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Mar 02, 2006: Developing a Participation Economy

Good intentions aren't always good enough

Back at the 2002 IA Summit, Christina Wodtke and I were sitting on the floor of the Baltimore Marriott, amazed at how quickly the IA profession was growing, and wondering if it would be beneficial to have some sort of formal entity dedicated to serving the community. But what exactly needed to be created? As the discussion evolved over the coming months, an ever-larger group of us batted around a variety of ideas: professional association? guild? maintainer of community infrastructure? think tank? the IA version of the Santa Fe Institute? We never really nailed down our model, but by November of that year, the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture launched.

Now called the Information Architecture Institute, I think it'd be safe to say that the IAI has been successful. It has over 800 members in about 40 countries. It has provided the IA community with a few excellent services, like a mentoring program, a job board, and a high-quality moderated discussion list. And it's had a hand in a number of successful events around the planet.

But I'm not sure we can say that the IAI is a success. Loads of ambitious community-oriented initiatives have been discussed and proposed, many begun, but very few have gotten off the ground. The ideas are generally good, but all are completely dependent on volunteers. That's a recipe for failure if there was. Volunteers regularly bite off more than they can chew, get busy, lose interest, burn out. Since 2003, demand for information architects has skyrocketed, so it's difficult for even the most committed altruists among us to give away their time. And a dearth of volunteers damns the future of any non-profit not blessed with the funds to hire professional staff.

When IAs forget that they're designers

How did we get into this pickle? Because we never answered that original, fundamental question: what exactly were we trying to create? Maybe we weren't adventurous enough, too fearful of taking chances on doing something radically different. I don't think we really understood that creating AIfIA should be treated like any other interesting design challenge, which is a shame given the immensely talented gang of information architects who were at the table. In hindsight, we just somehow missed a great opportunity to do something truly new.

So the Institute rolled out essentially as a professional association, constrained by the conventional boundaries that all professional associations operate under. Until the IAI dynamites this organizing metaphor, I'm afraid that the association model will choke off true innovation, and we'll just see more of the same: a few active members, a few decent initiatives, and a lot of wasted opportunities.

So what would a wildly innovative IA community-serving entity be? Funny you should ask. I actually do have an idea to offer. But it's just one person's take, and a loopy one at that. And ultimately, a design for the IA community needs to come from the IA community. In other words, we need to address this challenge collectively: what would it mean for a community of designers to design itself? The possibilities are endless and endlessly exciting. Ironically, as a visible organization with decent infrastructure and some money in the bank, the IAI is extremely well-positioned to facilitate its own reinvention. Who else?

OK, back to my idea, which I'll admit to having floated on the IAI-members list many months ago. It didn't get much reaction there, but perhaps a list is the wrong venue to post something that's conceptual and long.

I'll see your Wurman, and raise you two Ranganathans

First, an assumption: volunteer time is the commodity that makes or breaks an entity like the IAI. Well, pardon me as I play amateur economist here, but what if we treat volunteered hours as the "currency" of a different kind of economy, a participation economy? Really, that's what we have now, albeit in a watered down form. We contribute time here and there for purely altruistic reasons when we can. There is little direct return beyond feeling good and occasional networking opportunities.

Instead, what if we treated the time invested into the IA community as a deposit into a communal bank? Mightn't we be more inclined to make a deposit if it might enable us to eventually make a withdrawal?

I apologize for using the unappealing concept of "monetizing" here; I'm not suggesting that we be paid in money for doing good. But if we quantify and monetize the IAI's participation economy, we grease the skids for greater economic activity. The withdrawals we make don't have to come from the person we directly helped, and don't have to be immediate. Just like money.

For example: right now, if Anders Ramsay spends three hours of his time setting up an IA face-to-face meeting in New York City, he won't receive direct compensation; the other participants aren't likely to "repay" Anders in any way, save buying him a beer or two.

But if those three hours go into the IAI Bank, perhaps Anders could withdraw three "Wurmans" in the form of help from other people that had nothing to do with the NYC F2F meeting. So next year, Anders could get three hours of help reviewing his wireframes from IAI members in Chile and Slovenia who've never been within five thousand miles of New York City. Later, those information architects might in turn benefit by making withdrawals in the form of mentoring from other IAI people. And so on. Indirect compensation might really soup up the exchange of Wurmans, just as money does in traditional economies. Another participation incentive might be the public recognition of those with the fattest bank accounts.

The children are our future

The IAI might seed this economy by granting all new IAI members a limited number of Wurmans in their accounts. Wouldn't it be nice to fortify the IAI's value proposition by advertising that each new membership comes with five Wurmans' (hours) worth of "free" help from professional colleagues?

Or perhaps the IAI could seed the accounts of current students, the future of our profession (and a group with which the IAI currently has tenuous contact, unfortunately). Students are often uncomfortable asking established practitioners for assistance, but this approach might make it less awkward to ask for help. And it might help better knit together the profession, as there is currently a large disconnect between potential IAs (mostly masters students) and practicing IAs, many of whom are currently looking under rocks for junior IAs.

Yeah, right

I know that programming such an infrastructure won't be trivial, and I realize that monetizing people's actions is itself a tricky business that is disconcerting to some. But I also know that participation economies are already here, and smart, conscientious applications of technology can supercharge any economy. Isn't money, in all its many forms, essentially a technology?

By the way, volunteer-driven communities like Evolt have been able to pull off aspects of a participation economy with much less money on hand than the IAI. And have been doing so for years; it should only be easier now.

So that's my wingnut wish for the future of the IAI. I'm sure you might come up with something much better. Better yet, I hope some reasonable portion of the IA community tackles this issue. The status quo certainly won't cut it. Right now, the IAI is passing up so many opportunities because it's understaffed. The shortfall of volunteer hours won't be fixed until we find a way to draw students and other potential IAs into the community, people who are motivated to volunteer and tend to have more time on their hands. That is, unless the demand for IAs crashes a la 2001. And I absolutely guarantee you that won't happen, unless the entire world economy goes down the crapper too.

In fact, I'd be willing to put some money on it. To the tune of, say, a cool million Wurmans.

Any takers?

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Comment: leisa reichelt (Mar 3, 2006)

I have a few questions re: the exchange rate, but yeah, sure. I'm in.

Where is everyone?

It is a bit of a shame that this has to get down to such an explicit economy, but if that's what it takes then I think it's valuable.

(better go fill out my IAI application form now I guess!)

Comment: Jess McMullin (Mar 3, 2006)

Lou,

I love this - not that I agree with all of it (too much to digest in one sitting, for one thing), but that it pushes us to think about the Institute in new ways. I definitely struggle with volunteer burnout myself, and am happy to see fresh thinking on how to make the Institute a sustainable, long term success.

Comment: Jay Fienberg (Mar 3, 2006)

I have a vague recollection of hearing about other "guild"-like organizations that have successfully used this kind of barter / complimentary currency approach.

Are you familiar with LETS, http://www.transaction.net/money/lets/ ?

Wikipedia might be a useful starting point, e.g.,: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementary_currency

It's interesting to think of the IAI in terms of it potentially being, specifically, a thriving economy in itself--where membership in the IAI is a means of access to that economy. And, as in many situations, the value of that economy is particularly significant if it can be measured in terms of things other than just cash (e.g., people's time and skills, potential collaborations, etc.).

Comment: Bob Doyle (Mar 3, 2006)

Hi Lou,

You're monetizing community services has been proven to work (and to have no tax implications - very important) by Edgar Cahn's brilliant http://www.TimeDollar.org. Yes, time is money!

Now two years old, CM Pros is growing very fast (almost as large as IAI and very international) following your AIfIA model and your past sage advice to us.

Let's hope IAI can pioneer some workable techniques that CM Pros will then apply.

Comment: Livia Labate (Mar 3, 2006)

Apart from floating the idea on the list, you proposed this approach when we discussed the IAI Mentoring Initiative last year during the summit in Montreal. A few of us loved the concept (basicaly making mentors and mentees time count), but it never took off. What happened? Why are we missing the boat - or letting the opportunity go by every time? If the idea didn't make sense I don't think it would re-emerge again and again.

Yes, it's a hard non-trivial effort. But knowing that it's really not that complex from a tactical perspective (if you can envision it, you can execute with enough resources), where do you think is the difficulty in making it happen? Do we just need an executive decision? I appreciate the desire to have the community drive this, but I can't see the community doing that without leadership. I guess that's what I'd expect from the IAI, but, how can this idea be effectively "pitched"? Meaning, how can we turn it into action?

So many questions!

Comment: Stig Andersen (Mar 4, 2006)

Hi Lou,

I agree with your observation about the status of IAI. And like Jess, I like the general concept, though Iím not sure I agree with all the aspects.

But I think it will be fruitful to rewind a bit and look at the fundamentals of IAIís challenges. I think you hit the nail on the head, when you ask: ĒWhat are we trying to create?Ē I think it is possible to gather a crowd of dedicated volunteers, if feel they are working for a common cause. If the goal is plain, clear, and can be identified. If the organization has proper governance. In my opinion this is not the case for IAfIA/IAI. At least not to a large degree. We have our mission statement and theses. The board members will let us know about the goals at every election. But it all seems a bit vague to me. And I do know that since the organization was launched, its mission, and structure has been the subject of conversation.

Now, Iím not saying that a set of KPI-indicators will solve the problem :-) But I think itís necessary to address the question: ĒWhat are we trying to create?Ē What will we achieve? And how can we support this with proper governance?

I think your idea is really interesting. Itís very Ēhands onĒ. But it deals with the symptom. We still need to address the cause of the disease.

Comment: Eric Reiss (Mar 4, 2006)

Interesting notion, but I can't say I fully understand it. Sounds like "calling in favors" from folks who don't really owe you anything. So who *do* they owe and why? And why should they bother to pay up?

Or are you suggesting a top-down pyramid-scheme approach in which people can gain Wurmans by volunteering to help individuals rather than the IAI? If so, is this the kind of volunteering we need most?

The key idea, if I understand it correctly, is that Wurmans represent barter value. But since no one really *needs* Wurmans, I wonder if they will ever truly become valuable. Reminds me of the frequent-flyer miles I earned on an airline Iíll never fly again. Alternatively, Iíd hate to see Wurmans collected and waved about the way social-climbers on LinkedIn promote their hundreds of cursory connections.

The administration of your proposed system worries me, too. As a founder and former Board member, you know as well as any that we've already got plenty of infrastructure Ė and more than a few impenetrable IT systems. Novel as it is, the Wurman Bank could easily become a cure worse than the illness.

You mentioned that the IAI has discussed many initiatives that never seem to get off the ground. You certainly got that right. Personally I'd like less talk and more action. Certainly youíve seen how simple ideas become complicated beyond all recognition, analyzed to death. And now there's going to be an additional layer of bookkeeping? Yikes... Give this project six months and Wurmans will be earning interest, compounded annually.

Although you acknowledge some individual wins, overall, you donít think the IAI is successful. I'd like to hear which success metrics you're using. It sounds as though they're related to the number of initiatives.

I'll grant you that 10 good initiatives are better than 5 good initiatives. But I hope you agree that 5 good initiatives are better than 20 that are dead in the water. That was pretty much the situation a couple of years back. I vote for quality over quantity any day - and have done so since joining the AIfIA/IAI Board in September, 2004. In fact, the majority of the so-called initiatives on the discussion roster that September, were nothing more than interesting ideas with no real backing.

As far as Iím concerned, ideas are a dime a dozen. Good programs are somewhat scarcer. I was sorry you didnít mention our sponsoring of research initiatives, our on-going salary survey, and other projects. Thereís more going on than you indicate. And not only has our membership grown, we have more volunteers, too. Let me come with a radical thought: perhaps the two numbers are connected...

For the first time in the IAI's history, the Board and Advisors are writing a Business Plan. That gives us significantly more direction than we've had in the past. And hopefully it will help us give our community more and better services in the future. Moreover, we've hired a part-time Operations Manager to do some of the tiresome administrative stuff that traditionally kills the volunteer spirit.

Does this sound defensive? It should Ė there are a lot of people who are working very hard to make this succeed; how unfair to say that, overall, we have failed to succeed Ė as though this was a footrace that could be won.

Lou, as I stated at the top, I donít think I fully understand the idea. But I respect you. So if you really think this is the thing to do, letís see your action plan.

Comment: Stacy Surla (Mar 6, 2006)

There's a fallacy in Lou's suggestion, which is that the purpose of getting people to volunteer is to save money. I don't blame Lou; there is often confusion on this point. But let's be clear. The point of getting people to volunteer in an organization is NOT to save money. Rather, the point of the organization is to give people a place where they can volunteer.

Yes, it can be a challenge to make this work. The organization has to have an infrastructure that makes it possible for volunteers to get more out of volunteering than they put in. But it is through volunteering, participating, through having a stake and an impact, that people get the greatest benefits. Sure, those of us on the receiving end of any volunteer work are also reaping the value. But, when things are working right, the volunteer gets ten times more.

This is what we're working to build in the IAI. Tokens of exchange could be part of the strategy. But not because nobody would play with us unless we pay them to. We're working to grow those aspects of the organization that will help make it easier and more rewarding for people to participate.

Comment: Victor (Mar 6, 2006)

I think the Institute was successful at what it intended to do. Could the original vision looked further into the future? Sure. But going from nothing to an international professional organization was already a big challenge.

All organizations need to change as they grow and their environment changes. Now that the Institute is a stable membership organization, it would be refreshing to consider other business models to achieve further success, as you've done here. I think there's plenty of ways to do it. Once could be using a very simply product model (one that has worked for thousands of years).

Imagine the Institute starts video taping events such as the IA Summit pre-con, the MAYA tour, tutorials by all the respected leaders in the IA field, etc. It then sells 1500 of these for $39 each. That would gross more money than the Institute has now *and* satisfy much of the intent of the mission. Imagine the value of an IA video library to practitioners; is there anything else -- short of a master's degree -- that would teach as much?

Comment: David Heller (Mar 6, 2006)

Two quick points which I said on the IAI list:

1. Not everyone is a contributor. The economies of scale require that most people are pure consumers, and thus pure consumers do not have anything to gain by this system and in a way you are reducing the overall value of the community by pushing such a prospect.

2. Better infrastructure for volunteers and an open bottom-up system for initiatives would be a lot more inviting to volunteers. IAI should be fodder for initiatives and not dictate or limit the initiatives. This open-source model would be a lot more productive in the end than coming up with a whole new economy that seems to me to be way to convoluted and arbitrary at least in the initial description.

Comment: Leisa Reichelt (Mar 8, 2006)

Perhaps I should let Lou respond to this but... in the meanwhile:

@ stacey: "There's a fallacy in Lou's suggestion, which is that the purpose of getting people to volunteer is to save money."

I don't think that is the purpose, exactly. I think the purpose is more about incentive. Creating an incentive for people to actively contribute because through that they will create the means to get something back that is meaningful and useful to themselves.

Perhaps being clear about the incentives involved with volunteering time and expertise to the community is exactly what we need to get more people to actively buy into that economy? (even as I write that I know know economy is a loaded term, but I can't come up with better at the moment).

Comment: Lou (Mar 8, 2006)

Leisa's spot on. I'm not sure how anything I've written could be construed to be connecting the purpose of volunteerism with saving money. I've probably logged as many volunteer hours with the IAI as anyone at this point (and let's not mention UXnet), and I haven't encountered money-saving as even a secondary incentive by anyone involved (including myself). So Stacey, I don't really understand your point.

Will get to other comments soon; still on semi-vacation...

Comment: Andrew Hinton (Mar 9, 2006)

I think there's power in this idea. I also like HEller's point about open-source models. If we could couple the economy bit with a bottom-up approach that sort of runs itself -- wow, that's quite an IA challenge :-) (of the sort I've always preferred -- making structures that synergize communities into productive collaboration, not so much information retrieval environments... but I digress)
Another thing this really reminds me of is an MMPORG -- I wonder if we could make it so well that people sell Wurmans on eBay???
Ok, that's a joke, but we could learn a lot about how to make something like this work by looking at not only Wikipedia and SourceForge, but Second Life and World of Warcraft as well. But that might just be my current obsessions talking ...

Comment: Olga (Mar 11, 2006)

As I read this I'm reminded of my clients who go through a deep-thinking process as I lead them through a Web site architecture redesign -- who are my audiences and what do they need from my website?

I'd like to propose that we redesign the IAI site -- maybe that will clarify things for us.

I can imagine the IAI site user experience by disciplines -- Web, Space, Etc -- if that's how we want to grow the field.

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