Thursday, September 10, 2009

STC: Quo Vadis?

As long as I'm laying on the gravitas, I'll continue with O tempora, o mores, ubinam gentium sumus?

The times, the manners, where among associations stand we?

I need to figure out where I am with all the STC stuff going on, and blogging will help my introspection. Also, it will let me share with you some of the background and complexity that surround the current state of affairs with STC. My e-mail tag line reads "Anyone who is sure of the answer doesn't understand the question," and this blog is an invitation to join me in understanding how we got here, where we are, and where I think we need to go. And this is social media, so feel free to comment in and share your perspectives back with me.

How we got here

Cindy Currie, our STC President, has already provided the answer in her article in News and Notes:

As I have previously mentioned, the shortfall is primarily due to the negative impact the recession has had on our two main sources of revenue—membership dues and the annual conference. But going forward, we have to solve a problem bigger than the recession. For years STC has been adding and expanding services and activities to benefit members and the profession without taking a hard look at how to sustain those activities. And with only periodic, modest increases in fees, the costs to sustain those services and activities have outpaced our dues and total revenue such that the Society has actually been subsidizing these activities.

A little more backstory.
We have been seeing a decline in membership going back roughly to the technology meltdown of the dot.bomb. Many costs to service members are relatively fixed, that is, rent doesn't go down, we don't pay less for legal services, it costs the same to design and edit a magazine issue for 10,000 as it does for 20,000, etc. So what happens is that as membership declines, the costs to serve individual members go up. But the board has historically been reluctant to raise dues. Part of the reason is that members complain when dues go up-duh!

But part of the problem on our part was that dues and budget discussions were not as tightly linked as they should have been. We were not asking the appropriate question when we discussed dues, namely, "How much money do we need in order to do what we want to do?" We focused too heavily on member reaction.

Another problem is that we often debated programs at the line item level based on their merits. Questions like "Should we get rid of this?" were answered with "No, it's a good thing to do." We missed the "But we can't afford to do them all; something good has to go."

In short, we weren't putting all the pieces on the table at the same time.

Another interesting thing about membership is that even though we get a healthy number of new members every year, we lose more than we gain. Hmmmmmm. Is that saying something about perceived value? Of course it is, and that has not been lost on the leadership team. We tend to keep a core of loyal members (I love all of you), but that has created a demographic problem: A lot of us are older and will be retiring in the coming decade. We are losing our "next generation" of STC members. The upshot is that decisions about how to grow the society are being made by those who often lack the perspective of what the target population wants. Ouch!! OK, that one hits this sixty-year old boy too, so hold off on the flames. (See How Not to Update Your Look and Feel)

Where we are today

OK, so we are in some interesting times:
  • We have a significant shortfall in income caused by the same economic crisis that deflated our reserves that were supposed to get us through just such a predicament.
  • We have a dues structure that can't cover costs of basic membership.
  • Our alternative revenue engine (the conference) has become a big question mark as we try to guess how well it can perform in this economic climate.
  • We're out of step as a society with where the profession is going and who the emerging professionals are.
So if you're wondering what we chowder-heads on the board are doing, welcome to our world :-) No excuses, but we didn't make this world. It is what it is; we're just the ones who must lead during these critical times.

Three things have to happen in the following order:
  1. We must deal with the shortfall.
  2. We must restructure how we manage the finances so our model is based on sustainability.
  3. We must reinvent STC so that it is not only relevant to where we are going as a profession, we must be THE place where the voices who are shaping that direction are heard.
My ship analogy is that the storm has blown us on the reef; here's the drill:
  1. Bail so we don't sink.
  2. Fix the damage and restore physical integrity to the ship's structure.
  3. Set a new course.
As everyone knows, part of the current solution to "we're sinking" is to transfer surplus reserves from the chapters. Wow, that has a lot of problems associated with it, so why are we taking such a controversial and difficult route?

Because those are the only pockets deep enough and liquid enough to solve the problem in time.

By the way, the shortfall is $1.2M, and we are handling all but $470K through cost reductions, debt rescheduling, and negotiations. What we need from the chapters is the $470K we won't be able to cover without their help.

We can do quick things that kind of translate into "Let's have a cake sale." Great, but we need $470K. That's a lot of cakes.

We can offer big programs; our certification task force thinks the potential revenue there could get into millions. Great, great, great, but it will take longer than we have.

So we've gone to the chapters. Not fair, some of that money has come from their own independent efforts (Atlanta still has some great cookbooks, by the way). Not fair! But a necessary sacrifice if we are to survive. I just don't have anything else I can say on that.

Point two, we have created a zero-based budget that looks at the whole picture: revenue, dues, and expenses as an integrated whole. We have a model that will be sound and sustainable. It is built on the principle that members should pay based on the level of services they receive. I can't get into the details, but if you watch those great Progressive Insurance ads (with Flo) and pay attention to the "Build the policy you can afford" one, then you'll get an idea of where we're going.

But dues will go up! The reaction we've already gotten is "How can you raise dues when part of your problem is you don't have enough members? Lower dues and get more members!"

The truth is that we could make it up in volume, but we cannot get to the volume it would take. Not in this economy, not with our current "curb appeal." Step two, then, is get a revenue/expense model that makes financial sense.

Politically, this is a hard sell. We want our national politicians to get rid of our deficit-bound economy, "Balance the budget, you idiots!" Then if one runs for office saying "I'll raise taxes and reduce services," we run him out of town on a rail. You see, he didn't understand that we wanted him to balance the budget by lowering taxes and increasing services.

Where are we going?

Phase 3: We must reinvent STC so that it is not only relevant to where we are going as a profession, we must be THE place where the voices who are shaping that direction are heard.

We need to be about content that helps professionals keep pace in a profession that measures how current you are in the dot releases of the tools you use.

  • We are on the verge of releasing the Body of Knowledge Portal--a critical step in being THE resource to start with with any question related to technical communication
  • We are moving into social media to help connect professionals into communities and resources.
  • We are defining how a certification program will make us the defining group in our profession and draw new members and employers to us.
There are still some glaring shortcomings, not the least is we still do not have a good strategic marketing strategy for moving forward. That WILL come, but we must first solidify a modern value proposition that gives us a compelling message to market.


I hope this didn't come across as whiney--but I want folks to understand the true complexity of the problem space. I'm not standing here saying "Trust us," I'm saying "Help us." But for you to be helpful, you need to understand the full backstory and complications we are dealing with.

Finally, many heartfelt thanks to all who have Ninged and Tweeted with your support and with your criticisms. Stay with STC, be part of the exciting future we are building together, and support our programs as they roll out. Think Dallas 2010 and tell your bosses NOW to budget for it. Hint: Lloyd is working up some sweet early bird deals.


Larry said...

Thanks, Mike. That's a good summary. Not whiney.

You closed with a call to action: "Help us." How exactly can we help, besides showing our support and planning to re-up when membership renewal time comes around?

Michael Hughes said...

Renew is good :-) Also, we need to move the discussion off of "the club" (STC itself) and onto "the profession." That's where we'll find our new heart.

That and let's all make a concerted effort to elevate the tone. The town halls we see on TV are not the model. There really are no villains in any of this. This blog was a good start for me to be able to say, "Just wasn't smart enough quick enough, but that's yesterday. What can we do starting today?"

David Farbey said...

The current crisis in and future direction of the STC is a very difficult and painful topic but you have managed to explain the situation in a calm and dignified manner. I think the STC is lucky to have you in its leadership team.

Karl said...

It would also help if STC had more corporate outreach. I pay for dues out of my own pocket, even though I work for a Fortune 500 company. It would be nice if STC had a dedicated page that people like myself could point to that explained the benefits of corporate reimbursement of STC dues.

troyt said...

I've been a Technical Communicator for years, although I've never been a member of STC.

Personally STC doesn't demonstrate enough value to me to join as an individual. I would join, however, if my employer was paying for it. Maybe that's one issue- how do you make STC seem like a necessary part of professional development to both the employer and the employee?

NIP said...

I dropped out of STC a few years back because it has become irrelevant to my career direction and professional interests.

Part of that is the ivory tower-type theorizing and self-aggrandizement in the STC's publications, part is the ineptitude of people who manage email communication with members

Hint: Do not spam. Do not sign up members for email lists without warning them in advance. Do not misconfigure listserves so there is not only no way to sign off the list, but all the "please unsubscribe me" messages from people who didn't want the emails end up going to the entire list -- in many cases to people's work emails, often in violation of their employers' internet usage policies -- instead of the listowner.

For a professional organization that represents people who write user documentation, it's annoying as hell to be subjected to cluelessness caused entirely by people failing to RTFM before launching a thoroughly annoying email campaign.

I could go on and on about the email snafu and other failures in communication. They are indicative of an organization that exists mostly for its own perpetuation, with no discernable mission to benefit the professionals on whom that organization depends.

STC is no longer relevant.

Michael Hughes said...

NIP, I appreciate your taking the time to comment. It's tone, however, is representative of a problem I encounter a lot, namely unilaterally attributing motives to actions. I think I know the email snafu you refer to, it jammed my inbox too.

It's called a mistake, and it was made by the volunteer leader of the SIG. It wasn't "indicative of an organization that exists mostly for its own perpetuation."

At any rate, I'm sorry it happened to you, and I'm sorry you're still this upset by it.


TiggerNibroc said...

Hi Mike! I'll stay the course, and remain on the ship with you at the helm. :) Thanks for your open, real conversation about this crisis, and I look forward to hearing more from you.

Dave said...

Hi Mike,

As you take a look at services offered, and charges rendered, I'd suggest taking a look at the ACM. In a lot of ways, I feel that this group is very similar to the STC in terms of mission and audience.

Some of the key features that I really enjoy are things like:

* heavy reductions membership costs for students or new grads
* the possibility of a lifetime membership
* a professional looking email forward
* the membership includes a subscription to two digital libraries (safari bookshelf and one other)

and more...

The ACM has also done the marketing to industry and, more importantly I think, Universities (get them while they're young!) that you mention in the article and have a decent reputation as a result.

Completely changing gears, the other thing that I think should be examined is the value of the STC for employees of large companies. I actually see a lot of value for freelancers, or employees of very small companies. However, if I have a good paying job, with full benefits, that I don't plan on quitting and I don't want to look for contract work --- the STC value prop goes down. Of the 50 or so authors that I've spoken with in my office, this is their main justification for not having an active membership: "It was good until I got a job..."

In any case, best of luck with the change. It's an exciting time.

- Dave

Michael Hughes said...

I recently joined ACM myself and I have been monitoring my own experience for "what do I like?" and "what's not working for me?" I agree that they are a good model for us to look toward. They have a lot in common with us and doing a lot things quite well.

Thanks for your insightful observations.

Anonymous said...

Remember that the economy hits the members, too, not just the organization. I would love to be an STC member, but my company won't pay for it, and my family's needs (including buying our own health insurance) have to come first. Add to that the facts that I don't live near enough a chapter to attend meetings and that I haven't found the online SIGs that informative in the past, I just can't justify the expense. Besides, I just don't have the money to spare.

I think levels of membership with realistic costs based on what you're getting would be useful.