Engineering institutions try to appeal to everyone. Bad idea
You can get lost navigating IEEE membership if you’re not careful. The list of benefits can feel endless—and so can spiels that recite the list to potential members. With over 1,200 conferences a year and over 150 regular publications (and that’s barely the beginning of it), there is probably no-one, even the President, who is familiar with so much as 10 per cent of what goes on in the IEEE.
It’s natural, in an organisation of 400,000 members, to have such a diverse range of activities. It makes sense, too. The institution’s volunteers are, rightly, constantly reviewing what engineers expect from their institution. When they notice a gap, they seek to fill that gap. Different people inevitably expect different things, so the gaps and consequential initiatives are many and varied.
But diversity has its drawbacks. When the proliferation becomes unguided, the collective of activities loses the common principle underpinning it. There’s not much point having an organisation with lots of segmented activities. Members can be forgiven for forgetting why they were an IEEE member in the first place.
Getting what you pay for
It’s understandable that people question their money before they pay their membership dues. It’s not a huge amount to pay, but there’s no point if there’s no benefit. So much of the recruitment effort goes into impressing individuals with the vast array of benefits from which they can pick their favourite. You give me your money, and I’ll give you rights to all these things.
It’s a poor approach, for two reasons. The first is that the true benefits of membership aren’t obviously tangible. It’s quite hard for people to understand the power of community as it’s laid to them in a brochure. They might be able to understand access to 150 different publications, but that’s far less compelling as a benefit. (Engineers in industry don’t rely on 150 different publications.) The second is that it demeans what a professional institution is: representing the profession, supporting entire careers, facilitating the progress of the profession as contributors to the progress of society.
The engineer’s obsession with numbers at the expense of the big picture also plays a part. For volunteers, membership statistics are often the primary measure of success. A way to get more members is to appreciate that membership is a two-way street: listening to what members want. The irony is that volunteers forget their own side of the street: they plug every gap they can find without asking themselves if it even should be filled. In a hidden fear of losing members, they shy away from dictating to them what underpins the IEEE. Eventually, they forget themselves.
The recruitment rhetoric should be about values. When Dr Andrew Cleland addressed my final-year class on behalf of IPENZ, the one thing he did right was not to try to appeal to everyone. You can get a job and keep at your job, he said, or you can join a profession. You can adopt the values of the profession, and be part of a group that has a real impact and is respected for it. Only if you want to do that is this the organisation for you.
Defining a profession
An institution is a community. It is a group of like-minded people who have similar objectives and realise they can achieve more in unison than they can on their own. A corollary of that, and the recognition that everyone is different, is that there are some people who don’t buy the same values as the institution.
We should try to persuade them to hold these values, of course. That’s how the profession becomes stronger as a whole. But if we can’t, we shouldn’t be afraid to shun them. An institution is only as strong as the common thread that runs through everything it does—all its events, online features, publications and everything else. We shouldn’t be sacrificing that thread in pursuit of more members.
The common thread itself can and should be broad. This isn’t surprising; it’s just a reflection of the diverse range of activities that professions tend to undertake. Broad, though, doesn’t mean all-encompassing. Even a simple notion like supporting the profession (though, admittedly, that is far too open to interpretation) or advancing technology for humanity (same drawback, but will sound familiar to some), would help to bring back a focus to our activities. But it needs to penetrate through what we do, how we present ourselves and—most importantly—how we think, far better than it does now.