In nearly every industry there's a growing and disturbing trend. The lack of time, dwindling resources and a growing desire to protect personal time from the incursion of business are all conspiring to bring about the demise of the professional association. Membership numbers, conference attendance and willingness to participate on boards and in meetings are all on the decline.
The pressures of work are pushing everything aside which doesn't demonstrate an immediate payback. Any activity, from training to advertising, which cannot immediately present a positive impact to the bottom line, is considered a discretionary expense.
While the reasons for the decline of associations are obvious, the consequences are subtle, hidden and long lasting. How can we follow the trends of our industry if we never meet as an industry? As much as I value the media, they only report what they see in an industry. The real trends, and their potential impact, can only be known by the insiders. That's "us", in case you were wondering.
The reduction in advertising in tough times is easy to measure. Just count the pages of any magazine, journal, or newspaper and plot it month by month. The resulting graph will closely match the health of the economy. We follow a single thought process. Business is bad, let's stop trying to attract new customers. It's as if we don't really have any faith in the power of advertising.
Training is no less unfortunate. Times are bad? Can't get ahead of the competition? We'll cut the training budget, that'll work. It's as if a major sports team who just completed a terrible season decided that the way out of their slump was to call off all future training and practice ... until they start winning again.
These two observations are not meant to be a self righteous criticism of upper management. These are the strange decisions we all make when faced with the choices of a) riding out tough times, or b) investing in the future. Unfortunately we nearly always frame this as an either/or decision.
In both these situations the individual employee has little control over the cost cutting. These decisions are made at a higher level and beyond the understanding of mere mortals, but that doesn't mean we're powerless. Education and professional development need not come to a halt, just because the corporate budget has gone into hiding. Of course, it takes personal commitment to pick up the dropped responsibility.
Our answer lies outside the organizations which hire us and inside the support structures we build for ourselves. We'll find the key to growth and development inside our professional associations.
Associations are comprised of our peers, who are as ignorant, and as knowledgeable, of our business as we are. They are our personal consultants without agenda or shingle, they come together to share answers when they have them, and ask questions when they don't. Time spent in their company isn't wasted, because they will inevitably have different perspectives on the issues we face. They might not always have the right answers, but they'll often be able to point to strategies which they tried, and which failed.
Individual membership is typically less than $1000 a year regardless of the type of association. This usually provides the opportunity to meet with your peers once a month. These meetings are unfortunately seen by some as a waste of time, but in reality they're worth far more than they cost. At the very least they are a source of new ideas, if not answers to pressing problems. What is it worth to solve a problem in a casual conversation, rather than in trial and error or the hiring of outside help?
As someone who speaks at conferences I naturally have a vested interest in a healthy association industry. Any trend leading to their demise is of personal concern. That said, the reality of association meetings is always the following; we attend them, not to listen to the speakers but to meet our peers, to meet over a good meal.
Socialising aside, there are the simple networking opportunities afforded by a roomful of people working in the same position you are, in other companies perhaps doing slightly better than the one who just cut off your training budget. Do any advantages come to mind?