The Future of Professional Membership Associations

The Future is Now - Ornate ClockFewer people will have lifetime roles in a single discipline such as marketing, accounting or law. That does not mean that these disciplines will disappear but the idea of an individual identifying with a single discipline and moving from Associate to Member to Fellow over a linear career is less significant for a large proportion of the workforce.

The Livery Companies of the City of London are among the longest surviving institutions in the world. We may create new institutions while some morph and others fade in time, after all we no longer have buggy whip manufacturers but new roles and interests have replaced these redundant roles. Is our era any different?  Perhaps individuals will become members of multiple professional disciplines?

The rate of change is now faster than generational shift. This argument was made eloquently in the 1970s by Donald Schon in his Reith lectures that became the basis of his book “Beyond the Stable State”. In the post war period of reconstruction and growth it was possible for an individual to have a job for life based around a skill set acquired in youth. This has long broken down in blue and white collar workers as automation of roles has progressed. These same pressures are now being felt in professional roles. Teaching, medicine, accountancy and law are experiencing the impact of technology developments in the way that manufacturing jobs were radically shifted during the 1980s.

Humans are social animals and joining communities will not change unless we change as a species. It is important to think through these changes for serious economic and social reasons. With students graduating with debts over £30k to enter a profession that will not sustain them over a working life, how should existing professional membership associations plan to survive and thrive the next generation of change?

Many organisations generate funding from Training and CPD, which is under threat from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  The rise of digital information and social media have had an impact on how and what they publish for their members.

The shift from a job or career for life is not a new phenomenon and the growth of portfolio working, freelance, self-employment and SMEs make up a bigger proportion of the work available. Instead of a corporate with a dedicated department, many professionals find themselves a “lone voice”, for example the only lawyer in an SME.

This should not be a council of despair, but a chance to reflect and reform.  No doubt there will be be consolidation and decline for some institutions but within adult skills, there is a growing use of the terms, “The T-shaped Learner” and entrepreneurial learning. The vertical part is the individual specialism while the bar is a breadth of skills required.

For instance an IT consultant going freelance or moving to a small company might need marketing help, accountancy, export, personnel and so on.

This is where I think there is a way forward.

Professional associations have tended to focus on services for members with whom they hope to have a long-term relationship.  I believe professional membership organisations will shift subtly from member services towards advocacy to the wider world and services for the users of their expertise. For instance, we might see the Royal Colleges of Medicine playing a greater role with patients and their needs to get the best out of medical specialists. For the lone HR person in an SME, it is educating the users of HR in the organisation.  Of course this has happened for years in some disciplines – “Finance for the Non-Financial Manager” is one of the most popular courses in early careers.

For me failure would be an amalgamation of all the business disciplines into a single entity, a “Business Institute”. It would be unwieldy and dull.  In a networked society, we need our institutions to become more porous and support their members by delivering services to their customers, clients and users.

My central forecast is that “pure” memberships will decline but associate-ships will grow and partnerships between deep specialists is preferable to homogenised generalists.  All challenging prospects for Professional Membership Associations but a future that can work.

Chris Yapp


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