How Big Is Your Brain?

27 08 2008

In our Monday session on open business models at the ASAE & Center Annual Meeting, we discussed one of the core tenets of open innovation and its value to organizations in the 21st Century. It is the notion that network-centric systems and processes are often far better structures for delivering value than hierarchies. Or to put it more simply, using more “open” methods of product or service development are far superior to more traditional “closed” methods.

Here’s why…

Presently, association management relies on membership and a cadre of volunteer leaders often vetted by a peer group to serve alongside staff to deliver the membership experience. By and large this model drives almost all association activities. Over time, we have ladened this with bylaws, policies and procedures that are most often governed by the volunteer leader system itself. In addition, a “culture” often exists with “traditions” and other “informal rules” that provides a hidden support system.

This system is deemed “closed” because to get access you must jump a series of hurdles: 1) become a member, 2) seek an invitation to serve as a volunteer leader, 3) follow the rules (as defined above), 4) play the game trying to fit into the volunteer management “culture” and its peculiarities. The latter may require waiting your time to contribute where and when you want or racking up enough tenure and political points to make a contribution.

To say that a growing number of professionals (in many age groups but most especially under the age of 35) prefer to pursue other avenues for creative professional outlets is an understatement. One need only look at renewal rates or the lower levels of younger professionals coming into membership after college to verify this trend.

Some call this a “walled garden” where you have to pay to play.

And then something amazing happens. Thanks to the Internet and collaborative software professionals anywhere can collaborate to create amazing value. In business history, we can point to the rise of the “opensource” software movement for creating “open innovation” practices that are being used by business today with great success. The Linux operating system which has now reached a 30% global market share versus Microsoft is a shining example of the power of “open” methods of product or service development.

So I ask you…if a few hundred software engineers working from a network model could create a product of such complexity and value that it competes successfully against Microsoft (a hierarchy by the way), what makes you think your own members or nonmembers couldnt make you more successful if you tapped into them more effectively?

The problem with our current volunteer leader model is our collective brain is no bigger proportionally than one from a brontosaurs. On average our volunteer leader population is maybe 1-2% of the total membership. That’s all the brain power you have. Contrast that with the ability to tap the entire membership AND nonmembers and your brain power increases exponentially. And we haven’t even talked about how unbalanced our brains might be geographically and how this could leave us less able to tap a more global perspective.

If you attended Dr Satish Nambisan’s thought leader session on Sunday, this is a over simplification of his whole thesis.

So how does one leverage this open approach?

You need methodologies that can work in an online networked world that can help you:

  • Define and measure member value
  • Create products and services
  • Govern
  • Adapt your business model

And you need to adapt your culture. Make sure to read Satish’s book. It is much more useful than Wikinomics in this regard.

The good news is we have lots of successful examples from which to study. InnoCentive who spoke at this session on Monday as well as Tuesday is but one example.

So if you have trouble attracting younger members or finding enough good volunteer leaders, try open models for delivering member value.

Some old posts to explore this topic further

A conversation with Satish Nambisan author of the Global Brain

Walled Garden Strategy Loses Another One

Networks vs Hierachies

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