Previously, I explored how associations bring together contributions from members to accomplish something that would be difficult to accomplish individually. Based on the positive receptions from association thinkers like Jeffrey Cufaude, Shelly Alcorn, Cynthia D’Amour, Tony Rossell, and David Gammel I think there may be something to the idea that the value provided by associations is under fire because the world in which associations operate is changing. So what are some of those changes in the external world that may be making association participation less necessary?
- The Internet and mobile technology give unprecedented access to knowledge. The rise and growth of the Internet, which was only commercialized in the mid-1990s, is astounding. Today, individuals can find and do almost anything easier, faster, and cheaper than they could in 1995 - career advice, technical training, networking connections, legislative tracking and responsive advocacy, competitive product pricing, vendor selection, buying advice, and nearly limitless content in every category. These same activities were the bread and butter of associations in the mid-90s – and sadly, many associations still see these as their exclusive domain. The worth of these activities have not changed – people still want them all – but changes in the external environment mean that these very same activities may no longer be “valued benefits” if individuals can achieve similar results elsewhere easily and affordably without an association.
- The nature of employment has changed. Most associations serve employees directly or assist company members with employee-related issues. And the fact is, the nature of employment is changing. Employment is less stable, less enduring, and, in some cases, simply less. Research has shown that the rise of 401(k) plans, which more than quintupled during the 80s and 90s, correlates with increased job mobility, decreased tenure, and decreased investment in employee training. Over the same period, manufacturing jobs have declined, and outsourcing of jobs overseas, including white collar service jobs, has risen. The overall US labor force has slowed in growth, and new models such as outlined in Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation have emerged. Many observers say that there has also been an increase in the frequency of career changes, but the reality is that little to no data has been collected on career changes. [I think this represents huge assumptive blinders – consider these findings: an NYU study which found only 28% of professionals expected a lifelong career in their field; 7 out of 10 lawyers would change careers if the opportunity arose; 45% of teachers leave the profession within five years]. One thing is certain, though, employment ─ an external environment that affects associations ─ has changed dramatically, yet, most of our associations still operate under the same approach as 20 years ago.
- The commercial landscape has changed. Nearly every association is also directly impacted by the economic condition of its members. And the reality is that the external operating environment is wreaking havoc on many of those members. The rise of the Internet has facilitated interstate and international commerce in ways that challenge traditional business operating environments (such as location, fulfillment, design, even staffing) and often create a race toward the lowest possible price. Consumer access to increased amounts of information puts new pressures on profit margins and operating processes, as well as providing consumers with a powerful collection of feedback from other customers that influence buying decisions. The new normal is an intensely competitive, open environment, often accompanied by with less generous profit margins.
- Competition for resources has increased. Regardless of its focus, associations are impacted by the people who comprise its membership. And the external environment of those members is changing too. During the 1990s, the number of dual-earner households broke the 50% barrier, making two working parents the predominate model. It is not a surprise that in 1995, a Cornell research study found that more than half of Americans reported that they “‘almost never’ have time on their hands.” More recently, a Harris Interactive poll reported that leisure hit an all-time low, decreasing 20% from the previous year and a total of 10 hours since tracking began in 1973. And if that were not enough, household debt, which has risen slowly over a long period, doubled between 2000 and 2007. Our members ─ and potential members ─ have less time, less control of their schedules, and increased financial commitments.
What are your reactions to these statistics? What other significant external trends do you see that challenge the value that associations provide? Join me in my next post to see my thoughts on what associations should be doing to prepare for the future.