The real value of membership organisations is not in the knowledge they hold, but in the relationships they nurture.
Cast your mind back to Australian social work in the 1950’s; specifically to the emerging group of hospital almoners in Sydney, one of the seminal groups that built the profession in Australia. In the early days of their professional association, all its members knew each other personally.
Many members formed sub groups based on mutual professional interests. In some instances lifelong friendships blossomed. These sub groups were the crucible for teaching, learning, professional development, mentoring, supervision and ethical guidance. These were passionate and determined women committed to a vision for a nascent professional body. Connecting with colleagues across Australia, they built the social worth and the intellectual capital of the AASW.
But in that era, when groups grew beyond a certain size they inevitably faced diseconomies of scale. Value and productivity based on personal proximity can only be extended so far with telephones and snail mail.
There are simple ways of measuring the potential utility of any subgroup forming network. One of the better known measures was developed by David Reed, a computer scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
Reed’s Law states that the utility of networks increases exponentially with the size of the network. He derives this from the number of possible subgroups of network participants expressed as (2 to the power of N) –N – 1, where N is the number of participants.
And so for example a network of five people has twenty six possible subgroups, (25-5-1=26). But if we simply double the group to ten members, there are potentially over 1000 subgroups (210-10-1=1013). Twenty members yields over one million subgroups. 30 members equates to one billion subgroups, and 40 members gives a trillion. The exponential growth is astounding.
The real yield of this network effect is limited however, by the technology available and the cognitive capacity of the human brain. The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has famously suggested that 150 is the limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.
And so returning to our hardy band of hospital almoners in the 1950’s, we can reasonably speculate that value reached a peak at some point, when face to face meetings, snail mail and telephones could no longer link subgroups in a meaningful way. (what is now referred to as network congestion) The more the AASW grew, the less sub group networking occurred proportional to the number of members.
Like any growing organization with the same dilemma, the AASW became a service provider, distributing member benefits, with a top down, one to many communication style. Sub groups of course continued- in workplaces, state branches, interest groups and so on, but shrank rapidly as a proportion of the number of members and as a proportion of the potential number of subgroups. (This is not a criticism. The AASW like any similar organization had no other realistic choices)
This service strategy, distributing intellectual capital, has worked for us (after a fashion) for about fifty years, but inevitably meant that many social workers did not join the AASW because it could not offer some of the networking benefits, and in some workplaces those benefits could be had without joining.
As information technology rapidly developed in the 90’s, non-members also derived increasing value from the intellectual capital and professional culture built from those early networks, without having to pay for it. (e.g. our code of ethics) Courtesy of the Internet a staggering array of knowledge is now free. Those of you old enough to remember how expensive it was to buy Encyclopedia Britannica, will recall that it was wiped out almost overnight by Wikipedia, a resource that many of us use daily.
Paradoxically, whilst the Internet has seriously eroded the cost of digitized information, (the season finale of Game of Thrones was illegally downloaded over 14 million times and our kids just don’t pay for music anymore), the web has re-invigorated the value of networks in the most astounding fashion.
Facebook, with a tiny workforce of 14,000 people is one of the biggest companies on the planet, valued last year at around 350 billion dollars. (Reed’s Law at work! – and network congestion no longer an issue.)
All of us have stories of using social networks for professional benefit. I recently found a placement for a student I had never met in an organization that I did not know existed, until I posted a request for help on Social Work Changemakers- an active Facebook group for social workers.
Meanwhile AASW membership continues to decline as a proportion of the social work workforce. (Crucially however the AASW has positioned itself as the gatekeeper for Medicare provider access for social workers, making membership highly valuable for private providers.)
But whilst information technology has slashed the cost of digital information, it has unleashed networks. We now collaborate in groups that span the entire planet.
It is imperative that the AASW tap our potential network power, to recreate (many times over), the networks our founding mothers had back in the 1950’s.
The AASW should, as soon as possible, build a Facebook style app and and make it very easy for members to use it. The subgroup possibilities are endless, and the snowball effects staggering.