Science societies should look to the past for their new operating model

by | Oct 5, 2018

Science-based societies have successfully leveraged this model for the last several hundred years, building organizations that count their revenue streams in tens and hundred of millions of dollars.

Today, however, momentum behind the open-publishing movement and an increasingly technologically empowered membership provide a perfect storm of disruption that is likely to significantly undermine societies’ sustainability in the coming decade. Societies will need to radically overhaul their organizational structure, technical capabilities and member value propositions to remain viable in the decades ahead.

The Royal Society in 1660 provided a platform – in the form or a physical forum – to members for the dissemination of ideas and debate of emerging policy issues. Today’s societies should reach back to this core idea of a platform – now in digital form – to ensure they remain relevant and viable into the future.

To deliver on this transformation, society leadership will need to place relevance and member value at the center of strategic decision making. They must ensure the organization develops a modern,  outside-in, mentality to drive product and service management innovation and delivery. And they must invest in the modern integrated technology and data platforms required to enable these new services.

Declining economics

The three pillars of the society model have remained unchanged for the last several hundred years:

  1. Advocacy – Promoting issues critical to the health of the profession or scientific discipline.
  2. Knowledge sharing – Creating a vibrant economy of ideas between members and to external audiences.
  3. Professional development – Advancing the level of skill and standing of the profession.

Mission-aligned advocacy is perhaps the most important role of many societies. Most advocacy operations are not in themselves sources of income, except when supported by specific fundraising initiatives. For this reason, advocacy programs have a critical dependency on funding and revenue flows from other society operations. Reductions in revenue can critically undermine the organization’s core purpose.

Knowledge sharing plays a large revenue role in most societies, primarily in the form of two income streams: Publishing and events. Revenue from journal and magazine publishing and annual meetings and ancillary events provides the backbone of many societies’ financial viability. It’s not uncommon for publishing and event income to represent 50-percent or more of the annual revenue for these organizations. Unfortunately, income from both publishing and events is increasingly under threat.

The world of academic, scientific and professional journal publishing faces an existential crisis. The open access movement – still a growing and vociferous lobby backed by many scientists and the government agencies that fund research – has made a lot of progress in making taxpayer-funded research more freely available. On the darker side, Sci-Hub – the “Napster” of scientific publishing – has skirted the niceties of copyright infringement to become one of the leading sites for unpaid access to all kinds of research. The giants of scientific publishing (Reed Elsevier, Springer and Wiley) seem to be adapting to the open-access world just fine: After all, research must still be published, whether paid by libraries, universities, authors or foundation grants. But societies continue to risk losing their audience and revenue to open access journals.

The annual meeting is a staple of most membership-based associations. Yet increasingly the value proposition for such a meeting, at least in current form, is being diminished as a new generation of members are self-organizing using today’s increasingly sophisticated virtual collaboration services. In-person meetings still have their place, but to be viable – and to command the associated expense – these fora will need to become just one component of a more sophisticated 365-day-a-year engagement model that is largely delivered by technical tools and services.

Professional development provides a healthy revenue stream for many societies. Organizations that have a regulated or mandated lock on issuing professional certifications are likely to be able to sustain revenue flow from these activities. However, revenue flow from professional education services are likely to come under increasing pressure. The digital-native generation is already very adept at servicing their own education needs from online courseware and YouTube. Societies that fail to adapt to these changing modes of consumption are likely to suffer significant declines in education related income.

All these challenges threaten to topple the pillars of the scientific society value proposition. Maintaining current course without significant transformation of operating models, services offerings and technical capabilities is a recipe for increasing irrelevance to members and their profession or discipline.

The answer to these challenges is simple in concept but will be complex to achieve.

Becoming a platform

Today’s societies should return to the roots of the model exemplified by the form and function of the Royal Society in 1660. They must pivot away from the vertically organized, functionally siloed model that came with the 20th and 21st Century commercialization of the society model towards a horizontally organized approach designed to provide a platform upon which membership can serve – and increasingly self-serve – their own diverse needs.

This platform approach inverts the member/society relationship. Instead of requiring members to adapt to a predefined functional structure of the organization, a platform approach would serve members as individuals in ways they define as helpful – using modes of communication, collaboration and services delivery that integrate seamlessly into the members’ professional and personal lives.

The implementation of a platform operating model will require a change in strategic focus and the development of new capabilities:

  1. Core society strategy will need to change. Relevance and value delivered to members, rather than strategic initiatives and program specific results, needs to be placed front and center in all strategic decision making. The organization will need new tools and measures to evaluate both and a cultural evolution that places these measures at the center of all decision making.
  2. The organization model needs to be stratified. Engagement must become a horizontal service that builds a holistic and integrated interaction strategy serving members needs irrespective of time, place or event. Societies must develop a modern product management mindset and capability that uses behavioral and interaction data from members to drive rapid service design and evolution.
  3. The plethora of often loosely integrated, custom-built IT solutions upon which most societies run must be transformed into an integrated, cloud-based technology platform with common third-party shared services and the ability to rapidly deliver new products and services to market that integrate and play well with the tools members already use.

Not all societies will have the investment capacity or organizational will to undertake such a fundamental transformation. For those that have the opportunity, time is of the essence. Undertaking this change from a position of strength is far preferable than the alternative.

How is your scientific society adapting to this disruptive change? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

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Jonathan Murray


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