Recently, we had the chance to see the inner workings of a NYC-based educational non-profit which, according to some, after 40 years, has plateaued. That is, membership, has stagnated for a number of years. This was a big challenge for us since the organization is very small and does not have all the usual roles one normally finds in larger for-profit businesses. Many roles are filled by volunteers with little or no experience. And, the leadership style is very open and communal. In a certain sense, this organization is probably as close to a leaderless company as one can imagine; a “holacracy” if you will.
Now don’t get us wrong. We are all for flat, networked, community-driven, halocratic,…organizations if it improves company performance. But, it must improve company performance. Otherwise, you are just herding cats! A tiresome activity at best.
That is where the rub was. An education-based business is by definition hierarchical with teachers instructing students and teachers maintaining their skills by learning from other teachers, the institution maintaining accreditation from a “higher” authority, and so on so forth. This need conflicts with a flat leadership structure made up of many volunteers each improvising in one area or another. Interestingly, this particular organization also suffered from a widely acknowledged condition of poor communication which in and of itself is renders a flat, communal, approach very inefficient.
Based on discussions with a number of members, we were able to discern a number of different levels of communication: 1) executive director with head office, 2) a leadership committee, 3) an inner group close to leadership, 4) membership, 5) non-members, and 6) the head office with all members. Even for us, there were challenges. We started working with level 3 and were supposed to work with levels 4 and 5 but were never informed of the dates and times, which means probably a number of those people never had the chance to be heard. Interestingly, communication and community are derived from the same word “communicare”, “to share”. Creating community becomes difficult when communication breaks down.
As a result of our time together, we came to the conclusion that the company no longer understood if its core business was an education or community. So we applied the key component method by asking: What is the asset the company owns and/or controls that gives it a competitive advantage in the markets in which it operates?
The answer was simple. The educational content provided by the company is controlled by them in the market in which it is operating. And, its 40 years of existence demonstrates a certain competitive advantage with respect to other organizations that provide a similar or substitute product. The head office that provides the educational content is known around the world, further bolstering their competitive advantage by providing a well recognized brand which is used under license. Consequently, community is a result of the education the business provides its membership and, as such, should be returned to its leadership position at the core of the organization’s development strategy.
Community, on the other hand, is not owned or controlled by the company. Nor does it provide a competitive advantage in the market in which the company operates. As wonderful as it may be to be a member of the community, from a business point of view it is not defendable. The barriers are just too low.
By placing education first the company can focus all its efforts on what is truly of value to its members. Of course, this means being able to effectively and efficiently communicate their educational offer to existing members who can then derive its value for themselves. And, communicate this value to attract new members. All the processes surrounding communication need to be reviewed and corrected wherever needed. With the membership, with potential members, in classrooms, in the hallways, by the elevator, as well as outside the organization’s walls to their neighborhood, the city, the New York tri-state area, to affiliates in other cities around the world, to the head office, … always expanding their sphere of influence as a center of educational excellence and community.