True North

The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the National Society of Professional Engineer’s House of Delegates General Assembly, July 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.

round_compass_logo_400x400As NSPE ends one fiscal/program year and starts a new one, it would be typical to talk about the past year’s activity. That is worth doing:  we have a good story to tell, and NSPE’s accomplishments of 2016-17 are something we can all take pride in.  But that would be repeating a story that you have already been told, as it was happening.

Besides, it has all been neatly summarized the NSPE Year in Review: 2016-17, which is available online at:

So I thought I would focus my remarks at a higher level.

Culture is defined by values: foundational, unchanging principles that define what we believe and that determine the choices we make in the face of an ever-changing day-to-day reality. It is our compass, if you will.

The actual course we chart may need to change in the face of external realities beyond our control, just as a storm may require a ship to take a different route than the one originally planned. Technological advancement allows us to abandon sailing ships as our mode of forward progress when better means (such as steam ships, airplanes, rocket ships) become available.

But true north remains a constant.

Culture trumps politics, rules, legislation, structure, even strategy. No amount of tinkering with a law, procedure, or regulation is sufficient if a culture has been abandoned, forgotten, or has become unhealthy. Progress and improvement are possible and absolutely necessary, but only if grounded in a culture that remains relevant and is informed by our shared, timeless and unchanging values.

NSPE’s founders understood this.

It has become a commonplace to observe that NSPE was originally founded to unite a community in order to establish PE licensure laws in all 50 of the United States and its territories. But this mistakes means for an end.  Licensure is merely the outward form that makes our core values and beliefs tangible in our world.

Those values are summed up nicely in NSPE’s Statement of Principles: Being a licensed professional engineer means more than just holding a certificate and possessing technical competence; it is a commitment to hold the public health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations.

That is not to say that we don’t need to continue to exert activist and diligent effort to define, promote and protect licensure rules and regulations. With the very concept of licensure under increased attack, those rules and procedures, tactics and strategies, legislation and regulation demand our vigilance and constant effort.

But I think it is instructive and useful from time to time to take our eyes off the licensure tree and remind ourselves of the forest we seek to nurture, grow and preserve: the professional community that is NSPE.

The new membership business model overwhelmingly approved by the NSPE House of Delegates at its General Assembly in Atlanta in July is another one of those means that should never be mistaken for an end. But the means are important.  Decisions on policy, strategy, and yes, even on the mundane details of the organization’s administrative and financial structure, have consequences.

For NSPE’s elected leadership, at the national and state levels, crafting this new approach to doing business required balancing the needs of a diverse membership and each member society in a manner that best serves the community as a whole.  All the internal operational matters that national and state leaders worked so hard to resolve were the necessary, if sometimes tedious obligation of leadership, but an administrative effort tied to a higher purpose and intention.

The new membership business model is a new vehicle, intended to re-energize, re-invigorate and restore a culture and ensure its viability and efficacy in a world that has changed much since the Society was established in 1934. But it is a vehicle that remains aligned to true north. It remains directed toward the same timeless truths that motivated the founders: that NSPE exists:

  • To protect engineers (and the public) from unqualified practitioners,
  • To build public recognition for the profession, and
  • To stand against unethical practices.

It recognizes that although the technical problems of each engineering specialty are divergent, the professional problems faced by engineers are alike. And that, while the technical societies, for the best fulfillment of their essential purpose, are divided on lines of differentiation, this division into separate organizations prevents effective united effort for the interests of the profession as a whole. Those aren’t my thoughts, or the current board’s. They are the principles articulated by NSPE’s founder, David Steinman, in 1934.

He went on to conclude that a “single national professional society, with solidarity of purpose and concentration of strength, is needed to provide effectively for the professional interests of the engineering profession” and that, to be successful, “unity and geographical organization are the essentials. The national society, the state societies, and the county chapters are closely and reciprocally integrated, and all are regarded of equal importance, with membership in one meaning membership in all.”

The new membership business model marks an evolution that revitalizes NSPE as a system of partners that are neither national-centric nor state-centric, but PE-centric.

The new membership model is not perfect – no product of fallible humans could be.  But it is the product of a serious and careful effort over the past year and a half to make the best decisions possible. And to the army of state leaders (staff and volunteer) for the hundreds of hours they have invested in designing the model, my sincere thank you.

And to all licensed professional engineers, whether members of NSPE or not, we’re just getting started. We’ve re-tooled our craft. We remain resolutely aimed at true north.  And we intend to blow you away with what we accomplish next.

Free? Hold on a Minute.

A few years ago I moderated a workshop on Chris Anderson’s book, Free and its implications for associations at the Digital Now conference.  (That presentation can be found here.)

Anderson’s thesis was based largely on the concept of a “freemium” – give something away that creates a demand for future purchases. You know, give away a razor and create a future market for razor blades.

A lot of what Anderson had to say rang true. And a lot of associations and some of the smartest people I know who lead them jumped in on the concepts.  But I had two nagging concerns, then and now:

imagesCA7RXFGYFirst, while it is absolutely true that, in the digital age, with the cost of bandwidth and storage decreasing to almost nothing, the incremental cost of adding an additional customer has also approached zero. It costs the association nothing to send a digital magazine to an extra non-paying subscriber (or a few thousand). It costs the association nothing to benefit an extra thousand nonmembers when it achieves a legislative victory. But somebody had to bear the expense of creating the content in the first place or investing in the advocacy legwork. Who pays for that?

Second, there is what Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon calls the “hedonic treadmill.” That is, “the human predisposition to feel entitled to today what we used to feel thankful for yesterday.”  What’s given away free might be enough to stimulate purchases for a while, but almost immediately what was once viewed as exceptionally enticing when received for free, is simply taken for granted. It becomes an entitlement, not a windfall. To feed the freemium appetite, providers are trapped in a business model characterized by an ever escalating demand to give away more and more in order to sell less and less.

Well, it turns out I wasn’t the only one with these concerns. In his soon-to-be-published book, Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier does an about face on his own previously held views on free content and crowdsourcing.  Lanier’s credentials in this arena are pretty good.  He is often credited with coining the term “Internet 2.0” and was a pioneer in virtual reality.  (His involvement in VR dates back to work at Atari Labs in the early 1980s).

In his new book, this founding editor of Wired magazine argues that free information is wrecking our economy and that rather than “the wisdom of the crowd,” digital crowdsourcing “can too easily turn into a lynch mob.”

The book is set to be published in May, but the profile in the January issue of Smithsonian magazine, “What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?,” gives you a pretty good idea of where he is coming from.

Reactionary or visionary?  Let the debate begin …