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The Future of Professional Membership Organisations, Part 2

August 4, 2014

Apart from religious orders, the Livery Companies of the City of London are among the longest surviving institutions in the world. It has long been the case that when we create new institutions, some morph and others fade over time. We no longer have buggy whip manufacturers, but new roles and interests have replaced redundant roles. Is our era any different?

The central argument is that the rate of change is now faster than generational shift. This argument was made eloquently in the 1970s by Donald Schon in his Reith lectures that became the basis of his book “Beyond the Stable State”. In the post war period of reconstruction and growth it was possible for an individual to have a job for life based around a skill set acquired in youth. This has long broken down among blue and white collar workers as automation of roles has progressed. Over the next decade these same pressures will increasingly be felt in professional roles. Teaching, Medicine, Accountancy and Law, just to name a few, are already seeing the impact of technology developments in a way that is beginning to invite comparisons to the radical shift away from manufacturing jobs during the 1980s.

Fewer people will have lifetime roles in a single discipline such as marketing, accounting or law. That does not of course mean that these disciplines will necessarily fade or die. However, the idea of an individual identifying with a single discipline and moving from Associate to Member to Fellow for instance over a linear career is likely to become less common for a large proportion of the workforce. Does that mean we will see these institutions die or merge, or is the expectation that individuals will become members of multiple professional disciplines?

Humans are social animals and joining communities will not change unless we change as a species. It is important to think through these changes for serious economic and social reasons. With students graduating with debts over £30k to enter a profession that will not sustain them over a working life, how should existing professional membership associations plan to survive and thrive in the next generation of change?

Particularly many organisations generate funding from Training and CPD, which is under threat from MOOCs, (Massive Open Online Courses), and publishing for and to their Members, which is going through a sea change with the rise of digital information. Add to this the rise of social media and the situation is highly fluid and uncertain.

This shift from a job or career for life has been underway for at least 30 years now across the Western world. It is not a new phenomenon, but many organisations identify a tipping point for other reasons than technological change.

In particular the growth of portfolio working, freelance, self-employment and SMEs make up a bigger proportion of the work available. Instead of a corporate with a big marketing department for instance, many professionals may find themselves a lone voice, for example the only lawyer in an SME.

This should not be a council of despair, but a chance to reflect and reform.

There will be consolidation and decline for some institutions, no doubt.

However, within adult skills, there is a growing use of the Term, “The T-shaped Learner” and entrepreneurial learning. The vertical part is the individual specialism while the bar is a breadth of skills required.

For instance an IT consultant going freelance or moving to a small company might need help with marketing, accountancy, exporting, personnel and so on.

It’s here that I think there is a way forward. Professional associations have tended to focus on services for members whom they hope to have a long-term relationship with.

The change that social media is making in reality is not about your day to day contacts or close friends and families. What it enables is to manage that next circle of contacts. People you’ve worked with or would like to work with if the situation arose. For instance, last week I was able to contact someone whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years via LinkedIn when a need arose. It took me 2 minutes. 10 years ago it might have taken me a day or a week.

So, for me the role of professional membership organisations will shift subtly from member services towards advocacy to the wider world and services for the users of their expertise. For instance, we might see Royal Colleges of Medicine playing a greater role with patients and their needs to get the best out of medical specialists. In another scenario, the lone HR person in an SME, would be educating the users of HR in the organisation.

This of course has happened for years in some disciplines. Finance for the non-financial manager is one of the most popular courses in early careers.

So for me failure looks like an amalgamation of all the business disciplines into a single entity, a Business Institute. It would be unwieldy and dull. Rather, in a networked society, we need our institutions to become more porous and support their members by delivering services to their customers, clients and users.

My central forecast will be that “pure” memberships will decline, but associateships could grow and partnerships between deep specialists will be preferable to homogenised generalists.

These will be challenging times for professional associations, but there is a future that can work.


Written by Dr. Chris Yapp, SAMI Associate and Director of Knowledge Insights, email

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