de Tocqueville revisited – an open letter response

6 09 2007

Scott Briscoe at ASAE and the Center published an interesting and brave article to appear in this month’s issue of Association Now and online now here.

His perspective encouraged me to post back a response to the 19th Century social scientist and author.

Dear Alexis

We could all use your advice.

We have this thing called the “long tail” in the 21st Century that is really turning the notion of power and association on its head.

It posits that you can use technology to let a “citizen” create content of any variety and publish it in any format for promotion and distribution to any audience in pursuit of your own happiness. In essence, it provides the muscle for conveying and sharing something of value independently.

In your day, an equivalent might have been the British Navy and the East India Company.

In your day and ours, people need places, people and ideas they can trust. They want to practice their creativity where things aren’t so opaque or closed. In 1776, Americans felt that way so they created their own country.

One might say that more and more people are motivated to seek alternatives through these new tools, because they want to participate in places they can trust and are inviting. Unfortunately, our systems are often more closed to new ideas, new thinking, or new ways of doing things. Unless of course you are among the “salon crowd” (those who serve in volunteer positions).

And now, even for profit companies are adapting this new power to associate by creating and maintaining bigger and better online communities than we have shown the ability to create. These firms made the decision to be more open, provide tools, the means to co-create things, and participate in ways that are compelling for people.

For instance, some folks can pursue their passion for research in chemistry while sitting in their offices in Berlin, Shanghai, Rio, or Boston and get paid for it while helping a business create a product or help a cause wipe out a disease. Associating knows no geographic boundaries.

Now that’s the power of association!

So how can associations adapt to these open innovations? Why are companies more trusting of their customers to co-create content than associations who have a supposedly closer and richer relationship with members?

Do we trust the rank and file enough – those who believe in our purpose and mission – to let them “pursue their own brand of happiness” within our organizations?

I wonder given your interest in the lessons of the “open source” movement whether you see an opportunity for associations to “reinvent” themselves by embracing open innovation to inject ways to innovate their causes, professions and industries, create new business opportunity, develop products and services that defy commoditization, and foster a more inclusive, more distributed peer-review community.

Oh and one other thing… is it appropriate to serve Chateau Margeaux to trade association and professional society executives or would a nice Coût du Rhone work just as nice?

Thanks from everyone here in the 21st Century.

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