A major change in the Obama administration has been the appointment of two positions to his leadership team: the Chief Technology Officer, and the Chief Information Officer. These positions have been closely watched in Washington, although with our national fixation on the economy, little recognition seems to have been made in the remainder of the nation.
But here's the thing. Both offices recognize the impact of technology on the way we do things, and in this case, the specific emphasis is on the new buzzword, “transparency” in government.
Managing transparency in a democracy isn't easy. This morning I read a highly critical reporter who said that the plan to bail the housing industry out of crisis wasn't going to work because there are just too many people involved for action to occur rapidly enough to do much good. I had to laugh: seems to me that's been a constant refrain in my history of managing associations. How does leadership make decisions in a timely fashion and still involve the stakeholders (members)? It's especially true when we're dealing with technology-related decisions: by the time we get around to making the decision, the technology we were considering is outdated. Are we still taking three years to make a choice on who our MLS vendor will be?
So, transparency combined with democracy. How will that work?
Today the Huffington Post writer Don Tapscott had some instructions for the new US Chief Technology Officer, ideas that I thought might be worth thinking about in our roles as association managers. Here are some specific adaptations of Tapscott's ideas:
Ensure access. Tapscott is calling for a national broadband infrastructure which will reach the most isolated areas of the country. But I was thinking about how this mandate might apply to real estate associations, because it's really quite revolutionary. How do we ensure access for our members? That's not just 'providing access', as in “We're having an education session. You all drive on over.” “Ensure access” might mean, how do we arrange it so that every member has access to this information? How can we deliver our services in such a way that everyone who wants the knowledge is included? Also, how do we ensure that every member of our business community who needs the information can get it? That is to say, are we withholding information from some through exclusionary membership structures?
Creating Conditions for a Vibrant Technology Industry. Tapscott refers to nationwide stimulus of new technologies, and an atmosphere of embracing new ideas which, he says, encourage even the smallest business provide levels of customer service never before possible. I thought of associations still bogged down in the question of 'who is our customer?' I think we need to go one step further and recognize that for our members, the consumer is king—and any way we can assist our members in providing better consumer services has got to be a priority with us as professional associations. The world today is consumer driven, more than ever before. Real estate associations must play a part in satisfying consumer needs, I think: transaction management, comprehensive public-facing websites, better property information for our members, affiliate businesses, and the public. And let's face it: the consumer doesn't care about our association governance infrastructure. The consumer doesn't want to hear someone say, “I can't tell you about that property because it's not in our MLS”, or “I can't show you this house because I don't have the right lockbox.” The question then is, how can associations dispense with what are essentially political boundaries, and enhance and implement technology solutions that will help members serve customers?
Fostering Collaboration. The whole basis of social media is not learning about what your buddy ate for breakfast, but it is about collaboration. It is about the wisdom of the group being greater than the specialized knowledge of one person. Social media is not just a buzzword or a fad, it's a technology structure that's filling a very real need. In a sense, associations themselves are a form of social media—technology is just giving us a way to do our job better. How many of us have MLS programs that allow shared thoughts on listings? Do we have blogs, both professional and public? Do we Twitter? Have discussion forums? Group think tanks on real estate issues? Websites that allow consumers to evaluate Realtor service levels?
4. Web-enabled Transformation of Government and Democracy. This is what it's all about: a TRANSFORMATION of governance and democracy, in association terms. We as leaders of our associations have a responsibility to engage in a transformation, a re-invention. Let's face it, our members are doing this in their brokerages and in their role as sales persons (of services, not properties). How can real organizations use technology to modernize association governance and bring it into the digital era? Don Tapscott says, “The goal is to identify breakthrough strategies that rethink the core value of key government (read 'association') services, dramatically improve service delivery, reduce costs, and renew administrative processes. Another is to change the role of the citizen as a shareholder in government.”
The digital age has created a new level of membership participation in a more global, networked environment. It has removed the necessity for some of our most treasured association imperatives such as geographic boundaries, exclusionary membership, and the body-in-seat measure of member involvement. And it has produced the additional responsibility of not only 'encouraging' member access and participation , but also of ensuring it.