But why is CHASE important? If you work for a membership organisation you don’t need me to tell you that change has been rapid in recent years. Associations, institutes, and charities have developed joined-up systems, CRM, and active member engagement processes. Their outward appearance has become slicker. Their business acumen more honed. And much of this is down to the digital revolution.
When I started my trade association journey, they were very different beasts. The Department of Trade and Industry’s ‘The Model Trade Association’, published in 1996, rooted best practice, bench-marking, and competitiveness in the association psyche. The DTI is long gone but that document persisted as the bedrock of many associations.
At the turn of this century members grew more concerned about trust issues. Reputation management became a function of trade associations: achieved by furthering members’ interests with stakeholders and the media. Criticism was fended off with promises of self-regulation.
Associations also tried to influence regulatory or trading conditions that adversely affected their members, by providing a platform for collective representation and lobbying. In reality, ‘promote and protect’ was and still is the stated, or implied, motto of many. For their part charities have also had to adapt. First to more stringent rules around governance. But more significantly in shouldering the burdens previously the responsibility of the state.
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. Charities and associations aren’t the only conduit for communication between stakeholders. And members are increasingly reluctant to pay to simply `belong`.
So, faced by shrinking fees, and keeping up with members’ demands for instant access to resources, both have 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. Making the transition to e-learning, developing digital products, and putting all their services online!
Charities and associations – and their leaders – if their recent history tells us anything, are innovative, adaptable, and increasingly fleet of foot. They’ve had to be. They’re also independent, focussed on the task at hand, and frequently small to medium enterprises. So they can become insular if not challenged. And that’s where Michael Webb came in!
In 1991, a couple of years after I began (and incidentally first encountered computers in the workplace) Michael Webb established the Charities and Associations Exhibition, known thereafter as CHASE. And it’s been going for an astonishing 24 years!
Michael understood that membership bodies are fundamentally about people. And the best way to engage with them was to bring them together under one roof. Once there you could entertain them, enlighten them, challenge them! New goods and services, new venues, new personalities, new theories, new ideas. All were available at CHASE.
Deals were done, trends spotted, gossip shared, conspiracies contrived, and friendships sealed. Exhibiting, speaking, listening, and respect were the lexicon of CHASE. And now it’s back! After a bit of a wobble last year, Hart Square have marshalled a coalition of willing partners to light the candles on its 25th birthday cake. One with four nourishing layers: digital, innovation, culture, and leadership.
So, times change, fashions wax and wane, technology comes and goes, and the next big thing is always just around the corner. There may be no such thing as ‘society’. We might all just be ‘consumers’ now. But I say, for one day at least let’s blow a big fat raspberry to isolation, kick individualism into touch, forget about ‘me’. And let’s get together to share and learn – from each other! See you at CHASE!
Michael Feenan, Executive Director, Mensa International confronted Institute of Association Management members with the challenges facing an international association at November’s CEO Forum hosted by CIPAs Lee Davies.
Membership bodies of nearly every stripe find themselves wrestling with the idea of internationalisation at some point in their development, but what are the pitfalls?
Whether to guard your primacy in a particular market, the need to defend your own turf, or the simple desire for more members and increased turnover. Or just because everybody else is doing it. There are numerous reasons for considering global expansion.
There may be more noble motives. Such as the setting and maintaining of international standards in trade or ethical practices. Whatever the reason, eventually most membership bodies have to think about their international presence, or at least their oversea members. But it’s not without risk.
Some of the more obvious downsides hinge on on the market place you are entering. Therefore, you have a fundamental decision to make about whether or not to set up in an overseas territory, and what method to employ. Whether to do this through an alliance with another, possibly local, partner or go for outright world domination, is always a dilemma. Cultural differences, like ‘toxicity’ associated with a Britain’s colonial past, might also present difficulties. A local partner may solve this in the short run. But may give problems further down the track if that partner tries to assert its local dominance or hive off the business.
Whatever route you take or structure you decide upon will be partly determined by your objectives. Organisations representing groups like doctors, scientists, or engineers may see it in their interests to seek to regularise international standards. Thus ensuring qualifications, experience, and ongoing training comply with British expectations, and facilitating international professional practice. The implied objective may be the promulgation of British qualifications in overseas territories.
From my own experience I would cite the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (GemA), which, as the world’s oldest school of gemmology, has had success in promoting UK gemmological education and qualifications around the world. But which came up against stiff competition from the Gemology Institute of America until a compromise was reached through mutual recognition of each-others’ qualifications. Sometimes this is an uneasy truce which always risks being undermined by one or other lowering their entry standards and scooping the international student pool. In general though, a level of equilibrium is maintain by the creative tension that exists between the two organisations, which leads in turn to innovation.
Others may simply wish to establish an international and interchangeable set of shared characteristics. Take, for instance, the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, whose objective is partly to promote all aspects of botanical systematics and its significance to the understanding and value of biodiversity. Or the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) whose ‘Blue Books’ are definitive sets of grading standards and nomenclature for diamonds, coloured gemstones, pearls, precious metals, and gemmological laboratories. Here the purpose is to facilitate international trade whilst protecting consumers who rely on quality standards, but both organisations fall broadly under the definition of ‘archivists’ to some extent.
Once your international objectives are defined, the choice of structure may be between a franchise, where you must impose rigid standards and maintain constant vigilance. A federation, where you come together with others for the sake of community interest. Or a hybrid, possibly managed by a local partner, where the level of autonomy permitted will always in the balance.
Whichever is chosen, you will always be subject to macro level challenges that are beyond your control. These can encompass all manner of happenings on the world stage, from the resurgence of nationalism as seen in the Russia / Crimea scenario, through to the changes in Chinese law that have affected NGOs. Not to mention the micro challenges of linguistics, or the conceptual differences in, for instance, what constitutes a binding contract?
Good governance is of course the key to continued success. But, keeping in mind the military maxim, ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’, you must be prepared to adapt to circumstances. However, notwithstanding the questions that surround access to services, value for money, and false representation, you may lean toward the tried and tested strategy of ‘DIMs’. That’s Direct International Members to you!
©2018 M J Hoare
‘Lobbyists’ have never been far from the seat of government. The term derives from the lobbies of the Houses of Parliament where Ministers gathered before and after debates: and where those that wanted to influence their opinion would go to get their attention. The verb ‘to lobby’ first appeared in print in Ohio, used in the context of local politics. While the word ‘lobbyist’ was first found in the 1840s and mostly related to Washington. But a recent a recent turn of events has put the spotlight on the interface between British lobbyists and politicians – calling into question where one ends and the other begins.
Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, has become the first serving politician to be officially registered as a lobbyist. He is listed on the register of consultant lobbyists because of his chairmanship of Policy Connect, a not-for-profit company that has held meetings attended by paying businesses and ministers.
Alison White, the registrar of consultant lobbyists, concluded that Policy Connect should be defined as a lobbying company because it is paid money by clients who are then given the opportunity to meet ministers. Her judgement follows an inquiry into whether informal parliamentary groups have been used to gain access to government.
Sheerman confirmed that he had reluctantly registered as a lobbyist, but disagrees with the rules governing the register. Maintaining that Policy Connect is a social enterprise providing a service for industry experts and ministers.
Although lobbying rules do not prevent MPs from holding a paid outside interest as a director, consultant, or adviser, the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament is unequivocal on paid advocacy, stating:
Taking payment in return for advocating a particular matter in the House is strictly forbidden. Members may not speak in the House, vote, or initiate parliamentary proceedings for payment in cash or kind. Nor may they make approaches to Ministers, other Members or public officials in return for such payment.
According to the MPs’ code of conduct, they are allowed to work as a consultant or be paid for advice, but are forbidden from acting as a “paid advocate”.
Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 introduced a new registration system for consultant lobbyists, which came into operation in March 2015, following a spate of ‘cash for access’ scandals in Westminster. The first Register was published on 25 March, and it included 53 entries.
The aim of the register is to gain transparency about possible influences of interest groups on Parliamentarians and their staff. Several studies indicate that lobby transparency leads to a decrease in corruption, and registers exist for several countries. Their effectiveness is rated differently, strongly depending on their exact regulations. Many non-mandatory registers do not include powerful lobbyists.
The restrictions under the lobbying rules apply for six months. A Member can free him or herself immediately of any restrictions due to a past benefit by repaying the full value of any benefit received from the outside person or organisation in the preceding six month period
All-party parliamentary groups (APPGs), consisting of members of both houses, meet together relatively informally to discuss a particular issue of concern. They are either country based, or subject based, the topics reflecting parliamentarians’ concerns. Officers are generally drawn from the major political parties and strive to avoid favouring one political party or another.
APPGs have no formal place in the legislature, but are an effective way of bringing together parliamentarians and interested parties. In the UK and many other countries, APPGs must be registered every parliamentary year and must hold an annual general meeting where the Chair and Officers are elected.
Their benefit, to campaign groups, charities, and other non-governmental organisations active in the field, is that they allow them to become involved in discussions and influence politicians. Often a relevant charity or trade association will provide a secretariat for the APPG, helping to arrange meetings, and keeping track of its members. Other APPGs may resolve their administration burden in other ways, either by borrowing capacity from an MP or peer’s office, or by employing staff of their own. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, for example, employs two members of staff paid for through subscriptions from its stakeholders.
As of 2015 there were more than 550 APPGs. Associate parliamentary groups are similar except that they are made up of not only members of the House of Commons or Lords but can also include members from outside Parliament.
In early 2016 the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists launched an inquiry into concerns that APPGs were being used to bypass lobbying registration rules, following reports that lobbyists were acting as APPG secretariats, so gaining access to legislators. White launched her inquiry earlier this year after a growth in the number groups, which are also allowed use of the Palace of Westminster’s catering facilities and can invite senior ministers and civil servants for meetings with donors.
So, Sheerman’s registration raises questions about the role of MPs and whether they should be both lawmakers and lobbyists. Furthermore, it highlights the part played by trade associations and others in influencing policy decisions. Which, if challenged, will further undermine associations’ claims to wield influence in an age where their gatekeeping role is already compromised.
From the public perspective, there is a rising tide of scepticism about the honesty of their representatives; the influence of private business interests over the public sphere; and apparent diminution of citizen’s rights. The electorate are entitled to ask increasingly uncomfortable questions. And expect satisfactory answers! Especially if we don’t want to re-enforce the belief iterated by John Gastil, Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, when he says, “There are two fundamental problems in American politics. The first is that most Americans do not believe that elected officials represent their interests. The second is that they are correct.”
Ethical Lobbying, an Oxymoron? By J van Boven
There used to be a tradition around this time of year where broadsheet newspapers would ask politicians what books they were taking on holiday as their summer reading. Some went for populist options to show they were ‘in touch’ with the electorate. Others chose heavyweight tomes by Proust, Ayn Rand, Thomas Piketty, or similar, to flaunt either their intellectual or ideological inclinations!
Frankly, I doubt that any of their selections got read. Both Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ at 696 pages, and Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ at over 1100 pages are frankly too heavy to be supported whilst lying prone in a deck chair. And Proust’s ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ at over 3,000 pages would give you a pretty hefty blow to the head if you fell asleep whilst holding it aloft!
However, I’ve found a book that all politicians should put on their summer reading list. Its light, at just 300 pages including notes. It’s a paperback, so shouldn’t cause injury. And its message doesn’t require any interpretation. First published in 2015, The Joy of Tax by Richard Murphy, isn’t on any best seller lists any more, nor is it bang up to date.
However, I reckon it should be required reading for politicians of either stripe. Not that they will of course, because dogma does not permit such forays into joined-up thinking. But, even if you don’t subscribe to the author’s ultimate prescription for the ideal tax system, this little book is the perfect primer for the understanding of tax. Not only does Murphy remind us of the history of taxation and what exactly tax is, but swiftly deals with the naysayers who seek to undermine it for their own purposes. He also demolishes some of the canards that have become the backbone of much debate around the subject.
Laissez-fair capitalists my rend their clothes and tear out their hair at the notion, but tax can also have a social purpose. Murphy reminds us of the pillars on which an equitable tax system should be built and the fundamental ideas that can help fashion it. A ‘must read’ for ALL aspiring politicians!
Murphy was appointed Professor of Practice in International Political Economy in the Department of International Politics at City University London in 2015, as a part-time appointment involving research and teaching. Previously he had been a visiting fellow at University of Portsmouth Business School, the Centre for Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex, and at the Tax Research Institute at the University of Nottingham. He was the founder of, and remains on the Board of Directors of, the Fair Tax Mark.
At the back end of July Hart Square held a seminar entitled ‘Get Personal or Get Ignored’, featuring contributions from Rachel Weber of dotmailer and Steve Smith of City & Guilds. Here’s my verdict:
Plumbing the depths of his experience Allen Reid, director of client projects at Hart Square, the niche not-for-profit tech consultancy, ruminated in July on the lack of insight that most NFPs have into their customers and members’ personal preferences. Typically Sarah, Allen’s archetypal customer, is not interested in your work silos. She has her own, and she’s not going to waste time on yours. In fact she only opens one in fifteen emails, unless they happen to be from a colleague. Nevertheless, in most associations a ‘spray and pray’ methodology is still employed: scattering a plethora of messages over Sarah, most of which are irrelevant to her.
Even as far back as the turn of the 20th century, when nearly all advertising was via printed media, this was recognised as an inefficient way of promoting a message. However, in those days there was little other choice. Even John Wannamaker, one of the pioneers of American department store retailing, is quoted in 1917 as saying, “I know half of advertising is wasted, we just don’t know which half”. And, according to Allen at least, little had improved as the century neared its end, and he began his career as an analyst.
His experience, and that of Hart Square, proved that the keys to personalised messaging are data, systems integration, and staff empowered to make use of that data. However, in most organisations, there is no point staff having ‘good ideas’ because current systems are too clunky to make pursuing them worthwhile.
Very few associations can deny holding their data on multiple spreadsheets. Partly because ‘knowledge is power’, and those wielding that power fear that losing it will undermine their role in the organisation. However Allen – whose motto is “if it moves, track it” – contends that automated interactions should free up staff to do things that only humans can do. And frankly associations have got to re-think their role in an era when they are no longer information ‘gate-keepers’.
Linking the two presentations Rachel Weber, senior account manager at dotMailer, highlighted the benefits and technical improvements that could be achieved by installing a system such as theirs. Allied to all important timing, organisations could move to email personalised with mail-merge by name, branch, and areas of interest. Personal preferences can also be recorded, giving an advantage to sales teams tasked with sustaining client relationships.
Internally the practical advantages to the association are: simple and quick data transfer and synching; easy email set-up; unique customer view with data held in one place; and automated actions.Overall, Rachel’s advice to not-for-profits is to get trained, clean up existing data, implement developments in stages, and test everything as you go along. A discipline underscored by the final speaker.
City & Guilds are a global leader in skills development, providing services to training providers, employers, and trainees across a variety of sectors. Today’s workplace demands training, and two million learners are working towards one of their qualifications, developing their talents and abilities in the hope of career progression. Whilst vocational qualifications, technical qualifications and apprenticeships are valued by employers world-wide. So the task of integrating and personalising data and communications was no mean achievement.
The journey started in 2012 with no targeted audiences and over a four to five month tender period built into a brand refresh and the construction of templates. The original concept was a three-year strategy, bringing in other departments over time. Rapid progress followed, and by 2014 they were looking at customer preferences and interests at a granular level.
In 2015 it was decided to bring in the sales department, and the old system of disseminated Excel spreadsheets was abandoned. Hart Square held their hands throughout the process, asking relevant questions and helping define objectives, like what data was needed, how to capture it, and how and what to measure.
In 2017 the system went live with the global sales team using Microsoft Dynamics! But did integrating their ESP with CRM have the desired effect? The answer is yes, with deliverability up two percent, opens up forty-one percent, and clicks up by a staggering two hundred and twenty-five percent. They also have forty-one percent new contacts!
The future holds the prospect of further integrations, possibly including Hootsuite, Sitecore, Eventbright, and SAP. But what are Steve’s top tips for success? First, gain executive sponsorship and governance for your plans, including a Board level steering group, and have clear objectives from the outset. In their case they decided to think big, start small, then scale-up quickly. Next, always involve users from the outset, and plan for infrastructure to support the growing needs of the business. And lastly, use an external partner for scale, and don’t ever under-estimate the support you’ll need after going live!
Steve’s last tip – and my verdict? Don’t let the IT department lead the process!!!
The phrase “Mind the Gap” was coined in about 1968 as an automated announcement, after it became impractical for drivers and station attendants to warn passengers verbally on London Underground. Now, minding the gap between customer expectations and our digital performance may not be as devastating as tumbling between a tube train and the platform, but it will have consequences never-the-less.
And so it was that Allen Reid, director of client projects, and Simon Pardy, a business consultant at Hart Square gave their early-rising NetXtra Breakfast Club audience a two-handed rendition of the pitfalls. Helping, along the way, to identify approaches to adopting contemporary technology. But first, over to Sarah, the cause of all this angst. Sarah is the average member, and doesn’t care about your departments. She isn’t interested in your data silos, and doesn’t much care about her membership body. She doesn’t like admin; won’t just go to the website; and does NOT want to call you.
You, on the other hand, want to talk to her! But she’s busy, and you’re bombarding her with impersonal email messages, texts, and Tweets – particularly when they’re mostly irrelevant to her – simply doesn’t cut it. In-fact they might drive a wedge between you. And pretending to be personal is even worse, as it exposes your lack of authenticity.
Sarah has loads of choice, has apps coming out of her ears, and in these economically straightened times may choose not to invest in a membership body that views her simply as a statistic. So why not take a leaf out of the Mumsnet book, or even Coeliac UK, with its scrapbooks, recipes, restaurants, and advice on diagnosis?
To succeed, you need to understand your members’ needs and what’s driving them to you. How can you satisfy those needs? Great – maybe crowd sourced – content is good; self-service (for booking, buying, and profile updates) is a must; and, most of all, community. People talking on your site, exchanging news, jobs, and events, add to that feeling of highly personalised communications according Allen and Simon.
Next, in a break from tradition, Scott Cole of NetXtra interviewed Rob Ilsley of The Dispute Service (TDS) to extract some important nuggets from their decision to go for CRM. As a government regulated scheme provider that protects over £1 billion in tenant deposits TDS membership is something of a grudge purchase. But with their current systems having grown organically over a number of years, minor tweaks to any process would result in unforeseen chaos further down the line. It was time to act, sweeping away processes that weren’t user friendly and replacing them with a high degree of self service. But only after analysis of the tenant’s role as a customer. The result has been efficiency, cost savings, and a reduction in disputes.
Pay per click advertising (PPC), search engine optimisation (SEO), and conversion rate optimisation (CRO) are Tom Bowden’s game at Footprint Digital, and he had everyone on their feet to demonstrate the fact. Measure it – test it, is their mantra, and Tom demonstrated it. Although we may make assumptions about what looks great and is likely to engage our audience, with the benefit of A/B testing partnered with SEO/analytics reporting, we can actually put definable data behind decision making.
So, what did others think? I asked fellow delegate, Dan Nimmo, Communications Manager at the Institute of Biomedical Science, and he told me that,
“Having only started as the communications manager at the Institute of Biomedical Science in January, and with no prior experience in membership organisations, the Breakfast Clubs have provided me with a wealth of information and ideas of how to make improvements in our organisation. As well as the steps to overcome some of the problems I have had and can foresee in the future.
The June presentations were the second Breakfast Club that I have attended this year and I was pleased that on both occasions the content has been relevant to my role. I also enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the presentations and meeting fellow communications professionals. The added bonus of a fresh cup of coffee and a bacon roll on arrival are also a much appreciated welcome to the day ahead.”
- Any stand-out moments?
“Yes, learning about some of the challenges other organisations have overcome and the different ways that they have done this is helpful when I come to plan our communication and engagement strategies. As I am currently looking at ways to improve the user experience of our digital membership platform, I found the ‘Mind the digital gap’ presentation especially rewarding. The idea of personalising the membership area for each member is something that I am going to look into further and the Coeliac example used was very appealing.”
- And did the round-table and interview sessions add to your enjoyment?
“I really enjoyed discussing some of the issues in the round table discussion. As someone that is new to my role, I discussed some of the issues that I have faced with the new ideas I am bringing to the role and changes I am beginning to implement. So it was really helpful to hear from other comms staff at my table, who discussed the problems that they have had to overcome in their organisations.”
- What will you be able to apply most immediately to your current role?
“The last presentation on ‘Mind the SEO gap’ was informative and good fun. Although being one of only 3 in the room to pick the first correct answer was a source of pride, although I soon found my short-lived quiz success was over by the next question. The style of the presentation proved a great way to drive home the idea that A/B testing along with SEO/analytics can enable us to make better decisions in our marketing. Something that will come in especially handy to all membership communications teams as we all look to improve on our engagement and better ways to measure it. It also comes at a time when I have been investigating A/B testing to increase our level of open and click through rates in our digital communications to our members.”
- See you next time?
“The NetXtra Breakfast Clubs have given me a really useful insight into the membership sector. I am able to take away lots of new ideas for member engagement and it also allows me to network with fellow comms professionals. I look forward to the next event in September!”.
Written by Michael Hoare
Hang on a minute! What is all this stuff about ‘engagement’? Everywhere I look these days membership organisations are talking about engagement as though it was the be all and end all of their existence. But why? And what do they mean by the term? Look up ‘engage’ in any shorter dictionary and – apart from a ‘promise to marry’ – to engage somebody means to attract or hold their attention of sympathy, or to cause them to participate. But that isn’t what the tech wizards appear to mean when they come knocking at your door with a ‘solution’ to your dwindling membership. What they have in mind seems much more superficial. Just clicking in some cases!
Now, if I click an online petition, that no more makes me an activist, than liking a post or a tweet makes me engaged with the author or their organisation. The truth is, there is no definition! We may have been bandying the word around since the mid-2000s, but in reality you can make engagement mean anything you like. It could be defined as consumers’ behaviour online, or the strategies brands use to attract attention, or the things you can count. Context is everything!
If you’re a writer looking for blog readers, or you’re an ecommerce site looking for shares, it will alter the type of engagement you’re looking for. If you want people to purchase, then it’s all about the first meeting and activity leading up to the sale. But if you’re a blogger, then engagement may be a comment or a share by an influencer.
When it comes to associations, I contend that engagement is the result of a member investing time and money with them in exchange for value. That value may me financial, practical, emotional, or a sense of belonging. The more resources they invest, the more engaged they are. And that happy state can’t be brought about by clicks alone!
Engagement is also about value. The value for the person doing the engaging as well as the value of that engagement for the association. It’s not the ‘output’ of a programme, but the strategies and actions that go into establishing relationships. It’s a discipline not a goal.
So, I reckon that any system that offers to analyse your engagement by counting clicks is leading you into a fool’s paradise. Vacuous statistics are just vanity metrics. Handy for keeping critics off your back, but essentially worthless when it comes to predicting outcomes or measuring success!
The twin goals of most associations are member acquisition and retention. When it comes to acquisition, the numbers that view your website, blog, or twitter account; share content from your publications; or even read your press coverage, are superficial. They’re not a signal that you have held attention or triggered participation. And transactional interactions, like buying a product, or paying for a course, are unreliable as an indicator of likely member retention. Attention gained through financial incentive tends to be transient!
It’s only when you put issues of empathy into the mix that you can really start to measure engagement; when participants align with your ethos, and the significance of the relationship outweighs the financial cost of membership! Indicators of that state of mind are a willingness to write or speak on your behalf; volunteer for a committee or task force; serve in a leadership role; achieve status; invest in sponsorship or similar. Of course, not every member can achieve this, but at least they should have the feeling that they could!
Healthy associations create more engagement opportunities in areas that create value for both organisation and member. Strategically, it’s also worthwhile for associations to plot the members likely progress from pre to post engagement, and consider what the first steps on the commitment escalator might be. As an efficient flow from low to high value engagement will tend to be healthier from both revenue and mission fulfilment perspectives.
Edition 259, Association News, 9th June 2017
Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour – has made great inroads into the automotive, aviation, and other highly technical manufacturing industries in the last few decades. However, those that rely on human dexterity, such as clothing manufacture have remained relatively unchanged; mostly because their response to price pressure has been squeezing labour costs. Investment in new machines and processes has taken second place to offshoring; moving manufacture to lower priced economies where human labour is cheap.
But now even that may be about to change with the advent of a sewing robot that it is claimed can assemble an entire garment from scratch. If it lives up to its inventor’s claims it could bolster the hope that domestic factories in the US and UK might be able to compete once again. But it won’t bring back jobs!
So, automation, having eliminated many manufacturing and assembly jobs over the last couple of decades, will soon remove another tier of human employment. But this time they won’t be so called ‘blue collar’ production jobs. Commentators and futurologists predict that artificial intelligence (AI) is set to take over the service sector – then the professions!
As Dhaval Joshi, economist at BCA Research, has noted, it is not going to be the low-paid jobs in the service sector such as cleaning, gardening, carers, bar staff or cooks, whose jobs are most at risk. That’s because machines find it hard to replicate the movements of humans in everyday tasks.
“The hard problems that are easy for AI are those that require the application of complex algorithms and pattern recognition to large quantities of data – such as beating a grandmaster at chess”, says Joshi. “Or a job such as calculating a credit score or insurance premium, translating a report from English to Mandarin Chinese, or managing a stock portfolio.”
Seen in this light, the looming threat is obvious. The first army of machines wiped out well-paid jobs in manufacturing; the second army is about to wipe out well-paid jobs in the service sector. In many cases, the people who will be surplus to requirements will have spent many years in school and university building up their skill (1).
Could it go further? We know that machines have beaten humans in chess, draughts, and most recently in the ancient game of Go. But, more significantly, a machine has just beaten four professional poker players at their own game. The importance of this development lies in the fact that poker is an imperfect information game — similar to the real world where not all problems are laid out. The difficulty in figuring out human behaviour is one of the main reasons why poker was considered immune to machines.
The machine, developed by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and called Libratus, employs a problem solving algorithm that can be used in any situation where information is incomplete, including business negotiation, military strategy, cyber security and medical treatment. But, what next, if a machine can learn the ability to reason and bluff?
Over the last half-dozen years, deep learning, a branch of artificial intelligence inspired by the structure of the human brain, has made enormous strides in giving machines the ability to intuit the physical world. Three years ago, Microsoft’s chief research officer impressed attendees at a lecture in China with a demonstration of deep learning speech software that translated his spoken English into Chinese, then instantly delivered the translation using a simulation of his voice speaking Mandarin—with an error rate of just 7%.
So, how will these developments affect the membership sector? Can trade associations acclimatise to the new reality, and – assuming we still have them – how can we help members adapt?
©2017 M J Hoare
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