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)
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?