Engaging New Generations: Is it a Numbers and Data Game?

Blog_17.pngBy Anna Caraveli

There is no organization in the world that does not want to be relevant to its next generation of customers. Associations are no exception.   I get this.  How do we do it? Most people’s gut reaction is to prepare for the future by rooting out all uncertainty about it. This need for certainty has spawned a veritable downpour of experts, data and scientific-sounding predictions.  Some may make stimulating reading but can also create a deceptive reassurance.

Sure. Great organizations must develop foresight into the future and stretch their horizons of possibility to entertain intelligent predictions and envision very different scenarios of the world.  But great organizations also seek to develop future-oriented competencies and deep insights into people rather than only accumulate data and theories.  We live in an era that defies predictability.  Do we develop measures of predictability or instincts for operating in unpredictability?

Robert Safian, the author of a recent article in Fast Company argues that ”we need different approaches to planning for the future in an era of constant disruption: “When businesspeople search for the right forecast–the road map and model that will define the next era–no credible long-term picture emerges. There is one certainty, however. The next decade or two will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern.

Do we develop future members with formulas about how they behave with the only determinant being age? As a baby boomer I am supposed to feel all kinds of things that I do not actually feel.  I am supposed to be uncomfortable with technology; comfortable with volunteering for my community and joining membership organizations; motivated by climbing an orderly career ladder rather than by exploring, taking risks and re-inventing.  This couldn’t be further from who I am. I thrive on fluidity and change; I have been and always will be driven to transform and reinvent and I am a passionate advocate and user of social media. Is there something wrong with me?  Okay, I will grant that interest in areas such as social medi is far more prevalent in younger than older demographics.  But other groups—certain ethnic and cultural sub-segments, recently unemployed workers, senior citizens, etc—may also occupy distinctive niches in that market.

What I am saying is that we should not look to  predictability as the key to competing for the future but to the development of capabilities such as, flexibility, foresight and constant reinvention.

The above article by Safian and another on a similar topic by  Anya Kamenetz called, The Four-Year Career,  point to two criteria for assessing new and future customer needs and categories:

  1. Data-driven approaches are overrated and, according to these writers, unsuitable for a world in flux.  I would love to see more association leaders who can resist the seductive drive for more and better data and, instead, have the patience and foresight to invest in developing people, culture and capabilities for adapting to constantly new disruptions.
  2. Resist one-dimensional, a-contextual and narrow categories.  Instead of “generation,” for example, Safian uses the term generation flux,” to describe, what he says is “less a demographic designation than a psychographic one.”   What defines GenFlux, he tells us, is not chronological age as much as it “is a mind-set that embraces instability that tolerates–and even enjoys–recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions.”

I think that this is a much better framework for discerning and responding to new and emerging needs of various member groups.   Instead of strict age groups, for example, this author proposes that we differentiate among attitudes toward, and approaches to work.   From these and related articles I glean 3 emerging trends that associations and other service providers must acknowledge and address to prepare for the future:

Economic and career volatility are becoming the new norm.  Rapid career change–what Anya Kamenetz  calls “The Four-Year Career”– is “business as usual” for many people. This means that economic uncertainty is not just a temporary slump that can be met with temporary solutions, such as reduced dues for the recently unemployed.  Instead, helping members navigate and succeed in an environment defined by flux must increasingly become the new norm for member benefits and programs.

Conventional career planning and development are morphing into continuous reinvention and skill-building. Surviving through major disruptions has necessitated new coping mechanisms, skills and career paths. There is a new breed of professionals who can weather and, in fact, thrive on “disruption.”The article chronicles the career path of two young professionals: one goes through a sequence of seemingly unrelated jobs, from owning a café to international development, electronics, programming and a return to school.  The other is afforded the freedom to continuously re-invent her career within the same organization and assume a great number of different positions.  In both cases the drivers are not external, hierarchical paths but lessons learned; and entrepreneurial responses to problems and opportunities as they arise.  Associations mostly provide professional development on the assumption of vertical and orderly career paths.  Is it time to help members build competencies along different and less predictable avenues?

Members and markets do not fall into predictable categories.  For example, the young are not the only ones driving and shaping new career development paths and views.  Massive layoffs, globalization and other economic factors have displaced an unprecedented number of older workers.  The article depicts a number of cases of women who were laid off in their 50’s and 60’s and like their younger counterparts,  transformed their lives and reinvented their careers through entrepreneurial ventures. Marc Freedman, author of the 2011 book The Big Shift. In Freedman’s view is that our culture needs to acknowledge a new life stage. He sees the nation’s millions of healthy, active 60- to 80-year-olds as a huge untapped resource. Are we missing market opportunities and failing to establish deep, multi-dimensional relationships with members by relying on narrow categories?

I believe that associations would be better served if they developed capabilities for market foresight, rapid adjustment and reinvention rather than relying on magic formulas and prophecies for the future.   To be in sync with new needs and generations we must understand the trends and possibilities shaping the big picture but also be able to discern and analyze a confluence of factors and patterns as they converge on individual human beings at specific moments of time and in real situations.

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