have a common interest - music, a cause, sharing. But not all of the world can travel and attend these concerts in person. However, some concert producers broadcast these concerts through various media - television, internet, radio - to engage the fans (think about the other 90% of your members here) no matter wherever they may be. Associations can do the same thing TODAY using today's technology, and some already have been in bits and pieces.
Coming out of ECEF and SER, I see the advent of "hybrid events" and associations that capitalize on the traditional conference and exposition, and use the internet and its social and professional networking tools to create complementary online and "virtual" components to broadcast, engage and extend their annuals (and other events and resources) to the other 90% of members and vendors - worldwide if you want - not just once a year, but throughout the year – expanding their reach nationally, regionally and internationally.
Given the hassles of airline travel these days, the expense of gas, the recession, and the green movement in the marketplace; I see a confluence of national and international factors, and the tools readily available to us on the internet that lend themselves to creating the perfect storm for change, creating "hybrid events", stronger and more far reaching associations and networks, and something newer and better overall for all of us.