The Changing Role of the Professional Association

The design-oriented part of the web industry got itself into a kerfuffle this week when the Usability Professionals’ Association [UPA] announced it was changing its name to User Experience Professionals’ Association [UXPA] and thereby broadening its focus. I don’t really have an opinion on the organization’s rebranding; it’s one of the few associations I haven’t joined and I am not qualified to comment on its work.

But I noticed an interesting strain to the conversation emerging on Twitter in the past day or so, much of it from the leadership courses in Melbourne, industry leaders, some of whom I know personally and most of whom I respect. Their take on it was, The professional association is dead so this is just rearranging the deck chairs.

I enjoy playing iconoclast as much as the next snarky web professional, but these arguments struck me the wrong way. I’d like to explain why, but first, let me lay out my many biases.

I’m a joiner. I’m smack in the middle of Generation X, and while we may be the generation that officially oversees the demise of the bowling leagues, in my personal experience, that’s not been entirely true. I’m a member of the American Marketing Association, ASIS&T, and a number of local networking and professional organizations. In the fall of 2011 I was elected to the board of directors of the Information Architecture Institute, an international organization devoted to nurturing the practice and craft of information architecture.

But in this post, I speak only about my personal observations, and certainly not as an official representative of any of these organizations.

And what I see is this: Professional organizations that are still relevant are the ones creating a space — virtual and in-person — for people to come together and share ideas and connections. No doubt that Twitter, LinkedIn and myriad other instances of social media are disrupting this model to a degree, but I continue to see others gaining value from making personal connections and learning from each other via their associations.

I particularly see the need for professional organizations in developing the craft in newer members of the profession. Sure, we can all point to Twitter superstars who showed up and built a community and developed their expertise in full view, but that’s not a defined pathway that most people can walk. Growing and changing — for almost all of us — require a safe, secure space in which we can fail, get support from friendly colleagues, and reach for greater success than we can imagine on our own. This is where professional associations still matter. Plenty of people in all industries work in organizations where they are the only practitioner of their craft; they need a place to go for support.

Yes, associations going forward are going to look a lot different than they did to our parents’ generation, and than when I started my career 20 years ago. They have to. But please, don’t sit at the pinnacle of your career and declare them irrelevant. Too many are coming behind you, and many of them need a formal vehicle to seek your guidance and that of others who’ve already walked their walk.