How would you design a professional association for the future?

If you could design an organization from scratch, aimed at life in towards the middle of the 21st century, what would it look like?

I’m thinking of professional associations in particular.  Groups that conduct professional development for people in a specific field, that represent such a field to the broader public, that facilitate networking, create publications, and so forth.  Personally, I’m considering even more narrowly educational and cultural heritage associations.  These are groups that exist in between campuses, libraries, and museums.  Groups like EDUCAUSE, the American Library Association, JISC, the Coalition for Networked Information, or the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (where I used to work).

To get the pot roiling, I’ll start off by identifying trends that could reshape this space.  Then I’ll pull back for some strategic/meta questions.

(When I say the mid-21st century, that requires some heavy futures lifting.  For now let’s avoid black swans and work via extrapolation from recent history.  You may also feel more comfortable thinking of 2040 or 2030, rather than 2050.)

I. Drivers of change

Video, VR, AR saturation  Let’s assume, briefly, that people in 2040-2050 marinade themselves in rich media.  Mixed reality is used for social interactions.

To some extent this will supplant face to face interaction, and that just makes sense, based on the history of media.  People took to using the phone instead of meeting up for some conversations.  Some folks today use messaging tools to chat when they’re in the same building or room.

How many will choose a mixed reality/video/etc experience over traveling to another city?  Put another way, how many decision-makers will decide that a digital experience is sufficient for their population?  (This is a question some of us have been asking for a while)

Globalization and reaction Many professional organizations are national in their mission.  Think of Britain’s excellent JISC or America’s ALA.

Since 1950 a new form of globalization has proceeded.  It really accelerated circa 1980-2000, with liberalization of financial services, increased migration, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, big trade deals, the internet, etc.  Dialectically, anti-globalization has appeared as a politics, reaching a crescendo in 2016 via Brexit and Trump.

Looking ahead to 2040-2050, we might anticipate some kind of Hegelian synthesis, such as globalization 2.0 with national characteristics.  Would professional associations aim for a global stage or a national one?  I’m inclined to bet more on planetary systems leading the world rather than local ones, myself.  If that’s right, should we plan on creating a new association with an international ambit at its foundation?  That will take a certain set of planning assumptions and structures. If my bet goes awry, organizations would have to be national.

The gig economy For a generation or two the United States has been shifting away from what I think of as the Mad Men labor economy: people working a single job, for a single employer, in a single career, for life.  Instead we’ve shifted towards a model where we work multiple jobs with multiple employers, sometimes in overlapping careers, even simultaneously: the gig economy.  In academia, we decided to bury tenure with the baby boom generation, and instead opt for an adjunct-majority professoriate.

Older professional associations often relied on a full time staff, many of whom had connections to their field.   To what extend would an organization created in 2018 follow that mode?  What proportion of its team would be part time or contract labor?  How professional will the staff be?  In terms of members working in the gig style, they might be, as Jim Carroll wonders,

increasingly transient and temporary. While members of the past might belong to your association for a few decades, in the future they might have a relationship with you for only a few years, or perhaps even months, before they move on.

Automation Let’s assume an incremental growth in automation through mid-century without black swans or singularities.  So there’s won’t be any Skynets nor Terminators: at most, a benign and functional HAL and robots performing some basic functions throughout society.

Which association functions can automation perform?  Think of member management, marketing, and meeting planning, along with internal functions like HR.  How much of an organization’s operations would be performed by AI and robots?  How much time will the human team members spend on managing the silicon staff?

At another level, I wonder how automation-driven changes to the workforce will impact professional associations.  If, for example, we experience widespread un(der)employment, will people spend more time and money on such groups, in order to fight for advantages in a fiercely competitive field?  Will we simply have more time to devote to membership activities if we work, say, 25 hour weeks?  That would fit the idea of “engaged action” by members.

The macroeconomics of escalating inequality From circa 1950-1980 the economies of the United States, western Europe, Australia, and some others were the least unequal that they ever had been.  That changed around 1980, when income and wealth inequality began to grow.  Now America is in a state comparable to where it was in 1890-1915, and nothing is slowing down that gap’s widening.

Let’s extrapolate ahead.  The world of 2040-2050 may be one of nearly medieval separation of classes, with an elite living in an extraordinary world of privilege, far removed from the condition of the rest of us.  Most people live lives of relative poverty, potentially mitigated by social programs (think guaranteed minimum income) and digital entertainment.  Some professions loft into a small middle class, either by working within entities that provide goods and services to the bottom 80% (think managers, some teachers, etc) or assisting the elite (think the lower end of financial services, some other teachers, personal shoppers and coaches, etc.).

It’s possible there will just be fewer professional organizations, as the middle class dwindles.  If that’s the case, it’ll be harder to make the argument for a new org.  Perhaps a new one will absorb another or others; come to think of it, that might be the very argument in favor of a newcomer.

Would the 1% surface their own organizations, professional groups for their working members?  From the economy’s other end, what kinds of professional groups will serve those below the middle class?  For either stratum, an organization will have to take on certain features.

Demographics America and many advanced nations are aging.  That is, people are generally living longer and median ages are rising.

If this continues through the mid-21st, how would associations change?  Ann Michael notes this about library groups: “Most membership groups are finding that the average age of their membership is increasing, but that mid to late career professionals still represent the lion’s share of their dues revenue.” How does that change the functions of an association?

Michael goes on to note differences appearing across generations: “although this might be changing, historically older members on average put a higher value on print publications than younger members have.”  Would associations have to create divergent programming and services based on generational gaps? Alternatively, would one function be to cross those decades?  As Michael observes,

Some organizations are trying to play “match maker” – connecting the more senior, experienced members (who are at a career stage where they want to “give back”) with the the younger members…

Or would we see parallel organizations surface for the same profession, just serving different ages?

II. Strategic questions

What is the point of a professional association in the middle of the 21st century?

We often take the purposes of such groups as a given, in the present.  When we do discuss them, the purposes are clear: jobs (networking, hiring); professional development (continuing education); fellowship; public outreach (PR, advocacy, lobbying); publication (research, house organs); economic benefits (group pricing).  It’s a nice bundle, actually.

So should we unbundle them?  That’s a favorite verb for our time, and it makes some sense here.  Individuals and businesses perform every task located above.  One or more professionals could conceivably fulfill their goals by going to such third parties, but that’s a pain for now.  Perhaps it’ll be easier in 2040, and associations will dwindle, or the requirement for bundling will persist, and so will the organizations.

Will some of those functions become dominant?  If we take 2016’s politics as sign of things to come, some associations may have to really focus on the public outreach part, perhaps for defensive purposes (imagine the Middle East Studies Association after two decades of Trumpean anti-Muslim policies).  On the flip side, some of the functions could fade away.  It’s possible that people will self-organize professional development, largely through digital networks.

Should associations meet in person?  I know from experience that many members value face to face interaction, along with the chance to get away from their usual environment.  They like the tourist of briefly visiting another locale, and maybe the entertainment a meeting provides, such as stellar keynotes from other sectors.  These are all fine things.

Yet their value may become questionable.  Travel could well become more expensive, given carbon taxes or other climate change policies we might imagine.   Decades of immersion in rich video, virtual and mixed reality could train us to accept conversations therein in lieu of chats at the bar (see above).  My point is, associations will have to make a stronger case for members choosing to meet up.

We can consider an analog from the present: movie theaters.  The rise of home video entertainment via tv, VCR, cable, DVD, streaming services, and piracy, experienced through a range of devices, can tempt us away from the local cinegigaplex.  So movie theaters have had to up their game, turning to new offerings like improved seating, 3d movies, expanded food options, etc.  In this analogy an annual conference would have to be something more than a track of meetings in stale hotel meeting rooms.  What would a 21st century association have to offer its members to convince them to travel?

Will professional associations expand to take on functions their members currently perform, as Andy Hines suggests?  I can imagine some associations publishing more for fields where publishing becomes problematic for individual members (universities).  Seth Kahan sees associations “beefing up their subject matter experts… because members need it in a disruptive economy”; organizations might become something like their member institutions.

…and what do you think?  If some nice entity gave you the opportunity to design a membership association not for the 20th, but the 21st century, what would you sketch out?

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20 Responses to How would you design a professional association for the future?

  1. Tom Haymes says:

    Here’s another interesting question: As the university itself unbundles, don’t professional organizations take on an even greater role in the question of legitimacy? Isn’t the collegia forming an increasingly important role on the age of crowdsourcing legitimacy? Having a professional organization gives a new field (such as edtech or technology in general) gravitas which universities have often conferred in more traditional subjects.

    I think their networking impact cannot be overstated and I think that if anything new technology will continue to opportunities for the academy to extend geographically without limits. I don’t have to come to Middlebury College to take your excellent FTTE seminar that meets every week online, for instance. It comes to me.

    Having the umbrella of a professional organization only enhances that effect since that provides a mechanism for new members and ideas to come into the conversation rather than allowing purely upon serendipity. That being said, raising a beer with my friends will never be fully supplanted and in-person conferences are a way of generating that kind of contact.

    • Good thoughts, Tom.
      Agreed about legitimacy. You remind me of the power of the AMA and ABA, for two examples.

    • Two things: First, I would second Tom’s comment about the legitimizing role of professional associations, though I would say it is a matter of clarifying their roles rather than simply expanding them. Different associations play different roles in setting “disciplinary” standards of acceptable knowledge, establishing both formal and informal credentials, setting the boundaries of professional “membership” in a field (not necessarily contiguous with association membership), facilitating academic or other employment, etc. — but these varieties of epistemological and professional legitimation don’t always align in clear or thoughtful ways. Second, I’d like to hear more of Bryan’s thoughts — or anyone else’s — about the decline in professional association memberships as a subset of the general decline in other forms of collective social capital. (My strong sense is that fewer bowling leagues, fewer Elks, and fewer members of the big, established disciplinary organizations in the humanities and social sciences are all related.)

  2. chairthrower says:

    What is the professional conference equivalent of stadium seating and dine-in theatre? One possibility would be to increase the conference activities tied to space. For EDUCAUSE that could involve having a university host events in addition to the convention center; having a higher proportion of local speakers; or having events related to characteristics of the location. Surely we could have done something with Philadelphia, and Indianapolis ended up with an emphasis on diversity in large part because of the “religious freedom” law passed there earlier in the year. And certainly one of the important (although ancillary) activities is sampling the local bars and restaurants.

    I’m also envisioning a “Ready Player One”-style future where our virtual environments are fundamentally more appealing than our physical environments, and more and more of the “important” work that makes us “human” will happen there. In that case I would assume conferences would still be an “event” where one will travel in the virtual world, and which may in fact have its own costs and planning needs.

    • Increasingly local activities makes all kinds of sense. Rather than staying in a generic space, which could be anywhere, we instead link to what’s particular about the locale.

      Virtual meeting “costs and planning needs” – brilliant! I think you just spotted a business sector about to unfold.

  3. App Accessibility Experiences in Higher Education says:

    “Moving a university is like moving a cemetery—you can’t expect any help from the inhabitants,” says Barb Oakley, a professor who taught traditional class structures at several universities for years before signing up to teach with Coursera as well.” Maybe the same can be said of many professional organizations… they exist within their own ecosystems. A significant disruption, like major fiscal mismanagement, might be catastrophic to the entity. I don’t see it happening in the next 10 years. It would be exciting to see a new model emerge, and I’d very much like to see it happen.

  4. We’ve had this conversation before, but your question presumes the need for such organizations. The ones you list existed prior to the explosion of means to network via.. networks. A chief value prior to this time was connecting to colleagues. Do we need professional organizations to do that (just a question)?

    To operate, an organization needs money to pay staff, pay for publications, offices, web sites. It gets this money from memberships, and therefore it needs to provide members things of value that the general public will not have access to, it needs to create a scarcity (publications, member only events). To me humble eye, they exist often to maintain their existence.

    A more modern example worth looking at is the Association for Learning Technologies (ALT) https://www.alt.ac.uk/ I *think* they lost government funding and had to form around membership. They operate lean, and do many activities online, and offer services like Certified Membership. Mostly, in my interactions, they also operate very humanely (no giant egos and reputations).

    In a far future networked era, and one of more people working contingently, I’d look more to coops as ways for people to benefit from cooperative groups.

    • Good thoughts, dog.

      “A chief value prior to this time was connecting to colleagues. Do we need professional organizations to do that”: I used to not think so. But I see so, so many people really valuing that face time at a bar, or in hallways. People of all ages and tech persuasions. Indeed, it seems to be the core value associations offer.

      ALT sounds fascinating, and perhaps a way forward.

      Co-ops make a lot of sense.

  5. I apologize in advance for being tl;dr about this post since I am short on time (and already procrastinating). I want from a professional organization at least this: Advocate for the value professionals of that organization bring to clients’ needs. Do this over and over and over and over again so that clients ALWAYS know that a member of such-and-such organization is worth the fee they are charging.

    The problem clients often have is that they cannot always penetrate the appearances of what some professionals do. Some clients think that if their kid can use iMovie on their Mac or some phone app to edit a professional looking video, then there’s no reason they should be “paying so much” to someone who does it for a living. There is more to it than the software but you’d have a hard time explaining that as they dis your bid as overpriced.

    The same applies to instructional designers. Not even my mother knows what I do, and I suspect that there are many higher education faculty who have never worked with an ID nor appreciate the value we bring to the challenges of education. I would hope that some sort of professional organization would do that on my behalf. It would keep me employed and paid a decent living.

    • That’s a fantastic point, Steve. Advocacy is crucial.

      I know that’s true for clients. I’d add, it’s also true for the public at large.

      PS: I hope you get the chance to finish the post.

  6. David Knapp says:

    Comment one. I have convinced myself that if technology would take a giant step to the back of the stage one would see a shift in professional association activities, particularly the face-to-face annual event.

    A poor example of technology backstage is my use of the landline communication device. I have landline-to-landline conversations without training, support, technical disruption and the technology otherwise taking center stage as the conversation gets lost backstage.

    Comment two. Some organizations may have a globalization bent, maybe financially motivated, membership growth driven, but I sense membership of the future staying within their border, within their lanes. They are the local club that meets on the national stage once a year. Lot of stuff in that model that would influence the drivers of change.

    • David, you’re spot on about tech’s stage presence. Perhaps for organizations that involve technology, a reconsideration of mission without tech would be fruitful.

      By “local” are you thinking nation, or something smaller, or something larger?

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  10. Joe Murphy says:

    I’ve been meaning to respond to this for quite some time; apologies for the post necromancy. It seems to me that one of the critical decisions which an organization has to make is understanding who its members are, and what the value proposition is for them, and resolving any tensions with who the primary beneficiaries of the organization’s activities are. Let me be less oblique: are your members schools, or are they people?

    Looking at one end of the continuum, I see consortia. The members are colleges, and the benefits accrue primarily to colleges, basically in forms of cost sharing. Individuals at the schools often do benefit from consortial events or grants and certainly from shared resources, but fundamentally there’s a clear mission that the consortium advances the schools first and the people at the schools second.

    (A snarky note might point out that a consortium which doesn’t deliver individual benefits may have trouble filling its task forces.)

    On the other end, I see pure professional associations like the American Library Association, or the various scholarly societies. The members are the organization; they make it run and the benefits of participation accrue to the individual. There may be options for organizational members but the fundamental unit is the individual who develops as a member of a larger professional/scholarly community than their employer can provide alone.

    As an apostate librarian, it’s struck me that I’m not aware of an instructional technology organization with the same professional cachet as ALA/ACRL. What we have in organizations like EDUCAUSE, NMC, and NITLE (and broader higher ed organizations like AAC&U, ACE, or CUR) seems to be a business model in which the dues-paying members are the schools, but the benefits appear to primarily accrue to those individuals who participate in the organization. Participation, therefore, becomes highly reliant on whether there’s a local champion who sees how the school gets value from the organization. Ultimately, as I think we saw with NITLE, and the separate dues structure for ELI/ECAR in EDUCAUSE, and perhaps with NMC, this is a shaky business model. Those dues can seem like something it’s easy to cut in a downturn, if an administrator doesn’t see enduring value coming out of them

    We can follow out some of your forces, of course. A new organization might look at precarious employment, and decide that it’s better to charge individual dues than to have people drop in and out of the community as they change jobs. Perhaps individual membership is a good way to certify professional activity and protect the guild to an extent.

    Or they might look at the stratification of institutional and individual wealth, and try to make a model where the rich schools subsidize the less well-off (or even the adjunctified). There are models for consortial professional development; perhaps a school-funded professional organization could be essentially a service provider to schools (selling the cost savings of not having to provide those services locally).

    • My dear Joe, consider this your perpetual authorization to perform necromancy wherever you deem it necessary.

      Excellent meditation on organizations and membership scales.

      Individual membership: I wonder what kind of numbers that requires as we reach the mid-21st-century.

      Stratification: applying the college tuition approach, eh? Associations with discount rates?

      • Joe Murphy says:

        I was thinking about the numbers problem in getting an organization off the ground – or the issues in scaling up as your small organization is successful. Quite a bit probably depends on the balance between running on the volunteer labor of the members and using professional staff.

        Lots of scholarly societies (and I believe ALA) have student memberships. And lots of organizations already charge institutional memberships based on Carnegie classification. Yes, it’ll appear more crass to charge based on salary or endowment size, and it’s a risky strategy if your 1%ers feel taken advantage of. But perhaps as we sow so should we reap…

      • Good points about the risks.

        I wonder if the richest schools are feeling extra-defensive this year, given Congress.

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