Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Saturday, April 24, 2010
ay. 6, 2009 - Social Media Policy for Associations
(Author’s note: I’m not an attorney. I wanted to be, but my parents thought I should be an English teacher. I’m not an NAR policy or legal staffer either. Don’t take these recommendations without consulting your association attorney and the appropriate NAR expert).Background
Policy manuals aren’t written on engraved tablets. They are, in fact, the cornerstone of any smooth-running Realtor association—they enable the strategic plan, they guarantee operational consistency and efficiency, and they clarify the values of the association in language which is clear to employees and members alike. Policies are the way an association implements the policies and guidelines adopted by its members in its bylaws.
But policy language doesn’t remain unchanged forever. Savvy AEs know that they need to be alert to policy modifications. They listen in the Board of Directors’ meetings to motions which may, in fact, be policy motions, however awkward or subtle they might be. They are alert to legal and legislative environment which may require changes to the body of association policies. And they monitor the behavior of employees and members as they anticipate the need for new or revised policy statements which correspond with the changing times.
Social media has appeared on the association management scene as a useful tool for building a membership community, and it is gaining wide recognition among AEs as a valuable component of the management toolbox, one that can be easily utilized by association managers and their staff. In fact, because using digital media is so much a part of the way our members do business, AEs find that they really don’t have a choice about using social media—our primary audience, the membership, requires it!
Like it or not, then, we are committed tousing social media to one degree or another, especially as our general membership quickly fills with Gen X and Y faces. And like it or not, that means that social media policies need to be incorporated into your association operations manual.
Of course there are several levels on which you might address the issue: public relations, leadership, and staff management. This paper is concerned primarily with the staff management part of the equation.
By way of background in understanding what the social media topic implies for association staff, first of all you need to know that the topic of social media includes a wide array of technologies, some new and others not so new. All are based on the principle of two-way communication, however: there’s always a statement and the opportunity for feedback. That important concept is a radical departure from old ways of association interaction: “I’ll send you a news letter once a week so you’ll know what we want you to know/think/do.” Or, “Come to the meeting and we’ll count you as an involved member.”
Social media demands respondents be given equal time to communicate: a concept familiar to all of us who visit websites to rate products or services, comment on news articles or editorials, join a group of people with the same interests, and share a more personal side of our lives through photos, personal profiles, and ideas. But how, then, do you raise the consciousness of your staff about the impact their social networking has on their work lives and their relationships to members and to the public?
That’s the opportunity that a social media policy presents.
Here’s a case example. Your membership services director, Ellen, is a very pretty young college graduate in her 20’s. She’s got lots of energy and enthusiasm for her job, and you bring her along with you to the Leadership Planning Retreat held at a nearby resort. The evening’s activities include a cocktail hour, a nice dinner, and a free evening for socializing.
Ellen takes the socializing part seriously—and proudly reports on her FaceBook page that she had a great dinner with lots of wine, and then spent the evening in the hot tub with the President, followed by a hot game of Texas Hold ‘Em into the small hours of the morning. And your Realtors will think WHAT of your Leadership Retreat? Of Ellen? And of you, her ‘boss’? Can’t you just hear it? “My dues paid for this???”
Ok, point made. And lest you think it a fantasy, consider the two Dominos employees who sabotaged the company’s food preparation on a You Tube video. The publicity from that incident was quickly circulated around the world, and although the employees were fired and the company filed criminal complaints against them, Dominos’ reputation suffered a disastrous blow. The question is: how do you anticipate this type of private use of public media? How can you develop a policy that embraces different social media spaces and different roles of the players, and yet encompasses the risks involved with each? According to Eric B. Meyer, who’s an Associate in the Labor and Employment Group of Dilworth Paxson LLP, organizations should consider the following two important points:
1. Employers need to be upfront with employees that they have no right to privacy with respect to social networking. “Employers reserve the right to monitor employee use of social media regardless of location (i.e. at work on a company computer or on personal time with a home computer).”
2. Employees “should be made aware that company policies on anti-harassment, ethics and company loyalty extend to all forms of communication (including social media) both inside and outside the workplace.” People need to remember that bashing your organization/boss/co-workers online can lead to consequences at work.
It would stand to reason, then, social media guidelines need to be included in your organization policy manual right beside your other communications policies, and you need to offer training to all employees in how to use these guidelines effectively. Aside from minimizing risk and potential embarrassment, this training will give you an opportunity to review the Realtor organizational values and the alignment you expect employees to have with those values.
It’s important to remember (and convey to your staff) that the guidelines are not a forced external morality, but a compliance with the shared values of the organization.
Opportunities to use Social Media
Let’s divide the association use of social media into two types: ‘official’ and ‘unofficial”, or ‘formal’ and ‘informal’.
Because social media is such an important tool in creating community, your association will want to utilize many of the tools available. You might want to have blogs, FaceBook pages, Twitter groups, public and private forums, strategic planning or project wikis, and media sharing. You’ll want to use these tools in an official capacity and endorse them and encourage staff to use them. A Twitter account is a good example: you might have your MLS department sending messages to members, perhaps announcing new listings or sales, or new programs or software changes.
But you should be aware that there will also be informal, non-sanctioned uses of social media as well. Ellen’s personal FaceBook page is one example. But you can also imagine a staff member Twittering away about a terrible speaker at one of your education programs, or a ridiculous motion being considered in a directors’ meeting.
In each case, the risks to the association are different. In the officially sanctioned use of social media, AEs must be aware of some very familiar risks: antitrust, defamation, and copyright violations are a few of those pitfalls. In informal use, the previously mentioned risks are still there—but add to them embarrassment, weakened public image and credibility, member unrest, and plain old misinformation.
It’s no surprise to any AE that the Realtor environment is litigious and our association activities and our members’ business structures are frequently challenged. This environment won’t change, and may even be enhanced by our use of social media tools.
But make no mistake about it. You really can’t shut your eyes and hope that social media will go away. It won’t. Realtors and staff will be using these tools increasingly more frequently on an informal basis whether you like it or not.
Simply declaring that “I don’t think we should have a blog/FaceBook page/Twitter account because of the liability” naively avoids the reality that SM is happening anyway, and just because you haven’t adopted a formal use of it doesn’t mean the risks aren’t there. They are. So get over it, and take charge of your association’s social media use.
Good Policy Building
The social media environment is a dynamic and changing one, with new technologies being developed daily. Your association will utilize those technologies which best suit its needs, particularly in terms of adopting tools already being used by members. For instance, it makes good sense to use FaceBook if it’s popular among your Realtors.
By the same token, your association policies regarding social networking should be cast as general principles of social networking, rather than attempting to target them to specific technologies. One of your purposes in constructing policies is to encourage the use of social networking tools by your staff—and they will be much more comfortable with these skills if they know what is expected of them and are aware of the impact they as staff can have.
The second purpose of SM policies is to develop an atmosphere which avoids the unfortunate risks and legal liabilities and allows your blogs, forums, networking, and Twitters to be used by staff to the association’s fullest advantage. Think of your association social media policies as general guidelines for successful use of the many social tools rather than as a negative list of what NOT to do and the punishments straying outside the ‘law’.
Many social media policies have been developed because organizations were responding to embarrassing or illegal public statements like Ellen’s. They were developed in crisis mode, a knee-jerk reaction to a bad PR hair day. Again, think of your policy as a proactive, a positive set of ‘how-to’ guidelines, and make sure they encompass the basic tenets of your overall public relations policy.
A quotation from IBM’s paper, Social Computing Guidelines, states the issue more in a more positive, futuristic framework: “IBM is increasingly exploring how online discourse through social computing can empower IBM…. These individual interactions represent a new model: not mass communications, but masses of communicators. Therefore, it is very much in IBM's interest—and, we believe, in each IBMer's own—to be aware of and participate in this sphere of information, interaction and idea exchange.”
Also as you write, keep your policy interesting. As an association manager, you are trying to encourage responsible, effective use—not scare and intimidate your team away from building a more effective organization.
Then, once you have the guidelines in place, I would strongly encourage you to have a face-to-face meeting with staff to review and discuss them. Emphasize the potential benefits of SM to the association, then let them ask the inevitable “what if” questions, pose possible scenarios, and generally become comfortable with the parameters you’ve set. It will also let staff understand that their AE is really serious about this whole “SM thing”.
Lastly, make sure your leadership (probably still largely Boomers) is on board with the idea. As with staff, sell them on the benefits, although the more enlightened may probably be way ahead of you.A Prototype
Let me hasten to say I’m not an attorney, and any organizational policy you put into place should be scrutinized by a legal professional. But I’ve drafted a template which you might use as a starting point for constructing your own policy. I’ve used several sources to put this together, and I encourage you to make full use of the resources cited at the end of the chapter. There are other available resources as well, both within and outside the Realtor organization. A Google search for ‘Social Media Policy Association’ will put you in touch with a wealth of information. ( I’d also suggest you hook up with some association social media Twitters, including NAR’s own Todd Carpenter (@tcar), NAR’s Social Media Manager for the National Association of REALTORS. Having a helpful Twitter stream will provide a flow of updates on this rapidly evolving field of social media.)Here goes:
Social Media Policy for the ___________BORAdopted: (date)Last Update: (date)
Social Media Definition:
‘Social media’ is the term commonly given to websites and online tools that allow users to interact with each other in some way - by sharing information, opinions, knowledge and interests. As the name implies, social media involves the building of communities or networks, encouraging participation and engagement.Principles:These are the official guidelines for social media at __________BOR. If you're an association employee, contractor, or volunteer creating or contributing to blogs, wikis, social networks, virtual worlds, or any other kind of social media both on and off our association website, these guidelines are for you. We expect all who participate in social media on behalf _________BOR to understand and to follow these guidelines. These guidelines will continually evolve as new technologies and social networking tools emerge—so check back occasionally to make sure you're up to date.Emerging social media platforms for online collaboration are fundamentally changing the way our association engages with customers/members, colleagues, and the world at large. As an association we believe social computing can help us build a stronger, more successful real estate community, and it’s a way for staff, members, and the public to have conversations about matters important to our real estate environmentAs a member of the ___________BOR staff, keep the following principles in mind:
- Be professional; remember that you are an ambassador for our organization both on and off the job. Wherever possible, disclose your position as a representative of _____BOR.
- Be responsible and honest at all times.
- Be credible, accurate, fair, and thorough.
- Post meaningful, respectful comments - in other words, no spam and no remarks that are off-topic or offensive.
- Respect proprietary information and confidentiality both of our members, and of our internal operations.
- When disagreeing with others' opinions, be objective and respectful.
- Always remember that your online comments are permanently available to all, and may be republished in other media.
- Stay within the legal framework and be aware that anti-trust, libel, copyright and data protection laws apply. Don’t plagiarize.
- Don’t disclose sensitive or “inside”information, make commitments or engage in activities on behalf of ___BOR unless you are authorized to do so. If you are in doubt, avoid any contribution until you have received express permission from the AE. In other words, “If in doubt, leave it out.”
- Even in your private communications, don’t forget your day job. You are a representative of __BOR.
A more thorough explanation of these guidelines includes the following:
Be honest and transparent. Social Media is no place to hide. Use your real name if you are commenting about the association or its programs and identify yourself as a staff member. Don’t violate _________BOR’s privacy though, and protect your own personal privacy as well. Remember that what you post will be available for a long time, as will photos of you and your personal comments. In other words, think before you post.
Make a mistake? If you make a mistake, admit it. Be upfront and be quick with your correction. For example, if you're posting to a blog, you may choose to modify an earlier post—just make it clear that you have done so.
Be Fair. There can be a fine line between healthy debate and hysterical reaction. Do not badmouth ours or other associations and, even more importantly, other staff, our leaders, members, and their profession in general. See if you can invite differing points of view without inflaming others. Remember that once the your words are online, you can't recall them. And once an inflammatory discussion gets going, it's hard to stop.
Add value. There’s lots of traffic on today‘s social media. The best way to get yours read is to contribute subjects or information your readers will value. Social communication from our association should help our members and co-workers. It should be thought-provoking and build a sense of community. If it helps people improve knowledge or skills, build their businesses or solve problems, or if it helps them understand our association better—then it's adding value. If you are tempted to post about your breakfast cereal or your new haircut…don’t.
Be Conversational. Social Media is conversational, so talk to your readers like you would talk to real people in professional situations. Encourage comments. You can also broaden the conversation by citing other experts in your blogs, or by ‘reTweeting’ others’ comments.
Perception is reality. In online social networks, the lines between public and private, personal and professional are blurred. Just by identifying yourself as an ___BOR employee, you are creating perceptions about our association by our members and by the public.
Write what you know. Make sure you write and post about your areas of expertise. Use the first person. If you publish to a website outside ____BOR, please use a disclaimer something like this: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent ___BOR’s positions, strategies or opinions." Also, please respect brand, Realtor trademark, copyright, fair use, confidentiality and financial disclosure laws. If you have any questions about these, see your AE. Remember, you are personally responsible for your content.
Moderating Content: The ___BOR encourages its staff to maintain a responsible and balanced online dialogue, and respects each staff person's responsibility to maintain adherence to that principle. However, ______BOR does reserve the right to moderate content of employee postings. Should ____BOR staff exercise that prerogative, content moderation will be based solely on whether or not the content violates the law, or is offensive and/or denigrating to the organization or to personalities involved.
Respecting Association Commitments: Unless specifically assigned, social media activities should not interfere with regular work commitments. Association staff is expected to respect other appropriate policies relating to work performance.
Carl Haggerty, “Carl’s Notepad” (blog)
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May. 8, 2009 - RE: Social Media Policy for Associations
Posted by John Reilly
Another great post, Judith. We'll be sure to include a link to this information in the upcoming release of NAR's Web 2.0 Social Networking online course.
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May. 25, 2009 - RE: Social Media Policy for Associations
Posted by John Reilly
Here are two related articles from NAR
technology use policy
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Aug. 18, 2009 - RE: Social Media Policy for Associations
Posted by Belton Jennings
Judith: GREAT post! Several weeks ago when you asked me to comment on the draft, I knew this was going to be something really valuable. Sure enough! There isn't an association out there that couldn't benefit from it. Let's hope it "virals" itself well outside the Realtor world.
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Dec. 18, 2009 - RE: Social Media Policy for Associations
Posted by Jim Peters
Great post with an excellent policy for associations. As the world changes to Web.2.o so policies and procedures need to adapt. You are right there, ahead of the game. Thank you for sharing your wealth of experience and expertise.
Repost! (People keep asking...)
Friday, April 16, 2010
Apr. 16, 2010 - Part 4 of Life after MLS: Your IT Manager is Your New Best Friend
Close your eyes. Lean back. Imagine your MLS-free Realtor trade association. You have members who recognize your value as a support organization that does more than provide MLS. They pay dues. You have money. Now you need to hire an IT director to assist your organization in operating more efficiently, better supporting staff work, and providing real value to your members. What goes in the job description?
Obviously, there's no simple answer: by definition, the IT position has to be described in terms of the values and direction of your particular association and the business environment in which you and your members operate. But here are a few thoughts about position description components—you can select, prioritize and add to them as needed.
A Realtor Association IT Manager might be expected to:
Provide oversight of your association information systems solutions.
Be responsible for identification/integration of new technology solutions.
Provide high level IT services by designing feasibility studies, system analysis and user support systems
Provide direct supervision of IT efforts (in-house and contracted) such as database management, networks, and help desks.
Supervise the association office's internet solutions, including website design, ongoing content management and search engine placements
Be responsible for maintaining high value member support and service
Review emerging technology and make recommendations for acquisition and implementation
Participate in designing and managing the associations technology plan
Facilitate collaboration between association departments through file sharing, project management, other technologies
Keep association IT activities running effectively
Maintain partnerships with association suppliers, consultants, and other vendors
Provide enabling technologies that support members doing business with the association, placing high value on the association, and increasing association revenues
Provide necessary IT training and support to staff and members to ensure productive use of association technology investments
Keep informed about NAR technology initiatives and recommend appropriate integration with association activities.
Be responsible for development of IT budgets.
And what kind of skills and experience should you be looking for in hiring an IT manager?
She should be able to assess needs, develop requirements and estimate the costs and timeline for IT initiatives
She should have the ability to evaluate emerging technologies and NAR initiatives and understanding their appropriateness for your association
She should be able to speak in a language you can understand (ie, should be able to communicate with members and with association management and staff).
She should have proven problem solving skills.
She should have management skills in the area of personnel, project direction, and cost containment.
She should have skills in
office systems (Microsoft Office, or Open Office, etc.)
website design, content management, and maintenance
telephone systems and other telecommunications
association management software, including NRDS
How much do I pay?
Ah, that's always the issue, isn't it? The super heroes we described above don't come cheap, as you might guess. The NTEN survey reports that in medium to large associations (remember how big those budgets were?) the IT Manager's salary is third in line behind the CEO and the chief of operations. Translated, that means that in an association where the CEO makes $100,000, the IT Mananager makes ¾ that much. And in associations where the CEO tenure is 8 years, the IT Manager average is 6 years.
Remember, too, IT Managers will expect you to help them pay for the ongoing technical training and certifications which is key to their longevity with your organization. If they don’t get this assistance from you, they are likely to look somewhere else.
So: well-paid and long-lived, those IT managers--but important to the success and well-being of a modern association.
And remember, they don't know anything about MLS.
(Note: many thanks to Steve Volkodav and Kevin McQueen for their contributions to this article. JWL)
Apr. 16, 2010 - Part 3 of Life after MLS: Technology Strategic Plans
Under all is the plan....(cc)
In the last two blogs I've been discussing your IT needs as an association, particularly as a Realtor trade association, excluding any MLS technology needs you might have. For those associations with MLS operations, the mission-critical imperative to develop a solid and consistent base of technology strategy is often obscured—our members are up close and outspoken about where our resources belong.
“You WHAT? Think you need another computer in the MLS office? I don't THINK so! What we really need is some kind of program that automatically fines those MLS members who don't report listings that are under contract. And once you get that problem solved, please figure out what to do with $%^& program that doesn't find all the listings for the searches I enter.”
Too often AE's hustle about, putting out fires and managing day-to-day crises, and our own association operations are neglected. Imagine the serenity of life without an MLS—and then envision what you as association manager need to do to develop and strengthen the organizational technology infrastructure.
Your association's technology investments (sans MLS) are of fundamental importance. They allow your staff to operate efficiently, track dues and memberships and purchases, build relationships with members, communicate with each other and the association stakeholders, and practice effective financial management. It's imperative to good management that you spend time taking inventory, define your current needs, and map your future goals. It's time to build your association technology plan and a budget projection of at least three years.
Here are the components:
Hardware. Begin by making an inventory of each computer in your operation. Include brand, type, processor speed, memory, operating system, and peripherals. This list will be critical when you begin evaluating software upgrades for various staff members—often you'll need to upgrade hardware first. Then, use three years as a standard shelf life for your hardware and various components. Plan to replace or upgrade in segments.
Software. List all software used by your staff members and volunteers involved in association operations. Include membership software, financial management programs, word processing, browsers, virus protection. Make sure you have the version numbers and dates of the software, and also include any software licenses you may own for these programs. This inventory will provide you with clear priorities about how funds will need to be spend in future months and years.
Software maintenance and support. For many software systems, monthly or annual support fees are an important budget item, and can add up to 30% to the list price of the software. Know when these agreements expire, and exactly what each support system entails.
Tip: If you are a small budget association, these inventories can be
taken by an intern or a student geek: the important thing
is to have them and keep them updated.
Networks. There are as many types of networks as there are associations. Some are complex, and others are about as simple as a wire strung between a couple of desktop computers. What is important is that they work efficiently and that the network can be expanded to meet the present and future needs of your staff. An IT staff member can help or, again, you may want to contract this phase of your operations to a specialist.
Internet Connections. Again, there's a large variety here, from DSL to t-1 lines. Your association can make a small investment or a large one, depending on the volume of data and email to and from your operations. Many associations may be using hosted software or off-site storage, as well, and slow connections will simply not be adequate. Be sure and factor in the peripheral equipment associated with your internet operations—modems, servers, and routers. And again, anticipate your expanding needs.
Data Conversions. As we've learned from our MLS experience, data conversions are expensive and frequently under-estimated, as far as cost is concerned. If you're going to be moving to a new membership system, or accounting software, plan carefully. Include the cost of the system, the support, the licenses, the training, and the overhead. And again, prevention is the best medicine: don't be at the mercy of an overloaded, sick and dying accounting system.
Member Program Support. This category is a general one—in it I've tossed all the hardware and software associated with an association which gives education programs and has membership events. List these items: portable sound system, large screens, projectors, white boards, DVD players...inventory what you have, and what you need to acquire, as well as what you will want to replace. The three-year shelf-life rule is still a good one.
Staff support and training. You can buy all the glittering gizmos and seductive software available,but if you don't have a staff that knows how to run it or comfortably use it, your efforts won't mean anything. Training is an expense. Often training can be provided by your IT person, if you have one—or you may have to outsource the training. Again, there are expenses involved that need to be included in your budgeting process.
Of course, there's lots of help available to you. One of the first things you might consider is to hire a consultant. I can think of two memorable times in my association management career when I hired consultants to assist the Board of Directors in moving us ahead with a technology plan. In both instances, the results were energizing to all of our association programs, not just our technology activities.
One online source that's very helpful to organizations is TechSoup. If you don't know the site, I encourage you to visit there—many helpful articles on all phases of organization technology! In addition, NAR staff member Carolyn Schwaar 's overview of “Technology Strategy Plans” will give you a good general knowledge. For a more 'techy' view of managing your IT activities, read “Are your IT and Strategic Plans Aligned?” by Joanne Rang. Finally, if you want a generic association technology strategy outline contact me and I'll send you a copy of the Minnesota Management Assistance Program (MAP) generic technology plan for organizations, which you might use as a guide.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Part 2 of Life after MLS: Information Technology Best Practices of Nonprofit Organizations : Off Stage
pr. 15, 2010 - Part 2 of Life after MLS: Information Technology Best Practices of Nonprofit Organizations
Continue, if you will, thinking of your organization as an MLS-less association. In your mind's eye, erase the 80% or so of your budget and staff time that go toward supporting that program, and concentrate on evaluating the effectiveness of the remainder-in particular, your Information Technology activities.
In the last blog you probably said you were a medium sized or small association, based on your budget. And you may well have put yourself in the category of "Average", or even "Lagging Behind" in your IT programs. It doesn't matter-the real learning experience comes from looking at the NTEN survey and finding out what the "Leader" associations are doing.
Here are some insights:
Location of the IT Department within the Organization: Well, OK, do you even HAVE an IT Department? Only 11% of the nonprofits surveyed by NTEN had no one whose job it was to oversee IT programs. Even the smallest had someone. Do you?
Of those 89% who have an IT manager, almost 75% have a person who reports directly to the CEO or to the operations manager of the association. IT managers are not buried deep in the management structure-they have the full attention of top management. And the CEOs and COOs express high levels (averaging around 75%) of satisfaction with their it managers in the following areas: hardware and software available for association operations, support for both staff and client (member) needs, and website effectiveness.
The associations who were categorized as leaders in technology said that in hiring IT personnel they looked for the following characteristics (in order of importance): past experience with technology, fit within the organizational culture, attitude and personality, past training and certifications, and prior work in similar settings. Last on their list was a degree or formal education. (It's worth noting that the associations which characterized themselves as "In Trouble" rated formal degrees and experience in similar settings far more highly than did the leading edge organizations).
Associations generally employed one IT person for every eleven staff members. However, many smaller associations also outsourced many, if not all, of the IT functions. Those areas of contracted responsibility included web site hosting, development and design; security and backup; staff training; programming and custom software development; telephone services; email hosting and maintenance; network administration and support; hardware maintenance and website maintenance.
The leading edge associations also were quite likely to outsource social networking, help desks, and website content-smaller operations tended to keep these activities in-house and often assigned to staff with other job functions.
Of the associations surveyed, 42% reported that they had a specific technology plan and that a technology plan was a part of the consistent, formal approach to the future. Of the associations categorized as technology leaders, that percentage jumped to 65%. In addition, the leader associations did calculate the Return on Investment for their technology investments and considered this activity a sound benchmark for their IT activities. ("WHAT??" "Well, figure out how much money you saved by having expert advice helping you install Open Office instead of some other expensive software. Stuff like that...").
What about costs?
Technology isn't cheap. Increasingly, nonprofit associations report that they are anticipating growing expenditures in the following areas: Website design (38 percent),Software (28 percent), andIT consulting costs (27 percent).
The point to which I'm leading is this: as an association manager, you need to have an IT budget, one that is separate from your MLS activities. It's important to have a long range IT plan, and to allocate resources to it. How much? Well, obviously the smaller association will allocate a larger percentage of its total budget to IT: the NTEN survey finds that percentage to be 14%, as compared to 3% for those large associations with budgets of over 10 million dollars. It's also likely that Realtor trade associations will have even higher percentages than the NTEN study reports due to the fact that technology development and support plays such a large part in the professional services offered to our members.
But regardless of your association size and scope, what's clear from reading this study is that as a manager of an association, you will find increasingly important challenges in the field of association information technology-in financial management, technology planning, personnel, and understanding of the rapid developments in hardware and software.
And NTEN's final statement is the most heartening-and challenging-- of all: "Finally, we see some consistent evidence of the notion that organizations of all sizes can be technology leaders."
To download your own copy of the NTEN report, click here.
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Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Apr. 13, 2010 - Life beyond MLS: Information Technology
OK, so I've got a soapbox. Well, yes, actually—more than one. You're not surprised?
The current issue at hand, however, is my perception that Realtor associations have been made significantly less effective as non-profit organizations because of one factor: we run MLS operations.
(Well, yes, there's more than one factor affecting our ability to perform our missions—but we won't get into parent organizations right now...)
Why is the MLS often detrimental to our organizational strength? Well, there are the obvious answers—like the fact that MLS services uses approximately 80% of our capacity to provide member support. But it's more than that: the presence of an MLS also negates our need to proactively recruit and retain members and, by extension, to evaluate our service effectiveness in other areas as well. Realtor associations just aren't run like other non-profit membership organizations. Because of that, we AE's often neglect developing capacity in some important areas of good association management.
So, for purposes of this blog series, I'd like for you to imagine that you don't have an MLS operation as a part of your association. As we discuss the matter of Information Technology in your association, this perspective will be an important part of evaluating your association's effectiveness: all too often, Realtor associations equate 'technology' with MLS. Now remember: you ain't got one! You are MLS-free.
So, let's talk about your IT program, sans an MLS. There are some real pointers to be found in a recent survey conducted by NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Network, and I want to spend the next couple of blogs examining that study and applying its findings specifically to Realtor associations of all sizes and levels of sophistication.
Beginning with the fourth quarter of 2009, NTEN conducted a survey of over one thousand nonprofit organizations represented over 25 sectors from the arts to human services and health care. The size categories were:
Small: a budget under $500,000 (excluding, of course, MLS)
Medium: $500,000 to 3 million
Large: 3 to 10 million
Very Large: over 10 million
My first question to you is, where would your association fit, if you excluded the MLS portion of your expenses (including salaries and overhead)? You should know that answer anyway—good financial management includes tracking income and expense centers.
The second thing NTEN asked the survey respondents was to categorize their level of satisfaction with their association's Information Technology adoption. Again, exclude your MLS operation technology.
(“WHAT??” you screech. “Without the MLS stuff we haven't GOT any Information Technology! What is 'IT' anyway??” Put yourself in the first response category: In Trouble.)
The categories of responses in the NTEN study were as follows:
Leading Edge/Early Adopter
So where would you put your non-MLS association IT performance?
Now in case you are clueless about how to rate your association, NTEN suggests you consider the following questions:
What is the quality of IT training provided to staff, and what is the comfort level of staff with technology?
How well is information technology integrated into your organization's strategic plan? (Ain't got one of those? Stop here and call for help!)
Availability of IT assistance for staff needs?
Availability of IT to respond to member needs?
Quality of hardware and software being used in your association?
Quality of your organization's website?
Amount of total budget allocated to (non-MLS) IT?
And finally, how would you rate your satisfaction with your association's current level of staffing (whether you staff your IT activities internally or use out-sourcing)?
What I'm getting at here is to ask you to think like a non-profit (or even a good for-profit) without an MLS. Information Technology is an important part of the infrastructure of any organization or association these days and as association managers we need to evaluate it and increase its capacity to meet our needs and help us achieve our mission. Too often, though, in an MLS environment we lose sight of the IT support we so badly need.
Monday, April 5, 2010
Apr. 5, 2010 - As the Castle Crumbles...
In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. And on April 1, 2010 Clay Shirky wrote a derivative article, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models”. The process described in both writings can, I think, help identify the problems many Realtor trade associations are currently facing.
The scenario is something like this:
A group finds itself with a surplus of resources. In our trade organization that surplus was heralded with the refrain, “More than a Million Members Strong.” That meant we had member—lots of them. And dues money! Life was good.
Managing the surplus created complexity. 'Boy, golly, it sure is hard to track and train all these new members! We'd better create some systems: mandatory ethics classes, online courses, financial management systems, new education, more specialties, branch offices, more intricate governance structures to make sure everybody is represented.'
Early on, those complexities were beneficial—and even paid for themselves. Or at least they were self-sustaining. Various segments of our association built new buildings, leased new space, invested in equipment and software and additional staff—all funded by the increased membership.
But as the operations expanded and became more intricate, two things began to happen: first, the margin of value is reduced as complexities become additional expense, and often our elaborate structures become pure cost with very little return on our investment. They exist only because they are there, not because they provide a useful function. I'll bet you can think of a couple of examples in your own association—I recently worked with one group that had developed a tracking program to support an honor-the-volunteer program. “Nobody cares about it,” said the membership staff person. “It's just a nightmare to track everybody, even with this computer program we've developed.” And she adds, “We'd love to drop it, but the people who get the awards would howl bloody murder.”
Secondly, abundance doesn't last forever: the resources diminish and the circumstances are reduced. Our million-member association is dropping members, well on the way to a predicted level of six hundred and fifty thousand. Further, economists tell us that if we're sitting around waiting for a real estate boom that will equal our most recent one, we're in for a long wait.
Ooops. The income! What happened to our dues income?
The pattern is predictable, Tainter and Shirky tell us. Growth, surplus, building complexity to manage surplus, and then elaborate enhancements which become self-perpetuating liabilities.
At this juncture, a turning point must occur. Our associations have grown in resources , and managing the resources has caused us to grow in complexity—often to the point of diminishing return, even when times are good. The question is, what do we now do when times are not so good?
The obvious answer is, of course, to downsize and simplify. But as both Tainter and Shirky point out, we are victims of the very complexities we have created. A few of those downsizing questions are now regularly being asked in the Realtor association: are there too many MLSs? Does NAR need 850 Directors? Is our annual convention or current meeting format the best way to accomplish or organizational mission? Is a real estate license an important membership requirement? And there are many others. Shirky says that in a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.
In other words, rather than eliminate our past constructs, our tendency is to build on top of existing structures, resulting in—more complexity! To use Shirky's metaphor, our Realtor association ecosystem is changing—our members are doing different things professionally, have a changed demographic profile, are embracing different values. And as the trade association ecosystem evolves, if our institutions are inflexible, associations will undergo the same fate as other civilizations, other business models: our organizations too will collapse.
It's a complicated world view, but one that is—unfortunately--substantiated by examples from history, and from the present.
Realtor associations as we have known them are crumbling even as we speak. What is certain to become the new measure of success is that which is simple, a streamlined route to our common organizational objective of enabling our members' professional success. That direct route doesn't take us past a lot of the collapsing landmarks of the past.
I am reminded of my encounter with the iPad last Saturday. I sat in the Apple store with the gleaming, streamlined gadget in hand—and with a line of people behind me, waiting for a similar experience. The device sure was a joy to us gadget lovers—intuitive and aesthetically pleasing, and well-marketed, too.
“You gonna get one, Lindenau?” asked my friend Don, the computer geek, who is standing beside me.
“Nah. I don't think so. Sure is pretty. But it's scary and I'm not sure I trust it: it's almost too simple.”
“In what way? Because there's no mouse?”
“Yes,” I say. “No mouse. And no USB port. I mean, how can you have a computer without a USB port and a mouse? And no keyboard, either!”
“Well, why would you NEED a USB port? There's Bluetooth. And why would you need a mouse or a keyboard? Look at that great touch screen. Everything's there that needs to be.”
“Oh,” I say.
“I've ordered one,” he says.