Marian's Gymboree conference coincided almost precisely with MLA, which resulted in me leaving Philadelphia early Tuesday morning so that I could pick up Josie and have her stay with me for a couple of nights until her Mom got home. We had a wonderful time and I'd been looking forward to it for months, but it did mean that I had to miss Mark's inaugural address.
He's been working on his themes & message for nearly a year, so it's not as though I wasn't familiar with the content, but knowing Mark as I do (for over twenty-three years now!) I'm sure that he delivered it with great wit. (I still remember his Lessig-style treasurer's report from several years ago).
Among the board members, we've had a number of discussions about the implications on the culture of the organization of using social networking software. We used a blog over the past few months to track a couple of discussions, and the general assessment among the board members is that it went quite well. So we'll do more of that. And at the tea on Saturday, Mark urged all of the chapter, section & committee leaders to look for ways that they can start using some of these tools in the work of their units.
It'll be interesting to watch. Part of the reason that associations are so clunky, and that things take so long to get done, is that the mechanisms for interaction that we've had up to now require a lot of in-person communication. Much of the necessity for committees & working groups & task forces and the various levels of organizational hierarchy come out of just trying to manage those logistics. Conference calls and email have certainly helped, but they've still taken place within those traditional organizational structures.
The typical way for a large committee to approach an issue, for example, has been to set up a small group of two or three to investigate an issue, consider the various options, and then make a recommendation to the larger group. The larger group then considers it, makes adjustments, and passes it on up the line to the board. The board finally accepts or rejects it and the results are then made known to the members.
In the connected association that Mark envisions, there's an opportunity to change that dramatically. You still probably need to start with those small groups, because somebody has to take responsibility for moving an issue forward. But if that group could set up a wiki or a blog (or whatever tool was appropriate to the issue at hand), they could start including all interested parties in the investigation and discussions right from the start.
Take as an example the new research policy statement that was approved at the Thursday board meeting. The Task Force has been working on this for a couple of years. They did do a good job, I think, of getting a wide variety of member input into the initial stages of the process, and various task force members shared drafts along the way (for example, with members of the Research Section), but the overall process was still fairly opaque. Imagine what might have happened if the drafting and discussions could have been done online and open to all members to participate.
Would this have been better? Would it have resulted in a better document? Or, regardless of whether it resulted in a better document, would it have been better for the association to have developed it in a more transparent fashion? Or would it actually have been worse -- would task force members have been less willing to be creative and innovative if they knew that their half-baked ideas might be criticized by anyone? Would the process of editing and arranging have become so cumbersome and chaotic that no coherent document could result at all?
Now that the tools are available that can enable complete transparency and global participation, we need to figure out when it makes sense to do that. We've talked about this a bit on the board as well -- if there's an issue before the board, do we need to discuss it among ourselves and achieve a consensus first, or should we open discussions up widely from the very beginning? And does it matter what the issue is?
The task force that Mark is setting up will investigate these issues as well as the technical & practical ones of how MLA headquarters can facilitate the use of these sorts of tools. There is certainly a strong commitment on the part of the leadership of the organization to forge ahead. It's going to be a fascinating year. My personal predilection is to take transparency as far as we can, but that will require a new sort of discipline on the part of those leading discussions. For board members, it increases our accountability to the membership at large, but we still need to be able to achieve the necessary compromises and consensus to move things forward, and we have to be willing to open our opinions up to more potential criticism. It's a different way of doing business, and we'll no doubt have some stumbles. But over time, we'll get better at it, and the end result should be an association that is stronger and more useful because of the greater degree of connectivity that will result.