Monday, June 30, 2014

Linking Strategy and Execution

By Steven Worth

Every year some of the association community’s most innovative strategies and plans in which untold hours of volunteer and staff time have been invested lie unused and likely even unread on some shelf collecting dust. Then, as time goes by and memories grow vague and leadership changes, someone else calls for a planning session--and wise old veterans shake their heads at the futility of going through this process yet again. Sound familiar? It should, as this is a process that happens to virtually every organization at one time or another. This phenomenon even has a name: “SPOTS”—Strategic Plan On Top Shelf!

There are seven common causes for SPOTS.

The plan is devoted to fixing current problems rather than addressing the future of the organization

There is nothing more frustrating than when a strategic planning session “gets into the weeds”—focusing on specific fixes to operational issues. Such situations are uncomfortable for everyone. The volunteer leaders wonder (sometimes out-loud) why their time is being taken to fix problems that the staff should be able to fix themselves, while the staff chaffs at this unwanted meddling and wish (though rarely out-loud) they could exchange these nitpickers for the visionary leaders they need! The best way to avoid this scenario is to be sure at the outset that both volunteer and professional leadership understand the distinct but inter-dependent roles they fill in governance and operations. When everyone knows their role and has a feel for the critical differences between strategy and tactics, then the stage is set for proper and productive strategic planning.

The initiative lacks the support and commitment of the leadership and/or the constituents

The French “Sun-King” Louis XIV was famously quoted as saying “the state…is me!” Not to say that boards of directors consider themselves absolute monarchs, but perhaps there is a touch of sentiment in many association boards that they do embody the association. Legally of course boards of directors do shoulder absolute responsibility for the association, but boards of directors also are or should be representative of broader constituencies. In this context, association leaders should take time to survey where these constituencies are headed and to make sure the association has a good sense of their needs and how these can best be served. Plans are non-starters that are not perceived to be relevant to the membership at large. The best approach to ensure relevancy is to survey membership before the planning begins, then to report back to them how the plan takes their concerns into account.

No one is responsible for implementation or evaluation

It is easier by far to come up with great ideas than it is to work out the “how, when and who” of how they will actually be accomplished. No planning is complete—no matter how self-evidently brilliant the ideas--until this has been done!

The operational plan is unrealistic or without focus or direction

If you agree “there is no such thing as an idea that cannot be written,” then you can understand that there is no such thing as an operational plan that is not grounded in tactics that are well-reasoned, directed and supported by sound financial and logistical planning.

It does not inspire leadership or constituency to move the organization forward

All plans—particularly ones that seek to launch new initiatives—require effort if they are going to succeed; and this in turn requires some sort of enthusiasm on the part of those who need to make them work. If this underlying enthusiasm is lacking, then either the plan or the implementers need to change!

There has been no “reconciliation” of these new initiatives with currently budgeted programs

Great plans almost always require hard choices because they will inevitably need to draw from resources that are currently being used for other programs. This means that the job is not done once the initial planning has been completed—because all of these new ideas need to be reconciled with current utilization of resources. Choices always need to be made. If this part of the process is not observed then the status quo will invariably continue.

The organizational structure inhibits change or otherwise does not supply the supporting framework these new ideas need to be implemented

Too often planning groups fail to consider their association’s current structure and whether it is suitable for carrying out the plans they have just devised. This is in fact a critical issue. Organizations have certain “rubber-like” characteristics. They can be bent into different shapes, but then after time return to their original shape—and ways of doing things. If new plans containing new approaches have any chance of success serious consideration needs to be given to the structure of the organization that is intended to carry out these plans. It rarely works to put new wine into old wine skins. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Nonprofit Organizations as Facilitators for Economic Change?

By Steven Worth

In the first quarter of each year over the past three years, surveys of US-based association managers conducted by Plexus Consulting Group, LLC (Plexus) have consistently shown a level of optimism for revenue and membership growth that clearly was out of sync with the overall economy.  Nevertheless, these predictions have been largely fulfilled each year.  According to Plexus survey results this year, once again, US-based association leaders are predicting growth well in excess of the 2.1% growth now projected for the US economy for 2014 by both the Federal Reserve Board and the International Monetary Fund.

Initially these findings perplexed us as we had assumed the financial health of the association community was simply a lag indicator of the health of the US economy; but these survey findings indicate a different kind of relationship.  Rather than being directly dependent on the economy, it would appear these trade associations and professional societies are helping professionals and companies to adapt to changing economic trends—so the more the economy is challenged the more professionals and companies turn to these associations to help them adapt.

But performance is not uniform.  The associations that are doing the best are those that offer products and services that are helping students and professionals find better, higher paying jobs and helping companies realize their missions more efficiently and effectively.  There are differences also in the sectors served, with healthcare, the Internet, and the energy sectors usually outperforming other sectors.  But the key take-away from this survey data is that top performing associations are helping to define their markets rather than trailing them. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Is “a Rising Tide Lifts All Boats” the right analogy for what we see happening in the economy right now?

By Steve Worth

I think not, because it implies everyone will benefit as the economy continues to improve incrementally.  But clearly we can all see that while some boats are being lifted others are sinking and still others are languishing where they are with no sense of movement up or down….. 

No, the boat analogy doesn’t hold water…. I suggest a train station analogy might be better.  Trains are leaving the station and taking some to their destinations.  Others are finding out they are on the wrong trains and going to God-knows-where… while still others are waiting, waiting, waiting, with no idea whether their train will be coming by or not.

We hear some in the consulting world saying that the rapidity of change and its unpredictability spells the death of strategic planning, but that is not entirely what I see.  We are indeed in uncharted waters in that all of us are living and having to compete in a flat, global market along with seven billion other human beings who are every bit as intelligent and hard working as we.  Never in the history of the world have we seen such a scenario.  But while some are freezing up in panic and uncertainty over this newly emerged competition, others are seeing opportunity in new markets and are going for it--and they are doing so in a transparent, open-minded, well-researched, and thoughtful manner.  

The planners are finding the resources they need to get to the destinations they have selected while the bewildered and fearful sit on what reserves they may have and hope to wait out the storm—either that or they take refuge with those who see themselves as victims of some blame-worthy person or thing.

This is the only explanation I can see for why the economic indicators are so confusing and why this “recession” seems to be so drawn out.  In fact, we are not in a recession nor even recovering from one.  We are in a new world and those who are researching and planning and using their brains to chart new paths are doing better than those who are following tradition. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Implications of Big Data

By Dean Furst

The new millennium is barely a teenager, but has already developed an identity of its own, Cisco estimates “…by the end of this decade, the number of connected devices will grow from 9 billion today to over 50 billion.”[1] What’s even more staggering is the amount of data that’ll be transmitted, shared, and downloaded between them. Online information will be collected through social media sites, search engines, downloads, uploads, and real time security cameras in cars and buildings. There are algorithms to evaluate how drivers react to incoming traffic, how consumers conduct themselves in department stores, and even ones to predict customer’s next online click before they've made the previous one. All of these algorithms base their documentation off actions made by consumers.

The problem with ‘big data’ is that few corporations have the database management systems to process of sheer size of the information. Usually only governmental entities and organizations with advanced central computer processing power have the ability to make sense of, identify trends, and make conclusions from the data. It’s estimated from a recent IBM study that surveyed 1000 business professionals said that “63% of respondents indicated that the use of information (including big data) and analytics is creating a competitive advantage for their organizations–a 70% increase in the past two years alone.” [2] In the modern marketplace, the abilities stated above are creating a bigger inequality (or advantage, however you wish to view it) between the two sets of organizations, those who have the processing power to understand ‘big data’, and those who lack it.

Seeing as internet traffic will soon pass 100 billion terabytes in a few short years, Silicon Valley startups are banding together under the same banner; providing cost-sensitive way to collect and interpret data. Cloudera, one of these such companies, offers a package called Hadoop, which is basically a software package that is able to accommodate the overwhelming data. The price? $525,000, and that doesn't factor in the annual support costs or the installation fee.  Hadoop’s fees rank as some of the most affordable around. Recall a point earlier about smaller companies having trouble trying to afford the operating systems necessary to make sense of the data traffic. Smaller companies simply can’t stomach that kind of a cost, or don’t see it as a worthy investment in their current standing. The price alone is enough to create an inequality in the market, providing wealthier and more developed firms with the ability to gain a competitive advantage in evaluating the data faster and cheaper.

But data alone means little in the competitive market if you can’t find a way to offer its services to your customers. The majority of organizations that have the ability to fabricate conclusions from the data are able to better understand consumer trends in spending and demands. The companies that aren’t able to number-crunch to the same magnitude often outsource their analysis elsewhere. For example, McKinsey and Company employees thousands of algorithm analysts and tech geniuses to evaluate and pick over terabytes of data, coming up with meaningful conclusions for their clients. However, many organizations lack a comparable human supply of brain power, or rather, it would be too costly to employ the necessary people to have it done. This leads us to an interesting dynamic.  

A dynamic well put by Nielson, a global information company, which stated “…smaller players have historically relied more heavily on something their larger counterparts could only dream of—a personal relationship with their customers. Today, however, big data isn’t just for the big guys.”[3]  

Data is unique to a specific consumer type, and even to each consumer. Companies that can individualize their findings, predict future patterns for spending and investing, and offer strategic planning in real time will soon monopolize the market for client services. Nielson also stated in their recent poll of over 2000 small business owners that “even with new solutions tailored for small business, a large portion of owners still lack the expertise and the time to make good use of the information.”[4] This explains why the current businesses that are best adapted to analyze big data are usually government entities or specialty firms. But as always, companies evolve and adapt, and now that the amount of data transferred between devices nowadays is more than the entire amount of data transferred during the WWII years, it's a necessary evolution to stay competitive in the marketplace. Utilizing this advantage has become a pivotal point for many business owners and CEOs. In a recent survey of professionals, the software company SAS  found that “73 percent of survey respondents say their collection of data has increased ‘somewhat’ or ‘significantly.’”[5] For those organizations stated by the survey as “strategic data managers - those with a well-defined data management strategy that focuses on collecting and analyzing the most valuable data – tend to financially outperform their competition more than others  - 53 percent, compared with 36 percent.”[6]

Some companies adopt the new trend of hiring new analysts and  data managers who specialize in the collection and understanding of data, others purchase the computing power to rival (or get as close to as legally possible) the computers at the NSA or other governmental entities. Business models are changing, evolving, and becoming more complex, and data analytics are the base from which to build on. It’s more advantageous to update your existing data metrics environment to accommodate the influx than try to run modern logistics on an outdated system. Bringing it full circle back to Cloudera, Intel just invested over $700M into the company for further research, but the problem exists where the managers and employees lack the skills necessary to make sense of the data. Intel Vice-President Jason Waxman stated in an article that the Hadoop system “isn’t a magic fix…companies are going to need people who understand what they’re looking for.”[7]

Many small businesses feel threatened by expensive operating systems, terabytes of information, and the unique language that data uses. But contrary to popular belief, smaller companies who are on par with the latest technological advances are able t bo access the services offered by these larger corporations. The key word is ‘services,’ they aren’t spending three quarters of a million dollars on software; they’re simply using pre-existing services to personalize their client relationships. There will be organizations similar to Cloudera and Hadoop that are made available to small businesses, because there exists an obvious market for the services. Smaller companies build their revenue on interpersonal client relationships, and understanding data is an added benefit that could maximize profits.

[1] "Big Data for the Real World." VentureBeat. VentureBeat, 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 04 June 2014.
[2] “New Study Details How Enterprises Use Big Data | The Big Data Hub." New Study Details How Enterprises Use Big Data | The Big Data Hub. IBM Information Management, 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 04 June 2014.
[3] "Newswire ." How Small Businesses Can Scale the Big Data Barrier. Nielson, 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 05 June 2014.
[4] "Newswire ." How Small Businesses Can Scale the Big Data Barrier. Nielson, 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 05 June 2014.
[5] Troester, Mark. "Small Business, Big Data." Business Analytics and Business Intelligence Software. SAS, n.d. Web. 05 June 2014.
[6] Troester, Mark. "Small Business, Big Data." Business Analytics and Business Intelligence Software. SAS, n.d. Web. 05 June 2014.
[7] King, Ian. "Big Data Is Really About Small Things." Bloomberg Business Week. Bloomberg, 4 June 2014. Web. 05 June 2014.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Plexus Clients Achieved Growth far Above Market Norms

(Washington, DC—5 June 2014) During the three years immediately following the onset of the Great Recession from 2009 to 2011 thirty-nine nonprofit organizations that were already growing strongly increased their annual growth rates by an average of 4% after using the management consulting services of Washington, DC-based Plexus Consulting Group, LLC (Plexus).  Eleven other nonprofit organizations that had been shrinking in size, managed to reverse or reduce their losses and performed on an average 22% better than before they used the firm’s management consulting services.

The organizations included in this analysis are trade associations, professional societies and philanthropies in areas covering education, community development, financial, professional, manufacturing, and various aspects of healthcare.  Every nonprofit organization that used Plexus’s services during this three year timeframe experienced higher annual revenue growth rates than their respective sectors overall.

In order of frequency of use, the services were:  strategic planning; surveys and market research; marketing; international business services; organizational restructuring; and government and public relations.  The organizations using strategic marketing and strategic planning services registered the greatest growth increases of 45% and 26% respectively.   

“This is the first time we have done such a comprehensive analysis of the bottom line results of our work,” said Plexus President Steven Worth, “but we thought this would be important to know during these financially uncertain times when making a decision to spend badly needed cash on management consulting services can be controversial.  These figures show our firm’s services more than pay for themselves—even during a recession.”

More complete results of this study can be obtained by contacting:; or .  The financial results used in this report come from publicly listed sources as is required by all tax exempt organizations.