A Privilege of Membership

When Polly heard about a local meeting of a national professional society she had considered joining, she checked her schedule and hoped to make the event. But as the day grew closer, it seemed as if the organizers had done everything possible to prevent her attendance.

Like many people, Polly’s schedule is packed and often requires that she make difficult choices about how to spend her time on any given day. To keep her options open, she decided to delay signing up until a few days before the event. But a week before the seminar, online registration suddenly closed. After a few minutes of frustration and investigation, Polly determined she could probably attend by simply paying at the door.

When she arrived, the event organizers seemed confused and unprepared. Most attendees were already members and had registered in advance. These other participants were quickly ushered inside. Polly, however, was passed between volunteers and repeatedly deferred. Eventually, she received an extensive printed application. She was asked to complete the forms in full prior to being granted access.

Time passed as Polly reluctantly hand wrote her personal details. She was still learning about the group and merely hoped the session would provide insight; however, instead of networking with other attendees or listening to the opening keynote presentation, she scribbled furiously in a corner of the lobby. Finally, her fingers cramping, she returned the document and presented her payment. An organizer produced a hand-written name tag and Polly quietly slipped inside.

Only after attending the sessions did Polly decide to join the group officially, and after many months of meetings she finally began to piece together the factors which created this unpleasant experience. First, the national office, who runs the website, produces high-quality name tags and ships them to the local chapter. A full week affords enough time for data collection, printing and distribution, so online registration is always closed accordingly.

Second, the nationwide member database system acts as a foundation for all communications and logistics. Local chapters are discouraged from conducting direct email marketing to recruit new members or promote public events since this might conflict with the master central repository and because variations in messaging, branding and communication styles could create “challenges” for the group as a whole. A chapter’s promotions might be well-intentioned but considered inappropriate or unwanted, which creates liability. Therefore, every attendee at every event should go through the national system of registration, which requires extensive details and agreements vetted by legal experts.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, all of the work conducted at the local level is completed by passionate, unpaid volunteers. Some are experts in public relations, marketing and technology; others in human resources and business management. Despite their enthusiasm for the cause and their extensive knowledge in crucial areas, they are limited by the structure and control of the organization. Long conference calls generate tremendous ideas which the handful of paid staff can barely evaluate, much less implement. Polly’s own interest in promoting the good work of the organization locally to attract new members and provide public awareness is shortchanged by stringent requirements and fear of reprisal. Any actions she takes must either be sanctioned or kept quiet.

Individuals like Polly are willing to accept frustrations and unnecessary challenges because they believe in the opportunity. How many other potential members would have given up once discovering online registration had closed? How many would walk away when asked to fill out a lengthy paper form? How many would have been so unimpressed with this backward bureaucracy that they never returned or spoke poorly of their experience? Every business process affects stakeholders. The most dangerous impact of a broken procedure is when it negatively influences someone outside the organization. For every Polly who can withstand the annoyances, there may be dozens or hundreds more that never become involved.

Many organizations are crippled by the concept of a productivity paradox. It seems helpful to close registration and centralize name tag production, but this actually turns away potential members. Requiring a complete dossier on every member and guest sounds great for marketing purposes, but is frustrating and time-consuming for the person completing the work. Including volunteers on regular conference calls looks brilliant on paper and generates amazing ideas from world-class experts. Tragically, these sessions actually waste time because headquarters lack the resources to pursue suggested changes and cling to a culture of centralized authority.

If the purpose of a system is to help your organization and its stakeholders be more productive, then you must maintain constant vigilance to ensure that the process continues to meet it’s original objectives. To avoid a repeat of Polly’s experience, talk openly with stakeholders. Take on an alternate role, such as a customer or vendor, and walk through a process from their perspective.  Sketch simple diagrams of major procedures, highlighting any decisions, error conditions or areas requiring human intervention. You can also call on a firm like Slaughter Development to teach you about Workplace Diagnostics and Business Process Modeling. Your future success depends on understanding how and why your organization works. -Robby Slaughter

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