How Associations Can Support Our Profession

By Stuart Hales

Note: This article appears in the November-December 2014 issue of Information Outlook.

How can associations support the information profession? At this point in time, that question might seem moot—after all, the Special Libraries Association is 105 years old, and it is young by the information profession’s standards. The American Library Association, the Medical Library Association, and the American Association of Law Libraries have been serving the profession even longer, since 1876, 1898, and 1906, respectively. Surely these four associations, with nearly 470 years of combined experience, have learned a thing or two about supporting the information profession.

And yet, in some respects, the question seems more timely than ever. The information profession in 2014 is facing challenges unlike any that its associations have ever had to help their members overcome: (1) widespread consumer access to information; (2) a global economy that has exerted downward pressure on prices and profits and made it more difficult to justify expenditures on functions that do not generate revenue; (3) the proliferation of social media, which have created new opportunities for information professionals to network with others in their field; and (4) third-party online educational programs, which cost less to attend than the onsite workshops and conferences long offered by associations.

To some extent, associations have been able to lessen the impact of these challenges by co-opting them. SLA, for example, hosts online certificate courses in copyright management and knowledge management/knowledge services, a virtual conference that reprises some of the most popular sessions from its onsite conference, discussion lists for its chapters and divisions, and communities on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media. SLA also has developed several resources to help its members communicate and demonstrate their strategic value, most notably a 2013 report, The Evolving Value of Information Management, published in conjunction with the Financial Times.

Notwithstanding these and other efforts, the information profession’s associations, like associations in other industries, are struggling to prove their relevance to practitioners in the field. Their struggles have prompted business and management consultants, academicians, think tank researchers, and association members themselves to propose solutions. For example, futurist Jim Carroll, in an interview with The Membership Management Report (Wolfe 2013), said that associations must do three things to support their members:

  • Conduct small, issue-focused events during the year. “We still need to do the annual events—for a lot of associations, that’s their bread and butter—but you also have to fill a smaller, more strategic role.”
  • Help members manage technology. “I should be able to look to my professional association or chamber of commerce to help me deal with … new technology.”
  • Question your purpose. “I go to a lot of association events, and they’re just doing the usual. Are you really thinking through the strategic purpose of your events?”

Looking ahead, Carroll says associations must focus on providing what he calls “just-in-time knowledge” to their members. Just-in-time knowledge is, he says, “the right knowledge at the right time for the right purpose for the right strategy, all revolving around the fact that the knowledge is instant, fast and transitory.” (Weeks 2011)

Some association strategists say bigger, broader changes are needed. Rebecca Rolfes, an association consultant and founder of a content marketing group, advocates for an “open-source association” that emphasizes collaboration and flexibility.

“Associations have always invited co-creation, with committees of volunteers working on standards, credentials, and so forth,” she noted in an article that asked three “association thinkers” to envision the future of associations (Junker 2010). “In an open-source association, developer groups would have access to online collaboration tools where they could gather all that input, come up with ideas, and then put them out for the community of members to test and determine their value. You take the volunteer infrastructure you use now but expand it to the full industry or professional ecosystem—vendors, customers, suppliers, the labor force, and so forth.”

Others, meanwhile, say the answer lies in rethinking what associations are all about. In the view of Mark Golden, an association executive, associations are not about members but about volunteerism in support of a mission.

“The defining characteristic of our organizations is that we are volunteer-based,” he said in a speech to fellow association executives (Golden 2013). “We play upon an idea of affiliation that has something more to it than an opportunity for mercantile transactions. Membership is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. We have membership because it is a way to marshal the economic and intellectual capital necessary to achieve the mission.”

Too often, Golden says, associations define their success by membership metrics, which are actually sales metrics. “What is needed,” he said, “is to get our heads out of membership models and back into a focus on mission first. What, specifically, does our organization exist to accomplish? Then and only then, ask: What role, if any, could membership play in achieving the mission?

“What will work for each of us,” he concluded, “will be reached by clarifying a compelling enough case for our existence to attract enough people willing to pay into it for the good of the cause, in order to keep us going.”

This issue of Information Outlook builds on these arguments by offering three additional insights into how associations can support our profession. Consultants Glenn Tecker and Donna French Dunn assert that association leaders must better understand their members and especially the workplace challenges they face if they are to make the association more valuable and relevant. Sarah Sladek, an author and chief executive of a nonprofit organization, says that associations must change their membership value proposition so they can appeal to the millions of Generation Y men and women who are entering the workforce.

A third view is offered by James Kane, who partnered with SLA to produce a 150-page guide to promoting loyalty among members. Kane was the closing speaker at the SLA 2011 Annual Conference, and prior to the conference, he was interviewed in Information Outlook. His March 2011 interview is republished here in its entirety.

To learn more about how associations can support the information profession, read the November-December 2014 issue of Information Outlook.

RESOURCES

Golden, Mark. 2013. The Future of Membership? Presentation to the Association Chief Executives Symposium, November 6.

Junker, Lisa. 2010. Visions for the Future of Associations. Associations Now, January. Washington, D.C.: American Society of Association Executives.

Weeks, Linton. 2011. Time for Associations to Trade In Their Past? Transcript of broadcast on National Public Radio, May 25.

Wolfe, Dawn. 2013. How Associations Can Keep Up with Change, Change … and More Change. The Membership Management Report, 9(12).


StuartHales

Stuart Hales is senior writer/editor at SLA and editor of Information Outlook. He can be reached at shales@sla.org.

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