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The Work Ecology Triangle: Key to Strategic Development

As managers, we have come to think of necessary workplace skills as either hard or soft. Rethinking—and abandonment—of this outdated practice is necessary to move the workplace into the 21st century.

Traditionally, respected management thinkers, like Andrew DuBrin, in his Essentials of Management, defined hard skills, also called technical skills, as those relating to a particular task or situation. These operational skills involve both understanding and proficiency in a specific activity that address methods, processes, procedures, or techniques. These are also skills that can be, or have been, tested and may entail some professional, technical, or academic qualification. Easily quantifiable, these are unlike soft or human skills, which are related to personal behavior.

Unfortunately, common definitions of soft skills encompass abilities largely associated with emotional intelligence, but are far too often independent of acquired knowledge. This definition is often followed by examples that include a positive or flexible attitude, or the manner in which an individual relates to others. Often, soft or human skills are categorized as people or interpersonal skills, lacking quantifiable measurement. Indeed, testing has occurred mostly in the social sciences rather than in business schools. Hogwash! These human skills require both knowledge and years of practice. Let’s put an end to this old-fashioned thinking.

Moreover, individuals in the 21st century require three sets of critical skills: operational, human, and digital, all of which require continuous learning, inquiry, and significant practice to be viable for both the individual and the organization.

In this new 21st century work ecology, this third set of necessary skills cannot be underestimated. The technological advances that both disrupt and enhance the fundamentals necessary for successful employment and organizational sustainability require separating these digital skills from operational and human skill sets. Together, these three components of workplace behavior are not hard or soft, they are necessary, interdependent, and can be respectfully measured. 

The triangle below illustrates the three sides of strategic success.

Let’s look at each of these skill categories.

And be sure to note—the foundation of the three skill sets is the human skills component.

Human skills:

These involve a command of practice and fluency, as well as a set of abilities that permit interpersonal understanding and communication. These include:

  • Collaboration

   Ability to play well with others and succeed in a team environment

  • Autonomy

   Confidence to operate independently when appropriate; trust in self and organization

   Command of the organizational narrative, orally and in written form

  • Creativity

   Innovative approach to work; a curious attitude, and hunger for learning

  • Embrace of change

   Innovation, adaptability, flexibility, foresight

  • Emotional intelligence

   Empathy, social sensitivity

   Sound sense of when to lead and when to follow

   Energetic work ethic

It is wrong to think of these skills as not requiring learning and academic rigor. [MB1] To be competent in human skills one must engage in considerable reading, research, reflection, and practice. All components of academic rigor.

Certainly, they carry emotional overtones and can be difficult to measure. However, everyone knows when an individual possesses these skills and when they are absent. This is foundational, since all operational and digital skill capabilities cannot overcome the failure to act and interact in a human context.

Operational skills:

This set of skills involves fundamental understanding, practice, and ability to engage in specific functions.  These broad operational areas include:

  • Administration

Organizational tactics that keep the institution in working order

  • Data analysis

Ability to detect patterns, integrating observations into daily operations

  • Financial fluency

Acting on sound tenets of accounting, budget preparation. Absorbing financials, evaluating proposals, making appropriate judgments with fiscal stewardship in mind

  • General management

Ability to see actions in context and practice foresight, sensitive to the difference of tactics and strategy. Talent for negotiation, conflict resolution, planning

  • Re-engineering

Evaluation and redesign of organizational processes

  • Reporting

Adept at collecting and organizing information in logical, concise manner that demonstrates status of operations

  • Time management

Prioritizing to increase effectiveness and productivity

  • Written expression

Ability to craft concepts into words in a form that propels the desired message

In the new ecology and culture of work and organizational fitness, we cannot avoid delineating a third set of proficiencies—that of digital skills—rather than lumping them into the old paradigm of hard and soft.

Digital skills:

These represent the aptitude of the individual and an organization to use technology. They include not only existing technological options, but an understanding that technological advances and disruption are ongoing, are welcome, and will require continuous upgrading. Organizations must invest in their employees by enhancing these skills as demanded by advances in technology. These include:

  • AI fluency

General understanding of business and social implications of AI, machine learning and other technologies, and perception of the organization’s capacity to use them

  • Computer skills beyond the basics

Facility with email clients, search engines, spreadsheets and presentations. Awareness of basic security, backup, and privacy concerns, and a comfort level within an online environment

  • Digital etiquette and media fluency

Ability to understand, create, evaluate, select and employ technology systems to access, analyze, and communicate messages across a spectrum of platforms and formats

  • Document creation and information fluency

Ability to apply critical thinking, tools, and systems to address challenges at multiple levels across disciplines and format structures with a range of individuals and units

  • Problem solving

Sufficient aptitude to enable troubleshooting. Using orderly methods to find solutions through active listening, observational skills, data gathering, fact finding, and analysis to assess causes and potential solutions

  • Project collaboration

Using tech tools, analyze and offer solutions for project success throughout all organizational levels in pursuit of ultimate goal

  • Search and research

Capacity to seek and retrieve information via databases in order to execute basic qualitative and quantitative analysis

A symbiotic relationship

Only by understanding the interdependent nature of these skill sets can individuals and organizations develop the capacity for 21stcentury success and sustainability, thereby fulfilling their obligation to their stakeholders.

In rethinking skill sets, we will need to change job descriptions and interview processes, deploy executives to manage teams and individuals in new ways, empower boards to learn and act in a future-focused capacity, exercise stewardship, and invest in continuous learning for all levels of the organization.

Is it time for you and your group to use this new workplace skill construct as a prism to view a successful future?

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Future Governance – Time to Rethink, Vision, and Act

This is not a new potential board structure chart. What is good practice in the fast paced environment in which we operate? What must we do to understand the environmental changes requiring us to reconsider some of the assumptions that created the board structures typical in today’s Association community? This is a call to discuss the need for rethinking board responsibilities

This short paper focuses on the responsibilities that will make a board capable of adapting to the new environment and gig economy not the specifics of legal issues embedded in the IRS Code. These matters will need addressing, but they should not hamper us from exploring association challenges and opportunities. The lawyers will figure out the appropriate legal path when necessary.

Some structure matters are mentioned, but our major task is to reconsider responsibilities in an age of monumental change

Let’s not struggle through the traditional fiduciary responsibilities of care, loyalty, and obedience. They are fundamental to every board members role and responsibility. Unfortunately, in many board orientation programs, these responsibilities are dealt with only in legalistic terms. In a future oriented Association, board responsibilities must be seen in the context of the emerging environment rather than the present or traditional environment which we are more likely to know and understand

If you practice care, are you demonstrating you are responsible for future orientation as well as the current? Does not loyalty require seeing the Association’s vision and acting upon it in a thoughtful and learned manner? Doesn’t obedience require us to exercise responsibility for sustainability that is more than just financial

Associations of the future must have board members who are willing to take the risks associated with adaption. Like all living things, failure to adapt to the environment is a road to extinction

Thus, building a board culture of curiosity, being an action visionary, and ensuring sustainability is the responsibility of future oriented boards. Each board member, the collective board, and individually the board’s chair and executive have this responsibility. The new board responsibilities minimally require:

  •  continuous learning
  • scanning of environmental trends
  • oversight with the future as well as the present in mind
  • balancing tradition with future thinking, and
  • obtaining enough power to be ethically and fiscally sustainable

This is a time when change occurs at a pace that boggles the mind. Today, information overload seems to crush our ability to see clearly. Monumental and the societal changes have come with diversity, globalization, and technological innovation. Thus, association boards must assume an orientation towards adaptive thinking, scanning, evaluating, and considering the many futures in which the Association will be required to operate. Boards that fail the test of future orientation are not acting in the best interests of their Association. 

Here are a few items that require change and adaption:

  • Consider a new type of board job description that emphasizes future thinking with current practices
  • A board committee structure that begs for curiosity about the future
  • A new type of board orientation that accepts new ideas
  • Recognizing the principles of good practice and governance oversight reoriented with potential futures in mind as well as the next quarter
  • In selecting and appointing a new chief executive the board must not simply overcome what they see as past shortcomings, but consider one’s ability to operate in the many potential futures which the gig economy presents
  • Setting aside resources on a continuous basis to do both the current work and prepare for the potential work and sustainability of the association
  • Seeing stakeholder accountability as far more complicated and requiring a more careful consideration of stakeholders who may not be within the Association’s existing membership categories
  • A board structure that is not a matter of the association’s traditions or geography, but rather of an association poised to accept the challenges and opportunities that the future presents
  • A board self-appraisal that accommodates a future orientation as well as current operations

This is not the 20th century. This is not the industrial age. We are almost two decades into a new century. This is a time to recognize, learn, unlearn, and relearn what will make associations viable, responsible, and sustainable in the new century and in a new economy.

Adaption is not an option, it is the future!

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Curiosity in the Art of Adaption- The Learning Pillar

Throughout our lives and particularly as we reach adulthood we hear the phrases “be a continuous learner or learning never stops.” It’s a simple truth, but not practiced frequently enough.

The first of the three pillars of the Art of Adaption is curiosity (The Learning Pillar). We cannot hope to garner the trust that is necessary or develop respectable standards of accountability if we are not curious.

As one advances up the staff career ladder or assumes a position on a board of directors the necessity for being curious, the desire to learn or know more becomes increasingly important. Boards of Director Members regularly receive introductory orientations. This often includes policies summaries , procedures, their fiduciary responsibilities, and legal structures. How often are they ask to be inquisitive? Are they encouraged to bring to the table new and engaging thoughts and ideas? It is not that directors haven’t the capacity for this curiosity, but rather that it is frequently stymied by the procedural role of the director. They receive a mountain of reports, and numerous presentations about ongoing programs and activities. In some cases, the role or their selection was primarily to enhance fiscal stability, to raise funds, or facilitate some perceived balance in geography. And of course, they are taught the basics of their fiduciary responsibilities; care, duty, and obedience. They are fed much of the whirlwind that staff face each day. Rather than enhancing the boards oversight and future thinking responsibilities, a great deal of time that should be devoted to long-term strategy and future thinking is diminished by a dirge of written and verbal reports that limits their time and avoids discussion of potential futures.

On the Executive Staff side, individuals have risen to their positions as CEO or COO, etc. and are busy in the day-to-day whirlwind of institutional work. Now that the industrial age has transitioned to the new knowledge or internet age or whatever we decide to call this new era, it is important that boards and their chief executives be more curious than ever before. Knowledge about our specific areas of expertise is a necessary tool in the process, but not an end in itself. Knowledge is always important, but knowledge alone is not enough. What we learn and know must be put into action.

Developing our thinking and analytical skills is more important than ever. We must learn to use that knowledge through profound, deep, probing, powerful questions in order to adapt to the new ecology. It is important to add a desire to look at potential futures.  Learning how those futures affect the vision and sustainability of the organization is a function that should be fully developed. Technology strategy is yet another area for development. Repeat, strategy! One does not need to be a technologist to develop the technology strategy. Apply technology in support of the mission, the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the optimization of existing practices can be handled by staff. However, being data hungry is not only a IT function. Making sure the data is health and useable comes with knowing the organizations strategic technology objectives. Obtaining analytical skills that were not as necessary in previous periods will make it possible for the organization to adapt to the new ecology the world has left at our doorstep. While it is not the Boards job to do the work, it is the boards job to know if the organizational  strategy is enhanced by what the technologist are doing.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” How passionately curious are CEOs and boards relative to the learning, knowledge, foresight, and thinking skills which are necessary in the interdependent environment in which all of us and particularly associations must live.

There are countless tools associated with the Learning Pillar. The following is not an exhaustive list but rather a starter set.

  • Reading, not just about the organization’s area of focus, but about organizational development, the vast interdependent nature of the new ecology in which the organization conducts its business, and a thirst for the tips of new thinking about institutional as well as current mission focused activities.
  • Learning to ask powerful questions. I would recommend as a start the pamphlet book “The Art of Powerful Questions.” It may be found at:
  • A continuous scan of the political, economic, social, and technological world in which the work of the Association is conducted. The internal and external scans generally associated during the strategic planning process should not be limited to that function. Rather, there is a need for continuously scanning of broad external areas. That is the advantage of PEST over the SWOT Analysis. For a PEST analysis, you might use a free tool such as:
  • Learning the new skills of data awareness. From data collection through predictive and prescriptive analysis and the enormous alterations that artificial intelligence (AI) bring to the debate must become a regular part of the board and staff tool kit, and
  • Staying in tune with the organizational and mission specific literature associated with the vision and mission of the organization.

The Curiosity Pillar is but one of three interdependent pillars for long term organizational success in the evolving ecology that requires us to learn to adapt so as to succeed and thrive.
Do not forget, our clients, members, allies, confidents, and competitors are just a mouse click way from loving us, checking us, condemning us, or promoting us. And, with voice recognition advancing every day, the mouse click itself may soon pass away.

Without applying the pillar of curiosity, our lack of inquisitiveness will make us less competitive in an ever more competitive environment. Without curiosity, the desire to be a continuous learner, there is little chance that the long-standing traditions of the Association community’s mission will survive the new environment. The Art of Adaption process is designed to help Association Executives and Boards fostered and actualize the many potential futures we face.

Comments welcomed!

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The Art of Adaption Overview for Boards and Executive Staff

Finding a path to travel on a journey to adapt to the new environment of the knowledge driven economy requires more courage than previous shifts. We need a better understanding of the shifting plates on which organizations inhabit the earth. Permit me to suggest that there are three pillars in the Art of Adaption:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Being an Action Visionary, and
  3. Sustainability

Why do organizations and CEOs need to adapt? Adapt to what? In the 21st Century ecosystem, where economic, social, demographic, and technology are permanently invading the climate and culture, we need to recognize the impact on our institutions. Darwin said, “It Is NOT the Strongest of the Species that Survives, but the Most Adaptable.” Our organizations very sustainability, our existence requires us to make sure that we learn the lessons of all living things. Learn how to adapt or slowly but surely become extinct. This is true for not only the organization, but particularly for the CEO. The climate is different and our programs, operational practices, and visioning needs to adapt to the new environment in which we exist.

Association CEOs and Board Chairs are facing the challenge of courage over tradition and short-term thinking over sustainability. Today, we are confronted with an extraordinarily fast-changing social, economic, political, and technological environment. Whether here in the United States or across the globe we must come face-to-face with the reality of a more complex and interdependent environment. While paradigm shift has been underway for several decades, associations have been slow to heed its warnings. Like all operational and cultural shifts it takes some time for them to be fully appreciated and accepted. Far too often we are relying on quick fixes. These fixes include: software over strategic technology development, tactics over strategy, and outmoded governance structures. Current governance structures are a particularly difficult problem. Today, many structures are more akin to the outgoing industrial age and lack the necessary vision of an evolving knowledge driven society.

Organizations must learn to adapt whether they are individual member driven institutions, trade organizations, or foundations. It is not that times are changing, it is that times have changed!

The obstacles to making this transition are not to be underestimated. Some of these obstacles sound like the same things that inhibited more sustainable development in years past. These include: time, gaining trust within the organization, including its executive and board leadership, staff, and volunteer groups. The sheer volume of information and help groups available to try to balance this challenge against the status quo may not be providing the in-depth process development that the new environment requires. Courageous leadership will be necessary on this journey. Add huge shifts in demography, demographics, the economy, social changes, and the accelerated speed with which they occur and we face the need for new models and processes, better thinking, and reflection on the standard practices that have brought us to this place.

Providing data fairly presented to governance and staff that broadens their perspective roles and responsibilities against the traditions and often the well-meaning desire to preserve the status quo against the tumultuous changes may be an uncomfortable role for the executive, but clearly required. The level and need for meaningful data and the analytical tools and skills to use that data to support responsible understanding and predictions about the future is sorely lacking in most of our associations and foundations. At least in the foundation world the idea of understanding and predicting donor behavior is more common place. Unfortunately, throughout the individual member and trade organizations, this level of analytical skill, data collection, and foresight is less operational.

Recognizing that we live in a much more complex environment that moves knowledge and opinion at the click of a mouse is uncomforting while at the same time reality. Our planning savvy is inhibited by old methods and the uncomfortable knowledge that many plans put on paper are never given the light and fertilizer of actualization in the daily operations of our organizations. Organizations are stymied by a whirlwind of daily tasks and functions which substitute for being an action visionary and building a sustainable future for the institution’s mission. And while it is unlikely to quickly and dramatically change in the short term, internal organizational jargon, as well as consultant jargon, may have a tendency to dance in the ballroom of past successes rather than the dreams and actualization of the futures we face.

There is a long arc on which these pillars hold up the organizations of the future. These pillars are not silos, but rather an interdependent flow through a multi-year journey. They must operate with both focus and agility to build success. Each pillar requires the interplay of curiosity, action visioning, and sustainable development. One without the other is not a path to success.

The following pictorial is a summary of the three pillars:

Pillar ONE – Curiosity (The Learning Pillar)

  • Learning to ask powerful questions
  • Acknowledging the ecological changes associated with demographic, economic, technological, and social changes
  • Staying in turn with the organizational and mission specific literature
  • Providing uncomfortable data, fairly presented to governance and staff, that broadens their perspective role, responsibility, and insight
  • Learning new analytical skills which promotes a reasoned approach to the complexities of modern society

Pillar TWO – Action Visionary (The Balance Pillar)

  • Strategy First
  • Technology as Strategy
  • Facing Uncomfortable Truths
  • A Governance Model for the future
  • Creating a shared understanding of the issues on which to build partnerships, alliances, and drive a forward thinking agenda
  • Planning savvy
  • Recognizing the speed of change and its impact on the new ecology of work and mission

Pillar THREE – Sustainability (The Power Pillar)

  • Capacity and Confidence Building
  • Meaningful Measurement
  • Optimization
  • Long-Term Development
  • Technology integration
  • Fiscal Strength

Future posts will explore the depth of each pillar, and the processes and learning required to seek the many futures that the new environment will force us to adapt too or be diminished.

Comments are welcome at




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More Non-profit technology for non-technologist – AI – Home !

It is important for the association community that non-technologist executives take a stronger and more proactive role in assimilating multiple technologies into the day-to-day operations of their associations. I write about technology not because I’m a technologist, but precisely because I am not.

In earlier posts, I ask non-technologists not to fear technology, but to view it as strategy rather than simply tactical applications. As we approach the changing ecology in which the work of associations is actualized, the non-technologist executive must learn enough to ask the right questions, respectfully invest in technology, and bring the association community forcefully forward in the utilization of increasingly advanced technology.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an area that deserves thought and experimentation within the association community. No doubt many of us use Siri, Alexa, or Google Home Assistants. We watch in amazement as Amazon uses behavioral algorithms that consider and adapt to our likes and dislikes, while the association community is generally setting back on its hands. These are current examples of the impact of AI on our daily lives. You may be familiar with Elon Musk who launched a not-for-profit artificial intelligence research company, Open AI – – with a clear understanding that we must be careful about artificial intelligence yet open to how it may possibly improve the social sector.

Association executives cannot isolate themselves from the potential that artificial intelligence brings to the not-for-profit social good community. While the for-profit community is investing heavily in various forms of AI the not-for-profit community has barely begun to accept its responsibility in utilizing multiple forms of technology including advancements in artificial intelligence as a tool for good.

The association community, particularly its top executives, must learn enough to educate their boards, themselves, and their teams to invest responsibly in learning about and utilizing of AI and other rich forms of technology. We must speak about it. We must learn about it. We must promote it. We must invest in it.

It is time to ask an array of important questions about ourselves and the significant potential that AI brings to our ability to achieve our missions, become increasingly more sustainable, and determine opportunities to integrate AI for the long-term.

Here are a few questions:

  • Can we convert the large amount of information that we currently collect on our members, our disciplines, and our cause, and have that information converted into actionable data in support of our mission and goals?
  • What is the level of investment in learning about technologies, including AI, which we as association executives should take to heart and mind?
  • Can AI lead to enhanced capacities?
  • In our community, is AI a potential personnel enhancement?
  • Will AI make us more action oriented and less risk adverse?

Of course, there are many more questions, but these should help us begin this essential dialogue.

On June 27, 2017, association contrarian Jeff De Cagna of Foresight First LLC is presenting a briefing on AI for association decision-makers. You can find Jeff on LinkedIn and you can register for the briefing at This is a great opportunity for association boards and CEOs to learn more about the importance of AI and its growing impact on associations.

If you have thoughts on the subject or the importance of the non-technologist in bringing the association community to grips with the significance of technology in their operations and sustainable thinking, please let me know. I can be reached at:

It is important to be an action visionary, not just a visionary. ET asked to go home, not to just envision home. Learning the value of AI is a step in the direction of our new home. One where AI and other technologies enjoy being at home with us and we embrace their presence.

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Content – More than Internal – Organize for Sustainability

Too much of the content provided by the Association Community, particularly within the Professional Societies is not reaching the audience that must be influenced to take it into consideration; the public and policy decision-makers. With all the complexities and the girth of information with which associations currently operate, the time has come for us to accept in a real and meaningful way the necessity of thinking how content is obtained, viewed, and used in building sustainable associations. We need to understand that the complexities we face are better addressed by a recognition of the value of interdependence in both our operations and thinking processes. There is too much internal speak and not enough outreach to the broader community.

There was a time when associations possessed content particular to their cause or discipline that was unique to the Association. Found almost exclusively in their journals and other writings, the Association was the place to go for the best in the field. With the advent of social media, the internet of things, and the interconnected nature brought on by technology, the specialty content which was once exclusive to individual associations and disciplines is not so unique or exclusive. To be sure, research conducted by and peer reviewed by specific discipline professionals is likely to be of the highest quality and appear in their academic journals; it is also true that one can go on the net and receive thousands of potential articles on almost any imaginable subject. And when we consider the potential advances in artificial intelligence some content will be developed through AI processes that we are yet unable to imagine.

How associations deal in this environment requires a true commitment to the recognition that building interdependent relationships among traditional and nontraditional sources is essential to association sustainability and stability. The idea that any one institution is the sole source and conveyor of content no longer fits with the available options technology has given any individual. We can certainly argue over the quality, but we cannot argue over general availability. As technology brings huge amounts of content to our fingertips with ever increasing speed we cannot ignore the need for associations to create new collaborations for the availability, dissemination, and the essential quality control of the discipline or causes content.

If you do a google search on early childhood education you will find about 117,000 items cited. If you do a search on emerging trends in artificial intelligence you find 2.1 million results. If you do a search on heart disease, 135+ million results. If you do a search on eradicating poverty in the United States you will find 886,000 results, dental care 61 million, financial planning 108 million, not-for-profit board development 180 million. Of course, we can qualify the search and reduce the numbers. That is not the point. The amount of information is staggering and the quality is up to the user. Many more individuals inside and outside the field are searching and finding articles, good and bad, via simple google searches.

Thus, the Association community must accept and develop new relationships built on a better understanding and activist practices in interdependency. An individual’s ability to share whatever they want, whenever they want, whether high quality or low, or even poisonous is a part of modern social behavior. The ubiquitous nature of content is not only here to stay, but is likely to dramatically increase. Individuals are not dependent on the previous norms that the disciplines and their Associations have long promulgated and which associations have financially lived on.

Learning to organize for the support of the discipline or a cause requires an interdependence model not a dependency or independency one. The general public and policy community is not required to look for what and how the discipline and association communities sees the world. Yes, we can argue over what should-be or we can organize to help make our desired should-be come true.

Here are some basic thoughts on accepting and utilizing interdependency is an essential tool in the sustainability and value of content commonly provided by the Association community;


  • Find, create, and build broad partnerships both within and from ancillary organizations and individuals deeply concerned with the subject matter
  • Search out the outliers and engage them
  • Adopt a more open sharing of high quality research and content as seen from the non-academics perspective
  • Convert academic jargon into more user friendly language (people are not dumb, but they are busy and have many competing interests for their time, money, and commitment)
  • Find a narrative that illustrates the value of the content to others
  • Shorten it up and compel the reader to want more detail
  • Do not talk or write down to others through closed meetings, conferences, and academic journals designed only for the gifted few
  • See the content as a way to organize others outside the discipline or cause in support of the data
  • Develop a public abstract, not just an academic abstract

In an era of ubiquitous availability, the task of making the case for a more data driven approach falls on the writers and Association community. It will not miraculously occur. We must help bring individuals to new levels of understanding, not simply preach at them and expect them to follow. The modern association’s role in this area is ill defined and one of their financial pillars demands a new and better approach. An approach that considers content in an organizing frame where interdependence serves as a guiding principle would be well advised.

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Valuing Chapters and Affiliates

Valuing Chapters and Affiliates

Much has been written about the relationships between national organizations and their chapters or affiliates and the same is true within state level associations; that is how they relate to local counterparts. Almost everybody agrees that in some respects there is a level of tension between and among these component parts, but open dialogue is rare. An organization in which I served as the CEO referred to this tension as co-opetition. Why? How do we move this agenda in a positive direction?

Without extensively going into the various existing organizational structures and financial relationships, the answer stems in large part as a quest for control and power over the association’s agenda and operations, as well as personalities at all levels of the organization. That is the real why.

As the environment in which associations operate undergoes significant change caused mainly by external factors in how the economy, communications, and the social fabric of both our nation and the world evolve, it is time that we grow up at the national or international level to how truly valuable our chapters and affiliates are in engaging our memberships. Whether an individual, institutional or trade associations; meeting the challenges brought on in the 21st century by technology, demographics and globalization are unleashing significant disruption on the fabric of our organizational structures and traditional operational practices. Some may remember the work authored by John Kotter, “a sense of urgency,” in which he asserted. “Those with a sense of true urgency … are not stressed-out and anxious, generating great activity without much productivity. Instead, they move boldly toward the future – sharply on the lookout for the hazards and the opportunities that change brings.”

The denial of change and the push back to maintain old perspectives lessons the capacity of organizations to operate in our changed environment. The racial and ethnic makeup oh populations has changed and will continue upon the path throughout most of this century. The desire of younger activists to not only be engaged in their organizations future, but to lead that future will not change. The advances in technology that make it possible for what some saw as subsets of a national or international Association or society, require new interactions and structures. Technology continues to make more content available in more forms that do not necessarily require the once sacred mechanisms of the national and international community. To be sure, there are arguments about the quality of content and the appropriate mechanisms for ensuring that quality, but it is unrealistic to believe that individuals will first go to their Association before they make a Google search.

I argue here for making a giant and meaningful leap from the power and control paradigm to a partnership and alliance paradigm. This cannot be just words but must be considered meaningful action initially championed at the international, national, or state levels with their partners; i.e. their Affiliates and Chapters.

Partnerships and alliances are not easy. They require a real gut check from the entity that perceives it has or should have power and control. Here are a few ideas to help us build a sustaining future for organizational collaboration with Affiliates and Chapters.

  • Become a service provider to the affiliate or chapter relative basic organizational practices. For a start this may include:
    • Business functions
    • Technology; more than keeping track of memberships and basic accounting
    • Future searches
    • Leadership and volunteer development programs.
    • Strategic planning
    • providing organizational development materials and training
    • frequent, ongoing listening without judgment
  • View the Affiliate or Chapter staff, particularly their chief staff officer, as colleagues and treat them as such
  • Establish and ongoing feedback system that enables the affiliate or chapter to provide unvarnished critical analysis of the national or international Association operations and programs. Where possible, act positively on those criticisms.
  • Don’t make the affiliate or chapter come to you, go to them. Make them among the first to know and participate in potential new initiatives before you expect them to simply expect, engage, or promote a new national or international initiative.
  • Provide organizational and capacity building materials in multiple forms to assist them in being better at what they do.

No doubt somewhere in your career you been to the process of trying to determine a very clean line that delineates the role, responsibilities, and services that should and can be provided at one level of the organization versus another. By all means this is an important activity. However, if you have not engaged in a broad series of confidence building measures between yourself in those in staffing or volunteer leadership positions at the affiliate or chapter level, the dialogue will likely center around who’s right or wrong rather than that delineation of appropriate responsibilities first envisioned. This idea of confidence building is centered on the ideas bulleted above.

Normally we hear about confidence building measures in the context of international relations, military operations, mergers and acquisitions, and security issues. Permit me to borrow from a research paper prepared by Holly Higgins, research analyst, at the Institute for Science and International Security. While the paper, “Applying Confidence Building Measures in a Reginal Context” is designed around and associated with a military situation, the fundamentals of confidence building may be summed up in four confidence building measures (CBM) and applied in organizational development and capacity building efforts in association work.

  • Communication channels
    • Open, Honest, and Direct Communications regularly occurring and formalized.
  • Constraint measures
    • Advance notice, agreed levels of operation, and what each other will avoid
  • Transparency measures
    • Advanced notification, data exchanges, and observation of each other’s practices
  • Verification measure
    • Confirming each other’s compliance on agreements in a manner that each other can trust

This is a respectful method in establishing the confidence that parties require to tackle issues; complicated or not. Valuing affiliates and chapters is complicated. If we want to address even more continuous issues like organizational governance, we would be wise to appropriately adopt this metrology to our organizations.

Let me know what you think.

MAB: Valuing chapters and affiliates

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Non-technologists – fear not – manage technology as strategy

Non-technologists – fear not – manage technology as strategy

I was having a conversation with the information technology director at my Association and the light bulb went off. I remarked that I understood each and every word that was used, but when put into a sentence it made absolutely no sense to me at all. I wonder if you had a similar feeling. Why is it that non-technologists succumb to technological non-speak when each of us capable of understanding the value we expect from evermore available enhancing technology.

It is been my experience that for the most part technology and its many applications have far too often been relegated to the business suite. We have programs to ensure appropriate accounting practices, our vendor lists, membership lists and information, partner lists, affiliate lists, websites, some social media engagement and countless other day-to-day tasks. To be sure, the productivity enhancements technology brings to these areas are essential in the continued development of our associations.

Unfortunately chief executive officers have far too often given in to what the technologist tells us can and cannot be done. Further, we have multiple technology arrangements. Some have in-house technology specialist, others outsource the entire process, and some have a combination of both. However, these necessary operational applications are not at all strategic. To the contrary, they are mostly tactical. Not only are they tactical they are marred by a level of fear that non-technologists have of saying something inappropriate, or sounding like they do not know or understand the technology being used, or simply throwing up their hands because of cost.

It is time that the CEO takes direct control of the information technology strategy which will enable the Association to more effective not just efficient in meeting its mission. Permit me to make one suggestion on the structural front and another on how to ultimately convert technology from tactical to strategic. First, do not structurally place information technology under the functional control of your business unit or chief financial officer. While technology serves many tactical applications for business processes our beloved bean counters simply convert technological capacity into dollars in and dollars out. Easy to understand why this occurs and while important does not fundamentally make technology actionable at the strategic level.

Second, to convert technological capacity from tactical to strategic it will require the chief executive to make sure that he or she knows the information and data that is available in current systems whether formal or informal, currently controlled by IT, and that technology is viewed as functionally horizontal and not vertical.

How do we start down this road? Actually the starting points is quite simple. It has two plains; identification and desired use/value.
We gather all the known information and data into a simple chart or list which does the following:


  • We identify the information or data set we have (technologists like to refer to these as data fields)
  • We determine who currently owns the information or data (is it in some AMS or CRM system, business software, some unit or department maintaining its own little private information sets, or individuals who develop data and information sets to help them manage and organize their own work on a day-to-day basis?)
  • What is the current use of this information or data set?
  • What programs/software is used to manage that data?
  • Do chapters or affiliates have other datasets that they use in their day-to-day operation?


  • What is the currently data or information used for?
  • What is the seen value?

Finally, from a strategic perspective which the CEO and her/his team views the needs of the organization; write a statement that clearly outlines the value of desired information and data in building the organizations capacity to fulfill its mission. Try to keep it simple and use words that non-technologist understand.

Here is a sentence to get you started. We use technology to discover and analyze new opportunities and services and enable efficiencies that optimize our capacity to meet our mission.

Let me know what you think.

MAB: non-tech fear