Networked Age

Blog_34.pngBy Anna Caraveli

 “If you listened only to the chatter of this campaign season,” Steven Johnson says in an article in The Wall Street Journal,” Power, from Potholes to Patents “you might assume that all our core political values revolve around the two institutions of the market and the state, big capital and big government…But seeing the world through these easy oppositions blinds us to the growing prominence of a group of new organizations: fluid, collaborative networks working outside both the marketplace and the state to improve the world in inventive ways.”


Johnson sees this as “the emergence of a new political philosophy.”  “Peer Progressives,” according to him, are “decentralized groups coming together to solve problems outside established mechanisms and institutions like big business and big government.  While Johnson is looking at social and economic patterns on a macro level, the trends he sees should have a disturbingly familiar ring to those of us working in the association and other knowledge service sectors.  Has anyone ever heard of: Declining interest and attrition?  Members who dutifully pay dues but come together in member-driven, informal networks outside the structured association framework, to pour out their real worries and solve their problems?  Member groups organizing on LinkedIn and drawing more participation than many of the association’s organized activities?  Member-driven innovations, tools or content made available for free on the Internet?   It looks like the fixed, passive, provider-centric model of conventional content and service delivery in many membership organizations is increasingly at odds with the way people today communicate, learn, collaborate and organize to solve problems.

Many association leaders will shake their heads in agreement and roll their eyes in mock despair at the general state of associations.  But why are trends and theories acknowledged and even admired, but rarely executed? I don’t get it.  It isn’t rocket science to align your organization with your members and other customers.  You don’t have to look at re-alignment as another massive bureaucratic effort of restructuring; adding programs, technologies and positions; or undertaking massive market research projects. The key is to become attuned to, and build on, members’ behavior and actions, rather than focused on how to re-shape your current programs and services.

The mind shift that leaders are called to make is one of refocusing their sights and definitions of value from the old “core” to the emerging periphery.  Peer networks, informal conversations among members and member communities; patterns of collaborative problem-solving; preferences for custom menus and options for flexible re-configurations have been on the associations’ “periphery.”  Many make use of features such as online communities, ListServes and various online tools as add-ons; the icing on the cake atop more conventional membership frameworks.  Leading market innovators, such as e-bay and, on the other hand, have built entire models on the principles of peer communities that have re-defined the nature of the customer experience and the retail industry.  What are the implications for associations?

In his Steven Johnson’s new book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age (Riverhead, 2012),  one can extrapolate many principles that can be applied to construct a new association architecture.

  1. Enable member-based problem-solving. Craft a new value proposition on the basis of the problems you enable members to solve rather than the programs you offer. “Peer networks,” Johnson writes, “are a practical, functioning reality that already underlies the dominant communications platform of our age. They can do things as ambitious as writing a global encyclopedia or as simple as fixing a pothole.”  Sermo, a for-profit medical network for physicians,  is an enormously successful membership organiation that leverages the power of peer networks to enable doctors to air and solve cases; and to allow industries that serve or supply doctors, to extract value from listening-in on their conversations .
  2. Anchor membership in community-based models rather than the linear, hierarchical principles of the current model of “we make-you-use.”  Members pay for access to a content-based community and pick from a menu of resources, relationships, conversations, products and other assets tailored to their needs. However, it is the community itself, and the peer interactions and relationships it enables, rather than the component parts, that members buy into and derive the most value from.
  3. Use different design principles to organize around members: Johnson argues “that the core principles that govern the design of the net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems.”  They can be equally applied to build membership models based on member community.   Among membership organizations VIN, a network of veterinaries, is an example we often refer to, of a new, networked membership architecture that echoes the patterns, pace and cadences of today’s communication platforms. It is a virtual community of peer that provides them with access to a wide range of resources, targeted sub -communities of interest, expert specialists and up-to-the-minute research and information from all over the world

To me the notion of decentralized peer networks becoming increasingly dominant as mechanisms for fulfilling needs and solving problems, and outperforming rigid and slow-moving bureaucracies, has huge implications for associations.  “For two centuries,” Johnson writes, we have lived in a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast corporate hierarchies and the centralized control of state power. Those organizations didn’t seem artificial to us because we couldn’t imagine alternatives. But now we can [largely because of the impact of the Internet.}”  This is why consumers, including members, are no longer satisfied with passive forms of consumption. Now they can pick and choose, get instantaneous answers, feedback and support from peers. They just can. Why settle?  And why should you?

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