What Business Are You In?

Photo by the waving cat, via FlickrDon’t answer too quickly. You might be wrong.

Newspapers thought they were in the printing business. Music companies believed they were makers of vinyl disks and  CDs. AOL thought it was a content provider. Yahoo wanted to be an entertainment company. Kodak presented itself as a camera maker. Hospitals think they’re in the hospital business.

All wrong.

By confusing how they do their business with what it really is, businesses lose perspective of why they got customers in the first place. They build their businesses around the artifact of the transaction, rather than on the value they deliver.

What is the business of the association? You might argue it’s publishing journals, holding conferences, or doing trade shows. But you would be wrong – very wrong.

Thinking about this is damn hard work. I’m not sure I’ve nailed it, but when I think about my association’s true business, I think about its origins. Four months before the Battle of Yorktown, a group of physicians decided they needed to get together to uphold the standards of their young profession. They would get together, share what they knew, write about it, and disseminate it. They got their blessing from the State Legislature in November 1787, just weeks after Yorktown.

If I’m right, that’s my association’s business – we’re a platform to build community. To help doctors get together to learn from each and make their profession better.  Everything else – our nice building, our pretty website, our spectacular medical journal – is an artifact of that commitment, not the commitment itself.

When done right, social media will solve a big problem – the barriers of time and distance. That’s why I think social media technologies are perfect for my medical society. Eventually it may even solve the money problem for our doctors.  Not today, but someday pretty soon, the majority of our members will be using social media every day. We have to be there – today, when it’s still the new thing, and tomorrow, when it may be the only thing.

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8 thoughts on “What Business Are You In?

  1. Your last line says it all, “We have to be there – today, when it’s still the new thing, and tomorrow, when it may be the only thing.” I think the “there” is the community, not the tool. Associations can be the social media coaches for their members — teaching them how to join communities of interests and, yes, how to use the tools.

  2. Great read! I just wrote an article on the AssociaDirect blog about how now is the time to embrace Social Media that touches on some of the same ideas: http://www.associadirect.com/archives/social-media-isn%E2%80%99t-just-for-the-kids-anymore/

    But more importantly, I praise your understanding of the fact that your association is not its deliverables. Unfortunately most people are not able to see the much larger, and usually much more abstract thing that their organization is really in the business off. It is funny how tangible items grab all the attention and hide the real business from people’s eyes. You offer some great advice here and I will definitely recommend this article to clients in the future.

  3. Frank, you hit the nail on the head as usual. Social Media is about building community, and when reticent associations start to get that, they will lose the fear that will otherwise result in their demise.

  4. If the focus is really community, then social media may be just another tool in the tool box – rather than the be all end all answer so many like it to be.

    Soft skills like leadership, relationship building and communication will still play important roles in delivering value.

  5. On that Kodak thing and what are you REALLY doing, I’ve just been watching the first season of Mad Men on DVD, and in one of the final episodes, Don Draper nails this question with regards to trying to sell their new slide dispenser that’s cylindrical. I’m avoiding the name because he points out that Kodak is selling nostalgia and memories, and so the slide dispenser should be called the carousel. Loved it! The point isn’t to flip slides more efficiently – it’s to access memories. We need to quit focusing on the damn widgets.

  6. @ cynthia and @ elizabeth. You’re so right! We have to be careful that we don’t make social technologies the next deliverable widget that blinds us to our association’s purpose. It’s like what my coach used to tell me a long time ago: “Keep your eye on the goddam ball, Fortin!”

  7. You are absolutely right about how social media technologies can improve everything, even medicine! I recently saw how doctors were using the Twitter application. You can read about it in my blog What the Tweet?. I look forward to reading some more of your postings and your comments on my blogs.

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