Will Professional Associations Survive? Only If They Act Strategically and Now, says Jeff De Cagna

Although I am aiming to shorten blog postings on this site in early 2013, I’m ending 2012 with one final review of a highly influential e-book, by Association Strategist, Jeff De Cagna. Read on, below:

In recent years, a lot of ink has been spilt in the discussion of the “relevance” of associations.  In his recently published e-book, Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Towards the Future, Jeff De Cagna, CEO of “Principled Innovation,” and a writer with 20 years’ experience with association management, argues that “relevance” isn’t a useful strategic point of view to take. That’s because the world is already undergoing relentless transformation.  He says that if associations are to survive, they will have to “get unorthodox,” and reinvent how they do business, from “outmoded orthodoxy” of the past. In his e-book and his online blog (www.principledinnovation.com) De Cagna writes that focusing on “relevance” overlooks “the inherent complexity of the long-term business challenges associations must surmount to thrive over the next decade and beyond” (10). He suggests that “unorthodox” behaviour includes “dropping dogmas of the past, questioning old assumptions, challenging preconceived notions and flipping conventional wisdom” in order to find new opportunities for “radical value creation.”

“It is impossible to overstate the toll that so many decades of largely unquestioned obedience to orthodoxy have taken on our collective capacity to imagine better ways to do business,” he writes.  This blog will revisit the six “shifts” that he calls for, not as a prescription (or a new orthodoxy of its own), but as a platform for association leaders and participants to ask more provocative questions, that lead to more penetrating answers and changes.

(1)    Deemphasize Membership

De Cagna says that the huge popularity and reach of mobile, social and related technologies have altered forever the ways in which people associate, to exchanges that are simple, mobile, ubiquitous and cheap. The old “pay-to-play” regimen has been outmoded.  He says that associations should design and enact new business models which centre on the most important personal and professional achievements that stakeholders value.

He argues that new models should combine powerful value propositions, “supported by strong brand equity, robust organizational capabilities, and meaningful incentives that combine to create” new streams of revenue and “to increase future market value.”  In simpler words: dropping the old membership drive can be replaced by enlightened action towards a “responsible profitability” (18).

A crucial question here is how much does your association leadership understand the goals of current and future stakeholders and how is it enabling them to reach them?

(2)    Crowdsource Strategy

De Cagna writers that organizations are better-served by using highly qualified freelancers than by a adhering to a traditional association model, in which leaders think that a “strategic plan” reflects their control over the organization. In contrast, he writes that a better strategy for dealing with a volatile world is to employ purposeful and fast-learning strategies (and strategists) for collaboration and experimentation that use assets previously hidden to bring about innovation. He says that organizations can reduce the learning curve from what “they don’t know that they don’t know” to help staff and volunteers to understand what outcomes stakeholders want, and to exercise better judgment and more flexible models of management. So, why not hire a freelancer to build an app for smartphone-users in your association, where visitors can engage in important discussion?

(3)    Eliminate Budgets

Associations tend to resist risk and seek conservative practices in every way, especially with the finances.  Too often the standard “budget” is used to maintain existing practise, including “pet projects” of influential members and to reinforce the illusion of control. De Cagna says that one sign of how budgets are not working is that they repeatedly put CEOs into the difficult position of having to justify to their boards, how the always changing forces at work in the world have wreaked havoc with fixed financial practices.  Budgets are often used by senior leaders to control the organization’s activity.

De Cagna advocates ending the traditional budget, and to adopt a more flexible approach to disseminating resources to areas of priority, developed by crowdsourcing; and getting staff and volunteer leaders to decide how to approach and invest to achieve priorities.  Leaders can review performance statistics and shift the allocation of resources when necessary, without the constraints of a traditional budget. What form could this change in policy take in your organization?

(4)    Go “All In” on Digital

Most associations still rely on in-person, face-to-face interactions to create value (e.g. annual meetings and trade shows, conferences, seminars and workshops). Yet this programming serves only a minority of stakeholders. De Cagna says that communications, finance, governing, marketing, publications and research all need digitalizing, which will create the most accessible and lucrative value for the largest number of stakeholders.  This work would also provide “sustainable platforms” from which associations can move forward with “purpose and profit,” in place of past practices. Why not have a tech-savvy member or participant provide a digitally disseminated exchange on what form digital marketing could take for your organization?

(5)    Collaborate Everywhere

The traditional association headquarters can be useful, but increasingly reflects “bureaucratic inertia” and the “avoidance of risk,” that slow down progress in strategy and innovation. While the next generation is using billions of smartphones and tablets, associations need to reduce (if not entirely give up) the headquarters’ office to emphasize digital technologies. New technologies allow associations to keep up with the speed of work of the stakeholders they are serving. How about improving your association’s website, to encourage discussion and sharing among stakeholders? And don’t overlook Social Media, especially Linkedin, with its indirect, content-rich marketing.

(6)    Build a “Strategically Legitimate” Board

De Cagna writes that size, the method of selection and composition of boards, the role of executive committees and the nature of CEO-board relationships all differ by association. However, all of these factors are rooted in “deep-seated “beliefs on how boards should function. To achieve genuine, future-looking stewardship, boards must exercise “strategic legitimacy” or lose the support of the next generation.

By “strategic legitimacy,” De Cagna refers to the capacity of a board to reshape the environment in which the association operates (to reflect society’s rapid changes—e.g., using some content-sharing software to rewrite activity of an association in e-newsletter format). He also defines “strategic legitimacy” as empathetic understanding by the board of the implications of these transformations for future stakeholders (e.g., making online registration and participation streamlined for readers); and as the board’s commitment to “accelerate an internal pace of progress” that helps stakeholders to thrive.

De Cagna writes that so much of the future of professional associations comes down to the cooperation of the association’s board to reorient the association and themselves toward the future. He concludes that shifts one to five ( deemphasizing membership; crowdsourcing; eliminating budgets;  going ‘all in’ for digital technology;  and collaborating everywhere)  depend heavily on the sixth shift—the “willingness” of the board in looking forward and preparing the organization for the future.

Recall his assessment that “[i]t is impossible to overstate the toll that so many decades of largely unquestioned obedience to orthodoxy have taken on our collective capacity to imagine better ways to do business.” What do you think about his prescribed “unorthodoxy” to change the future of how association do their work? What will “radical value creation” look like, for you? How do De Cagna’s arguments pertain to your organization and what resistance do they meet?  Visit his blog at www.principledinnovation.com to join in the discussion. And send me your thoughts, too.

2 Replies to “Will Professional Associations Survive? Only If They Act Strategically and Now, says Jeff De Cagna”

  1. Your entire blog, “Will Professional Associations Survive?
    Only If They Act Strategically and Now, says Jeff De Cagna | Elizabeth Shih” was in fact truly worth commenting on!
    Basically needed to admit you truly did a superb work.
    Regards ,Ruben

    1. Hey Ruben,

      Thanks for the positive feedback. I’m trying to get up to blogging every two (if not one) week. (It’s been sporadic lately). So I hope you’ll continue to find material worth reading.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.