The (New) ABCs of Designing Truly New Models (Caution: not appropriate reading for the fainthearted)

Blog_41.pngWhat if your organization did not exist? Forget concepts like “benefits,” “education,” “professional development,” “competencies,”  “core mission” and every other term in your daily repertory. You never heard of them since your association never existed, right? What would you do, in that case, if you were charged with the task of helping a group of professionals or companies within an industry succeed in a new environment? Remember! The sky is the limit for what you can do to help. 

Well, okay, this is not far from your reality. Associations need to dramatically re-think and re-define how they serve and educate customers in ways that are relevant and consistent with the way we live, learn and work in an interconnected universe. And the answers are not in improvements of more of the same, but in re-thinking and re-designing. It sounds like everyone agrees with this but how do you do it without deluding yourself? This is what we learned from our research and client experiences about what enables true model re-design:


Start with a blank slate: The starting point for creating new categories and models is looking at everything from the perspective of the customer without assumptions and limitations. You can consider logistics, budgetary or policy restrictions later. Bank of America has made 10 billion dollars from its “Keep the Change” program in which card holders agreed to round off purchases to the nearest dollars with the change going toward savings. It wasn’t a “program,” new structure or major investment that led to this initiative; just imagination and the ability to understand what would motivate and add value to customers. Come on now, you have to admit it. Would this concept have occurred through a “strategic planning” process that focused on what new programs should be considered?

Look for a new basis of competitive advantage: The model of association services is quite traditional. The association takes on the entire responsibility of creating content on the basis of conjectures about what members need. It then makes substantial investments in marketing to persuade them of its value. This is not a strong basis for competitive advantage and value proposition today. The value for the member is limited to isolated programs and events at specific times and venues; and off-the shelf products are easily replaceable and have short shelf lives.

Associations roughly fall under the category of “Knowledge Intensive Business Services (commonly known as KIBS)” that is, services “heavily reliant on professional knowledge.” In the last 15 years or so, however, there has been a shift in knowledge intensive services “from the one-way transfer of information and knowledge to their clients… to more complex process of interaction and knowledge co-production in which KIBS and their customers are both actively involved.”  (From the book, Exploring Knowledge-Intensive Business Services: Knowledge Management Strategies, edited by Dr Eleonora Di Maria, Professor Roberto Grandinetti, Barbara Di Bernardo)  

I am convinced that the underlying concepts of continuous and collaborative knowledge creation in this model, represent the future of knowledge services and provide a new basis for competitive advantage and model transformation for associations. What it means is that, instead of theoretical knowledge alone, you are providing customers with a process of collaborative learning and problem solving through which they constantly develop new competencies and capabilities.  As a result you have a competitive advantage in that your services are endlessly self-renewing and self-adapting and, hence, a great fit with our environment of constant change.

And here is another thing to consider.  The value of continuous discovery and, through it, personal development has more sustainability and, usually, higher value than more formal forms of learning and solving problems that are limited to specific events in finite times. 

A research report called Knowledge Intensive Services quotes respondents who describe the kind of learning in which they learn from each other or from the new problem they tackle together: 

When it goes right, it opens new ways for the client to look at the work environment. When it succeeds the process is a learning process for both participants [the client and the KIBS provider].”

Don’t be afraid to visualize scenarios of how you might apply a model, however unwieldy these may seem for your existing categories Here is an example of how this model might be applied:

“…one of the studied cases was an architectural service in which the KIBS provider aimed at changing the customers’ understanding of work space. The service provider’s architects worked in the customer organization to make it as a collective realize that office work space contributes to their productivity either positively or negatively. The offices were redesigned to support customers’ business strategy and processes, instead of using the space for purposes such as reflecting organizational hierarchy. As part of the redesign planning process, the customer organization was prepared for the change so that when the actual remodeling took place, the customer did not face resistance inside its own organization.” HarvardBusinessReview-Mar-13

Develop the capability for identifying and extracting applicable elements from models from other sectors and different types of organizations.  Guess what is one of the greatest blocks to innovation I find among many executives I have tried to help? The inability to see their associations in terms of assets and capabilities, rather than products and practices and, as a result, identify parallels that are not easily apparent, and discern new opportunities in unusual places.  The death of strategic innovation and growth hides behind inocuous statements such as: “Sounds great but this would not apply to us.”We are a trade and not a professional association” “We are non-profit and they are for-profit….”  “We are an association and not a business, after all…..”  “Nice but it doesn’t fit with our mission.” 

Here is some food for entertaining possibilities. What if:

    • You redefined the basis of your value to members from programs and answers to access to a community that provided them one-stop shopping and continuous, collaborative learning? This is what VIN, an innovative virtual professional association for veterinarians, did when it built a professional service organization on this knowledge intensive model.
    • Your primary “benefit” to an industry subgroup was to help them break debilitating log jams in taking products to market?  You might extract concepts from industry-university collaboratives such as MIT’s  programs, Breaking Log Jams I & II  that “provided a forum for discussion and debate on the value of systems thinking and collaboration in breaking through log jams to effective action. They highlighted MIT-CI’s experience as well as models of successful application and difficulties of this approach in business, government, the U.S. Military and healthcare.
    • You spun off an independent subsidiary to link research to practice and help practitioners become more competitive and improve patient results? This is what AAFP did when it created TransforMED  as a subsidiary.  First, AAFP utilized a collaborative learning and development process to design a prototype through its National Demonstration Project.  It then launched TransforMED to “provide ongoing consultation, support, tools and resources to physicians and practice leaders looking to transform their practices to a new model of care based on the concept of the PCMH.” TransforMed is continuously designing and launching new interactive services as a result of co-development with customers, such as the Delta Exchange.

Here is the bottom line. True model transformation today involves innovative leverage and the ability to re-conceptualize, rather than heavy investment.  For example, “Continuously developing competence was usually viewed as the most important resource. Therefore investment in expensive equipment is usually not necessary.”   This is the good news!  The bad news? Silo rather than systems-thinking and entrenched assumptions that block fundamental re-thinking.

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