Value is a nuanced and complicated thing

As part of our ‘Reorienting your Business’ workstream, we were joined by Cristian Holmes of CABA, who provided some really interesting insight into the sociology of professional membership organisations.

25 Jan 2021


“What are we here to do and how do we create real value?”

After a quick canter through the history of professional associations and how we have arrived where we are today, here are a few of the ideas that Cris put to the group.


In deconstructing a membership organisation we can see that a membership association has four logics or Roles and Responsibilities:

1. Membership – a complex bi-directional relationship that is not owned by the organisation or the membership but constructed by both.

  • Facilitative – bringing together their community to help them discuss what they want and need to discuss and to help them strengthen that community. The power sits with the membership.
  • Leadership – helping the membership to see what is coming down the track, helping them face that challenge and organise themselves so they’re best placed to face that challenge – good examples of this are associations’ response to COVID and Brexit.
  • Embracing heterogeneity – no profession is homogenous. Allowing the members to speak in self-formed communities of practice and through the development of micro-communities.
  • Embracing sociological change – what the old guard wants and what the new recruits want are very different. There is a challenge in allowing that transition to happen within our associations.


2. Standards

  • Creating and legitimising professional standards.
  • Carving out a place for members to be able to work relatively unmolested by managers and capital; relating to the pay that members receive.
  • Socialising members – associations tend to get members when they are newly qualified or new to the profession. Socialising happens through the articles and information sheets that associations produce that lead to nudges around behaviour. Associations encourage people to feel part of the community.
  • Fostering professionalism and social mobility – through ethical frameworks, guidelines and CPD. As members move higher up the ladder they gain more access to the rewards.

Why do some occupations pay more than others?

It’s a four step process: restrict supply; work to increase demand for members’ services; channel that demand to members; and signal quality of their profession. (Kim Wheedon)


3. Public

This varies from association to association. Some see their role as giving the public information, producing educated consumers. Some see themselves in the role of protecting the public. This can cause some conflict between members and the association. Some associations have ceded power to the public. They have members of the public on their board or examinations panel.


4. Self –the association exists for its own sake.

The organisation needs to look after itself so that it can look after its members. Staff have come to the forefront over the last few months during COVID. Finance is another area where an organisation needs to look after itself. A strong association is a member benefit.


Value lies in each of these areas. Over time, each will come to the fore as priorities change.


Threats and Challenges to membership organisations

1. Post-modern threat

  • The next generation consume content very differently. They expect a bi-directional approach to content. They expect to contribute, they don’t expect the great and the good to be writing articles about how they should behave. They expect to be treated like equals.
  • Professional identity is on the wane and personal identity is more important.
  • The next generation tend to consume content on a monthly rather than annual basis. They like to consume on a pick and mix/cafeteria basis.
  • The next generation won’t be happy with the concept of ‘democratic deficiency’ within an organisation, i.e. only those at a certain level get to vote or sit on certain committees. They are likely to challenge the idea that a small group of people make all the decisions.
  • This generation will probably have 3 or 4 careers over time. The era of “cradle to grave” careers is over.


2. Technological threat

  • Susskind and Susskind have written about the ‘end of professions’. There has been an incremental change in how work is being done. Many previously ‘professional’ roles are being taken over by technology.
  • It has been associations’ role in the past to promote the idea that their members will do a better a job than those from another profession. Now they must promote their members against technology.


3. Deprofessionalisation and proletarianization

  • Everyone wants the job to be done in the cheapest way possible leading to the down-playing of professional work.
  • In the past, most professions were left alone to get on with their job without challenge. Now most professions are governed by managers or public management outside the profession. There is no longer any autonomy.
  • Capital’s control over work rather than professional control over work has challenged the professional expert.
  • The ‘educated consumer’ is less likely to take the professionals word for it.


4. Non-organisational challenge 

  • new occupations seem to do very well without associations e.g. consultants and computer programmers. Both professions are doing well and getting well paid for their work.

So, ask yourself:

‘What would happen if this association disappeared?’ and ‘Why do all professional associations look the same?’

For many associations we are seeing Coercive behaviour – they have been set up by royal charter or they’re registered with the Charity Commission – this forces organisations to function in similar ways.

Many associations are Mimetic – that is to say, they copy each other. They see something working well for one organisation and mimic it in their own, often using the same sets of suppliers. Where are the new ideas coming from?

Another approach is Normative – listening and engaging with the members, digging into what they really want, not what another association is offering their members. Cris suggests that associations shouldn’t build something to look like another organisation but listen to your members.


The questions arising at the end of our meeting were:

Which of the four membership logics should your organisation focus on?

How do you get the balance right? and

How do we face the threats and challenges facing our association?


Many thanks to Cristian Holmes for sharing his research and to all those who took part in the discussion. Food for thought.

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