If you have not yet had a chance to read Adam Dewitz’s “The State of Printing Associations,” and the associated comments, it is worthwhile reading. Granted, since PIA MidAmerica is indirectly the target of these conversations, I am going to be somewhat defensive, but I truly think many important issues are raised.
One has to remember that Associations are organizations, much like Congress, that move very slowly and deliberately – and more so the national associations, which have a broad and very diverse constituency. The snail like approach to issues is good – but also can be detrimental when markets are changing rapidly. Regardless, let me, as an insider (with some built-in biases), state the challenges facing our trade associations.
First, should NAPL and Printing Industries of America merge? Much like Dr. Joe Webb, my response is – let the market decide. Each organization has a different role and one has to remember that Printing Industries of America is really a grassroots organization. One does not directly join Printing Industries of America. Membership is accomplished at the affiliate level. If the affiliate can not provide value at the local level (we’re much more than golf tournaments and social networking), companies do not join.
What are the roles of printing industry trade Associations in the 21st century? There’s the real question, along with how do we fund them.
First, let’s deal with the funding question. If it wasn’t for the Graphic Arts Show Company (GASC), we would not have two very successful national print Associations (NAPL/PIA). GASC is jointly owned by NAPL, PIA, and NPES (National Association of Printing Equipment Suppliers). Historically, the funding has been significant and has allowed these organizations to keep their dues minimal. Once these dollars are reduced, whether it’s because suppliers decide that trade shows no longer have value, or the purchasers of equipment see no value in attending, than the proverbial excrement hits the fan. And this is one of the reasons for the discussion of merger – as the economic engine begins to sputter, the redundancy of the organizations becomes apparent.
If dues escalated to maintain the existing organizations, would the audience (print providers) continue to support these types of organizations in their existing form – probably not. Thus change will be inevitable. This is what happened to GATF – membership dues could not keep up with the infrastructure which had been created.
So, let’s get to the real gist of the argument. What’s the value proposition of a trade association? Is it education and training? Is it a social networking (support group) engine? Because of economies of scale, should it provide buying co-ops? Is it the ability to provide information not found elsewhere? Is it regulatory and legislative lobbying? Is it technical and/or management consulting? Is it providing industrial relations leadership (the major reason why companies belonged in the last century)? Let me tell you (from my biased perspective) the answer. It’s all the above.
The MAJOR challenge our trade associations have is that value is purely measured in the eye of the beholder. Ask a high-level executive at one of the consolidators about what they need from an association, and they’ll give you an answer – and you’ll get a totally different one from the company owner of a $10 million a year sheetfed printer. You will get another from the owner of a digital printing company with 15 employees, and a totally different answer from a trade services provider. If you ask a company owner in Los Angeles, California you’ll probably get a very different response from the owner of a similar company in Nashville or Dallas or Miami. And if you ask an equipment supplier or an industry consultant (or retired college professor), you’ll get another set of answers. Do you see where I’m going with this conversation?
When Printing Industries of America was created (late 19th century) and NAPL came to the scene (mid 20th century), they both served a very specific constituency with special needs. Over the years, the industry morphed into looking relatively homogeneous with the subgroups being served by special groups (BIA, IPA, NAQP, MAFSA, SGIA) and their predecessors. Now, the industry is shrinking and fragmenting.
At present we have two major trade associations along with several other excellent “niche” associations. Yet, questions remain. Is there a need for legislative and regulatory lobbying on behalf of the industry? Do we need economic and technology research? Should the industry/associations develop best practices and provide the vehicles (books, seminars, webinars, websites, etc.) to deliver them? Does our industry need one “major” trade association? Do we need regional associations? Do we need “niche” associations? Is there room for all of them in the future? Probably not. Yet, the question keeps on coming back – how do we pay for it? And that’s the $64,000 question.
In the end, the market will decide who survives – and it’s incumbent upon the Associations’ leadership (staff and volunteers) to get serious about serving the industry’s rapidly changing needs and demonstrating to the members and nonmembers the valuable role they play. I will vouch that it’s more than an on-going conversation at Printing Industries of America and its affiliates. Just as important, the industry and its suppliers need to understand that without associations this industry will quickly become road-kill in the highway of big business and bigger government.