Sunday, 9 September 2007
Wednesday, 8 August 2007
ANZSI’s future: is there one?
This article was submitted to the ANZSI Newsletter for August 2007 but refused publication.
Last month I wrote an article suggesting that the ANZSI Council had outlived its usefulness in an age of electronic communications, and that the Council system was causing able and energetic people to waste their energies on paper-shuffling and trivia. This month I want to focus on the consequences of this bureaucratic approach, and particularly the long-term prospects that ANZSI is facing. Readers can find more details, and join the discussion, on the Web at http://ausindexerforum.blogspot.com/.
During the early 1980s I spent a couple of years in the Public Service analysing personnel data – in particular, identifying departments with poor recruitment or promotion strategies. As President in 2006 I was able to apply the same kind of analysis to the ANZSI member database; and the results are grim.
The first point is that ANZSI has not grown significantly in size since the 1980s. Despite the information revolution, despite expanding to take in another country, despite a 20% growth in the populations of
ANZSI has by now become an organisation with two clusters of members. There is a veteran group, consisting of members who joined in or before the 1990s, which makes up about two-fifths of our membership. A second group consists of new members who joined within the last four years. This group comprises over 50% of members. ANZSI is very good at recruitment – so good, in fact, that if we retained all our new members we could double in size by 2015. But our size stays the same, because nearly all our new recruits leave within three to four years – roughly 90%, in fact.
ANZSI is a massive disappointment to new members. Whatever they expect when they join up in such large numbers, they clearly don’t find it. They pay a majority of our membership fees, but they take almost no interest in administration at the Council level, they make little use of ANZSI services, and they soon move on. We don’t know why – the ANZSI Council isn’t interested in the issue, or as far as I can tell even aware of it – but it’s clear that our new recruits are expecting, and paying for, something they don’t get.
Meanwhile the veteran group – largely older members – is dwindling in size due to retirement, burnout and death. The group of willing assistants to whom the Council could once delegate work just isn’t there any more. So we have a third symptom of organisational sclerosis; a steady accumulation of Council funds. These are largely paid by our new members; but for the most part they are stored away in bank accounts and term deposits until long after those members have left. As I indicated in my previous article, spending ANZSI money is hard work; and there’s just no-one left in our band of veterans with energy to spare on extracting Council funds for new projects.
Without support from new members the ANZSI Council will collapse – it is in the process of collapsing now, though it does it like everything else, very slowly. But new members have made it clear they have no interest in the tedious formalities that characterise Council administration. Rather than being a victim of new technology, a Council-free ANZSI could be using it to involve all our members in discussions, to provide for open and genuinely democratic votes, for the submission and discussion of articles, for freeing up funds, for reducing membership fees, for canvassing support for activities and – hopefully – for retaining our new members longer than the three or four years it currently takes them to realise that they’ve wasted their money.
Are you a new ANZSI member? What did you expect from ANZSI? What have you got? Join the discussion at http://ausindexerforum.blogspot.com/.
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
As for maintaining the branch, I think it is useful to have more traditional formal structures anytime you are dealing with members' money - there's a certain amount of discipline that gets imposed on elected officials, hopefully resulting in transparency of decision-making and financial accountability.
The best way for me to deal with this is to look at the current receipts and expenditures for ANZSI and examine how these might be reduced. In other words, what's the minimum amount of money necessary to run ANZSI? Once we've established that we can look at how it might be raised. And I want to emphasise again that I am not talking about the Branches here, which all have their own financial arrangements, but the Council level.
The main source of Council revenue is membership fees, though I believe that a small percentage of conference receipts is also taken. Some of the fees are passed on to Branches on a pro-rata basis, but those members who have chosen not to be in any Branch end up with all their fees going to the Council.
As far as I know there is no practical reason why Branch Committees could not collect membership fees directly, then pass membership information on to the Membership Secretary.
Council expenditures can be divided into four types:
1. Administrative expenses. These are expenses involved in running the Council, and would cease if the Council was disbanded. They include things like booking meeting rooms and reimbursing travel costs for Council members travelling to meetings.
2. Pro-rata subsidies, etc, paid to the Branches. Clearly if the Branches were to collect membership fees directly then there would be no need for these.
3. Service-related expenses. These includes postage on the Newsletter, the Newsletter editor's fee, web hosting costs, the costs of the current web redevelopment, etc. Registration -- which is now barely used anyway -- is a self-funded service. So is mentoring. Obviously removing the services would eliminate these costs, as would replacing them with free alternatives. The Newsletter can be replaced by a free mailing list, for instance.
4. The Council used to pay honoraria, but these have now been dropped.
The only ANZSI Council-level service I would vote for continuing to spend money on is the membership/Indexers Available database and the website -- or rather, a redesigned website based on community participation, which would include the member database and Indexers Available as part of its basic structure.
There are many free web hosts available who could support this but -- and this might just reflect my own prejudice -- using one would put ANZSI in an awkward position should the host system crash or the host decide to shut it down. My gut feeling is that ANZSI should have a paid website system.
How much will that cost? That depends on two related things: firstly, how much control ANZSI wants to have over the appearance and contents of the site, and secondly, how much work the ANZSI webmaster is willing to put it for free. Let's look at two scenarios:
a) Bryght - www.bryght.com - offers a community web hosting system for $US20 per month. They take care of the details and support individual group members posting their own material. The job of webmaster in a Bryght system would consist of one or two hours a week screening out unacceptable material, and occasionally setting up new topics.
b) A 'traditional' system like the current ANZSI website where every feature is hand-coded by the webmaster and no-one else has access to this material. In other words the webmaster would have to spend forty or fifty hours setting up the site and then work for seven or eight hours a week to maintain it as active and current. The cost - about $A30 per month, plus the ongoing cost of domain name registration - about another $2 per month.
In other words the cost of an easy, low-maintenance website is more or less the same as that of a high-maintenance website, and the actual amount of money that ANZSI needs to run over and above Branch level is on the order of $300 per year. By relinquishing fine control and using an off-the-shelf hosting system we can also reduce the webmaster's workload by a factor of four or five.
There are several ways we could obtain the necessary funds:
- One Branch could take responsibility for the ANZSI website and levy a small fee on the other Branches. (The responsibility could even rotate every year or two.)
- All Branches could appoint and fund a Webmaster to set up and pay for the site and invoice each Branch separately on a pro-rata basis. This makes sense from the web host's point of view because they prefer to invoice and deal with a skilled individual.
- The current funds held by the Council could be put into a term deposit and the interest used to pay website costs.
Thursday, 19 July 2007
Wednesday, 18 July 2007
I recently wrote an article for the ANZSI Newsletter suggesting that the ANZSI Council had outlived its usefulness. (You can read it below.) Re-reading the article afterwards, it occurred to me that I had been a little unfair. What’s happening to ANZSI is happening in just the same way to volunteer organisations of all kinds, all over the world, and no-one can really be blamed for failing to predict it, or finding it hard to cope with while it happens. Whether it can be coped with, and how, is something I explore a little later. But first a diagnosis – or perhaps a coronial enquiry, since what we are looking at here is the scene of an accident. Like many other volunteer societies, ANZSI has recently run head-on into something much bigger and faster than it is.
ANZSI – or AusSI, as it was then – was founded in the 1970s as a two-level structure, and that structure has remained in place. The four Branches –
I joined AusSI in the early 1990s and became involved with its new website around 1998. During the 1980s I had spent a couple of years in the Public Service analysing departmental statistics for human resource planning, so perhaps I developed a nose for unsustainable demographics: at any rate, it wasn’t too long before I began to feel that there was something going wrong. Over the next few years I was able to identify several symptoms of a society heading for deep trouble. Here they are:
- Massive turnover of new members. ANZSI is astoundingly good at attracting new members, and appallingly bad at keeping them. Eighty to ninety percent of new members leave within three years, while a dwindling rump of veteran members gradually declines through natural attrition. By now over 50% of ANZSI consists of members who joined in or after 2003. Very few of them show any interest in the administration of the Society or its services.
- A steady accumulation of funds. For many years now the ANZSI Council has been running a budget surplus – but unlike the Australian Government, this doesn’t go to pay off debt, but builds up in bank accounts and low-interest term deposits. The ANZSI Council no longer has the confidence or the initiative to spend its own money on members’ benefits.
- Increasing difficulty in finding unpaid workers. Having been accustomed to delegate work to others, the Council finds itself with fewer and fewer people to delegate to. Those that it can employ are usually busy people with other priorities, so that simple jobs can stretch out to take months or even years.
- An increasing focus on self-aggrandization; having found itself unable or unwilling to carry out initiatives for ordinary members, the Council now spends much of its time on setting up rules and regulations for itself. Its latest project, for instance, is incorporation, which is guaranteed to take ages and achieve nothing but slowing its progress down from a crawl to a dead stop.
- A high level of technophobia among Council members. I was surprised at this at first, but I probably shouldn’t have been. Volunteer councillors are likely to be people who value face-to-face meetings, rigid rules and formal channels of communication: the technology which threatens to make all this obsolete is unlikely to be high on their list of priorities.
These look at first like separate problems – if, indeed, they look like problems at all: I have occasionally taken these up with some Council personnel and found that they seem to regard them as Acts of God, and just as irremediable – but a little digging reveals that they all stem from the same basic source. ANZSI and its Council have run afoul of modern technology in its most potent form: the Internet.
Consider how things were in the 1970s, when AusSI was formed. Letters were expensive and slow. Documents were typed. Copying was done on paper for ten cents a sheet or more. There were no fax machines, no email, no web. Communication was slow, expensive and difficult. An indexer working outside a major city was unlikely to meet – or even know of – anyone else in the same profession. An organisation to put indexers in touch with each other was a valuable resource. The ANZSI Newsletter from this period is a busy journal, full of interest: questions, discussions, comments and responses. Indexers Available, published then in book form, was the only way most indexers could put their name before a range of potential clients.
But that was then: this is now. The meteoric and unforeseen arrival of the Internet has suddenly altered the whole landscape. All the discussion that formerly enlivened the Newsletter has moved to global mailing lists like INDEX-L, and the Newsletter itself has become a dull collection of official pronouncements. Indexers Available still gets some use from new members, but most of them are now communicating directly with clients via email or their websites. For the same reason, registration is a dead issue: only four current ANZSI members have registered since 2002. New indexers are cutting out the middleman: or to use a modern buzzword, disintermediating.
The results of this are twofold. Indexers who want to connect up with other indexers find that they can now do it easily and quickly through the Internet without getting involved in the complicated rituals required by the Council; and the Council finds itself embarrassingly short of projects which could add any real value to indexers’ working lives. The Branches are thriving – for the moment – because there is still a need to arrange for face-to-face meetings of various kinds; but the Council is approaching the point where its only reason for existence is to entrench its own bureaucracy.
And the problem is not going to get better. Technology gets more accessible all the time. Ten years ago it would have taken an expert a month to set up a website for a complex community. Five years ago it would have taken a professional a week. Today anyone with basic Web skills can do it in a couple of hours. The new ANZSI website, designed in 2003, will be obsolete before it comes into use. Why submit to the constraints of ANZSI’s site, new members will ask, when you can set up your own? Why join a national society when you can talk to the world?
Unless there is substantial reform the ANZSI Council will eventually collapse, and possibly take the society with it. Is there anything that ANZSI and other societies could do to avert this, and embrace the Internet rather than fighting it? Here are a few suggestions:
- Remember that your society’s future depends on keeping your new members. They must have joined for a reason; try and find out what it is, and cater to it.
- Set up a society mailing list and use it for official communications as well as informal discussions of directions and policy. For most of your members this will be the society. Use it to arrange email meetings and votes in which all members can participate.
- If something needs doing, and you have the money, pay someone to do it. That’s what money’s for.
- Make web development a communal activity that all interested members can contribute to online.
- Make it easier to spend money than to accumulate it, by adopting electronic funds transfer, credit cards, PayPal, and discretionary expense accounts for society officials.
- Lower membership fees to realistically reflect the costs of administration in an electronic age.
Keep these in mind and you just may be able to turn that head-on collision into a sideswipe.
Saturday, 14 July 2007
The latest of these, I gather, is incorporation -- a classic example of making work for its own sake. How many indexers woke up this morning and thought The thing I need most in my professional life is to belong to an incorporated society? Incorporation, if it ever succeeds, will just add another layer of rules and regulations to a Council which is already nearly paralysed, and bring total gridlock one step closer.
None of this would matter, and we could leave the Council to pursue its pipe dreams while we get on with life, except for three things: firstly, the small but significant amount of money that Council takes from members each year; secondly the energy it wastes, which could be put into activities at the Branch level; and most importantly, because our current administrative policies are killing the Society! I said above that ANZSI has 230 members, but this is misleading: what we actually have is a dwindling rump of veteran members, mostly recruited before 2001, who actively support the Society administration and subscribe to its services, and a larger 'bulge' of new members who have joined since 2004. Very few of these new members take any interest in ANZSI administration or its services, and on past performance, 80-90% of them will leave within a few years without playing any significant role in the Society.
These new members are voting with their feet: rather than wait around for the Council to do something useful, they are leaving ANZSI for good. Unless we can find a way to keep these new recruits then ANZSI's long-term future is bleak.
And incorporation isn't it.
Tuesday, 3 July 2007