Monday, January 5, 2015

Dancing the Temporal Tango

By Peter de Jager

It is a mistake for any assn to assume that their declining membership problems are unique. Declining membership is a problem for the entire spectrum of associations, from labor unions to political parties, from cartographic assns to the Canadian Fencing Federation. It is a different type of mistake to assume that just because the problem is endemic, that innovative solutions are impossible.

Two well-defined forces contribute to the erosion of the perceived benefits of actively being involved in any formal association: the problems imposed by the increased tempo of professional life, and the solutions people use to dance gracefully to the frenzied beat of the 21st century. If we wish to find innovative ways to protect and increase membership, then we must consider both the rhythms of our time and how people choose to participate in the dance.

While it is sometimes defeatist to take the position that a particular problem can’t be fixed, I feel safe stating there is little any association can do to affect the overall time pressures on a 21st century worker. There is nothing we can do to alleviate the pressures generated by their home or professional lives. The best we can hope for is to carve a niche for ourselves inside the solutions they choose to adopt.

What happens as the pace of life increases? How do we choose to cope? The first thing to notice is that we don’t immediately zoom toward a new status quo; we stumble toward a solution, one painful step at a time.

The first step, and the first pitfall, is “work faster.” The reasoning is that if we take less time to do things, then we can still accomplish everything. For short periods of time, this is often a successful strategy. When it fails, it fails like that long line of dominos. First a small project is late, which delays a bigger one, and then a high priority one.

The next stage is “work longer.” The pitfall here is that home and personal life are sacrificed for professional accomplishments. Despite this, there are more than enough people adopting this strategy.

“Work smarter” is an enlightened step upward, but even this falls by the wayside if the pressures continue to increase. We can destroy even the most efficient engine if it’s operated at full tilt 24/7 every day of the year.

Another stage is “Work more discriminately.” We make decisions on what is important and focus our attention there, to the detriment of everything that doesn’t make the “A” list. It’s at this stage that association activities can begin to fall by the wayside. Simply put, is an association meeting the most important things I could be doing right now?

If we are inclined mathematically, we might even begin to calculate consciously or subconsciously a Return on Time Investment for all our activities. ROTI = (value received)/(time invested).

There’s nothing wrong, and a lot right, with task prioritization unless we’re incapable of taking the big picture into account. It’s very easy to focus on short-term tasks with immediate and certain payback at the expense of long-term objectives.

That failing works against associations because most association activaties are long-term career builders. It is infrequent that they are intended to solve the most pressing problem back at the office.

In truth, any scheduled activity is at a serious disadvantage. The more control we have over when we can perform a task, the more likely we are to accomplish it.

For an extremely busy person, activities that are more flexible and take less time always take precedent over those that take more scheduled time. The result? More people willingly read a newspaper, than participate in a scheduled conference call, than will attend a three-day conference.

People pressed for time will tend to choose to spend their time on immediate high payoff, easily scheduled, short activities.

Without pretending to have any specific answers for association executives reading this, the commentary does lead to a crucial question – what does your association offer members that fits neatly into this three-step shuffle: Step off with the right foot to “immediately high payoff,” slide to the left on “easily scheduled,” and high step on tempo to “short activities?”

Here’s a personal example. I’m a member of a large association. I pay significantly high dues. I attend no meetings, and will likely never attend a meeting. I draw zero benefit, except for one: On an almost daily basis, I participate in the e-mail discussion group. It perfectly fits the above three-step shuffle.

The irony is that this particular solution to the declining membership problem exists totally by accident. Nothing has been done to tailor it to better meet my needs.

Consider the value of an e-mail discussion group that I could “train” to add me only specific threads of a discussion in which I’m interested. Or edited summaries of these discussions. Would it be possible to add more research to these summaries to provide increased value?

One solution to the declining membership problem is to learn from the alternatives our members choose over what we’re offering them. Can you offer similar, but top-class alternatives?

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