Alice Meadows
Alice Meadows
Director of Communications, Wiley
Coerver Photo casual 1-2011
Source: Harrison Coerver

1. Thank you for talking to us Harrison - please can you start by telling us about yourself and your company, Harrison Coerver Associates?


Harrison Coerver Associates is a solo practice, founded in 1990, and now associated with three other consultants. I have personally been working in the association market since 1985, and I estimate that since then I have worked with 1200-1300 clients. Most of our work is in strategic planning for associations, as well as governance and organization engagements.


2. Your book, Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations has been a huge success - in brief, what are those five changes and why do you think they are needed?


My co-author Mary Byers and I believe that the convergence of several trends in the last 10-15 years - including member and volunteer time pressures, technology,competition, an increasingly diverse membership - has irreversibly changed the landscape for associations. This means that the traditional model is no longer effective; in fact, it may well be obsolete.The mismatch between the environment and the traditional association model means that significant changes and improvements are needed in terms of governance, leveraging staff expertise, carefully defining the member market, rationalizing product lines, and bridging the technology gap.


3. You've recently published a follow-up, Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations - what is its main message?


Road to Relevance is a companion and complement to Race for Relevance. It focuses on how associations have to change the ways they think and act in today's competitive environment. This competition is coming from many different sources, both traditional - other associations (new and existing), for-profit companies, publishing houses - and non-traditional, such as the internet, which is both making the competition much more accessible, and helping members find alternative sources of information etc, and social media, which is increasingly used in place of face-to-face networking.


4. What do you see as the three main challenges facing membership organizations in the near and medium term future?


Coming to grips with the fact that what has worked so well in the past is now obsolete is a huge challenge for most associations. Learning to focus their resources on a much narrower and much more competitive product line is another. And there's a third big set of challenges around technology - moving on from face-to-face and ink on paper - which also has financial implications, of course.


5. What about the opportunities?


As well as being a challenge, technology also represents a huge opportunity for societies. Leveraging their brands is another and all associations should be making more of this, because it's so powerful. They need to reposition what their brand promise means and highlight their areas of excellence much more. Last but not least, societies need to capitalize on youth - not just as association members, but as board members. The lack of involvement by young people on boards is the main reason why both association staff and boards are so behind on technology. All boards need a mix of experience and younger members, but most association boards are all veterans and no rookies. Good teams strike a balance of both. Young/early career researchers and professionals are not yet tied to any one system or culture, so they ask “inconvenient” questions and bring a much-needed fresh perspective.


6. What impact - positive and negative - has the move to digital had on associations?


Moving digital is not optional, it's essential. As a professional society, if you want a shortcut to irrelevance then ignore technology!


7. Although many of your clients are trade and professional associations, you also work with some that are more scholarly and scientific, especially in the area of healthcare. Do you see any differences between these two broad types of organizations or do you think the same principles apply to all membership organizations?


One size definitely does not fit all. But having said that, all associations share the same environment, so issues such as technology changes and demographic shifts apply to all societies, even if they are affected differently. So, before we look at how we are different let’s look at how we are the same and share solutions - modifying them as needed. I recently met with some association executives in the Netherlands and, when I asked them what aspects of my approach wouldn't work there, they told me that it all works despite the geographic and cultural differences. I defy you to say that any of the competitive strategies I talk about in Road to Relevance don't apply!


8. What are the main reasons why people join societies, and are these changing?


I don't think the reasons why people join societies are changing. The main reason why societies exist is to produce more competent professionals, and the reason why people continue to join societies is to enhance their performance - to be more informed, more current, and more connected, professionally and personally. But there are a lot of alternatives to associations today so now it's not just a question of "what do I want?" but also "are you the best person to provide it?". There is a lot of competition out there and societies are not just playing in their own sandbox any more. New generations are growing up in an environment with many more options than previous generations. They expect to be able to buy a particular product or service when they want it, and how they want it,rather than in a predetermined bundle. I think of this as being like trying to sell our members albums when what they want is to buy singles, and there are big implications for what this means in terms of how societies package and price their services.


9. Continuing to attract young/early career researchers is critical to the future success of all societies. Do you think this demographic will continue to join associations in future? Why/why not?


They will, but only if associations adapt and respond to their preferences and their needs - if a society is best in class at what they do at an appropriate price and appropriate delivery method. Societies will be in trouble, however, if they treat this generation in the same way as previous generations. We can't force them into our mold - they think differently, learn differently, and socialize differently, etc. I'm not, as a 63 year old, suddenly going to be able to determine how to meet the needs of young members, but if we bring them into leadership positions they'll tell us; and we have to listen. For example, at a recent professional society meeting I attended an older board member was bemoaning the fact that the association hadn't been able to get emails for many of their younger members; one of those younger members turned to me and said, " but we don't use email".


10. Do you think societies as we know them will continue to be relevant enough to survive in future, or will they be replaced by something else?


They will survive but, if they stay on the same trajectory, they will be smaller, aging, less influential, and less relevant. If you still built computers or cars the same way as 10 years ago you wouldn’t be relevant - associations are no different. Changes are accelerating and our ability to acknowledge and respond is slow - every day we fail to do so we are getting further behind. If societies are to survive and thrive, it is pretty obvious that significant changes are needed.