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Towards a global cyber institute – Part 1.
By Allan J. Sayle, President Allan Sayle Associates

What service must a professional institute provide?
What are professional bodies for?
A cyber institute is at hand – if you want one

At their inception, professional institutes were facilitators of knowledge development and exchange. At their heart, they must remain so.

In that role, they must serve members from all parts of the spectrum of experience and ability: from newcomers to seasoned practitioner; and from those with academic qualifications to those without working in that same field. Crucially, they must facilitate those knowledge processes regardless of origin or point of consumption. And, in a global economy that means they must be international in outlook, membership and communication. Reflecting today’s realities, their facilitation must be timely: geographic limitations immaterial. When one considers today’s business model of quality’s existing institutions, it seems lacking in various key aspects.

Quality’s practitioners and professionals need a new business model to serve their requirements for knowledge creation, dissemination and acquisition.

The telephone exchange model is inappropriate. And with today’s means of communication it is impossible if not foolhardy to maintain. That is to say a professional body’s HQ can no longer decide what is transmitted, when it is transmitted, to whom and with what emphasis (or bias). Anybody who has a basic knowledge of military history will recognize Maginot line barriers are not impregnable: they are follies. Knowledge flows freely around them. Censorship impossible. Free speech and discussion, dissemination of best/ better practice and knowledge guaranteed. Britain may have been regarded as the workshop of the world, some even say that mantle has passed to China, but the internet is now the knowledge shop of the world. Rather it is a knowledge mall.

If in bygone years conventional institutions housed in bricks and mortar were major repositories for knowledge, best practice, experience and lists of practicing professionals. I shall call them BAMs, (bricks and mortars.) Now it is the internet.

The availability of knowledge and assistance

The (literally, world wide) web of interconnected computers at whose terminals and mice sit quality practitioners and professionals is now the repository for “the knowledge”. Got a problem, want an effective solution, some advice, tips or pointer towards what to do and where to find what you need? Post a question on such sites as Elsmar Cove or Saferpak. How to deal with some aspect of a code or standard? Do likewise. The existing institutions with their old business model and HQs cannot hope to keep up or respond in time. They cannot deliver the service demanded either by breadth and depth of knowledge or in time.

Through those sites, we now have a cyber institute in embryo. An informed body can be created in seconds, not months or years. It must be good for clients, employers and customers. Party lines and establishment views cannot prevail or suppress the passing of experience or knowledge. Very healthy, very democratic. Freedom reigns, indeed.

In order to understand how a new cyber institute will be better for members, one must consider and compare the service and performance of the existing ones.

Disquiet with the existing bodies

The ASQ and IQA are probably the largest national quality bodies. Certainly they are the most prominent. Like others, both have hemorrhaged members over the last few years. As I understand it, the old New Zealand Organization for Quality (NZOQA) disappeared. My professional friends in Norway are striving to resurrect their own national body. It seems others are also struggling. All such institutions survive on the charitable donations of the members providing part of their discretionary expenditure. And yet, though the number of people patronizing the present quality institutions may be falling, the number of quality practitioners and professionals is probably increasing. Something is wrong and one suspects it is rooted in the performance of the HQs.

Though I confess not to having actual numbers of quality folk to hand, my view is based on these four things. Firstly, a couple of years ago, when performing an assignment for an international client, I vetted several hundred applications for quality jobs for my client. Only about 15% were involved with the likes of the ASQ: many others had experience and skills but either had left their national institute or had no desire to become members. And in a May 2005 assignment involving a class of over twenty quality managers of different American suppliers to a major Japanese company, only 4 delegates were current members of the ASQ: another three had quit membership perceiving it had no value. Secondly, global expansion is causing more firms to appear and quality is a prime battleground for business: one can reasonably assume these organizations will need quality people and the knowledge etc. a professional institute can offer. Thirdly, many organizations are adopting six sigma and training considerable numbers of staff: those people are not joining quality institutes in complementary numbers. And, fourthly, membership of web sites such as the Elsmar Cove is accelerating, proving there is a desire for involvement in the international exchange of knowledge inconsistent with falling numbers of traditional institutes’ members.

In the case of the ASQ in particular, the chat rooms present a constant stream of gripes, complaints and concerns about the service delivered, value for money, relevance to needs etc. Not every one can be unjustified. “Customers” are unhappy. Collectively this suggests the old model no longer works as well as it should. The market is expressing its preferences.

Members do not owe the institutions a living. If the latter want to regard and refer to members as “customers” – so be it – but, they must then understand what are market dynamics and be prepared to lose out to competitors. And it is time a new competitor is created.

House magazines

The problems of timely distribution

The distribution of house magazines by the likes of the ASQ and the IQA is as it was almost two centuries ago: the postal service. The postal service has, of course, adopted technological developments to speed its delivery service. We have moved beyond coach and four, Kit Carson and mighty Cunarder to an age of airmail and high-speed train, where available. That is fine but still ineffective. As an example, the IQA monthly magazine, Quality World, reaches me weeks late. And that situation is not new.

The tardy delivery of that magazine is a matter I raised in the IQA’s Council nearly 20 years ago on behalf of its Australian Branch. The delivery service I experience as at May 2005 shows there is still no progress. In that particular institute, some are more equal than others, it would appear for it is my understanding domestic UK members receive their copies weeks earlier though all pay the same dues. Not the happiest example of applying sound quality principles, one might argue. But, as I understand it, the HQ and Council are more absorbed with obtaining a Royal Charter – a goal stretching back a quarter of a century at least – than addressing such profane matters as service to members.

Postal delivery, though important, is not the prime problem with such publications. It is the slow dissemination of knowledge caused by the editorial processes. All too often it takes the best part of a year for an article to appear in a house magazine following its submission. By then, the topical nature can be lost and sharp relevance of the content blunted. But, tardiness pales in comparison to the problem of content.

Free speech

One must be concerned when the editor of the IQA’s house magazine informs an author that an article submitted is not acceptable because:

“…your article which puts the shareholder as the most important aspect of business is too Americanized. The nature of UK business is less focused on shareholder value – many of our readers work in the public sector so this angle will exclude them completely. I think a wider argument is… surely business has to itself add value to society or else it would cease to exist? How else is a company judged on its success – the way it treats its staff, the profits it makes, the quality of the goods and services it provides?”

In these days of international trade, members must know the views and values of as many nations and peoples as possible. Enforcing an insular outlook and skewing publications’ content to suit only a proportion of the membership is ridiculous – especially when the preferred audience is civil servants (i.e. the “public sector”, in UK terms).

The internet allows free speech. And, it allows for swift dissent, for healthy debate. It is a great leveler for no matter how experienced or important one might believe oneself to be, the cyber participants collectively know more, are wiser and can force sobering reflection on personal views. To win a debate, one must have solid facts, strong arguments and the ability to really defend one’s views against all comers. The debate is sharper on the Elsmar Cove and Saferpak than in the traditional house magazines. And it is faster!

Excessive advertisements

Members want their house magazine for the contributions made in articles and papers written by fellow professionals and practitioners and notable people. That is the key knowledge the magazines are supposed to disseminate. Sadly, peruse any of the magazines and one cannot but suspect the bodies’ executives regard them as being primarily for the purpose of raising revenue through advertisements. To coin an old Wendy’s advertising slogan, “Where’s the beef?”

The advertisements pad out the magazines and cause me to waste time turning pages to sift out the information in which I may be interested. Time that in my busy daily world is at a premium. Cyber-based publications strip away the adverts and present one with a more concise product. (Good examples are to be found perusing The Economist, Business Week or Financial Times web sites, among many others.) If I am interested in any particular product or service, in all likelihood the same house magazine advertisers have a web site and I can soon find what I want using a search engine. I do not need all that wasted, but well printed, paper. Those seeking jobs have Monster and similar: those interested in new books can search for titles and subjects and visit Amazon, Borders or B&N.

Worse than advertisements, though, is the problem of editorial judgment.

Excesses of editorial freedom

Today’s editors wield too much power over their paymasters – the members. I have yet to encounter an editor of the major professional bodies who is or was a quality practitioner or professional. While one does not mind some polishing of grammar and syntax to make content read more smoothly, altering the very title of one’s article, editing the content such that bias is introduced, striking out what is perceived as a contentious issue or something at variance with establishment thought is inconsistent with the ideal of free speech and professional debate. And, in my experience, it is not uncommon.

Censorship is contrary to the aims of any body wishing to be considered the voice of the profession it purports to represent. For the associated house magazine then to disclaim responsibility for the views expressed or content of the articles it contains is disingenuous. Slanting or altering the content of an article can damage the writer’s reputation and lead to unnecessary efforts to correct readers’ misconceptions: those efforts can easily be regarded by the innocent reader as “back-tracking” when they are not.

Misrepresenting a writer’s views, especially when the editing effort has been done without communication with the writer is most certainly inconsistent with common courtesy let alone professional procedure. And then comes another problem: which “letters to the editor” are actually published in subsequent editions of the house magazine is also at the discretion, mercy, prejudices and priorities of the editorial staff, perhaps “guided” by HQ executive management. And it is certainly not unknown for such letters that are printed, to have been edited and their arguments or context changed, as some of my professional colleagues can attest.

Constraints on debate

Even when selective editing does not occur, the paper magazines are naturally constrained for space because of the associated costs of production and distribution. Thus, if one wants a full discussion on some matter or other, only a few views can be presented and one must hope the editor selects a fair and balanced sample. A HQ response might be to appoint a committee or working group to consider the matter but those processes are tardy by virtue of the difficulty in composing a fair set of representatives of different views, the difficulties of assembly, the time required to solicit, receive, consider and respond to contributions. And so forth.

Worst of all, only members of the BAM will generally be aware a subject is being discussed. Cyber panels can work more swiftly and effectively. People can contribute rapidly, easily and economically to the matter at hand. As more of the world’s citizens surf the web for knowledge and answers to questions, the likelihood grows they will become aware of a debate and may wish to join the cyber-institute to participate. That is a good thing.

At present, if one wants to debate an issue with a substantial proportion of a BAM’s membership, it generally requires extensive use of personal correspondence and emails. The professional blog is more effective. And the blog or chat room (forum) will be a main structural feature of a cyber-based institute.

Are editors needed?

Disintermediation, (removal of middlemen), has affected countless firms as customers and suppliers find each other through the internet, shortening supply chains. That same process removes the need for intermediary editors in the global dissemination and exchange of knowledge. Observing what is happening in cyberspace and in the reading rooms of Saferpak and Elsmar Cove it is soon apparent the quality profession does not need editors. It does not need a HQ to coordinate a panel of experts: they can coordinate themselves and be drawn from around the world. If companies can design complex products coordinating the contributions of people on all continents through the internet, the quality movement can do likewise.

What then can the old BAMs offer the cyber age quality practitioner or professional (there is a difference between the two)! How about certification?

Next: Certification




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