As I expected, I didn't have the internal "bandwidth" to be able to blog during the 2009 ASAE & The Centre (spelled that way in honour of Canada) Annual Meeting. It was the usual story–nonstop sessions, talking with people I rarely get to see, networking, learning, tweeting, karaoke (I didn't sing, I promise) and an abundance of buffet food. I'm not the first to write about this meeting: check out Kevin Holland and Frank Fortin. Here's my initial take on the learnings, having been home a few hours to decompress.
For the first time in my experience of ASAE (dating back to Minneapolis in 2004), I thought innovation was really taken seriously. Between Gary Hamel's opening keynote, Maddie and Jason's well-attended session on upending the status quo, and resident association innovation specialist Jeff De Cagna's well-attended session about Association Next, I felt that the conversation about innovation was widespread in a way I hadn't heard before. I'm sure Jeff would argue that we have a long way to go when it comes to innovation in this community, but I think we've made some progress–maybe even hitting a tipping point of some sort. It just felt easier to have conversations with people about change and doing things differently and trying new things. I even was pleased to note that all the copies of We Have Always Done It That Way that ASAE brought to the meeting sold out!
Related to the innovation theme was the recurring idea about failure being okay. This is not a new concept, and Kevin Holland puts it in the "Well, Duh" category, but duh or not, in practice I don't think most organizations embrace the idea. It hit me in Jason and Maddie's session when we were working at our tables trying to come up with creative responses to a sticky membership problem. I realized that most ideas wouldn't be attempted, simply because the people who think of them would be worried that they wouldn't work. My epiphany was this: in our organizations, we should make a point of recounting stories of projects that didn't work. Even beyond a post mortem, where we analyze what we could do differently (which is a great idea, of course), we should simply remind everyone of all the things we tried that failed. Make it NOT a big deal. Remind everyone that we do this all the time, and our organization works out just fine. If we made it more normal, we'd get more ideas out on the table, and we'd get more done.
I'm a big fan of Clay Shirky, who did a thought leader session (which was a total bummer for all the people leading sessions in his time block) as well as Q&A in the Online Engagement Lounge. One of his points was about member dues–with associating, communication, and community SO MUCH easier these days given the social web, people just might start to question (in a huge way) why they pay membership dues. His frame on it was powerful. He said (as I describe in this video that ASAE shot on site) that membership organizations need to be the "platform" where members go to get what they really value in order to justify paying dues. I usually think of that term in the software context, like an operating system or something on the back end (what "platform" are you running…) that enables other software programs to run and defines some of the parameters. In software, you need a platform in order to do other things. Membership dues should be the same way, but it's harder to convince people that your platform is really that valuable. It used to be the only place you could get "stuff" or meet the right people, but the internet is changing that. So associations need to figure out how to change in ways that maintain the existence of a valuable platform. Or (and this needs to be an option to consider) they could just forget the platform (no dues) and focus on delivering value in the "stuff" they sell.
Though it still seems like survival will be based on platform-like value, whether or not you charge dues. Shirky gave the example of the $17 martini. It's $3 of gin plus $14 of being in a place where you can drink $17 martinis with cool looking people. If you had told people at the door the martinis are $3.50 but we need to charge $50 up front for the "platform" (dues) they'd feel ripped off. But if you are delivering the platform already (it's obvious to them that this place is cool), they'll keep ordering the $17 martinis. It's having the platform that gives them what they truly want that drives success either way.
Association Social Media is Growing Up
I'm probably the wrong person to assess this trend because I've been a social media user and advocate for some time, but it felt like social media cleared some hurdles between San Diego and Toronto. It's more normal and accepted. The #asae09 twitter stream was very active (and helpful) and ASAE & The Centre were working hard to engage and support the conversation. I only went to half of one social media session, but they don't seem to be the "here's what a wiki looks like" sessions any more. They are more strategic, and the tactical ones are more complex. There is still a long way to go, I'd say, in terms of widespread acceptance and use, but I think we're at a bit of a new plateau.
I Love My Friends
The Annual Meeting always has both a professional side and a social side. This is not new, nor is it unique to the ASAE meeting. But I am home now and deeply missing the fact that I won't have access to the large and diverse group of people that I was talking, joking, debating, dancing, learning, and otherwise carousing with over the last five days. It's a mix of people, ranging from those I talk to all the time on a regular basis, to people with whom I usually only interact virtually, to people I hardly ever connect with, but during this meeting I was able to engage them much more deeply than I get to at other times. More conversations with larger groups of people, exploring more angles. I realized more than I ever have that more learning was generated from "lateral" interactions with peers than "vertical" delivery of wisdom from the speaker. More importantly, the love and friendship that permeated the extended group of people with whom I was doing this learning actually made it easier to get more learning done. Conversations got to the heart of the matter quicker, and ideas were expressed more easily, thoughts flowed more freely. They say love is the killer app, and I get it.