Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Are Social Networking and Social Media Threats or Opportunities for Professional Associations?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Note: the following posts from this blog are also relevant to the topics discussed below:

Early in my career I was active in professional and trade associations. I went to meetings, gave presentations and speeches in the U.S. and in Europe, served on a variety of industry committees, and helped present testimony before the U.S. Congress. I also helped start a long-lived luncheon group devoted to discussing the technology and policy issues associated with intellectual property law.

Over the years, though, I got burned out on associations. Some of the work was busy work (I thought) disguising the real objective: getting together to meet with other professionals to party. My travel schedule (often 5 days a week on the road) began crowding out non essentials. Besides, I thought, my family and my job provided many opportunities for social and professional interaction.

Recently, having gained some personal experience with blogging, social networking, and podcasting,  I’ve begun thinking about how the systems and processes we typically refer to as “social networking” or “social media” are threatening — or could strengthen — the underlying rationale for joining large professionals membership organizations. Consider the following:

  • Publishing has traditionally been a mainstay revenue generator for professional associations.
    • Is web based blogging, user generated content, and sharing of information among networking efforts threatening this?
    • Or are professional associations well placed to take advantage of the increasing variety of publishing options now available?
  • A major focus of professional associations has always been the promotion of social networking among professionals to support career advancement.
    • With the growth of social networking systems on the web such as LinkedIn, is this traditional association benefit being eclipsed?
    • Or, does the ease with which special “communities” can grow and flourish provide another avenue for enhancing association member communications?
  • Membership associations depend a great deal on renewal of membership dues from year to year to maintain cash flow.
    • With web based communication and the ability to seek out and form constantly evolving social and professional relationships, does it make sense any more for professionals to belong to individual associations?
    • Or, are professional associations especially well suited to support a constantly evolving set of specialized communities within their own membership ranks?

I suppose the answers to these questions will differ among professional associations. I am becoming increasingly aware of the use by different types of organizations of the web, research sponsorship, networking, and other methods already familiar to professional associations as ways to promote research and communication among targeted groups. Here are some examples:

MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. From the Center’s main web page:

“While people have talked about collective intelligence for decades, new communication technologies—especially the Internet—now allow huge numbers of people all over the planet to work together in new ways. The recent successes of systems like Google and Wikipedia suggest that the time is now ripe for many more such systems, and the goal of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence is to understand how to take advantage of these possibilities … Our basic research question is: How can people and computers be connected so that — collectively — they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before? … With its combination of expertise in computer science, brain sciences, and management, MIT is uniquely suited to address this question. We hope this work will lead to new scientific understanding in a variety of disciplines and practical advances in many areas of business and society.”
The MacArthur Foundations Knowledge Network. From the October 19, 2006 press release:

“‘This is the first generation to grow up digital – coming of age in a world where computers, the internet, videogames, and cell phones are common, and where expressing themselves through these tools is the norm,’ said MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton, who announced the new initiative today.  ‘Given how present these technologies are in their lives, do young people act, think and learn differently today?  And what are the implications for education and for society?  MacArthur will encourage this discussion, fund research, support innovation, and engage those who can make judgments about these difficult but critical questions.’… MacArthur’s approach is comprehensive, extending beyond the classroom to assess how digital technology may transform youth in both their formal and informal learning environments.  The research will test the theory that digital youth are different because they use digital tools to assimilate knowledge, play, communicate, and create social networks in new and different ways.  The Foundation’s efforts will connect players across a variety of academic, education, commercial, and nonprofit fields to assess implications and seed new collaborative projects.”

The Peer to Patent Project. From the Project’s “about” page:
“Sponsored by General Electric, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Microsoft, and Red Hat, the Community Patent Project seeks to create a peer review system for patents that exploits network technology to enable innovation experts to inform the patent examination procedure. In every field of scientific endeavor, peer review is a critical quality control mechanism to improve innovation. Throughout the public sector both peer review and citizen consultation are either legally mandated or practiced as a way to inform policymaking. … The Community Patent Project aims to design and pilot an online system for peer review of patents. The Community Patent system will support a network of experts to advise the Patent Office on prior art as well as to assist with patentability determinations. By using social software, such as social reputation, collaborative filtering and information visualization tools, we can apply the “wisdom of the crowd” – or, more accurately the wisdom of the experts – to complex social and scientific problems. This could make it easier to protect the inventor’s investment while safeguarding the marketplace of ideas.”

The Social Media Club. From the group’s “about” page:

“The idea for Social Media Club originated in the Fall of 2005 with the Web 2point1 BrainJam. This led us to create the non-profit BrainJams organization to promote the idea of unconferences and ad-hoc collaboration to a broader audience of non-geeks. Over the course of the last year, BrainJams has brought us together with people from all over the world. As a result of thousands of conversations since, we realized that the passion we have for Social Media was the real purpose of what we were doing and have now launched this site to begin the conversation about the future of Social Media. … Social Media Club will bring together journalists, publishers, communications professionals, artists, amateur media creators, citizen journalists, teachers, students, tool makers, and other interested collaboraters. Essentially the people who create and consume media who have an interest in seeing the ‘media industry’ evolve for everyone’s benefit. We are more than just USERS, we are the reason the tools exist - we are the people who communicate our thoughts and ideas near and far.Join us and let’s shape the future together!”

This is a diverse group of organizations. What bonds them together is that they all employ a mix of communication, publishing, and member interaction techniques that are, or already should be, familiar to professional associations.

  • Each has established a process for “becoming a member” or “subscribing” to member communications.
  • Each provides a mechanism for members to become familiar with or interact with other participants (sometimes in local meetings as with the Social Media Club, which recently held a meeting where blogging ethics and disclosure were discussed).
  • Each is focusing on a particular problem, project, or issue with  significant societal consequences.

I am aware that professional associations engage in a variety of activities that are specifically associated with “being a professional” such as accreditation and educational quality initiatives, mentoring of young members, strategic planning, peer reviw of research, public relations, political activism, and lobbying.  Projects focusing on research and networking such as the four examples mentioned above may or may not engage in all these things.

But I do think that professional associations that do not figure out how to incorporate social networking and social media techniques with their “traditional” membership programs and services might be making a very big mistake for one very simple reason: competition. Just as “traditional media” are scrambling to compete with digital media for the “ears and eyeballs” of emerging markets, so too must associations compete with emerging institutions such as the above which start with the premise that engagement, collaboration, and participation generate value to the participant.

The simple fact is that generating personal “value” through participation and collaboration take time and, as all busy professionals know, there are a fixed number of hours in a day. Professional associations that do not pursue those hours with all the methods now at their disposal will find their membership ranks and annual membership revenues reduced.

Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve written here? Do you have ideas and comments you’d like to share? If so, leave a comment below, Skype me at dennis_d_mcdonald, or email me at Thanks!


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