Thursday, March 30, 2006

Public sector information design

Here's an article from the UK's Design Council talking about how information design is important in public-sector efforts. Of course, it's helpful to everyone, but this is a good example of the universal need for better presentation of information--and more design.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


This is the book I finished on the plane ride out to L.A. It's a fascinating read, a real page turner if you're into research on how the world works. While the subject is technical, it's presented here in a reasonably easy-to-read way. The subject is "the new science of networks," as the subtitle reads, or in other words, the mathematical processes that shape the way networks work.

And after reading the book, I realize that a lot of things that we don't normally think of as networks, can be easily described using these terms.

Basically, you can boil it down to this: a lot of the phenomena in the universe are caused by the way networks work. For example, the way fads or diseases spread. You can describe the way these kinds of things happen not by using a bell-curve, or a normal distribution, but rather a power law distribution--think long tail. Also, this same probability distribution is at work in the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 principle of some popularity among readers of business books.

The book gives lots of examples of this, from the way the AIDS virus initially spread--and also why it remains a problem, to airline routing systems.

Anyway, I am not smart enough about math theory do get into a better summary, but I will tell you that the book left me with new ways of describing what we observe happening in the world around us. Further, even though I basically am a mathophobe, the book was still accessible and informative.

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi
, the author of the book, is professor of physics at the University of Notre dame and this book obviously draws on his professional research into networks in general and other stuff like the Internet, more specifically.

Linked, by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi
ISBN # 0738206679

Getting Real

And, speaking of design in organizations, I made it thru 37 Signals' new e-book and it was a great read. Basically, I don't know what I can say about it other than that it's revolutionary, but ought not to be. Getting Real talks about how to build software, but it doing so it outlines a path that has the potential of leading to elegant business practices, good relationships and just plain fun!

It was just refreshing to see them strip away all the trappings of so-called "professionalism" and really get to the heart of what makes business work--it's about the people, IMHO. Now, I understand that some people have problems with 37 Signals' approach, e.g., they're arrogant, they are simpliste, etc. However, in reading Getting Real, I'm convinced that they have things figured out far more than that analysis would allow for.

Why? Because of the way they think of customers. Do they say that you shouldn't try to please everybody all the time or to solve everyone's problems? Do they think that once in a while customers can be not only wrong but dead wrong? Absolutely. But, they also recognize that customers are the point of it all--as well as being the starting place for product improvement, etc. Is this oxymoronic? No, I think it's common sense that's based on a reasonable reading of statistics, frankly.

Here's a quote that illustrates the kind of realism that the team advocates.
Unless a document is actually going to morph into something real, don't produce it.

Build, don't write. If you need to explain something, try mocking it up and prototyping it rather than writing a long-winded document. An actual interface or prototype is on its way to becoming a real product. A piece of paper, on the other hand, is only on its way to the garbage can.
So the book is really appropriately named. Getting Real cuts thru the "thick process," of the business world, process that accumulates pretty darn fast, even in small organizations. Even if you're not in the best position to implement the advice given in the book, it will be a breath of fresh cool air in the desert of status quoism.

You can buy the book online at Just a note on the e-book format, it was super-fantastic. I printed it out and took it with me on the plane and as I finished pages, I jettisoned them and my bag got lighter. Then, I kept the pages that had something interesting on them. Win/Win/Win.

Greetings from Los Angeles

I'm in L.A. for a big design show, NeoCon West, trying to get our membership numbers up and make some good contacts.

It's been a lot of fun so far, although I have had some really crappy service at the Biltmore hotel in downtown L.A. But at the show, I've made lots of friends and all is going well.

I attended a session yesterday called "Good design is good business," which was given by interior designers Barbara Dunn of Gensler, and Jan Belson of the Design Arts Group. Their presentation was focused on the ways design is becoming more integral to business practices. This would impact certainly the spaces in which people work, but further, they discussed ways in which design is making itself felt in the actual processes of business administration and problem solving. Good stuff, based on a lot of Dan Pink and Virginia Postrel, with a lot of emphasis on the importance of creating customer experiences.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Cause marketing...

Good advice on "cause marketing," from CAE Weblog. He points you to resources you should check out to keep you on the right side of the law.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Chance favors the prepared mind, etc.

A co-worker gave me a feng-shui calendar when I first started this new gig. Today's bit says this:
Pure luck, man-made luck and heaven luck are components of your destiny. You control your man-made luck through your thoughts, words and deeds.
Another bit of wisdom (from Mary Chapin Carpenter) tells us:
We've got two lives, one we're given and another one we make.
So my takeaway is that it is the natural course of events for people to get screwed over, but don't forget about the part you can do something about. The therapists say you need to "own your problems." So that is my bit of menschdom for today.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Associations can help your career (duh)

I put "duh," but sometimes this point is not that obvious, even to folks who work for associations.

Via the lifehacker, I found this article that talks about how to move along in your career, how not to get fired, etc. The thing I noticed about it was that near the end, it talks about signing up for a trade publication as a starting point for beginning to network professionally. I've found that associations (in my case, ASAE) are a super place for someone just starting out to get to know the ropes. I think that's because if you volunteer on a project, or suchlike, the others working with you are so glad to have help they don't care if you're young or not. That stands in stark contrast to the way things are in the office where you're busy paying your dues. If you have a brain on your head and shine in the volunteer setting, it'll go along way. That's my idea for how to tap into generation x, y and beyond: show them that your association's contacts will help them kick butt.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Innovator's Dilemma

So, I ran into this book on someone's site and I thought it looked like something I should read. Now, it is almost 10 years old, and since many of the examples Christensen uses to illustrate his points are now in the realm of the historical--and since the book goes into fairly great technical detail about the affected industries, the book doesn't read as easily as it might have once.

However, the book is still really relevant because of the principles it uncovers. For one thing, Christensen coined the term "disruptive technology," which has become a very common way of speaking about the topic. Quoted below, from the oracle of wiki:
a disruptive technology is a new technological innovation, product, or service that eventually overturns the existing dominant technology in the market, despite the fact that the disruptive technology is both radically different from the leading technology and that it often initially performs worse than the leading technology according to existing measures of performance.
So the point of the book is simple. Big companies, by being good at what big companies do best (think process optimization, good controls, etc.) put themselves at risk for being overturned by the latest and greatest "disruptive technology." Basically, the company gives others the tools to compete effectively and beat them at their own game (or at least knock the wind out of them). In a nutshell that's it.

Clayton makes this argument in The Innovator's Dilemma, but then I need to read the next book, The Innovator's Solution, to figure out what one is supposed to do in these situations.

Update: Here's a great link from CIO that has an interview with Christensen.

Another update: Upon further questioning of the wiki oracle, I found this to be quotable--which treats what to do if you find yourself being disrupted:
Christensen recommends that existing firms watch for these technologies, invest in small firms that might produce them, and continue to push technological demands in their core market so that performance stays above what disruptive technologies can achieve.
Okay, sorry, one more update: Just came across this relevant tidbit from the New York Times via Signal vs Noise, where they're talking about Craigslist "underdoing" Microsoft.

The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen
ISBN # 0875845851

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Dynamics of Technology for Social Change

I found this book off BusinessWire and wrote to its author, Jonathan Peizer, for a review copy which he was kind enough to send. To me, it seemed like a topic that's been needing exploring for awhile, especially for me personally in light of my recent stint at a patient advocacy, donor-centric organization.

Peizer is an IT consultant working in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, and is a pretty impressive guy, working on some pretty impressive things. The book covers his professional experiences and shares the lessons learned. Many of the examples given come from the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, and covers what's called in the book ICT, or Internet Communications Technology. The Open Society Institute was originally founded to help countries transition from communism. I must admit I didn't know about all the work that Soros had done toward promoting democracy, and the projects are quite impressive. (In an email exchange with Jonathan, I told him I thought Soros had jumped the shark with his activities around the 2004 elections, but that's a topic for another day, non?)

I am impressed with the book's straightforward assessment of the nuances (dysfunctions?) of the nonprofit sector, and of the challenges inherent in them. The text gives some good examples of how to deal with these (largely people- and personality-centered) issues. Getting buy-in, establishing quality relationships, are all put at the forefront of what some might consider to be purely technical endeavors. Peizer rightly prioritizes these kinds of people efforts as being the lynchpin to a successful program.)

Here's a quote that talks about the effort to build (or shall we say, foster) the kind of community that in turn made a successful program:
Together with the local foundation, the program identified various population segments in each country where Internet access would greatly benefit the enahcement of civil society and where the targeted constituency was ready to adopt its use. The major population segments targeted included: academic and research institutions, secondary schools, independent media, NGOs, libraries, medical institutions, museums and nonaffiliated individuals.
I like the way this is laid out, step one, step two, etc. This kind of systematic thinking is needed more in nonprofits. Even though you can see that it's based on relationship, there's a coherency about it, and a planning that's evident and conceivably there'd be an easy explanation as to why each consitutency had been targeted.

So, moving along, I feel like the author really "gets" some people issues that others miss, and these bits are shared in the contexts of his lessons learned. One people issue is keeping up with the Jonese or wanting to have what others have. Another is demonstrated below:
Concerning new ideas, if you throw a punch at someone, naturally they may defend themselves and may even retaliate. Forcing technology (or any new idea) on someone who is not ready for it elicits an equivalent intellectual response. Similar mental defense mechanisms and associated dissonance come into play. [...] People do not wish to look less than competent in front of subordinates. It is not unusual in an NGO for managers who are expert in other areas to be less proficient using a computer than their younger administrative assistants. A minefield of cognitive dissonance lurks in every ICT project. The most treacherous is forcing solutions on those not ready to accept them.
File that one under "we have learned through sad experience."

Another minefield explored is that the biggest challenge to an organization's mission may come from inside, where Peizer examines the clash between administration and programs. He talks about the need for "unselfish management," which reminds me of another book. Preach it, brother, is all I've got to say. There are more egos out there than you can shake a stick at.

Anyhow, this post is already plenty long, but if you are looking to have examples of how to implement a technology program (or any program, really), and would like to have some fresh case studies at hand, this is a good choice. And it's really good to have it come from a nonprofit person who understands that the personality element is key to success.

The Dynamics of Technology for Social Change, by Jonathan Peizer.
ISBN # 059537240

Friday, March 17, 2006

Ten things

This post from PicoBusiness rang true for me. Here's the ones that had me really nodding in agreement.
  • Bad things usually happen right after you give up trying to prevent them because they haven’t happened yet.
  • People will lie to you about just about anything, mostly to make themselves seem more important.
  • Husbands without a timeconsuming hobby will cheat on their wives. [ha! - ed]
  • When someone is mean to you, it is almost always because they are jealous.
  • Most people trust anecdotes more than they trust statistics.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What's a good retention rate?

This tidbit came over the ASAE communications listserv yesterday, and I was kind of taken aback to actually find some great content! It's from Stephen Carey, who's president of the Association Management and Marketing Resources group. It's in response to a question that asked for "a summary of averages and ranges of association annual retention rates." The person asking said they felt like an idiot for asking, but I don't think it's a weird question at all. I think that kind of info is kept close to the vest. It reminds me of a saying about innkeepers that they'd rather talk about their sex lives than their occupancy rates. Anyhoo, here's the quote:
Most of the surveys for both trade and professional associations find that the average retention rate falls between 82% and 90%. The average rates 5 years ago were a percentage point or two above this. Some groups are running above 95% and others below 70%. If you are running below 85%, you probably need to tune up your retention machine and develop additional incentives, which address your value equation. If you running below 80% your value equation is probably in need of a major overhaul. Benchmark several like associations in your industry and use the average as your guide.

Our rule of thumb, is that if your combined membership rate after drops and adds is 3% or better on average, you're probably doing ok. We would also recommend that you figure your "true retention rate," which is your drops minus those drops that have changed fields, passed away, have budget problems or other issues you cannot control. This will give you the best guage as to whether your value proposition is out of whack and you really have a problem.

The most important thing in association membership first aid is to "stop the bleeding." This means spending as much if not more on the retention program as you do on the recruitment program. If you don't, you're just throwing new members into a net with a hole in it and you are wasting your recruitment dollars. We still find many association that have not mastered this piece of strategy yet.
This bit of information is good for me to know. I know I'm trying to stop the bleeding right now. But the question still remains, what are some good sources to research this kind of thing? I haven't seen it in anything from ASAE, but maybe I've overlooked that.

An Army of Davids

So, I've been spending some time with Glenn Reynold's book (Glenn being of course the seminal and highly influential Instapundit), and I must say that it gives me lots of language I can use to talk about phenomena that are easily observable right now. I think you could say that Glenn Reynolds has done for technology what Virginia Postrel did with design topics.

Which is to say, they beat the drum and say, hey, look at what this democratization of knowledge can do for you! In that vein, the book is really pretty visionary, pointing out the magic of the internet age. And I for one see it as magical. You know how Laura Ingalls Wilder's Pa in Little Town on the Prairie said to Laura that it was an amazing time to be alive (that was in the 1890s)? I've been actively thinking that to myself for the past few years, and An Army of Davids gives me ample evidence to back that up with its talk of citizen empowerment and the "comfy chair revolution."

The theme of "ordinary" individuals being empowered to create, and then to benefit from the fruits of their labors is a big one in the book. This is making me think of the Business Week article I read at the gym this week, where they were talking about the validity of the measures we use to guage the strength of the economy. One of the things they mentioned was the amount Americans spend on education, which is, of course, huge. The number crunchers chalk that amount up to consumption, however, the article's authors were looking at it as a form of investment, which of course it is. It's these kinds of individual choices adding up to sweeping societal changes that An Army of Davids is really good at articulating.

Toward the end of the book, there's a lot of emphasis on Kurzweil's Singularity, which Kurzweil defines as "a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed." Even though that definition is broad enough to drive a boat show into, it's something that we all see every day. What's potentially frightening about it is that there are so many people who don't know about the shadowy optimization that is occuring at the fringes of life. There are so many people who still proclaim proudly, "I don't do email," and the like. What's going to happen to them? It's a form of illiteracy already, not to mention what it's going to be like 5, 10, 15 years from now.

This is not to say that Glenn holds back on some of the more awful sides of the democratization of knowledge and resources, e.g., Bioterror for Dummies and the like, but I think what comes through in the book is an inherent trust in human beings, i.e., la technologie c'est un humanisme. Because, when everyone is empowered, the good guy stands a lot better chance of winning.

Notes for myself and others involved in association management. You know how we have a hard time getting and keeping members, and also quality volunteers, etc? My conclusion from reading this book is that our boards and staff are asking a lot of people--asking them to give up their free time when they could be "volunteering" for themselves. And I don't think that's selfish, either. When someone could put together a website and manage an effective program, whether professionally or for a cause, we had better make sure that our programs are just as effective. Also, I think associations should focus on what they're good at: providing credentials and/or education as a cost-effective alternative to the bloated universities, and lobbying the government. IMHO.

Army of Davids, by Glenn Reynolds
ISBN # 1595550542

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Book blog?

I'm realizing I haven't blogged an actual book for quite awhile. I've actually been getting some reading done, but taking the time to formulate something I'd not be embarrassed to post has been another matter... It won't be long :)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Brain drain

The Bridgespan Group, a consultancy for nonprofits, has identified a leadership deficit in the nonprofit sector. My take on the problem's cause? (I know, no one asked.) Likely there aren't leaders because lots of talented people in the sector who show potential are deemed threatening and/or uppity by petty leadership--and their efforts at success are sabotaged. I'm sorry if this sounds snarky, but I believe it could be easily documented. So that's why has to stop, IMHO. This applies to trade and professional associations every bit as much as the more fluffy cause-oriented groups.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Conference thoughts

From Chris at Social Customer Manifesto. I don't have time to break it all down, but it's pretty relevant to what we do in associations. The conference wiki is, of course, a great idea. I actually proposed one last week for our upcoming conference, and the idea went over pretty well. We'll see if it happens...

Nonprofit administration resource

This came into my email today, it looks like a good set of links to lots of matters nonprofit-related.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Recruiting volunteers

So, I've begun to be active in an affiliate group of my university's alumni association. Their handbook is a good one, and here's the list on recruiting volunteers that I found to be quite well put.
  • Do not assume that people are too busy. Sometimes busy people like to be busy.
  • Be a friend and make sure they are welcomed.
  • Do not belittle the job.
  • Do not make it sound too easy.
  • Give the job a name, define a timeframe, provide guidance and relay expectations.
  • Do not add to the responsibilities during the job.
  • Make sure the task is achievable and the goal is obtainable.
  • Speak the language of the person you are trying to recruit. Ask yourself, what do we do that would be of interest to them?
  • If you are not personally committed, assign someone else to do the recruitment.
  • Always recruit volunteers on the basis of the service to clients, not to the needs of the [organization]. People work for people, not things.
  • Tell people what they will do, how long they are expected to do it, and who will benefit.
  • Remember that you are trying to remove people's reasons to say NO, not force them into volunteering.
  • Never use guilt when trying to recruit.
  • Be honest and upfront with people when recruiting. Do not minimize the work or time required.
  • Monday, March 06, 2006

    Post on non-dues revenue

    From Ron at VanDamme Associates. It looks like a really good articulation. Would be useful in work with committees or boards.

    Iffy nonprofit accounting

    Here's an article from the San Luis Obispo Tribune that talks about how to do some investigative work before giving to nonprofits. There's so much of this kind of accounting that goes on, it's hard to tell whether the folks are just clueless (often) or deceptive. This kind of info is helpful to both donors and organizations, if people will take the time and do the research. Why don't people do the research? I think people are maxed out on the time they can give to this kind of stuff.

    Saturday, March 04, 2006

    Transformation Design, Part Deux

    I mentioned the new study of "transformation design" in an earlier post. Briefly, it's using design principles to rework organizations. I think it's a great way to think about it, and anyone who cares about optimizing anything ought to have the topic resonate with them. Thanks to Chris, who emailed me that the UK Design Council's full paper has been uploaded to their website (it was previously only an excerpt).
    More than 30 years ago, Charles Eames, the American multidisciplinary designer, was asked, ‘What are the boundaries of design?’. He replied, ‘What are the boundaries of problems?’.

    This point is as relevant today as it was in 1972, but the way we view problems has changed significantly since then.

    Traditionally problems were seen as complicaed challenges that could be solved through breaking them down into smaller and smaller chunks – like fixing a car.

    RED believes that the most important modern problems are complex rather than complicated. Complex problems are messier and more ambiguous in nature; they are more connected to other problems; more likely to react in unpredictable non-linear ways; and more likely to produce unintended consequences. [...]

    Traditionally, organisations have been designed for a complicated rather than a complex world. Hierarchical and silo structures are perfectly designed to break problems down into more manageable fragments. They are not, however, so effective handling high levels of complexity. For this reason, many of our most long standing institutions are now struggling to adapt to a more complex world.
    As they say, read the whole thing! My thoughts are that of course this has to be a) workable and b) totally useful - the paradigm shift that we're needing to make at this point societally. I'm surprised, but not terribly so, by pushback from designers. I think the argument that something's designer is the ultimate authority in its form is highly overstated. Designers design loads of things that continue to be improved upon, transformed, etc. Not to mention the fact that if you look at what happens to an architect's work, say, at a zoning meeting, that argument kind of flies out the window, doesn't it?

    Anyway, I think that design is a great way of looking at the problems of organizations, and the problems organizations are called upon to solve. The people aspect is precisely what calls for design. After all, you can build a house as a piece of art but there's a small market for that. Mostly, you build a house to function as a house, and the better the architect understands the way people work, the better he'll be able to do that.

    Friday, March 03, 2006

    Astroturf reform

    This is a good read that puts lobbying reform in an association-centric context. Exerpt
    Today, it's easy for trade associations and major lobbying firms to conceive and fund so-called "grassroots" issue campaigns that bear no mark of their sponsors or betray their Beltway origins. This form of public advocacy has acquired the unflattering appellation of "astroturf" campaigning.

    Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman want more disclosure and more transparency. They believe that voters are persuaded more easily by arguments that appear to come from "real" citizen-based groups. And that the grassroots lobbying laws are easily abused to allow lobbyists to manipulate both donors and the public.

    DoD supports associations...

    Here's a press release to this effect. This would be a good advocacy effort for lots of folks, eh?

    Too many charities?

    Here's an article from Business Week talking about the number of charities in the U.S. Having worked for one such "charity," I think the author is right. More means that the nation is richer, more means market forces will drown the inept nonprofits and discourage "nonprofit empire building." I love working for associations, but when I was involved in the charity scene, I definitely was confronted with a lot of sketchy motives and a distinct lack of outcome-orientation.

    Wednesday, March 01, 2006

    Nice website...

    I came across this website and I wanted to remember it (I suppose there's always for that kind of thing, but I thought I'd blog it). It just strikes me as representing a group that's got it together. The website seems well thought out and very usable. Unfortunately, that's kind of rare among associations, don't you think?

    Non-dues revenue idea??

    Here's an interesting thing some folks could do with this kind of legislation proliferating...