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It’s Time to Face Our Scary Beasts

Associations can no longer afford to ignore these two driving forces.

There are two large elephants sharing the room with associations and our meetings, and it’s time we faced them. 

The first is the ever-increasing facility with which even the most complex information and knowledge can be accessed. This is steadily eroding the traditional monopoly that associations once enjoyed as gatekeepers to their specialized fields of expertise. Moore’s Law shows no signs of easing, so processing power will continue to double every 18 months, and algorithmic innovation in artificial intelligence and big data analytics is moving even faster.

Logically, it’s inevitable that vastly more comprehensive, more relevant, better curated, easier-to-analyze information will be accessible to any scientist, doctor, technologist, or business manager, irrespective of whether they belong to an association or not, anywhere on the planet, at ever-diminishing cost. This is a scary beast for many of us, whose business models depend on our ability to provide superior intellectual resources for our members.



The other pachyderm offers associations hope. It represents the vast stores of tacit knowledge that association communities possess, most of which are not being actively exploited. The beauty of tacit knowledge resides in its definition: Something that is understood without being expressed. The association community’s tacit knowledge isn’t written down or loaded into databases, and it grows with experience and through interactions. Often it only comes out, to the speaker’s surprise, during conversations or arguments about an intellectual challenge. It isn’t susceptible to being mined by data analytics tools.

But to develop a strategy that can exploit this resource to the fullest, associations need to become far more expert in the fields of trust-culture development and networking theory, especially if we want to turn our meetings into tacit knowledge powerhouses.

Associations have natural advantages in this area compared to companies: our origins usually stem from a shared sense of mission; often our founders were friends and colleagues; and we typically value long-term commitment over transactional value. All of these encourage the creation and spread of tacit knowledge. 

What worries me is a shift in culture that I’ve been observing in many associations, from community-centric thinking to transactional/return-on-investment analysis of every activity and project. When we think in transactional terms, we rarely consider the tacit realm. But when our data and knowledge-banks face accelerating competitive forces, it’s time for a paradigm shift regarding associations’ true value proposition.

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