Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Governance--Emerging from a Tribal State

By Steven Worth

Typically organizations spend way too much time, worry and effort parsing how their multiple constituencies will be represented in their various governance and operational bodies.  It is a thankless task where the end result usually is a state of tense political gamesmanship and/or stalemate as one group of constituent interests warily faces off against another.  Some people enjoy such games—most do not; and those in the middle usually are reduced to exasperated cynicism about the whole process. 

Ever since our Eighteenth Century call to arms-- No taxation without representation!--we have been trapped in the mindset that no organization can be truly democratic unless all recognizable constituencies have a seat at the governing table.  But in this new era of Internet-based communities it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine whose team anyone is on.  Do you feel a certain way just because you live in Michigan, or because you work in a certain industry, or perform a certain job or practice a certain profession?--perhaps so, but increasingly not. 

Traditional lines that used to be convenient for determining which “side” people are on are blurring.  Slowly nations and people and communities are emerging from our ancient tribal states—call it “the pursuit of happiness,” a concept made famous by another famous Eighteenth Century document—thanks in no small part to the freedom the Internet has provided us.  In this evolving environment, overarching strategic purpose becomes key—much more so than the traditional identification by geographic location.  It is what draws people and companies to membership organizations and it is what motivates them as donors and engaged members. 

So what does “representation” mean in this new environment?  I suggest that when it comes to board representation the primary criteria are and should be the background and skills set of the people on the board—do they help advance the organization’s strategy and the strategic goals that are part of that strategy?  This is the only question that matters, everything else is or should be subordinate to that. 

For the organizations that have the best governance models, service on their board of directors is considered a privilege, not a right based on what industry segment or geography one comes from.  If the organization’s strategy is achieved then everyone is happy.  Strategy is unquestionably predominant.  Board members are selected primarily on their ability to advance that strategy.  The reasoning goes, “You may not be in my segment of the industry, but if you are helping to achieve the strategy that I deem important then what does it matter where you come from?”  There is a general recognition within these groups that not all people are able to accomplish the work that must be done—so leadership selection should be focused solely on finding those abilities and leadership characteristics that are important for the successful accomplishment of the organization’s strategy.  When the strategy of the whole becomes subordinate to personal or traditional “tribal” interests based on more narrowly defined criteria, then traditional “politics” take over--and that is increasingly unacceptable to the great majority of people who want and expect something better.   

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Stand-Alone or AMC? Or is there a third way?

By Douglas M. Kleine, CAE

A recent study by the AMC Institute indicates that AMCs produce higher net income for their clients than staff-managed associations of similar size. The findings seem to hold for association budgets of up to $5 million. The study attributes the difference to what is called pride of independence on the part of staff-managed associations, and that independence coming with a hefty price tag, due to the inefficiencies and overhead burdens of smaller associations.

But is the choice really just between staff-managed stand-alone versus an association management company? Can overhead be reduced and inefficiencies be eliminated another way? Any association that has been a subtenant knows the savings of shared pubic spaces, mail/copy room and kitchen.  Plexus Consulting has taken the simple concept of subleasing and enhanced it with the plusses of outsourcing, shared staff, and internal shared phone, data, and accounting systems. Those are the plusses of an AMC, without the minuses of an AMC, which often entail diminishment of identity, fitting into schedules that have to accommodate other, bigger clients, and the enormous loss of institutional memory, relationship history and operational continuity that comes with the elimination of staff in the transition to AMC service.

Plexus’ Incubator Model retains key association staff as association staff, so the organization can move seamlessly back out on its own with ease and at its own timing. During the incubation period, association employees are assisted by Plexus staff as needed. There need be no database conversion, phone line conversion or new personnel system. If financial management is needed, Plexus can operate in any of the major software systems from Quick Books to Solomon. Plexus can also step in on activities that are seasonally stressful to staff, such as conferences, calendar membership billings, annual reports and elections.  

Stand-alone or AMC is a false choice when associations can choose a third way through the Plexus Incubator Model. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Building your Organization’s Language Capacity

Steven Worth, Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

“If a person who speaks three languages is called tri-lingual and a person who speaks two languages is called bi-lingual, what is a person called who speaks only one language?”—the answer, the Europeans like to tell us, is “an American!”  It is the height of irony that a nation built of immigrants from every country on the planet should be so weak in languages—the logical consequence of living on a continent where just about everyone speaks the same language.

But as our organizations increasingly push into every corner of the globe language is increasingly an issue as members and customers quite naturally prefer to do business in their own languages.  Building your organization’s language capacity is a three-step process.

Step one:  start by taking an inventory of what your staff’s current language abilities are.  Most of us would be surprised to know which languages some of the people we work next to speak, read, and write but we never had a reason to ask.  Ask people to grade their language abilities using the 0-5 grading scale below.

Language Proficiency Definitions
Proficiency Code
Speaking Definitions
Reading Definitions
0 - No Practical Proficiency
No practical speaking proficiency.
No practical reading proficiency.
1 - Elementary Proficiency
Able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements
Able to read some personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations, numbers and isolated words and phrases
2 - Limited Working Proficiency
Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements
Able to read simple prose, in a form equivalent to typescript or printing, on subjects within a familiar context
3 - Minimum Professional Proficiency
Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
Able to read standard newspaper items addressed to the general reader, routine correspondence, reports, and technical materials in the individual's special field.
4 - Full Professional Proficiency
Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels pertinent to professional needs.
Able to read all styles and forms of the language pertinent to professional needs.
5 - Native or Bilingual Proficiency
Equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.
Equivalent to that of an educated native.

People generally know where they rank, and they tend to do so honestly.

Step two:  determine what your priority markets are outside the US and begin consciously to include language ability among your hiring criteria—the way our competitors do in most markets around the world.  Fluent language ability is especially important because it implies an understanding also of the underlying national cultures of the language you speak, which is also a valuable asset to have within your organization.

Step three:  develop language translating and interpreting policies for your organization’s meetings and literature—including your website.  Bear in mind that this is an expensive and thankless proposition—thankless because translations are more an art than a science with people speaking the same language regularly disagreeing over the correct way to say essentially the same thing.  The best way to handle translations is to assign the people it is intended for to do it in the way that makes most sense to them.  The costs should also be handled locally so that the end users know it is incumbent on them to use these materials in ways that generate revenue while also expanding your market reach.  Policies regarding the organization’s legal liability of the literature that is published in its own name should also be addressed.

Don’t allow your organization to become a modern-day version of the Tower of Babble that could not realize its potential because of the confusion caused by people speaking different languages!  

Monday, February 3, 2014

How important are credentials for strategic planning consultants and which have proven most helpful for members of this group?—taken from a Linked-in discussion group

Steven Worth, Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

Good for us. I think it is a sign a profession is coming of age when there is a critical mass of people earning a living from it and when formalistic techniques and approaches are developed and debated as to which is better than another.

But I think we enter dangerous territory if and when we start to lose sight of our purpose: to help organizations better identify and articulate their goals and to realize them in the most efficient and effective ways possible. In this regard we have a very business-like purpose and tools like market research, data manipulation, financial spread sheet analyses, and business plan development are all very useful.

But in the nonprofit world we also deal with intangibles like "purpose" and organizations that are held together and driven by their visions and missions. These factors require a certain amount of right brain thinking--using those creative impulses to seek out and tap into those elemental historic forces and emotions that inspire people.

And because we are dealing with groups that have flat structures that are dependent on volunteers communications skills are critical--without them even the best ideas just lie there.

In my mind, these are all critical factors to be considered for what goes into strategic planning skills set--but there is more. If we are special as a profession then so should we recognize that others are as well. University professors, doctors, lawyers, leaders of faith-based groups, manufacturers, truck drivers, artists, the list is as long as we can imagine--all have their own terminologies, problems, personalities, concerns, and aspirations and if a consultant is not intimately familiar with them the gap between them and their clients can be fatally wide.

So I think it is fine that we should be trying to organize ourselves as a profession--but I also think that profession will be short-lived if it does not incorporate a certain amount of humbleness in the recognition that our purpose is to serve, which includes knowing our clients and adapting to their needs.