The Changing Nature of Technology Associations
Appalachian State University
The question of what lies ahead for organizations like the National Association for Industrial and Technical Teacher Educators (NAITTE), the Council on Technology Teacher Education (CTTE), the International Technology Education Association (ITEA), the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), and others is a timely and important one. Without exception, these organizations have experienced declines in membership due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is the dwindling pool of potential members from which to draw.
It may be instructive to look at some specific examples. NAITTE, whose membership peaked in 1973 at 702 members and dropped to 500 members in 1989, currently has fewer than 200 dues-paying members (Petrina, Brauchle, Gregson, Herschbach, Hoepfl, Johnson, Stern, Walker, & Zuga, 2003). Epsilon Pi Tau (EPT) had approximately 21,000 members in 1976 and now has fewer than 14,000 members (J. Streichler, personal communication, October 16, 2001). Admittedly, EPT is one of the healthiest technology associations in terms of total numbers. Another trend affecting all of these associations is the aging of the profession they serve. The largest age group within the membership of the ITEA, for example, is the 45-years-and-older category (L. Price, personal communication, October 31, 2001). It does not take sophisticated analysis to predict continuing declines in membership, barring changes in structure, focus, or strategies.
Factors Affecting Membership in Associations
Petrina et al. (2003) described a number of the specific factors that have contributed to the declines in membership of technology associations. These included the shift in focus in many departments of technology from teacher education to industrial technology, the renewed emphasis on academic skills at the expense of technology education in the public schools, and the resulting alarming declines in the number of people engaged in industrial teacher education.
The declining membership in technology associations reflects a changing attitude toward membership in voluntary associations in general (Levin, 2000). Levin noted that decisions about whether to join an organization are no longer bound by honor and duty, as they were at one time, but are instead based on very pragmatic concerns such as perceived return on investment. The very premise on which they are based practically forces members and potential members to take this kind of cost/benefit accounting into their decisions about joining. "Volunteer organizations are the only corporations that charge customers for their products and services and then ask the customers to help manage the company" (Levin, p. 67). Membership is an ongoing challenge for leaders in any voluntary association, and one that must be constantly monitored. "Significant drops in renewal rates can signify any number of things", from member dissatisfaction to a failure to send out renewal notices (Toth, 2001, p. 50). The challenge is determining just what factors can be blamed for declining membership and how they can be changed.
Based on member input, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) (1999) identified 14 trends that are affecting voluntary associations. A partial listing of the trend types follows.
- Leadership. The leadership role for associations is changing, and good leadership is essential.
- Return on investment. Members seek value-added goods and services from their association, or they will go elsewhere. There is less loyalty to associations.
- Governance. Board membership that reflects the future of the membership is essential.
- Revenues. When faced with diminishing resources, associations must invest in core competencies.
- Consolidation and mergers. Associations should consider joining forces when goals, members, and services overlap.
- Image building. Associations must identify and market the unique value of the goods and services they provide.
Strategies for Attracting and Keeping Members
The first thing that must be acknowledged is the underlying reason why associations exist: to achieve positive change within a defined profession (Toth, 2001). Generic reasons why people join associations include a desire for access to information provided by the organization, the social and business contacts that membership provides, and the capacity for personal and professional development. If a group wants to maintain a strong association, the most fundamental task it faces is helping members realize that "fulfillment (of these goals) is achieved when they become active in some way" (Toth, 2001, p. 57). In other words, the benefits members get out of their association are proportional to the amount of energy they devote to it. This participation cannot be forced on members, however. The pathways people take toward active, participatory roles must be understood in order to better identify the best strategies for achieving this goal.
At any time, associations must focus their attentions on two very different membership categories: new and renewing members. Failure to address the needs of either will have negative long-term consequences. New members are the most likely members not to renew their membership. For this reason, associations must develop tools for drawing in new members during their first year of membership (Ethier & Karlson, 1997).
- Send thank-you notes or certificates to new members.
- Have an officer of the association send a personalized email message to new members.
- Include tips for networking within the organization in new membership packets.
- Establish a mentoring plan, in which long-term members are asked to ensure that new members are invited to take active roles in association activities.
- Devote special issues of association journals or newsletters to highlighting the benefits of membership.
- Create a welcome center on the association's web site that includes links to similar sites of interest.
- Provide contact information for members.
- Establish an involvement committee to ensure that new members are given active roles within the association.
Long-term members represent the lifeblood of voluntary associations. They have obvious commitment to the goals of the organization, have developed relationships and a sense of shared purpose, and often carry out significant portions of the work of the association. In a return-on-investment environment, however, associations cannot take their involvement for granted. Possible strategies for retaining long-term members include the following (Levin, 2000; Toth, 2001).
- Conduct focus groups via telephone to assess member needs and preferences, or to examine trends affecting the association.
- Offer incentives for renewing in a timely fashion, and consider offering discounts for multi-year memberships.
- Generate segmented and targeted renewal notices that highlight the benefits for specific groups. Student members, for example, can be reminded about job placement services offered.
- Identify and publicly recognize members with long tenure.
- Establish a column in newsletters or on the association's web site to recognize efforts of members. These and similar strategies for recognizing member contributions address the ever-important "human need to be recognized by peers" (Streichler, 2000, p. 11).
- Keep long-term members involved through targeted involvement plans. Be explicit about what the member can expect to accomplish through the commitment of his/her talents. Consider breaking jobs down into smaller, less time-consuming tasks to avoid volunteer burnout.
Individuals working in almost any white-collar occupation have probably been involved at some level with the strategic planning bandwagon, the "new millennium fad" (Cole, 2001, p. 1). Anticipating and planning for future needs, forces, and goals can either be a tedious exercise or can lead to effective action plans, depending on how the process is approached. Because members commit their time and expertise to associations on a voluntary basis, strategic planning will probably have to be approached in creative ways. For example, instead of focusing on the development of a multi-page, painstakingly crafted document, association members might instead want to spend their time discussing a central, focusing question. Flesher (1994, p. 90) suggested, "What role will this organization play in facilitating change and shaping the future of education for work?" Olson and Dighe (2001) described a group exercise in which members write a "letter to a future generation," in which they "explore heartfelt personal aspirations" for the association (p. 97). Such an exercise would force participants to identify their core reasons for involvement in the association and their hopes for its future.
The recent emphasis on strategic planning acknowledges the need for flexibility and proactive decision-making. As Starkweather (1998) noted, "The perspectives, working structure, and leadership of ITEA will have to change significantly if the association is to remain a leader in the future" (p. 47). A proactive stance is perhaps easier to maintain in associations that have some continuity in key staff positions. When there is frequent turnover in decision-making bodies, as is true of NAITTE, strategic visioning is easy to put off. Petrina et al. (2003) observed with regard to NAITTE, "Executive Committees over the past decade have maintained the standard range of NAITTE services while moving questions of systemic change into the future" (p. 9).
One of the most important tools now available to associations is the Internet. Every technology association now has a web presence and uses it to communicate with both members and non-members. The ITEA is to be commended in this regard, because it has a professional-looking site that is full of information and is updated regularly. The organization also incorporates value-added services for members only. In addition, some of the technology associations maintain list-serves through which members can communicate with one another. Electronic mail could be further harnessed for targeted mailings to different constituencies-student members and new members, for example, might respond favorably to informal email reminders about services the association provides.
Aside from the obvious, but important, role played by the Internet in connecting with members, computer-based tools can provide a number of other valuable functions for modern associations (Levin, 2000). For example, computers can be used effectively to track memberships and to automatically generate renewal notices. Data about types of members can be easily sorted and analyzed. Additional information about member involvement can allow associations to quickly identify how and where members have been involved in past efforts so that they can be tapped for similar roles in the future.
Levin (2000) discussed the importance of branding, which he defines as "the process of identifying an image of the organization and communicating that image to targeted groups" (p. 80). Branding a product involves identifying a market and the image to be conveyed, then positioning that product in a way that is accessible to others. A good branding campaign gives people a sense of exclusivity and name recognition with the association, a belief that the association is addressing an important cause, and a perception that it is doing so in an effective way. Herein lies what may be the biggest stumbling block for members of technology education associations: they are all based on a term that, in the common parlance, refers to a much different construct than the one intended by members. Many people in the technology education profession have struggled with the challenge of how to describe the field to others; if the best that can be done is beginning by saying, "Remember industrial arts?", branding the discipline may never be successful.
The Role of Technology Associations in the Future
When questioning the role that technology associations will play in the future, it is useful to examine again the reasons why people join associations at all. Hausknecht, in his 1962 study called The Joiners, identified five functions that voluntary association memberships serve. These functions are just as applicable today as they were 40 years ago.
First, Hausknecht (1962) discussed what he called the citizenship functions of associations. This refers to the knowledge that people gain through association of how things are done. Association membership helps people to become and stay more informed about the topic around which the association revolves. Modern technology associations continue to fulfill this function. Through them, members are able to stay abreast of research, policy initiatives, and other activities that affect the status and growth of the discipline. Perhaps more importantly, they provide a conduit through which members can become politically involved if they so choose. The lesson to be learned here is that the successful technology association of the future must provide members with opportunities to have substantive input into decisions that will affect their professional life. Direct action, with results, is an important part of the return on investment that members want to see from their association.
A second function identified by Hausknecht (1962) is group interests. It must be recognized that every organization is founded on the basis of shared interests and goals. Individuals seek, through association, to enhance and protect their own interests. Although this may seem self evident, closer examination of any association over time may yield the hard truth that its raison d'etre has dissipated. If no clear answers to the question, "Why does this association exist, and is it fulfilling that function?", are forthcoming, it is only a matter of time before the association will cease to exist (Petrina et al., 2003; Martin, 1999). Olson & Dighe (2001, p. 1) call this "creating meaning", and note that members want to be able to rally around a larger purpose. The lesson here for successful technology associations of the future is that a clear sense of shared purpose must guide all association activities. In this lean, postmodern environment, there is no room for organizations that fail to redefine themselves with changing times.
A third function that associations serve is to help crystallize opinions (Hausknecht, 1962). This refers to the capacity of associations to serve as centralized points of communication among members, often resulting in consensus on pressing issues or agreement on agendas. Associations must develop a learning culture that focuses on what is being done to help members learn, and what can be done to make information more accessible (Olson & Dighe, 2001). Crystallizing opinions also refers to the ability of associations to influence the opinions of others outside association boundaries. Classroom teachers, for example, belong to the National Education Association (NEA) in part because they know it is a recognized and powerful lobbying force. The lesson for the successful technology association of the future is that it must provide value-added products and services to members. Members must feel that they gain important and useful information, that they have opportunities for substantive discussions and agenda setting with association colleagues, and that the association leadership is representing them effectively to influential outsiders.
Fourth, associations perform important human fellowship functions (Hausknecht, 1962). Association membership should provide opportunities for broader social experiences than are typically afforded in home environments. This function is well served by common meetings (such as annual conferences), where there are multiple opportunities to engage in discussion about the discipline and the forces that are shaping it. The human fellowship function cannot be overestimated, for it plays a key role in determining whether members think about their association in positive ways. Relationships within associations play a critical role in creating meaning for members by providing a social context in which people "work together on meaningful tasks" (Olson & Dighe, 2000, p. 1). The lesson for the successful technology association of the future is to provide forums where members can interact both formally and informally, where they feel a sense of intellectual stimulation, and where they are made to feel part of the group. This sense of belonging occurs most powerfully during face-to-face interactions, but can be effectively fostered in other ways as well. The strategies of personalized mailings targeted to new members and mentoring between long-term and new members of an association can both address this function.
Finally, associations can play a socialization function (Hausknecht, 1962). This refers to the capacity of associations to help create a shared culture and to define the roles, goals, and professional behaviors of members. Part of the appeal of meetings such as the ACTE annual conference is the tradition or culture surrounding it. Members have traditionally attended meetings knowing that they will be treated to a variety of presentations and anticipating the sometimes lively discussion that follows presentations. Olson and Dighe (2001, p. 87) refer to what they call "living organizations", those associations that are able to adapt and meet emerging opportunities as opposed to maintaining rigid traditions. The lesson for the successful technology association of the future is to continually examine its cultural norms and to be prepared to change those that are not serving members or the association well. An additional task is to ensure that socialization functions are being carried out through good communication and mentoring.
A few words about diversity are in order, given the persistence of the white male dominance within many technology associations. Managing diversity within organizations has become "a defining issue for the United States" (Norris & Lofton, 1995, p. 9). The successful technology association of the future will have taken a hard look at its organizational culture and will have adopted meaningful strategies for inclusion. These strategies must begin with a willingness to learn about others who have traditionally been underrepresented, advance to a demonstrated sensitivity toward those underrepresented others, and culminate in an amalgamated culture in which diverse members feel respected and included (Norris & Lofton, 1995; Olson & Dighe, 2001). Strategies for cultivating diversity are similar to strategies used to reach any audience, including the following.
- Have a protocol in place for welcoming and involving newcomers.
- Dedicate specific resources to increasing diversity.
- Assign mentors to new members.
- Involve as many members as possible in the work of the organization.
- Commit to building diverse teams (Norris & Lofton, 1995).
The growth, strength, viability, and vitality of a profession depend upon strong and well-led professional organizations (Streichler, 2000, p. 13).
Technology associations will continue to play an important role for the profession in the future. This belief is based on two characteristics of the field of technology education at this time. First, technology education is a relatively new and rapidly evolving discipline, with many unanswered questions. There is a critical need for research on the efficacy and contributions made by technology education and on best practices for achieving the stated goals. Second, technology educators are truly bound to one another in their commitment toward a common goal: technological literacy for all Americans. It is clear that this phrase represents much more than the subtitle of a book to many people working within and outside of this profession. Technological literacy is for technology educators what Hausknecht (1962) called a "salient moral issue" (p. 124), a necessary ingredient in bringing people together in associations.
However, the structures of these technology associations may need to be quite different than they are now. In the face of declining numbers, for example, it is hoped that part of the strategic visioning that occurs leads to mergers between associations. An obvious example would be the consolidation of NAITTE and CTTE, whose constituencies and goals are much more similar than different. It may be that the technology associations of the future will be completely new entities. Interaction among technology educators around the world shows that they share significant and challenging goals. A large number of committed professionals devote much time, energy, and expertise to realizing those goals. The dream for the future of technology associations is that they strive to find commonalities, to be inclusive and forward thinking, and to be strategic in the way they do business. It is through association that the goal of technological literacy for all will be achieved.
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Hoepfl is Associate Professor in the Department of Technology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Hoepfl can be reached at email@example.com.