Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Trouble with Trade Associations

I've never really found trade associations to be worthwhile, whether engineering, design, or whatever.  And yet many people seem to take them very seriously, pay a lot of money to join, and attend all sorts of conferences put on by them.

I think I've decided that they often end up working like a sort of credibility ponzi scheme (not that this is the intention of any association's founders).  It works like this:

  1. A trade association claims to be an important organization of minds in a field where new ideas are shared to the benefit of all involved.
  2. People in the industry join so they are seen as staying in touch with the latest developments.  They can put it on their resumes, display the magazine in their offices, and reference the conferences they've been to.  This lends them credibility.
  3. Other people write papers for the magazine or do presentations at the conferences.  They are seen -- at their companies and by their customers -- as experts, increasing credibility and career prospects.
  4. Dues are paid for access to this credibility, giving the association a pool of money with which to create the magazine, put on the conference, spam me mercilessly and other activities that increase the credibility of the association as a source of credibility, which allows them to pull in more members and higher-power speakers.
  5. Repeat
Nowhere in here, however, is there much motivation for anybody to bring quality information -- information that they truly care about -- to the table.  Presenters generally are there for the credibility of having done it, and present information that won't get them in trouble with their employer.  And members, just by paying their dues and attending the conferences, are already getting the  perceived credibility they want out of the bargain, so it's not as if they'll stop coming if the talks are weak or unsubscribe from the magazine if the articles aren't top-notch.  So you end up with an expensive magazine nobody reads and expensive conferences people grudgingly attend.

If I really cared here, I could look into why certain organizations actually do seem to bring a lot of quality information, like TED.  I suspect, however, that these organizations resist being a club;  you can't simply join up and reap the benefits of additional credibility.  The organization is the information, nothing more, so people only pay attention to TED so far as the information remains solid.