ISA at the crossroads

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Most membership-based technical societies are declining - ISA is just one example. The old 'cash cow' needs new governance and new drive. Here is my 6-point plan.

This article was published by:
Automation World, August 2005

In the business environment of the new century, most membership-based technical societies are declining. The Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA) is one example.

Strategic shift

There are several strategic reasons for this decline. When business is booming, technical societies thrive because of demand—for regular networking opportunities, conferences, exhibitions, education, standards, publications, technical magazines and advertising. But when growth stops, interest in most of these activities wanes.

In the United States and Europe, the instrumentation business is flat, at best, and the activities of all related technical societies show the same downward trends. In growth areas such as China, India, Singapore, Brazil and Mexico, technical society-related activities are growing. Quick and decisive actions are needed to move into international markets. But ISA and other similar organizations are slow to seize these growth opportunities. They scramble, trying to recapture past glories in a home-market that is simply not interested.

ISA has individual members—suppliers and end-user businesses are only served indirectly through employee involvement. In the past, most end-users sponsored ISA membership (the annual dues, and attendance at conferences and exhibitions) seeking for their employees the educational support and supplier networking that ISA offers. But with the recent business decline, company sponsorship has mostly been withdrawn, and members must pay their own dues. The apparent lack of personal benefits to individuals has caused a decline of membership from about 50,000 or 60,000, to about half that level now.

Old 'cash cow' needs new drive

In the meantime, with its significant background and past involvements, ISA has accumulated a surplus of some $30 million. This simply stays in the bank, gaining interest; no one has the decision-making capability to utilize this significant capital as a war-chest. On top of this dormant cash, ISA also owns valuable property in the Research Triangle of North Carolina; this has appreciated and represents another tidy nest-egg.

How can ISA right itself? The problem is not just the selection of a good Executive Director—that search is on-going. Take the “executive board.” It consists of 18 members, all volunteers with no real executive experience. It is chaired by a President (last year’s Secretary) and assisted by a Secretary (next year’s President) who are selected by various and sundry nominating committee members. As a result of this completely volunteer governance, almost any decision of consequence is subject to “analysis paralysis.”

But let’s not dwell on the problems. Instead, let’s examine some viable solutions.

Here’s my 6-point plan:

  1. Radical change of governance—encourage volunteer involvement, but limit it to advisory suggestions.
  2. Change the executive committee to just five members, to include the President and Secretary (the President in waiting) plus three outside directors. The outsiders should be experienced, high-level industry executives from end-user, supplier and government ranks.
  3. Appoint an executive director with “real” executive powers—the equivalent of a CEO. He or she must be marketing-orientated (not just administrative) and must be given strong growth/profit objectives with performance-based compensation. This executive must be empowered to hire and fire, and to change the employee compensation structure without board involvement.
  4. Utilize some of the war-chest to make significant acquisitions, to expand the scope and involvement of ISA to other complementary arenas.
  5. Acquire ownership in several international subsidiaries in global growth areas.
  6. Stop investing in the same, tired old “local” exhibitions which are primarily loss-making propositions. Support foreign exhibitions and conferences where there is enthusiastic attendance and burgeoning growth.
Can ISA do this? My own hope is that it can—to surge forward and generate a healthy new automation and controls organization in the new century.

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA