Whither ISA?

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

ISA has a problem. In spite of the new "International" in its name, no major new expansions have been accomplished anywhere in the world, it is now reducing staff and outsourcing key activities. The society needs a jolt of excitement. It needs to generate blogging and tweeting, automation Facebooks and YouTube videos, iPhone Apps and automation-related podcasts. Left on its current path, it will simply wither away.

This article was published by:
November 2009

ISA has a problem.

Two years after it first moved to change its name to International Society of Automation, total membership has continued to stagnate and no major new expansions have been accomplished anywhere in the world. The society is reducing staff by about 30 percent. Many once-key positions have been eliminated.

ISA has reduced "InTech" its once flourishing monthly magazine, to just six issues a year. With an already popular e-magazine format, “InTech” could have been expanded to international circulation. This would take minimal additional investment and would be well-justified by the increased “international” focus. Instead of being developed further for international circulation at minimal cost, the lucrative "InTech" e-mail newsletters have now been outsourced, effectively relinquishing ownership of the valuable e-mail list - about 75,000 subscribers. There are many different ways in which this profitable e-business could have been expanded.

A couple of decades ago, the annual ISA Expo was the premier automation show in North America, with about 60,000 attendees - largely from North America with a fair sprinkling from Europe and the rest of the world. By contrast, attendance at ISA Expo 2009 was only about 8,500. As usual, all the major automation suppliers were absent. ISA has finally decided to end the run. Next year, ISA will feature a conference-only format, dubbed "Automation Week". With a $950 entrance fee, the ISA conference-only event will, in my opinion, draw only a minimal number of attendees. I'll be happy to be proved wrong.

From a strategic standpoint, the ISA Expo should have been moved to a major international location in collaboration with local organizers who would be happy to use the ISA name. Events in Singapore, Shanghai, Bangalore, Mexico City or Sao Paulo attract standing-room-only crowds.

Antiquated governance

Many of its leaders agree that ISA has a governance problem, deeply entrenched in governing documents and traditions. It is impossible to nominate anyone for an officer position who has not stood in line for years. Senior executives, and young movers and shakers in automation could never qualify to be nominated. ISA's executive board has 16 voting members, reduced three years ago from almost twice that number. They are all volunteers, and as a result, almost any decision of consequence is subject to "paralysis by analysis".

With a young, experienced, capable and motivated executive director, the current ISA volunteer leadership has taken several steps to initiate several good changes. But, in my view, more radical changes are needed. Here are my suggestions:

  1. The executive committee must be chartered to operate with functions similar to directors of a corporate board, setting policy and direction, but not making management decisions.
  2. Standards development is the “sweet spot”; it must be expanded internationally. Other key areas include automation education, promoting the automation profession, global publishing of automation books and magazines, and expanding Internet media.
  3. ISA should be "international" to match its name. It should invest in international involvement.
In his blog, ISA: One Member's Vision Jon diPietro writes,
    "Content is the fuel for the new paradigm’s engine. A wide variety of interesting, thought-provoking, authoritative and even mundane content will increase member engagement, driving more and more Web search results to ISA. The current approach is to filter, then publish. The alternative is to distribute, then filter. In other words, the membership should be enabled to become content providers."
ISA needs a jolt of excitement. We need blogging and tweeting, automation Facebooks and YouTube videos, iPhone Apps and automation-related podcasts—these are just examples of new growth directions.

Whither ISA? If the governance conundrum cannot be solved, the society will slowly but surely wither away.

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