Mark Athitakis has an interesting post over on Acronym that is about the role of the CEO. I think the most interesting part of the post, however, is not actually about the CEO role: it’s towards the end when he talks about the need for associations to improve their monitoring skills.
He says that associations are basically built to monitor the environment:
An association’s role is to listen to members in the aggregate, gathering information about where the growth opportunities and threats are. Not every association does a great job of gathering that information, or presenting it back to members so they can act on it, but the antennae for detecting what’s coming next is built into association DNA.
In today’s rapidly changing environment, Mark argues, we need to build our capacity to do this monitoring. He thinks it’s arguably the biggest challenge associations face right now.
I agree that monitoring is a serious challenge. I think I disagree, however, with his assessment of Associations having monitoring their environment built into their DNA. I think they all try to listen to their members, but too many associations are actually very weak when it comes to deep understanding, insight, and learning.
In Belgium earlier this month, I heard a great presentation by Kristin Zhivago about better understanding your customers. She was speaking to a corporate audience, but her message was important: most companies have a very weak understanding of what the customer actually wants. We design processes for our customers that are mostly based on what WE the company want and need, not what works best for the customer.
One reason we’re bad at this is because we are not very good at asking our customers what they want and need. Now, some may protest, arguing that they talk to their customers all the time. Okay, but I have an important question for you: when you talk to them, are they telling you the truth?
People change their message when they are talking to YOU about your company. They’ll change their message if they have to express it within a group of fellow customers (like in a focus group). They’ll change their message if they are currently being sold to. We talk a lot to our customers, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting the full picture. The truth, it turns out, is a complex thing and not easy to get at. Kristin actually makes a living by interviewing YOUR customers so you can actually understand what they want when they buy from you (and then you have to change your processes to make it easier for them).
Are associations any good at this? Some are, I’m sure. But too many are not. Too many rely on member surveys where we force-fit our members to answer questions based on OUR thought processes, rather than theirs. We rely on input from Board and volunteers who have their own personal egos on the line at the Board or Committee meeting where we ask for their input. We’re getting data, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily the RIGHT data. Are we really getting truth? Do we really understand our members?
My deep concern about associations is that piece of our DNA that is coded to gather data from members. It was a genetic trait that we adopted back twenty, fifty, or one hundred and fifty years ago, when organizations could be successful with fairly simplistic data in hand. That DNA that served us well in the past could very well be leading to our extinction now. I agree with Mark that monitoring–uncovering and understanding important truth about the system–is a critical challenge for associations today, and I think we need some seriously Darwin-like adaptation if we’re going to stay in the game.