Associations Unorthodox #5: Collaborate everywhere

This is the fifth post in my series on the six shifts presented in my new e-book, Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Toward the Future, created in collaboration with CHIEF. (Please check out the previous posts in the series.) As always, I invite your feedback in the comments below, or you can join the Associations Unorthodox conversation on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #auxsix.

The Problem

Throughout most of the 20th century up to the present day, the headquarters office has been a visible symbol of association importance and success, as well as a proud showcase of organizational history. Yet while having a central location to house face-to-face staff and voluntary activity offers certain benefits, the association headquarters also can be the physical embodiment of the bureaucratic inertia and risk aversion that too often slows the pace of organizational progress, especially in the areas of strategy and innovation. Meanwhile, as previously mentioned, there are billions (and counting) of smartphones and tablet devices in use worldwide. As the adoption of these mobile tools accelerates, and new social work arrangements such as co-working grow more popular, associations will need to adapt to collaborate with highly connected “on the go” generations of stakeholders capable of interacting on the fly from everywhere, all the time.

The Opportunity

Associations can mobilize staff skills, knowledge and creativity, as well as save money on either leasing and/or maintaining a dedicated physical space, by reducing both the figurative importance and literal size of the headquarters office. For some associations, giving up entirely on a physical footprint in favor of a purely virtual and digital presence may be the right move. Instead of concentrating their people in cubicles in Washington, DC, Chicago or New York, associations can equip and deploy staff professionals as part of the new mobile workforce, with the intent of nurturing more meaningful stakeholder connections at the most local level possible. By focusing less on a defined physical location for work, as well as by using digital technologies to support distributed collaboration and manage day-to-day business activities, associations can break the back of institutional resistance to transformation, and operate closer to the speed of work across the stakeholder networks they are trying to serve.

Additional Thoughts

An underlying theme running through Associations Unorthodox is the imperative for associations to break down decades worth of self-imposed barriers to innovation. Among those barriers is the day-to-day physical separation between association stakeholders and the headquarters staff who spend, by far, the most time working on their behalf. Nearly all associations believe in the importance of being face-to-face with a comparatively small fraction of their stakeholders for at least a few days every year, an opportunity for which those stakeholders are expected to pay. The vast majority of today’s stakeholders, however, will never have an in-person interaction with an association staff member.

Associations can flip this orthodoxy by liberating their staff members from the constraints of centralization at the headquarters office, and equip them to use their talents to connect with stakeholders wherever they are. Through increased staff flexibility and mobility, associations can achieve greater geographic proximity with their future stakeholders, and begin building a more empathic understanding of their personal and professional outcomes in the process. This shift is not about more associations offering more telecommuting options (although that could be a good start), but about implementing intentional strategies to perform association knowledge work in more distributed and distributive ways to create closer and more collaborative relationships with the next generation of stakeholders.

To begin making the shift to collaborate everywhere, association leaders can reflect on the following key questions:

+What are the unintended negative consequences of centralizing your association’s activity in the headquarters office? 

+How can your association interact in meaningful ways with current and future stakeholders who already lead highly mobile lives? 

+How could your association build stronger relationships with current and future stakeholders if staff were more mobile and local? 

+How can your association reduce the symbolic importance of the headquarters office to break free of the pull of tradition and past success? 



Jeff De Cagna

Jeff De Cagna is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, and a contrarian thinker on strategy, business models, governing and the future of associations.

1 Comment

  1. Jeff, this is really interesting. One association I know wanted to use existing chapters to spread their reach and link individual members to the national organization, but found the idea easier than the implementation due to a lack of alignment between the chapters and the national organization. How might chapters play into this?

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