Sunday, December 26, 2010

Remember, You're Running a Business, Too

My last post on What WikiLeaks Should Teach Association Executives got a fair amount of play in the Twitterverse, when KiKi L'Italien decided to theme her weekly #assnchat Twitter chat around it. I'm still struggling with this "real-time" web thing, but I tuned in for as long as I could, and I saw a lot of great insight on the subject being shared. In general, the tweeps participating seemed to embrace the idea that transparency trumped secrecy in today's hyper-connected society, and that associations were especially suited to this kind of operation. I myself, caught got up in the spirit of things, contributing such pithy points as:

And then, a few days later, still feeling smart and the Twitterverse inexorably passing around dozens of other tasty posts from dozens of other bloggers, I read this.

WikiLeaks opens a whole new world of risk for your business. With infoanarchists scrambling to pry loose your secrets and put them on the web — partly just because they can — the danger is mind-boggling.

Forget about worrying that some executive's flip e-mail message will fall into the wrong hands. Now there's a real risk that the entire corporate brain could be exposed, just as the diplomatic brain of the U.S. government has been opened for all to explore.

It's another post on the HBR blog, and it's written by and for business executives who are running organizations that make and sell goods in a competitive market. They're sometimes easy for me to dismiss, but this one cut through the not-for-profit mindset in which my brain is often steeped. Wait a minute, I thought, I run an association, sure, but am I not also a business executive running an organization that makes and sells goods in a competitive marketplace?

My previous post and much of the #assnchat discussion seemed focused on the idea that an association's business communications could be fairly easily divided into two broad categories: (1) The confidential, which you wouldn't in your right mind put up on social media or send through email anyway; and (2) Everything else, which, as long as it hung together with consistency and transparency, presented no risks for slipping into the wrong hands.

But I forgot about a third category--not so much business communication as business information.

The trade association I work for conducts several very popular statistics programs on our industry. Our members submit their sales data to a confidential third party, and they produce aggregated reports on total sales volume and market share that are sent back to participating companies. They are consistently rated as among the most valuable services my association provides.

Thinking like a business executive, I realized that should these aggregated reports get "WikiLeaked" for all to see, then the member service I'm providing will lose much of its value. And if the confidential sales data given to us by individual members got the same exposure, I'm fairly sure our association would pretty much be finished.

So while we're all busy patting ourselves on the back for making sure that our private communications match the form and content of our public ones, let's not forget that we're also running a business in a competitive marketplace, and that confidential data protection is as much an issue for us as it is for any business. When your competitive advantage depends on any form of "secret" information, then there's more than one lesson that WikiLeaks should be teaching you.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What Wikileaks Should Teach Association Executives

I don't want to get into the politics of the Wikileaks story, but this post from the HBR blog really got me thinking this week. In reflecting on what it means when a professional, technically sophisticated, and well-protected government such as the United States suffers an intelligence breach of this magnitude, the author specualtes on what that might mean for the rest of us.

And here is the obvious implication, which reaches beyond governments to companies and even to individuals. Thanks to Wikileaks, you can now expect that day to come when your most private and candid communications will appear for all to peruse. In preparation for that moment, you better make sure that your private dealings match your public declarations, if not perfectly then at least pretty close.

Which begs the question--how well would your association survive a "Wikileaks dump" of its private communications?

Most association execs I know do a good job separating their public from their private communications. As popular as email and social networking are these days for associations, most are sensitive to the fact that these are largely "open" platforms, and as such, save their most private and confidential discussions for other forms of communication. The telephone. The face-to-face meeting. We know these tools still have a place in our modern world--and perhaps Wikileaks teaches us that place is now more important than ever.

But in an age of voice-over IP and cell phone video uploads to YouTube, even the telephone and the face-to-face meeting may no longer be as private as we once thought they were. There may indeed come a day when communications transmitted with these tools will be just as accessible and searchable as the diplomatic cables now up on the Wikileaks site.

So what's a humble exec to do? We will always need a way to communicate privately with individuals--I don't see that ending anytime soon. But if our private actions are not in line with our public personas, we will find more challenges ahead than we know what to do with.

As I prepare to meet the new frontier that will be 2011, I'm going to do my best not to treat Wikileaks as a cautionary tale, and not retreat from being who I am online, seeking engagement with others also committed to being their authentic selves. Instead, I will choose to view Wikileaks as a call-to-action, and a reminder that we can only achieve what our organizations need us to by making sure our private actions match our public ones.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Clinic of Innovation

Here's another fascinating post about innovation from the HBR blog. It describes the first-of-its-kind "Clinic of Innovation" at Oslo University Hospital--an internal unit within the hospital that is set-up to work like an outpatient health clinic. But instead of treating people, this clinic treats ideas. Innovative ideas from a variety of hospital stakeholders walk in, are diagnosed, and are treated or referred; some are sent home with a prescription for further development, and an appointment for a follow-up visit. Those that pass muster are provided technical support and, if necessary, business model development and commercialization.

It's an interesting approach and the post contains a lot of thoughtful suggestions for designing a successful innovation process. But I want to focus in on the underlying concept--that for an innovation process to succeed, it must align with the organization's culture and way of thinking. In the case of Oslo Univeristy Hospital, shaping the identity of the innovation clinic and modeling its processes along the lines of an outpatient health clinic was a deliberate decision. The founders reasoned that healthcare professionals would find it easier to relate to a clinic than a different model borrowed from the business world.

That's an important lesson for any association executive interested in increasing the ability of their organization to generate and execute innovative ideas. The principles of innovation in the WSAE white paper on Innovation for Associations talk about the need to make sure the top leadership of your association embraces a culture of innovation. In our task force's discussions on the subject, I think we drew an implicit conclusion from that principle. If your top leadership does NOT embrace innovation, then the long and sometimes painful process of culture change is the prescription you need to take in order to bring innovation to your association. But perhaps Oslo University Hospital shows us that there are other ways to skin that cat. Perhaps there are situations where culture change is not a necessity. Rather, a strategy to define innovation in terms understood and mechanisms relied upon by the current leadership culture could also make a difference.

In my career, I've worked for a number of medical specialty societies--associations steeped in an academic culture of research, teaching and patient care, not unlike the hospital described in the HBR post. A "clinic of innovation" might work well in that environment, even if the association leadership is generally resistant to other kinds of change and new ideas. A trade association of business owners may be equally resistant to changing how their association does things, even while clearly seeing the need for their companies to adapt to a changing marketplace and to find better, faster and cheaper ways to meet the needs of their customers. Clear, concise "business cases" for each innovative idea seeking approval may evoke a more thoughtful review by these professionals.

Aligning efforts to innovate in the association with the fundmental culture of the specialty or industry it serves may be one of the most effective ways sidestep the necessity of culture change and get a stagnant association on a more innovative footing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Do You Want Your Members to Be "Smart" or "Stupid"?

I mentioned Michael Schrage a few posts ago as one of the HBR bloggers that I make sure I read each time he posts. Here's one of his latest: Should Your Best Customers Be Stupid?

In it, he dissects the difference between customers who know how much your services really cost (referring to them as "smart" customers) and those who don't (referring to them as "stupid"), and shares experiences he's had with companies that charge "stupid" customers much higher prices than "smart" ones. In some ways, the post is a little too business school for me (i.e., information asymmetry"), but definitely worth a read.

And it got me thinking. Are association members generally "smart" or "stupid"?

Well, using Schrage's definitions, I'd have to say most in my experience have been "stupid," in the sense that they generally don't know the true cost of the association products and services that they access and use. But unlike Schrage's case study, in which the "stupid" customer overestimates this value, and is therefore willing to pay higher prices for the service, I'd say most association members underestimate the cost of association services. Remember the look on the face of your program chair when you told him the hotel coffee costs $85 a gallon?

And this sets up a competely different dynamic in many associations from the one Schrage describes. Schrage is talking specifically about IT consulting. There, the "stupid" customer says, "Wow, that software is cool! It must be really expensive." And is willing to pay a premium for it. But the "stupid" association member attending one of your conferences says, "Ugh, that box lunch was awful! Why did you charge me $40 for it?" In Schrage's world, if the customer finds out how much the software really costs, they’ll demand a lower price or go to another provider. But in our world, what will the member do if they find out how much that box lunch really costs? And what if we're not talking about something as commoditized as a box lunch? What if we're talking about the cost of the professional expertise and administrative expense necessary to manage a certification program?

I think we'd all agree that there's value in educating your association Board about how much things actually cost so they can make better decisions about the organization's competencies and capabilities. But I would argue that we should also be helping our regular members better understand the value--and cost--of the services they are receiving. Too often association managers seem reluctant to share this information, afraid, I suppose, that members will decide the services aren't worth the price they have to pay to support them. But the alternative, I think, is worse. If they know how much things cost, they may be better able to help you tailor those services better to their needs.

If they knew, for example, that you could lower the registration fee for the meeting by letting them pick up their own coffee at the Starbucks in the lobby, they just might take you up on it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The World Database of Innovation--CLOSED!

I first stumbled across The World Database of Innovation in this HBR blog post from a few months ago. Like I often do when I find something interesting, I email it myself with a note to investigate it more deeply when I have time. The blog post is by Uri Neren, and it says:

The World Database of Innovation we are compiling, as a collaborative effort between my firm, Generate Companies, and several universities, represents over 20,000 hours of work to date. As well as over 200 in-depth case studies, it compiles the ideas of 4,500 or so innovation experts and consultancies.

And the website, when you go to it, says this:

Generate has discovered more than 105 areas of best practices in innovation. We are working in collaboration with innovation thought leaders from around the globe to collect their works in one place on each of best practice area of innovation including:

- Theories and Schools of Thought (14 distinct theories)
- Invention Methodologies (more than 162 discovered so far)
- Conditions for Innovation (17 aspects of culture)
- Tools for Innovation (5208 tools)
- Definitions of Innovation
- Stuctural Types of the Corporate Innovation Function
- Components of a Company's Innovation Function
- Statistics and Research
- Corporate Case Studies
- Myths
- Innovation Team Skill Sets
- Innovation Types Created
- Innovation Tools
- Innovation Tool Types
- and many more...

And I'm thinking, fantastic! Five thousand two hundred and eight tools for innovation! This is exactly the kind of resource I need to tap to help build the model of innovation for the association community I've been discussing on this blog and leading on behalf of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. How do I get into this thing?

If you would like to submit your best practice, consultant profile, or other research and materials for consideration to be entered in the database, please begin by using our contact form. All contributors will be given credit and will gain the chance for public recognition and to be matched with Generate's corporate clients.

What? Wait a minute, what's this? I have to apply to see what's inside this thing? The blog post and this website is just a sales pitch? What's on this contact form, anyway?

Please call or use the Generate Companies web form below. We'll get back to you quickly either way.

And then just fields to fill in for your name, email and phone number.

You know, this innovation thing is business commodity. And a proprietary one in some people's minds, evidently.