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

Associations, Management Control, and the Role of Social Media Tools

By Dennis D. McDonald

Jamie Notter’s post Web 2.0: Participation, Trust, and Beta comments on an earlier post by Virgil Carter titled Web 2.0: Culture, Belief System, or Tool-Kit?

Notter’s post is one of the more thoughtful commentaries I have read in the association blogosphere and I recommend it highly. His discussion of “control” as a factor influencing association management adoption of web 2.0 approaches is particularly well thought out.

But I would mention one significant caveat: talking about “control” with management without their experiencing the practical benefits of the tools at the same time is potentially unproductive. Why? Because “control” is such a complex concept.

Traditional concepts of control have at their root the wielding of power over actions and outcomes of others through coercion, influence, or persuasion. Do people really understand all the subtleties of how control operates in a modern organization, especially ones as distributed as an associations?

Some do, some don’t. But I question how productive just talking about control will be without practical actions — like adopting social media, social networking, and collaborative technologies —  that can provide firsthand insight into having an impact on value generation by and for members. Talking about different approaches to management and control may improve intellectual understanding. Actually using the tools, and experiencing firsthand their benefits, will provide feedback and reinforcement that are much more effective in changing behavior.

Part of the reason we are having this discussion is that in associations we are often dealing with professional and white collar behaviors. Earlier generations of software transition offered significant benefits through the systemization of manual and clerical tasks. Improvements in quality and efficiency were comparatively simpler to document to all involved. Now we are talking about different behaviors and business processes that have more to do with intellectual work as well as social relationships. That makes the transitions potentially more complex — and threatening.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that associations may be a bit behind other “industries” in discussing and adopting social media. It’s interesting to speculate why that is and why we are having these types of discussions.

One reason for this difference in adoption rates has less to do with resistance and a fear of losing control on the part of management than it has to do with the great variations in the level of engagement associations members have with their associations. Companies that sell concrete products to customers have a direct live-and-die relationship; if customers don’t buy the companies die. With associations it’s different since the relationships the member has with a profession and an association are often more diffuse, complex, and multidimensional.

One of the reasons corporations have been quicker to adopt social media and networking tools in relationship to their customers is that they realized that if they didn’t their competitors would. That competitive aspect may have at least balanced the fear of loss of control that also exists within the corporate sector (and which I picked up in some research I did into corporate adoption of web 2.0).

The relationship between the concepts of collaboration and cooperation is complex; a relevant discussion of the definition of “collaboration” is here.

Another contributor to association uncertainty about social media and social networking is that their use requires learning how to manage communications and relationships in ways that many people are uncertain and uncomfortable about. I’m not only referring to privacy issues and the lack of a demarcation between social and professional relationships but also to the impact of sheer numbers. Social media and social networking technologies let people at all levels of an organization build and maintain relationships with orders of magnitude more people than was possible with previous generations.

Some people are better than others at managing this. Part of the impact is on traditional management concepts of span of control, responsibility, and authority. Individuals differ in how they manage and accommodate issues of scale regarding online relationship building and communication. Since they do differ they need to develop their own habits and preferences based on real experience, not on what some consultant (like me) says.

Which gets me back to tools and why I believe that learning firsthand how to manage the practical impacts of social media and social networking makes so much sense. People learn by doing.

Two concrete impacts of using such tools includes reducing email proliferation, and making meetings more efficient. In knowledge- and communication-intensive environments these impacts are potentially very significant, do not necessarily have to threaten management control, and can therefore be productively promoted among management, staff, and members.

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