Are You Running a Factory?

In We Are All Weird, Seth Godin writes, "I've started using the word 'factory' to define any organizational effort that's built around repeated interactions and mass.  If you need a map and a manual, it's probably because you're creating a business or a campaign that's based on a factory.  If exceptions are a problem, it's probably because you're doing factory work."

In many associations, the word community is used as if it is interchangeable with organization.  Any group of people working together is called a team.  But using the right words doesn't create the meaning behind them or the emotional or cognitive connections that give them value. 

We talk as if we are creating robust interactions of interpersonal relationships, but approach doing so like a factory assembly line.  We embrace individuality so long as it looks like sameness or fits into one of the member engagement categories we've pre-defined.  We say our meetings and conferences are about learning, yet a more accurate description would be "cost effective transmission of information to the greatest number of people possible" by volunteer presenters who may or may not know anything about adult learning.  We really do want to meet member needs, but tend to approach doing so through mass aggregation of marketing data, not the facilitation of individual connections and value being made and received. 

In general, it has worked for a very long time without too many complaints.  But the expiration date on the factory approach to associating is starting to come due.  It will occur at different times in different organizations, but a "not to be joined after ______" label will be inescapable unless the association has some indispensable hook of value that individuals can't access in any other way without significant cost or inconvenience.  And that is less and less likely for many organizations. 

And even if you are able to retain members and generate sufficient revenues operating a factory instead of creating a community, you may find it increasingly difficult to attract top talent to come and do the work.  What rock-star professional or volunteer wants to focus their talent on doing factory work for an organization when they can be architects and artists of remarkable things in collaboration with their own tribes of like-minded individuals?

It's been more than 15 years since Don Peppers and Martha Rogers wrote The One to One Future yet so many associations (and quite honestly, corporations as well) still operate with a one to many factory mindset.   It's all about efficiency and too little about effectiveness. 

But try this on instead: Instead of treating me as a target market to advertise your factory work to, treat me as an individual looking for targeted meaning, meaning I will likely help co-create for myself with a little support.  Instead of doing things to me or thinking you have to provide everything for me, create the eco-system in which I am able to do what I need to get done and access the provisions I value.  Yes, going beyond targeting mass is messy, and if there is one thing many managers don't like, it's messiness.  But that's your problem to solve, not your members' issue.

Godin has it right.  We are all weird.  And if you continue to do treat our relationship like factory work designed for the masses, don't be surprised if one day the masses are missing.


Dave Lutz said...

Jeff, love this post! You do an exceptional job of describing what we're seeing with many associations and their conferences. The knowledge gap between the audience and the presenters has shrunk. Very few organizations have done what's needed to provide superior adult learning. Keep on Preaching!

Shelly Alcorn, CAE said...

Jeffrey -

Excellent post. And you are right, we shouldn't be surprised one day if the masses are missing. We could make the argument when looking at membership demographics that they already are.


Retirepreneur said...

Within our massive communities are many "weird" tribes yearning to be fed. I suspect there's a way associations might toggle between the two, delivering high-level insight to the masses, then drilling down on specifics for dozens, even hundreds of tribes.

Enjoy your blog, but particularly enjoyed this post, Jeffrey. Thanks!

Maggie McGary said...