Posts in January

THINK TANK: All in Favour Say Aye! : Associations’ Digital Democracy Dilemma

January 22nd, 2017   •   no comments   

 

As recent events – such as allegations of Russian electoral hacking – have proved, the merest hint of uncertainty over the conduct or legality of a selection process can seriously damage the credibility of a ballot in the minds of the voters. Even a whiff of mismanagement will leave a bitter taste of dissent lingering amongst the electorate. Remember George W Bush and his hanging chads!?

Cock-up or conspiracy all become one in the minds of those who have begun to question the validity of the process and therefore the result. History has shown us that governments adopted on the basis of a dubious selection process almost always fail to maintain the trust of the people. Except, of course, for dictatorships, and they just don’t care!

So, electing governments is one thing, what about day-to-day decision making?  How many times have you, as a trade association manager, been asked your membership’s view on a particular issue, policy, or piece of legislation, only to realise that you are completely in the dark? And, in all honesty, how many times have you responded to such an enquiry – possibly from the press – with your own best guess; hoping that the majority would tow the party line?

We’ve all done it, and because we’re all seasoned campaigners – with our ears to the ground – we generally get away with it. But what if your judgement call goes awry? Second-guessing the mood of your constituency is a risky business, and careers can be seriously dented by getting it wrong. So, why not limit the risk by asking your members what they really think? Most often, the answer to that question is that to do so would be costly, time consuming, and possibly wasteful. But what if it was none of these? Enter digital democracy!?

Under modern government the people elect representatives rather than decide matters directly. The resulting administration may be viewed as more or less democratic depending on how well it represents the will of the people. So, in these terms, digital democracy – where all adult citizens are presumed eligible to participate equally – might be considered an improvement on the democratic process. Or as a remedy to the insular nature, concentrated power, and lack of post-election accountability in a process organized mostly around political parties. And, because the Internet is a primary source of information for many people, it enables citizens to get and post information about politicians, and it in turn allows them to get advice from the electorate in larger numbers. Thus collective judgement and problem solving gives more theoretical power to the citizens and speeds up decision making.

So, online voting could be an effective way to reduce an association’s printing costs; provide wider communication choice for members; be more environmentally friendly; and represent members’ views more accurately. However, not everybody is comfortable with computers and it is vital in a democracy to ensure that no voter is disenfranchised; the right mix of communication methods need to be employed. Maximising communications and using social media within an election context is a powerful way to raise its profile and foster engaging discussion with the electorate. But unfettered it can also backfire badly leading to the dissemination of half-truths, falsehoods, and even character assassination.

But in a world where interest groups already exert influence via platforms like 38 Degrees, Mumsnet, and Global Citizen, digital democracy has to be about much more than just responding to trends on social media. And there are barriers to voting online, including lack of trust in the security of the process; technophobia; and voter fatigue or cynicism. However, as more commercial transactions take place digitally, and security improves, members may become increasingly comfortable with online voting. And if the effective capture and use of data allows for targeted communications it may also increase the ‘buy-in’ to online polling and elections.

So, where does that leave association and membership management skills? Will there be any further need for judgement and experience once all options can be tested – Swiss style –  by referendum and all decisions can be digitally ‘crowd sourced’?  But, can we really trust the wisdom of crowds to get us through? Are rapid decisions always wise ones? Or, is a wily CEO with his / her ear to the ground still the best barometer of member opinion?

Whatever the answers, membership organisations can’t afford to ignore digital democracy. Having long-since sacrificed their role as information gatekeepers, how long will it be before their ability to represent members and influence policy is also side-stepped on the web?

Michael Hoare 2017

Book Review

January 16th, 2017   •   no comments   

Keep those brain cells active! Here are two titles to make you think: keeping you on your toes until we see you again in the New Year! They may not be hot off the press but, taken together, these titles will provide a yuletide feast for the intellect!

The Information

First published in Great Britain in 2011, The Information, by James Gleick, is a must read for students of the information age. And by that I mean just about everyone, because information is the life-blood of modern society. Digital, big data, algorithm, and meme are today’s watch words, and Millennials speak of little else, or so we’re told! But neither this generation nor the last invented information. It’s been kicking around since man first learned to grunt: what’s different now are the uses to which we put it.

Gleick’s book is a history of information. But if you think the current cohort was born into an information revolution, think again. Every generation had has its own information revolution building on the last. From the word, to writing; compilation of the first dictionaries to the charting the oceans; and the invention of morse-code, the telegraph, and the telephone. The capture and transmission of information has progressed inexorably through the centuries. There have been paradigm shifts aplenty, but arguably none bigger in the modern era than the invention – within months of each other – of the transistor and the bit.

The transistor was the red hot hardware invention of 1948: the bit – defined by Claude Shannon as “A unit for measuring information” – followed close on its heels. Between them both inventions accelerated our understanding and usage of data to warp-speed!   What came next was the rapid advance in computers only dreamed of by Babbage and Turing; the onward march of digital technology; and the dawning of robotics and artificial intelligence that threaten to shape our world for good or ill.

The Internet is NOT the Answer

Over the last couple of decades the developed world has enthusiastically embraced the internet as the way forward in both work and business. Many of our predictions for the future of employment are predicated on its existence, and the ordering of society has fallen into step with its demands. Andrew Keen is one of those who questioned this new orthodoxy early on. In his book, The Internet is Not the Answer, first published in paperback in the UK in 2015, he asked us to re-examine some of the unintended consequences of our lemming-like dash online.  As an early adopter and internet entrepreneur he knows of what he speaks.

Keen’s argument was that, ‘rather than creating transparency and openness, the Internet is creating a panopticon of information-gathering and surveillance services in which we, the users of big data networks like Facebook, have been packaged as their all-too-transparent product’. Outcomes – or so his argument ran – included the empowerment of the mob, intolerance, and bullying; the creation of a self-centred culture of voyeurism and narcissism; the enrichment of a tiny self-appointed minority; and the compounding of collective rage.

No doubt, when he sat down to write his book, Keen’s views would have been regarded as the doom laden pronouncements of a modern Jeremiah. But the last couple of years have seen a shift in the public mood towards the ‘internet revolution’. The zeitgeist has shifted. Many commentators now cite the Internet’s impact on unemployment, inequality, and ubiquitous surveillance with scepticism. What may once have been regarded as reactionary is the new orthodoxy. Governments the world over are calling time on the wild west of Uber and Airbnb, and starting to question the societal effects of the ‘sharing’ and ‘gig’ economies.

Michael Hoare

Editor

Association News (Edition 249: December 2106)

The Information, by James Gleick: published in paperback by Fourth Estate, ISBN 978-0-00-722574-3

The Internet is Not the Answer, Andrew Keen: published by Atlantic Books, ISBN 978-1-7239-343-6

Disruptive or Destructive: Associations Technological Balancing Act

January 16th, 2017   •   no comments   

What does the brave new world of disruptive technology have in store for trade associations? Will they have a future purpose, and how will they justify their subscription?

Associations have always adapted to change. Time was when they encouraged actors in a particular trade or industry to gather together under a shared identity, partly to validate their supposed expertise, and partly to exclude those deemed less worthy. So, if we’re honest, protectionism and elitism played no small part in achieving credentials, and arcane rules re-enforced by mystifying etiquette were fashioned, which rendered those inside the tent unassailable, and those outside beyond the pale!

This kind of `gentlemen`s club’ mentality – where simply belonging was in itself enough to justify the fee – survived in various forms until the end of the last (twentieth) century. Some associations also managed to build a quasi-official carapace around themselves, and further strengthened their position by assuming the mantle of gate-keepers: granting access to industry data and information to the privileged few.

Members were also encouraged to believe that their status granted them the ear of government. Indeed, in 1996 the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) appeared to confirm that view with the publication of its best practice guide for The Model Trade Association. The DTI is long gone but that document remains the bedrock of many associations, cementing the notions of best practice, bench-marking, and competitiveness in their psyche.

The turn of the century saw companies` growing more concerned about trust issues and the protection of their reputation. Collectively, reputation management became a function of trade associations, achieved by furthering members’ interests with stakeholders like regulators, industry analysts, employees, suppliers, and the media. And, in response to common reputational problems brought about by industry-wide crises – like pollution, slave labour, or blood diamonds – competing firms tried to stave off aggressive government legislation through the development and enforcement of self-regulation.

Commercially, associations also attempted to influence any regulatory or trading conditions that adversely affected their members, by providing a platform for collective representation and lobbying. In reality, the so called ‘level playing field’ involved seeking favourable rules like tax breaks, subsidised research and development, or relaxed employment practices. Promote and protect was, and still is, the stated or implied motto of many associations.

However, over the last decade, the big story has been the rise of digital and the evolution of organisations to meet their members’ changing expectations. Data is now freely available to all; associations aren’t the only conduit for communication between stakeholders; and businesses are increasingly reluctant to pay to simply to `belong`. Faced by shrinking membership fees, and keeping up with members’ demands for instant access to resources and training, some associations turned to sponsorship, exhibitions, group buying, financial benefits packages, and other monetised relationships to fill the financial gap. The most successful ones have managed to continue updating and innovating – make the transition to e-learning, develop digital products – and make all their services accessible online! But how much longer can they keep ahead of the curve?

 

Emerging, or disruptive, technologies have the capacity to alter our lifestyle, what is understood by work, business and the global economy. Disruptive innovations create new markets and value networks and eventually dislocate the existing ones, while simultaneously displacing established market leaders and alliances. The interesting thing about the current crop – like Airbnb – is that they achieve this without being subject to any of the traditional infrastructure costs and limitations.

So, as social media has already undermined the logic behind at least one of their key functions – communication – how long will it be before someone applies the `Uber’ model to trade association procedures: undermining established practice; regulation; and tradition? And how will associations represent the interests of members who find themselves displaced by, or in competition with, others driven by disruptive technology?

Michael Hoare

Editor

Association News (Edition 249)

Is Yours an Über Association?

January 16th, 2017   •   no comments   

Before the headline-grabbing taxi App misappropriated the word for its own purposes über – the German prefix – had become a term to denote something outstanding or supreme! Its current connotations are with disruptive technology. But, in either context, it’s a useful word against which to measure membership organisations…

Technology that upsets the status-quo isn’t new. It’s been around since before the industrial revolution. Jethro Tull’s horse drawn seed drills and hoes put the cat amongst the eighteenth century’s agricultural pigeons. While in the nineteenth, spinning frames and power looms inadvertently gave us ‘Luddites’, the derogatory term for opponents of labour-economising technologies.

But things have moved on apace with the advent of digital technology, and it’s surprising quite how many of our transactional relationships have been affected by new digital platforms: the so-called disruptive technologies. A disruptive innovation is one that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts existing ones, displacing established market leaders and alliances. But the interesting thing about the current crop is that they achieve this without being subject to any of the traditional infrastructure costs.

So, Uber is the world’s largest taxi company but owns no cabs. One of the largest accommodation providers – Airbnb – doesn’t have a hotel room to call its own. Whilst SKYPE and WECHAT have no wires or exchanges, and ALIBABA, the world’s most valuable retailer, has no inventory. The list goes on!  In fact, they have become so disruptive that government inquiries into online platforms have been asking, why are collaborative economy platforms growing so quickly; what are their implications for employment law and health and safety regulation; and how does consumer protection law apply? Who is regulating them? Is it the EU, the Member State or even the local authority?

Those are all good questions for associations to ponder too! But don’t let’s be fooled into thinking that disruptive technology is only about market dominance via digital platforms. Genomics, 3D printing, advanced materials, advanced oil and gas exploration and recovery, and renewable electricity are also on the top twelve list of developments poised to dislocate us.

So what, if the world’s most popular media owner – Facebook – not only creates no content, but also brings special interest groups together in a way associations previously regarded as their forte? That LinkedIn has already knocked the dynamics of recruitment off kilter, and Amazon has dealt an almost mortal blow to traditional booksellers? Clearly there is no going back, and hankering after the past is no help.

Industry sectors atomized by disruptive technologies will adapt, but they will require a very different set of benefits from their associations. And they in turn will require different skills, finance, and governance to match their members’ needs. Are associations up to the task? Or even thinking that far ahead? What do you think?

Michael Hoare

Editor

Association News (Edition 248)