On February 23, at the ARC conference, Pat Gouhin and I sat down and discussed issues that are substantive to ISA and the automation community. Here’s the interview:
1. What have you learned about ISA so far?
ISA has a great history, a strong foundation to build on, and it operates in a world filled with opportunity. Our strengths include the committed and dedicated volunteer leaders, a strong heritage of serving the profession, remarkably strong brand recognition, a sound financial position, dedicated and highly competent staff, and a cohesive vision of serving the profession. “Setting the Standard for Automation” is a great position for the organization because it effectively captures a very strong component of ISA’s value, our consensus industry standards. It also reflects the quality of all of ISA activities that arise from the hard work of our membership and staff. And, very importantly, it reflects the value that the organization, through its members, brings to industry in enhancing manufacturing efficiency and reliability.
2. What do you think you need to do to make ISA relevant again?
To nearly 30,000 members and another 100,000 or so customers, ISA is relevant. This is reflected in our growth in number of professionals accessing our training programs, growth in numbers of professionals purchasing ISA books and standards, very high readership levels of InTech, 11-14,000 professionals that attend our annual conference and exhibit, and thousands of professionals and practitioners who have sought certification in one of ISA’s three certification programs. Independent market studies conducted over the past three years have affirmed the need for and importance of ISA to automation professionals. The studies acknowledged that ISA is not as revered as it once was, but is very much respected and relevant. Like most institutions that now compete in a much more diverse environment with many more choices available for our constituents, we must be diligent in listening to our members and being responsive to the consensus needs and expectations.
3. Your predecessor was of the opinion that the political power of the “Old Presidents Club” needed to be curtailed. Do you agree, and if so, what do you intend to do about it?
ISA is fortunate to have a large number of dedicated volunteers who give a tremendous amount of their personal time to help further the goals of the organization. This is what distinguishes non-profit volunteer groups from commercial businesses. There is a loyalty and continued commitment that transcends the short-term business relationship you have with commercial concerns. Our volunteer governance system is structured to provide opportunities for new leaders to be active, and provides for people to continue to serve and lend their expertise in continuing roles or in new roles. A balance of new and historical perspectives is what makes an organization successful. I look forward to working with and learning from our past leaders equally with our newest leaders.
4. Does ISA have a value proposition as a member society?
Yes, 30,000 automation professionals from around the world believe that is the case by the fact that they are members of ISA. Over 80% of them renew their membership each year, which is pretty remarkable when you consider the changes that are occurring in the manufacturing sector. While we would like to retain 100% of our members, I am realistic enough to know that some people join for some short-term benefit they need and that people come and go in this profession. Members are the backbone of ISA and are the reason why we exist. Of course, we also serve the needs of other automation professionals who chose not to join since some individuals are not joiners and others engage in automation only part of their time.
5. Does ISA have any value other than as a commercial training, standards and publishing company?
Because ISA is not a commercial, for-profit company, we engage in a diverse array of activities that likely would not be undertaken by commercial companies. This includes functions like:
– Development of consensus industry standards that are vendor-neutral and are feedstock for international standards, including scores of standards that never generate sales revenues that pay for the costs of development
– Publication of books in niche areas that are needed by automation professionals but not in sufficient numbers to make them attractive to commercial publishing concerns
– Development of vendor-neutral training programs in all areas of automation, again including niche topics that may not be financially viable to a for-profit company
– Operating credentialing programs including the Certified Automation Professional, Certified Control Systems Technician, and Certified Industrial Maintenance Mechanic programs, all of which are designed to elevate these professions
– Sustaining the Control Systems Engineer professional engineer licensure program
– Support for institutional accreditation programs for automation and instrumentation education programs
– Funding scholarships for the education of the next generation of automation professionals
Associations like ISA do things that are for the good of the profession rather than being driven by a profit motive of private owners or shareholders. That gives us the luxury of being unbiased and not beholden to anyone other than the consensus needs of our members. The thousands of professionals who volunteer their time to help fulfill the mission of ISA testifies to that value.
6. ISA continues to appear to have a very high overhead for the size of the society. What are you going to do about that?
ISA benchmarks our operations against other engineering societies and non-profit organizations on a continuing basis. We contrast metrics like number of staff, level of revenue in major operating activities, level and types of expenses, benefits, facility costs, etc. For the number of members, number of non-member customers, amount of revenue, and diversity of activities, ISA is very competitive with other similar non-profit organizations.
7. Is there a future for ISA sections?
Yes, as long as there are members who wish to congregate in a local geographic area for purposes of networking and mentoring. Most human beings are social so there is a motivation to interact. Our local sections afford that opportunity, both at a social level and at an educational level. While the internet makes it very easy to access information from anywhere in the world, there remain times when face-to-face contact works best. Local sections afford that opportunity for automation professionals to physically meet with a minimal expense of time and money.
8. What can you do to revitalize divisions?
The ISA leadership is engaged in strategic assessments about how best to organize our volunteer efforts in collecting and disseminating technical information. Our technical divisions, along with our extensive standards committees, are a significant resource and continue to contribute through symposia, technical papers, and technology panels. In any given year, several thousand automation professionals contribute some part of their expertise to the information archives of ISA. Our objective needs to be how to make that a professionally rewarding experience for the volunteers with a minimal amount of administrative burden.
9. ISA governance is complex and wonderful. Should ISA embark on another round of navel-gazing and reform?
All successful organizations periodically review their structure to assure that it is responsive to the needs of the marketplace in which they operate. Non-profits like ISA are no exception, but what is different in the non-profit world is that the structure reflects a consensus of a very diverse group of sincere volunteers. This sometimes results in a more complex structure than you might see in the commercial world. But, the complexity affords an opportunity for a diversity of views to arise and a broad array of individuals to participate. It allows for a balancing of perspectives and keeps any single voice, no matter how loud or strident, from driving the organization. Sometime it means decisions are slower in coming but it usually means they better reflect the consensus of the membership.
10. Can ISA save its magazine and its trade show?
InTech is a very successful magazine that serves the mission of ISA to educate about the automation profession in an unbiased manner without preference to any commercial interests. ISA relies on some degree of advertising income to help defray the costs of publishing InTech and we are fortunate to be very successful in a commercial environment with magazines like yours that are published solely for a profit motive.
ISA EXPO continues to serve the needs of 11-14,000 automation professionals and over 500 companies that wish to reach those professionals. While there is no question that trade shows do not play the same role as they did in the past, there are still individuals and companies that find them useful. Fortunately for those individuals and companies, there are non-profit organizations like ISA that will fill that need because it is a part of the educational mission rather than because of a required bottom-line.