How Do You Lead in a Gig Economy?

As more professionals move into piecework and short-term jobs, associations will need to be as flexible as those workers are.

On Jan. 17, three association leaders convened to discuss what the future of the industry will look like. They spoke sensibly and provocatively about a lot of important issues, but I came away concerned about one issue that the participants discussed only glancingly.

The event was “Association of the Future,” held in Middleburg, Va., as part of the National Association of Manufacturers’ Council of Manufacturing Associations Winter Leadership Conference. Taking part were ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE; Jeff De Cagna, FASAE, Chief Strategist and Founder of Principled Innovation; and author Seth Kahan; CM Services President and Head Coach Rick Church moderated.

“When somebody joins an association, they connect to the organization, not necessarily to other people.”

If you want to see the discussion for yourself, video of the live event is online.  For those who don’t have an hour to spare at the moment, here are the highlights:

  • Managing information and giving different types of members the ability to access it will be increasingly essential.  Though the internet provides plenty of the information people need for free, associations can prove their value by providing authoritative information fast.
  • Mobile, mobile, mobile. Graham likened the shift to mobile as moving association membership from an old-fashioned seven-course dinner to a more a la carte experience. “Mobile allows the member to create a relationship with an association,” Graham said. “Maybe they only want dessert, or the wine….and they don’t want to pay for it all. “
  • The association business model is too slow. One hot topic during the conversation was Doximity, a new social network for doctors that since its founding in 2011 has outpaced membership in the American Medical Association. De Cagna suggested that all associations ought to be concerned about what this means for more conventional top-down business models. “When somebody joins an association, they connect to the organization, not necessarily to other people,” he said, pointing to Doximity’s ability to connect members to each other as its strategic advantage.
  • Demographics are complicating this. Older workers are staying in the workforce longer, and they’re being managed by younger employees. Serving members with different management, professional, and technological experiences will be increasingly important.
  • Associations are slow on innovation. Kahan discussed some of the data from his research on associations, Association Transformation, pointing out that while CEOs are optimistic about growth, 87 percent do not have an innovation strategy.

All interesting stuff, if familiar themes for those who’ve been following association challenges for the past few years. But the conversation took a more intriguing turn when the group discussed the growing “gig economy,” in which more workers detach from conventional jobs—often by choice, but sometimes economic necessity—to take on contract work and other short-term gigs. Bloomberg reported on one 2013 survey saying that as much as a third of the U.S. workforce is made up of independent workers. (A group supporting such workers is booming.)

As the Bloomberg story points out, the growth in the gig economy is for knowledge workers who have particular expertise but who also need to be flexible to compete. So, I wonder, when the nature of your job—and even your chosen profession—can change every year or so, will you claim enough of an affinity to one profession long enough to want to join its association? If you’re leading an association, what can you offer to a gig worker who might be off to a different gig in a couple of years?

At the panel, the gig-economy conversation focused less on those challenges and more on the technological and generational issues the shift brings up. As De Cagna pointed out, younger employees are rapidly revising the definitions of “collaboration” and “loyalty.” When an audience member asked about how best to serve gig workers, Kahan said, “it still comes down to the value proposition.” And that’s true—there are ways to provide valuable content and relationships to short-term employees as well as anybody else. But I came away from the conversation concerned that associations may be too complacent about its members’ career paths. Associations may be assuming that their members are committed to their industry for years, and that there’s plenty of time to groom them into more engaged members, volunteers, and so on. The trend suggests that’s a risky thing to count on.

What have you seen in your own associations? How would you lead your association if you knew a sizable chunk of your members will move on to a different profession in a few years? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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