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Agencies Accussed of CollusionAccording to recent reports in The Guardian the Association of Model Agencies (AMA) has about three months to submit their responses to allegations by the Competition and Markets Authority that it is involved in price fixing with some of its members.

Agencies allegedly used the trade association as a vehicle for price coordination when their representatives controlled the AMA’s managing council. Like most associations, the AMA claims its Council meets to discuss industry matters and promote the interests of its members, but it is also alleged, by the CMA, to have circulated regular “AMA alerts” that encouraged agencies to reject fees offered by customers and negotiate higher payments.

I wonder how many trade association councils haven’t at one time or another thought it might be a good idea to give members a ‘heads-up’ on sensitive commercial information; suggest ways of capitalising on their dominant position in the market; or have an ‘informal’ discussion of tenders?  Or more likely perhaps, agree a price to avoid competing with each other.

In September 2005, fifty prominent independent schools were found guilty of operating a fee-fixing cartel by the Office of Fair Trading. The OFT found that the schools had exchanged details of their planned fee increases over three academic years between 2001-02 and 2003-04, in breach of the Competition Act 1998. For their part Bursars freely admitted that they used to meet regularly and talk about fees, but maintained that the swapping of information did not amount to a concerted plot to push up fees.

It’s a familiar dilemma for association CEOs. A general discussion at a council meeting can all too soon result in some bright spark suggesting a monthly alert to all members with a guide price for some service or functions. And it’s often down to the CEO to nip it in the bud before what seemed like a helpful suggestion turns in anti-competitive behaviour, generally to the accompaniment of harrumphing about what exactly are the ‘benefits’ of membership!

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What does the brave new world of disruptive technology have in store for trade associations? Will they have a future purpose, and how will they justify their subscription?

Adapting to the Uber WorldAssociations have always adapted to change. Time was when they encouraged actors in a particular trade or industry to gather together under a shared identity, partly to validate their supposed expertise, and partly to exclude those deemed less worthy. So, if we’re honest, protectionism and elitism played no small part in achieving credentials, and arcane rules re-enforced by mystifying etiquette were fashioned, which rendered those inside the tent unassailable, and those outside beyond the pale!

This kind of `gentlemen`s club’ mentality – where simply belonging was in itself enough to justify the fee – survived in various forms until the end of the last (twentieth) century. Some associations also managed to build a quasi-official carapace around themselves, and further strengthened their position by assuming the mantle of gate-keepers: granting access to industry data and information to the privileged few.

Members were also encouraged to believe that their status granted them the ear of government. Indeed, in 1996 the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) appeared to confirm that view with the publication of its best practice guide for The Model Trade Association. The DTI is long gone but that document remains the bedrock of many associations, cementing the notions of best practice, bench-marking, and competitiveness in their psyche.

The turn of the century saw companies` growing more concerned about trust issues and the protection of their reputation. Collectively, reputation management became a function of trade associations, achieved by furthering members’ interests with stakeholders like regulators, industry analysts, employees, suppliers, and the media. And, in response to common reputational problems brought about by industry-wide crises – like pollution, slave labour, or blood diamonds – competing firms tried to stave off aggressive government legislation through the development and enforcement of self-regulation.

Commercially, associations also attempted to influence any regulatory or trading conditions that adversely affected their members, by providing a platform for collective representation and lobbying. In reality, the so called ‘level playing field’ involved seeking favourable rules like tax breaks, subsidised research and development, or relaxed employment practices. Promote and protect was, and still is, the stated or implied motto of many associations.

However, over the last decade, the big story has been the rise of digital and the evolution of organisations to meet their members’ changing expectations. Data is now freely available to all; associations aren’t the only conduit for communication between stakeholders; and businesses are increasingly reluctant to pay to simply to `belong`. Faced by shrinking membership fees, and keeping up with members’ demands for instant access to resources and training, some associations turned to sponsorship, exhibitions, group buying, financial benefits packages, and other monetised relationships to fill the financial gap. The most successful ones have managed to continue updating and innovating – make the transition to e-learning, develop digital products – and make all their services accessible online! But how much longer can they keep ahead of the curve?

Emerging, or disruptive, technologies have the capacity to alter our lifestyle, what is understood by work, business and the global economy. Whilst disruptive innovations create new markets and value networks and eventually disrupt the existing ones, while simultaneously displacing established market leaders and alliances. The interesting thing about the current crop – like Airbnb – is that they achieve this without being subject to any of the traditional infrastructure costs and limitations.

So, as social media has already undermined the logic behind at least one of their key functions – communication – how long will it be before someone applies the `Uber’ model to trade association procedures: undermining established practice; regulation; and tradition? And how will associations represent the interests of members who find themselves displaced by, or in competition with, others driven by disruptive technology?

Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help? Over twenty years’ association management experience.

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Michael Hoare

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Nobody expects the unexpected, but you can at least try and plan for it!

Opening up the building after the Christmas shut down a few years ago I discovered to my horror that over the holidays a small electrical explosion caused by a power surge had burnt out the main fuse box and deprived us of heat, light, switchboard, and computers. Unbeknown to me the argument that ensued about liability between the electricity board, energy supplier, and contractor, would take days to resolve and result in no power for a week, but even at this stage it felt like a disaster!

RISK REGISTER v2

Packing the staff off for what we thought would be a welcome extra day`s holiday, and thanking our lucky stars the whole place hadn`t burnt down, an intrepid colleague and I settled down in the cold to manage the recovery as best we could; literally and metaphorically fumbling in the dark to resolve the problem.

With year-end accounts to complete and membership renewals in full swing it could hardly have happened at a worse time. But a lucky break came with the discovery of one lone top floor power socket that was unaffected. As – being an old building – it was probably connected to next door`s supply! So, with the aid of a long extension cable, we powered up the servers and key colleagues were able to use remote access connections (the one thing we had planned for) to return us to some semblance of normality – at least to the outside world!

Now, how likely it is that we could have anticipated the catalogue of other people`s errors that led to this incident is a moot point. But it is illustrative of just the kind of risks that lurk around every corner. But, the fact that we avoided a disaster was down to luck, rather than planning.

You could categorise our mini disaster under the heading of a technical failure, or even a service provider failure, but risks come in all shapes and sizes and can include loss of key personnel; reputational risk; regulatory and legal failures; financial losses; poor project management; compromised governance; or environmental factors like flood, gale, snow, or fire.

Risks tend to cascade, trigger a domino effect, or worse still collide to exponentially magnify the consequences. So, formulating a risk register that identifies threats, and puts in place plans to deal with the fall out, has got to be a good idea. Yes?

Of course, risks sometimes revolve around people too. I know of one trade association that suffered severe trauma due to the loss of its CEO and Chairman. Reputational risks ensued from allegations of inappropriate behaviour, leaving a compromised and rudderless Board in charge. Finding scapegoats, apportioning blame, and alienating those who could have mitigated adverse publicity did nothing to help. And, despite loyal staff eventually regaining equilibrium, the long-term damage is impossible to calculate. But much of it could have been avoided had there been a plan in place for the Directors to follow!

Dull as it may seem, a risk register lists all the risks pertaining to a business (or project), their grading in terms of likelihood of occurring and seriousness of impact on the company, initial plans for mitigating each high level risk, and subsequent results. It also usually includes details of who is responsible for managing the risk, and an outline of proposed mitigation actions (preventative and contingency). It must be regularly re-assessed as existing risks are re-graded in the light of the effectiveness of the mitigation strategy, and new risks are identified. So, ‘filing and forgetting’ it isn’t an option!

So, a risk register tells us the what, where, and how of risk management, but it also provides the trustees, management committee, and funders with a documented framework against which risk status can be reported. It also ensures the communication of risk management issues to key stakeholders and compels them to act. Let’s face it, disasters happen! Some are predictable, others preventable! But if they strike while you’re in charge, neither shoving your head in the sand, or running around like a headless chicken are attractive options!!

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Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help? Over twenty years’ association management experience.     Michael Hoare FIAM
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Do you have virtual meetings? By that I don’t mean ones where virtually no-one shows up, but ones where decisions are made by email only. It appears there is a legal distinction between those and electronic meetings. They’re the ones that take place by conference call or video link! It’s a subtle distinction but one that will become ever more important in this digital age.

Virtual Association Meetings

Setting a date when most of your directors can be in the same place at the one time has always been a pain in the backside for association CEOs. And even when you’ve agreed a date there’s the venue, the travel, and the catering to be thought of. Plus, once you’ve got them together, if you’re foolish enough to give them a glass of wine with their lunch, you can pretty much kiss goodbye to a whole days’ productive time, once a couple of loquacious old bores get into their stride.

So, banishing Directors to the confines of a small screen on the side of your desk sounds pretty attractive. Not least because it has the potential to unlock oodles of time but it can also save a whole pile of money to boot! In the right circumstances virtual meetings can work admirably, but beware, there may be pitfalls.

Thanks to email it’s easy to get agreement to do something between meetings by simply asking committee members to reply signifying their consent. That’s fine, until one or two people don’t agree, raise major objections, or make counter-proposals. Face to face this would get argued through and the majority view would probably prevail. But, if your discussion is solely by email, how – and who – determines whether a decision has been reached and what happens next? Clear ground rules should help.

A policy that requires over 50% of those responding to agree, or a minimum number of objections before something can be stopped, would do the trick. But what next? Wait until a subsequent meeting – virtual or real – to ratify that decision? Not much help if a rapid response is required! And what about keeping records? Electronic? Not much good if they’re only accessible from one person’s inbox! Better to make it a policy that such decisions are reported like Minutes?

For a couple of years I was on the Board of an international body whose Directors were scattered to the four corners of the globe (not logically possible, but you know what I mean!). Getting them together for more than one or two meetings a year would have been prohibitively expensive and massively time-consuming, so most Board meetings were held by teleconference. With the CEO in Australia, the Chairman in America, and Directors in England, South Africa, India etc., we had to meet at odd moments to allow for time differences. Maybe the odd Director answered the phone in their pyjamas (funny place to have a phone), but it worked!

The key was planning, preparation, and participation.  The Officers having already made their own deliberations, the Chairman and CEO set out and distributed an advance agenda that progressed in logical sequence; notes and supporting papers were circulated in advance, with all options explained; and all participants expected to state their view clearly, with votes enumerated against the attendee list.

It worked because the group was tight, well-known to each other, committed to attendance, and anxious to make progress. It would have failed if the Chairman had permitted subsequent backtracking on previous decisions, let dominant personalities take over the discussion, or allowed the meeting to stray into subjects that were off beam. The particular skill being to inspire input from those who never normally express an opinion on anything, or wrong-foot those who switched to speakerphone while they nipped off to fetch a coffee. Face to face these same skills would be used to prompt those individuals whose ‘lights are on’ but where there’s ‘nobody home’!

Of course ‘actual’ meetings are better when it’s a large diverse gathering – like an AGM – or when there is a lot of business to cover on numerous issues. Slide decks and Power Point presentations can work in a virtual environment, but when you need 100% impact a live event is always best! But the major downside to virtual meetings is that they severely limit the chances of an after-meeting drink! Not the ‘done thing’ these days I know but, speaking personally, I’ve learned an enormous amount about running trade associations with a glass in my hand!

Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help? Over twenty years’ association management experience.

Bavaria 1

Michael Hoare FIAM

IofAM 022 Virtual Meetings Protocol October 2015

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