Jim and all:
Your summary of the changes in ISA’s environment is right on. Actually most of the volunteer leadership AND the staff has known this for several years now, which is actually an encouraging observation the people responsible for decision-making in ISA are pretty well all seeing the same picture when they look out at the world. Where they disagree is in what to do about it. Which is not surprising, because there are no easy answers, despite what you said in your article.
The title of this thread, “Antique Governance Plagues Cash-Cow ISA”, contains two assumptions with which I strongly disagree. First, ISA has no “cash cow”. Its headquarters building in RTP is worth whatever a buyer is willing to pay for it, which since RTP is now glutted with empty commercial real estate, is not much. Second, ISA’s $30 million reserve is not a “war chest”. Most of it is now working for ISA as a mix of fixed-income and equity investments (not just “in the bank”) and in a good year earns a few million dollars in investment income for ISA. These investments provide a financial cushion to absorb the impact of unexpected financial reverses on ISA. Some of this money went to make up deficits incurred during the past few years of severe downturn in ISA’s major income sources, buying time for ISA to plan and implement cost reductions to adjust to lower revenue levels. Since 1999, a percentage of these reserves has also been available to fund “new venture” projects of strategic importance to the Society.
ISA may not need $30 million (over twice the size of its current budget) in reserves that is a matter that can and should be reviewed by the Executive Board. But it does need a significant reserve fund. Imagine for a moment that the ISA show had been scheduled this year in Houston. ISA would now probably be faced with cancelling the show, or re-locating portions of it, since the Reliant Centre is now full of hurricane refugees from New Orleans. This would have entailed, I would guess, a $2-3 million extraordinary expense against the ISA balance sheet. ISA needs to be able to absorb the impact of such unforeseeable events and continue in operation.
The second assumption I have a problem with is that ISA’s troubles are all, or almost all, governance related. Sure, ISA has serious governance problems. The predominance of the section as the basic governance unit is certainly due for revision in a time when many sections are dead or dying. Much of the volunteer leadership at all levels is disengaged and de-motivated and passively watches as others make the decisions. And the sense of cohesion and commitment, of working together towards shared goals and making a difference in the world, is almost completely absent. Potential new leaders see this situation and choose to stay away, leading to stagnation of the leadership pool and endless recycling of existing leaders.
However, I don’t see new governance as the solution. I see new mission and focus as the solution. If ISA clarified what it wanted to be, and what it wanted to do, and how its volunteer leaders could contribute to this, it wouldn’t matter whether its governing body had 23, or 16, or 7, or 5 members. The people that were there would be committed and enthusiastic and work effectively together to turn ISA around. Right now they don’t, because they can’t see what they’re supposed to be doing, why they should care, and how they can make a difference. Many other organizations (like Rotary, hi Terry) are led very successfully by volunteers. The difference is a clearly defined service mission that has people doing stuff they care about and having an impact they can see.
So where does ISA get a new mission and focus? Input from industry leaders not now involved in ISA governance (such as you, Jim) will be highly valuable, but no, you can’t do it for us, and a new “streamlined” Executive Committee dominated by its three outside directors can’t impose it either. Over the past several years, ISA has suffered through a few attempts to buy a pre-packaged solution for all its troubles from someone outside ISA, in exchange for a lot of bucks we wish we had now. What we got was either a “one size fits all” solution that didn’t really fit, or a 30,000 foot solution that told us stuff we knew already. Endless efforts were made, and precious energies expended, trying to drum up enthusiasm and line everybody up behind the latest “great thing”. In the process, many ISA leaders became cynical, discouraged and tired, felt themselves made irrelevant, and left. Those that are still there have become extremely suspicious of great imported plans that promise to remake ISA and end up costing more money, doing little or nothing, and further marginalizing them.
The only way I know to bring about change in an organization like ISA is for its top-level leadership to create an environment that is open to unfettered idea exchange, constructive debate, and radical change, then to seed that environment with daring new proposals (from inside or outside the current leadership) and encourage the rest of the leadership to elaborate and adopt them (notice I do NOT say shaming or belittling them if they disagree). Like it or not, the current governance structure has to be your starting point, since it’s all you have now. As long as they don’t feel they are being coerced, by-passed, disparaged or ignored, I think a surprising number of these people are open to major changes in ISA. After all, they see the same external environment you do, and they feel its impact on their own careers and the companies they work with. And while most of them may not be senior business leaders, they are automation and control professionals, many of them in positions of responsibility, and many having business as well as technical experience. Please don’t discount these people — I have been an ISA volunteer leader for a number of years and continue to be awestruck at the dedication and energy they are willing to bring to the task, provided only that they are made to feel appreciated and important and given the support they need.
In closing, a few practical questions about your proposed “new ISA”: would you envision ISA becoming a for-profit corporation, or remaining a non-profit? This could have a major impact on what you could legally do with the $30 million reserve fund. I doubt the IRS would let you move it into a for-profit organization, or use it for purposes not clearly related to ISA’s mission as a non-profit organization. Would you still see ISA as an individual membership organization? as a corporate membership organization? or some combination? And would you envision there still being volunteer leadership below the Executive Committee level, e.g. District and Department Boards, committees, task forces etc.?
Keep the good ideas coming, we need ‘em all.