Tuesday, 2 August 2011

What are professional associations for?

Quite a large number of library & information people have been working through the CDP23 Things for Professional Development programme in recent weeks. 

Thing 7 is about face to face networks and professional organisations.  As various participants reach this stage and blog their thoughts on this topic, a debate has sprung up.

On the one hand, there are those advocating for membership of, and active involvement in, various professional bodies (CILIP and SLA prominent amongst them) (for example see Lauren Smith's blog)  On the other hand, there have been some putting forward reasons why they either arn't members, or don't really see great benefit in being members (for example see meimaimaggio's blog here.

This debate made me wonder what professional organisations are for. Are they there to give each 'paying customer' (ie their members) something tangible for their money?  Or are they there 'for the greater good', to establish professional standards and ethics, accredit qualifications so they are more valued by employers, etc?  Or a bit of both?

Some commentators certainly seem to feel that, if they don't receive some clear, tangible benefit in return for their membership fee, there isn't any value to them in being members (a good example of this, from last year, is Ed Chamberlain's post on the CILIP Communities site).

Reviewing the 'about us' pages of the websites of a range of library & information groups and organisations, I found these examples of statements explaining 'what we are for':
  • SLA "promotes and strengthens its members through learning, advocacy, and networking initiatives"
  • CILIP's mission is to  "Promote and support the people who work to deliver this vision" & to "Be the leading voice for information, library and knowledge practitioners working to advocate strongly, provide unity through shared values and develop skills and excellence."
  • BIALL exists to "represent the interests of legal information professionals, documentalists and other suppliers of legal literature and reference materials" & to "support the professional development of its members"
  • IRMS has the aims of "Championing the status of information and records management through representation, external liaison and promotion" & to "Supporting professional development through sharing knowledge and expertise" and "Promoting all aspects of good information and records management"
All of these boil down to advocacy, learning and networking. 

Phil Bradley, towards the end of last year, wrote this post, where he asked what the profession would be like if there was just one body representing everyone in the profession, and also what would happen without CILIP (or, presumably, any of the other professional bodies).  In the latter scenario, he argued that the 'profession' as such wouldn't exist - since it is only via a professional body that professional ethics, standards and qualifications can be set and maintained.

Ed's argument was that having professional qualifications (eg Chartership) don't matter, in his personal experience, since his job, salary, etc, are not dependant on it and his employers (in the academic sector) don't specify them as criteria when recruiting. 

I think that Ed's point is valid, but only so long as Phil is also right.  In other words, it may not have a huge impact on the profession as a whole if some employers don't insist on Chartership, so long as Chartership per se still exists and standards are being upheld in general.  However, if the overarching idea of 'a profession', with its qualifications, standards, etc, etc disappears, then all the various people tasked with managing information are left adrift with nothing to aim for or compare themselves to.

I think the problem with specific professional bodies comes where the only reason apparent for being a member and paying fees, is to adhere to this principle.  Paying over hard earned cash to support an ideal isn't an easy thing to persuade people to do, especially in a recession.

So, assuming that the professional body is setting the right standards, accrediting the right kind of qualifications (ie, fit for purpose and for today's needs), etc, the issue becomes how well is it providing for the other, individual, needs - for CDP, networking, advocacy, etc - compared to the other information groups that exist? 

One interesting comparison, which surprised me when I got the calculator out, is that between LIKE and CILIP.  LIKE is a small community of information people who meet informally once a month to hear a volunteer speaker, network and have dinner.  That's it - no publications, no advocacy, no other bells and whistles.  CILIP is a large organisation with 1000's of members which accredits qualifications, publishes magazines, runs training, supports dozens of SIG's, etc.  The cost of each?  If someone went to all 12 monthly LIKE meetings at a cost of £15/ea, it would total £180/yr.  That is amazingly close to the £184 annual CILIP membership.  Does that make LIKE very expensive or CILIP very cheap?  Everyone I've spoken to who goes to LIKE events thinks it is very good value.  Many people, on the other hand, seem to feel CILIP is too expensive. 

Perhaps the key difference is that no one is obliged to pay upfront for all 12 LIKE meetings - there is no annual subscription.  Many members may only attend one or two events over the course of the year.  This kind of 'pay as you go' model seems to work well for a small, volunteer run, organisation.  I'm sure that it would be impractical for a large, staffed, body like CILIP.  I'm also sure that, if each activity or member benefit were priced separately, and someone took advantage of them all, the cost would well exceed £180!  However, maybe a hybrid model might work: a smaller annual membership fee, to pay for the 'communal benefits' like qualifications, standards, etc, plus 'pay as you go' pricing for other benefits, such as CDP, networking events, access to Update, etc.

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