Being virtually present earlier this week at the formal announcement that the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) is immediately beginning a year-long process of transforming itself into the Association for Talent Development (ATD) provided, in many ways, a stunningly positive view of how a well-managed branding campaign rolls out.
Association managers including President and CEO Tony Bingham used the presence of approximately 9,000 association members at the 2014 International Conference & Exposition (ICE) to build excitement throughout the day with notifications that were also disseminated on the conference backchannel feed. He and his colleagues, furthermore, also took the much-appreciated step of arranging for the announcement to be available via live online streaming for those of us who could not be at the conference. Joining the backchannel discussion via Twitter as I watched and listened to the announcement online gave me the sense that I was there, with colleagues, sharing and reacting to the changing of the name. The backchannel exchanges gave the impression that initial reaction was fairly positive, although—not surprisingly—there were also questions and concerns expressed onsite and online during and after a brief question-and-answer period; many colleagues were acknowledging and applauding the direction the name-change implied; onsite vendors with space in the exhibits hall posted congratulations; and Chief Learning Officer was quickly among the first to spread the news throughout the industry it serves.
Even more interesting as an example of how to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in renaming a dynamic 70-year-old membership organization with an international clientele was what conference attendees saw upon returning to the conference site the following morning:all conference signage had been changed overnight to reflect the change of name; viewing even a few of the numerous photographs posted online via Twitter suggested the magnitude of planning and execution that went into making the transition real and immediate. And the online transformation was equally obvious: the ASTD website had a new graphic displaying the old and new logos side-by-side; chapter leaders had immediate access to new individual chapter logos so they could begin using them as soon as they are ready to do their part in making the year-long transition successful; and the transition webpage had plenty of background material for those curious about the process and the repercussions.
So the obvious next step was for ATD members themselves to absorb and further respond to all the change implies—both in terms of opportunities accepted and opportunities missed. For anyone interested in how managers and members in any association interact or don’t interact, reading Tricia Ransom’s online open letter to Tony and the organization’s board of directors is instructive. She includes a confirmation that she likes the new logo and that she is more positive than negative about the new name. But at the heart of her letter is a concise summary of why she feels left out of a decision in which she very much wanted—and felt entitled—to be included: “You said that you’ve spoken with countless CEOs and other leaders who recognize our efforts and how important our field is. You highlighted three executives, Senior Vice Presidents and higher, to tout the change. You emphasized the fact that you kept this change a secret for 2.5 years. Listen now to the voices of the tens of thousands of us who will never be an executive. Listen to the vast majority of the organization you lead. Listen to the people you are supposed to serve. We wanted to take this journey of change with you. You denied us. Why? We wanted to share our ideas, thoughts and suggestions about how we can grow. You denied us. Why? We have opinions to share with you. You never asked us. Why?…You don’t have to implement our choices, but at least ask.”
Reading Tricia’s note made me once again compare and contrast two membership organizations which I adore and which I consistently strongly support—ATD and the American Library Association (ALA)—because they have a lot in common. Both are large, well-run organizations with members in many countries. Both have a long history rich both in tradition and innovation to serve their members’ needs. Both work with people playing a strong role in training-teaching-learning. Both fulfill an impressive educational role by producing books, magazines, webinars, and other resources including first-rate conferences to support their members’ lifelong efforts to professionally serve their constituents. And both offer opportunities for volunteer engagement.
What is consistently different about the two, however—and what I believe is a core element of what Tricia is expressing—is that ASTD has, at least in the years I’ve been involved, tended to make huge decisions that leave members (correctly or incorrectly) with the impression that they were not part of the decision-making process. I repeatedly hear trusted and cherished ASTD colleagues express the theory that there are two ASTDs: one run by association managers rather than practitioners (which unfairly ignores how much Tony has done to consistently serve as a thought leader in our industry and how inspiring he is as a public speaker) and a second comprised of the practitioners themselves. Exploring this with an ALA staff member a few years ago, I was surprised by an insightful question he asked: how many volunteer opportunities does ASTD offer in comparison to what ALA offers? And my answer was “significantly fewer.” One of ASTD’s strengths is the streamlined nature of the organization; it doesn’t have the absolutely labyrinthine structure of committees, divisions, and round tables that sometimes absolutely drive ALA members to distraction. But, as my ALA colleague noted, it also doesn’t have the thousands of volunteer opportunities that come with the large number of committees, divisions, and round tables. We simply can’t be members of ALA without knowing that there are abundant opportunities to engage and participate in the decision-making process in ways that are custom-made for our numerous and varied roles in that industry.
Moving from Tricia’s open letter to a blog post by Clark Quinn, I found a wonderful exploration of a second theme consistent among those who are—at least initially—less than enamored of the new name for the organization: “To me, Talent Development is focused only on developing people instead of facilitating overall organization performance. And I think that’s falling short of the opportunity, and the need. Don’t get me wrong, I laud that ASTD made a change, and I think Talent Development is a good thing. Yet I think that our role can and should be more. I wish they’d thought a little broader, and covered all of the potential contribution[s].”
What Clark notes is something with which many of us in ATD and ALA—managers and members alike—struggle: finding terminology that accurately, concisely, and inspirationally captures all of what we do; I believe, because of the breadth, scope, and depth of our contributions to the communities we serve, that it’s ultimately a fruitless endeavor that will never produce a completely satisfying result. My own less-than-adequate term in the ASTD/ATD context for the past several years has been “training-teaching-learning” since I believe those are three core elements I consistently observe in the colleagues I most respect. But what Clark’s note suggests is that there is still a hole, and he concludes with this observation: “I just wonder who’s going to fill the gaps.”
To myself, to Clark, and to all my colleagues who are wonderful enough to passionately engage in and contribute to the work of our associations, I suggest that it is all of us who are going to fill the gaps. And not just by spending time trying to find the perfect name; ASTD was a far-from-perfect name, but somehow inspired results that contributed magnificently to the communities we serve. But by continuing to do what we do best: facilitating learning opportunities that serve the numerous workplace and lifelong learning/professional development/talent development needs of the individuals, organizations, and communities who rely on us to help “create a world that works better.”