Missed Connections

Missed connectionsI’m still pretty young (by my own standards).  But I can remember the days of pink “while you were out” slips, calling in for messages from pay phones and (gasp) not having email at work.

And every innovation carries with it the same promise—it will keep us more connected.   In many ways, this is true.   When I sit in a far away hotel room talking to my kids over Facetime (when they actually answer), it’s a remarkable display of the promise of the connected society.

But just like the characters in the recent movie Her (great premise, but too long), the technology that brings us together can also be isolating.  I’m struck by how infrequently the phone rings in my office these days—but I’ll look down at it and find 20-30 text messages.   Of course, that implies that I’ve put it down at all.  Too often my phone is my companion in meetings, conferences or at the dinner table.

So what does any of this have to do with associations?  A lot.   At their essence, associations are about connectedness.  Whether its connecting people or companies, associations are about creating the fabric that weaves people together.  And the same technology that enables our doing so in ways we never imagined can also make us more isolated.

Here are three ideas to prevent this.

First, never forget to talk with—or better yet, meet with—your members.    Nearly twenty years ago, at the Massachusetts Hospital Association, I oversaw the “CEO Visit” program.  Put simply, we made sure our VPs visited every CEO in our membership once per year, in that CEOs office.   It was a simple way to stay connected.  Whether it’s just picking up the phone to talk to someone or making an effort to see them at a conference, it’s well worth it.

Second, adopt “in flight” rules.   When I facilitate a Board meeting, I adopt what I call the “in flight” policy—that is, all Board members must put away and stow all portable electronic devices prior to meeting takeoff.   It’s a sign of respect for those in the room to truly be in the room.  We take breaks, and all rush to our electronics, but while we’re talking, we’re really talking.  It’s remarkable how much you can get done with this simple rule.

Finally, go old school.   I get several hundred emails a day.  And more and more, I get tons of texts from our clients.  But I can count the number of letters I get per month on one hand.  I still get them—and read them—but no one sends them.  Sometimes going old school is the way to reach someone.  I still appreciate a handwritten thank you.  I still write tons of birthday cards.  Don’t forget that connecting with your members may be the cost of a stamp away.

Always On

always onMy holiday gift to myself this year was a Pebble Smartwatch.  Of course, I got one in part because I can’t resist the latest gadget.  (For other gadget geeks out there, I strongly recommend the UK Magazine T3, available on the iPad.  It’s like porn for gadget geeks.)

But another reason I got one is even more pitiful.  I simply can’t resist the siren song of my vibrating phone, and the twenty seconds it was taking me to dig my phone out of my pocket was just too much.

I’m not alone in feeling this way.  More and more, you see devices that display your texts on your car dashboard (yikes!), your watch, or even your ski goggles.   We’ve become an “always on” culture, where the idea of waiting to read something is just more than we can bear.

So what does this have to do with associations?   Quite a bit.    A funny thing happens when people read their texts and emails that fast.   They reply just as fast.  And expect a reply even faster.   Cell phone maker HTC did an informal survey to gauge expected response time ( , segmented by audience.  They found that during work hours, clients expect responses to text messages within 1 hour.   And colleagues and “boss” are even faster—expecting a response within 15 minutes.   Emails are only a bit slower, with clients expecting 4 hours and boss/colleagues both at 1 hour.   And  during non-work hours, the response time goes to 24 hours. (Note:  weekends are at least 48).

So what does any of this mean for associations?

It means that traditional expectations for member service need to be dramatically updated.   A “same day” response policy is likely angering your members.  Same day is too late.  Same hour is what they often want.

There are four things I’d recommend for associations to function in this environment.

  1.  Arm your employees.   Make sure your employees have the best technology to stay in touch with their members.  If someone needs help accessing their work email on their phone, give it to them.
  2. Communicate expectations.  Make sure your staff is aware of the changing expectations of members.   I’m not that old, and in my first association job I still called in to have someone read my pink “while you were out” messages when I was on the road.  People didn’t expect immediate response.   Make sure your staff is well aware of how much times have changed.
  3. Communicate expectations, part II:  It’s also critical to set expectations to your members of when they will get a response.  Remember a quick message saying “got your question…I’m on it” often assuages concerns.
  4. Provide flexibility.  It’s only fair.  If you expect employees to respond at odd hours, you should be flexible with their work hours as well—the advantage (and disadvantage) of technology is people are still connected, even at a little league game or appointment.

I’d have more to say, but I have to run, my watch is calling me.



Business PresentationThis week I’m speaking on a panel at the New England Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting.   I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the session title is.  But I know it has something to do with “innovations in meetings and programs.”

And while I’m not entirely sure of the topic, I’ve got some thoughts on how meetings are changing.  Here’s my “high five.”

  1. Presentations are shorter.   With the popularity of 18 minute TED talks, the days of the 90 minute keynote session are coming to a close.  People’s expectations and attention spans are shorter then ever—and TED shows how much information can be conveyed in a short period of time.
  2. Networking is more important than ever.   We live in a connected world, but it’s often possible to lose that face to face connection.  It’s critical for programs to provide ample networking opportunity—while keeping in mind that many people are using the first 15 minutes of a break to catch up on email and texts.
  3. End Business Karaoke.   There was a time when Powerpoint was a novelty.  Now it is an often eye-roll inducing requirement at many meetings.  Remember that presentations should enhance what the speaker is saying—they shouldn’t be what the speaker is saying.  If someone is presenting by reading their slides to the audience, get them off the stage.
  4. Innovate with room set ups.   There’s no rule that rooms have to be set “classroom” or “theater” using conventional chairs.  At TED Active last year, I sat on a bean bag chair.  And still learned something…
  5. Connect with the audience.  Apps and web sites give an opportunity to keep a connection with an audience long after a program is over—and allow attendees to connect with one another.  A few years ago, wi fi was a luxury at conferences, today its expected.  The same will be true in the coming year with conference apps.

And if you’re in the Boston area, swing by NE/SAE on Thursday and Friday the 16th and 17th.   I promise I’ll be sure of my session title by then.


technologyWalk past a newsstand and you can’t escape it.  The 50th Anniversary of JFK’s assassination is on the cover of every magazine from Time to People.   It’s a tragedy that I still can’t get my head around.   And with everyone from Tom Brokaw to Kennedy’s former aides offering perspective this week, there’s little I can add to the commentary from a historical perspective.

But I’m gripped by a few thoughts on the difference today’s technology would have made if it had existed on that day in Dallas.

The first involves smartphones. Ask anyone about whether there is a film of the assassination, and Abraham Zapruder’s name will quickly come up. The dressmaker made what is believed to be the only complete film of the crime of the century.  Imagine that same scene today—so many current events are observed through the lens of the phone.  I recently saw photos of the last two Papal announcements.  In 2005, when Pope Benedict was announced, Vatican City was a sea of faces.  In 2013, it was a sea of phones. With a camera-phone capturing every angle of Dealey Plaza, would we still wonder whether anyone was on the grassy knoll?

Of course, smartphones are only one part of our photographic technology.  Today, video cameras exist throughout many public spaces. (There are more than 6 million CCTV cameras in the UK.) Countless privately-operated cameras watch our ATMs, store fronts, and parking lots.  A critical break in the Boston Marathon bombing case came from the examination of footage from the cameras outside Lord and Taylor’s department store. Today, there would no doubt be cameras on the Dallas buildings, and in buildings such as the school book depository. Would Oswald’s run down the stairs be captured on a security camera?

Another impactful difference would come from the World Wide Web itself, on so many levels.   For example, the web is the ultimate dissemination tool for conspiracy theories.  Fifty years later, a search for the term “JFK Assassination Conspiracy” turns up 3.8 million hits on Google.  Imagine if that type of communication was happening in the days and weeks following the assassination. Would we know more, or less?  Consider that the crucial frames of the Zapruder film weren’t made public until nearly five years after that day in Dallas.   And who would the mainstream media use as a source—the Warren Commission or the Drudge Report?

Finally, the Snowden revelations remind us how digital monitoring can cut both ways.  There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about the level of government surveillance in our lives.  But it does help minimize the possibility that someone like Lee Harvey Oswald would be unable to travel to Moscow, pass out pro-Castro leaflets, and purchase a rifle without arousing some attention.  Whether that’s positive or negative for our civil liberties is certainly debatable, but I have little doubt that it would have had an impact on the events of the day.

I’ve got an easy answer to the apocryphal question of, “Where were you when you heard about JFK?”   I wasn’t born yet.  And neither were the technologies mentioned here—but imagine if they had been.