Do We Really Need Associations, Anyway? Do They Need Us?

Within the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of things happening around me that have made me wonder about the validity of professional associations of sorts, and if we really need them.

In general, I think the answer is “yes”, but mostly, I have to wonder if the add-on to that is “but for how long?”.

I’m not going to pretend that organizations like the IAI (full disclosure: I am on the Board of Directors) and IxDA haven’t helped me, personally, make many of the social and professional connections that I have today.  But, that was before.

Before all this social network stuff sort of just asploded in our faces and made everything so intimate, public and NOW NOW NOW!!

I’m grateful for these organizations, actually, as long as they work.

So, to answer my questions, I’d say the answer on both parts is:  YES

But the time is critical for them, I fear.

BUT… I think both need to evolve a little in order to find the right way to keep it all under the same roof.  There’s no problem with people owning initiatives, and it’s awesome that people can, over the course of a holiday weekend (in the US, of course) crank out 110% awesome.  The world wants things RIGHT NOW, and that makes waiting even more difficult than Tom Petty ever imagined. Organizations love to talk about and hate their red tape and people love to talk about and love/hate their organizations response times and excuses of the red tape.

It kind of stinks. But, it’s also a reality.  There’s got to be a way to make things happen and get organizations and “their people” all engaged, enabled and empowered to “get stuff done” so they can meet in the middle. There’s got to be some sort of an open framework we can create where people start running as fast as they can and as fast as they want with great (or not great, half-cocked, hair-brained) ideas and make them work for both in a way where both reap the rewards.

I’ve watched as people have identified a number of reasons why events should be near them (and sadly, watched while even less than Pareto would be happy with identified themselves as those willing to take part in the preparation and organization of such things), griped and/or yelled and/or bullied about certain attitudes and approaches to different locations and even, I’m sad to say, as people have thrown up their arms and politely asked, urgently requested and all-out yelled and hollered their requests for assistance.

Unfortunately, I watched those requests get sent, and then watched forward motion get made without support.

In fact, over the course of a holiday weekend in the United States, I watched Steve Baty take his half-baked “UX Book Club” idea and start to bake the hell out of it with his peers–many he’s never met, and some he may never meet in his life.  Will Evans and Andrew Boyd jumped-in to help, without any real call for support and they helped inject more excitement and energy into the project.

They organized.

They plotted.

They schemed.

(Admittedly, I got involved, thumb-tapped away on my iPhone as furiously as I possibly could and tried to keep up from the remote reaches of the inner-midwest USA)

They found new ideas from their existing ideas.

They created new ideas–blew them up to bigger than better than any one of them had dreamed-up before.

Mountains were made out of idea molehills, and frankly the whole world looked a helluva lot better from a “wow, that’d be really kick @$$” perspective.

They used the hell out of the back-channel to get people active, excited and to make sure they were missing as few opportunities as possible while engaging as many people who could help them.

They did this without the assistance of associations, organizations, fax machines, the USPS or DHL delivery service.  The did this without worrying about whether or not the location was one that suited everyone.

They did this because they love what they do, they love being active and they have heart, soul and no real spare time to donate to their communities, but they figure they can give up an extra hour of sleep a night to make something worthwhile.

How come so few people want so much but can’t come up with the same type of inertia–if I tried to stop Steve right now, he’d plow through me like a Mack truck going over a puddle.  This thing is happening!

And it’s awesome.

But “they” own it. That is, there is no owner beyond this collective of unorganized people who decided that their locations could read books once a month.

They DO need the support of organizations–organizations can help them with (perceived?) purchasing power, greater reach, and the potential for more opportunities and growth beyond these local book clubs.

I mean, if someone has the gusto to pick up a book and read once a month, maybe they also want to sit down once a month and watch a presentation on <something> or they want to grab a beer with others and talk about <something> or they want to schedule their own “camp” type of thing.

They DO need organizations. As Marc Andreesen says (courtesy of Christina Wodtke), “Organizations are GREAT distribution channels.” (okay, so Christina clarified this below, but I think it still stands)

Hell, they’re a great place for like-minded people to get together and change the world, rattle the status quo and shake the foundation of just about anything they set their minds to.

Organizations DO need them-these people are THEIR leaders of TODAY and TOMORROW.

One can do without the other, however. One can create the other, however.

One SHOULD inspire, engage and activate the other.

My point is that I think a lot of us get frustrated–I know I have, and I do–and we forget that these things all really do have connecting points and dependencies.

Most of us work in the User Experience space (if you’re reading this blog, at least I think you are)–you/we should all be connecting these boxes and we should all be wanting to solve these problems. We should be taking advantage of this “whatever-point-oh” web/world that we’re in and FIND NEW WAYS to be excited and energized and CREATE SOMETHING BETTER.

Because if we don’t, someone else will.

Will you?

I will.

In the upcoming weeks–nay, days, I will be sharing my initiatives for 2009 as a member of the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute. None of these are impossible to achieve and all of them are valuable and will be worth your time if you choose to participate and/or lead these initiatives with me.

I can’t do it alone, and I want your help.

And you can make my ideas better. More awesome. More YOU. Oh. My. God. Think of how cool that is to see a seed turn into a tree right in front of your eyes and/or from the work of your own hands!

There are so many opportunities for us–from having fun to getting really dorky-technical.

It’s there. If someone hasn’t thought of it–and even if they have–pick up the idea torch and give it a try.

There are big things to be accomplished in 2009, and there are all types of leaders needed–in organizations and in the world at large.  Organizations always need more leaders and volunteers and will present you with opportunities you’d never dreamt of.  If an organization cannot or will not support you, challenge them–better yet, challenge yourself–and start building something great, and present it to them.

Don’t just BE the change you want to see…

CREATE the change you want to see.

4 Responses to “Do We Really Need Associations, Anyway? Do They Need Us?”

  1. Actually Marc Andreenseen says that the most important thing start ups need are distribution. I said that organizations can be that distribution channel. (dang twitter, I gets me quotes in the wrong places.)

    Let me unpack it, now that I have more than 140 characters: All initiatives are startups, from the bookclub to a local meet up. You can build a wiki, but how to get the word out? Mailing lists are a good choice, but because they are closed they have a limited distribution (no SEO, for example.)

    An organization, be it professional like IAI or a magazine like B&A can provide distribution in the form of readers and pagerank. By acting as a hub that pulls related matter together, they act almost like a UX Yahoo– a portal that can send users to the initiative you are promoting.

    Even if all IAI did was act as hub for matters IA, it would already be providing a valuable service in supercharging these efforts.


  2. Good post. I think two really good points are hiding in there that are important for associations to consider:

    – Ownership – as you pointed out, folks can and do get stuff done. Have an idea, do it. The idea and the artefact is owned by the community – it may be the same community that the organisation looks after, but the organisation doesn’t own it. I’ve seen this go wrong a lot in the past…

    – The distribution point is a really good one. What if the entire point of an organisation was put folks in touch with each other to get your ideas out there, says that clearly and doesn’t pretend to do more than that. That’s cool and a reason to belong to something.


  3. Great to read your thoughts on this!

    In a networked (and commoditized) world, one of the few currencies of real value is trust. (Kevin Kelly’s right-on take on this: Because of this, an important “possible future” for associations is to provide a trustworthy space where people looking for professionals in a particular field, or looking to become professionals in that field, can find the tools/resources/mentors to get them rolling. Something like a medieval guild, but without trade secrets.

    The infrastructure is secondary — these conversations can happen in any platform (Facebook, Usenet, the IAI mailing list, etc.), as can the initiatives they spawn. Ownership is also secondary. (“The community owns it.”) The most important thing is for there to be a big enough community (that self-identifies as such) to provide the critical mass that allows initiatives like this to go from a spark in someone’s brain to something useful in the real world.

    (The really critical piece that these orgs provide is the “self-identifies as such” bit.)


  4. Reposting what I had written the other day just ’cause this “tempo” txt file on my desktop is annoying me 😉

    Just one comment, particular to the IAI. Much has been accomplished over the years but what I miss the most is the energy that was there in the beginning.

    I look at and all the dreams and ideas captured in those conversations have been accomplished in one way or another, but I don’t feel the energy is there anymore.

    The energy still exists across our community, but the IAI today is not playing the role of facilitator; of an entity that helps that energy and people’s ideas happen.

    I’m sure Steve would have said yes to the IAI offering something as simple as server space and domain name for the UX Book Club. This is the kind of thing that the IAI could do a better job at, rather than try and own anything in particular. Just give people the tools they need to get their ideas going.


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