Just had an interesting conversation with the president of one of our management clients who is grappling with the opportunity/threat of independent, self-forming networking groups.
- The opportunity?...providing a benefit to underserved segments of the membership.
- The threat?...degradation of the brand if the resulting experience fails to meet expectations.
Background – This client has a fairly large percentage of its membership which does little more than pay dues – the classic checkbook member who would be gone in a heartbeat if the economy or their business goes a little sideways. Given the current state of the economy this is more than a little concern! The client’s primary offering, rather extravagant monthly events, are extremely popular and have consistently sold out. Expanding capacity is not a viable option, however, due to limited venue inventory and an equally strong concern that the quality of the product would be diminished if expanded beyond the average 150 attendance. A variety of resource-light, self-forming networks are one of the solutions being explored to partially address the problem, but, right out of the gate, an overly ambitious and somewhat flaky volunteer went way over the top taking what should have been an informal soiree and trying to turn it into a major event with sponsors, door prizes, etc. requiring far more management oversight to execute than the casual event originally intended without the operational quality control standards which governed the association's regular events. Unlike the "virtual" self-forming group snafu described in Ben Martin's February 2008 post, this well-intentioned effort has potentially both a resource and brand liability for the association. To address this issue, the president and I agreed the board should (at least initially)
- take a more active part in selecting the volunteers who initiate the networking groups to ensure they’re more likely to stick to the party line and
- develop a set of operating parameters for these events which would somewhat constrain the design to ensure they keep the light, casual structure and flavor desired.
I suspect that in the long run the positive experiences will far outnumber the boo-boo’s, but relinquishing control always generates some butterflies. Yes, I'm sure one could argue this is completely contrary to the fundamental notion of self-forming groups; however, the association's ability to model and reward "good" behavior may eventually provide the impetus for heretofore dormant or hidden groups to emerge. (What if RIAA had started Napster instead...hmm!) As Jeff De Cagna suggested in his July 2008 blog, "the co-existence of long-standing institutions and self-organizing groups is not only possible, but essential to the creative vibrancy of society, as well as its proper functioning along other dimensions.” So ultimately, the most successful associations will be those which find the balance of control and autonomy needed to nurture and support self-forming groups (virtual or otherwise) while effectively protecting their brand and adequately limiting their legal and financial liability.