Don't Let Policies Impede Productivity and Efficiency
One of the perennial headaches shared amongst association staff is that of creating and maintaining excessive operating policies. Colleagues across the association sector invest plenty of time and energy in designing and enforcing workplace policies, and often they prove to be utterly extraneous. Typically, these processes are of little or no benefit to the organisation, its staff, or its membership. Such policies are usually implemented with the best intentions of promoting better office standards and workplace practices but, in reality, they are simply redundant. They are disproportionate to the size and scope of the association and completely unrelated to best practice in association management.
Let me be clear: I am not for a second suggesting that operational policy is superfluous. All office environments require essential rules to ensure legal and regulatory compliance, to promote and protect staff welfare, and to inform colleagues of the expected workplace culture. Operating policies are not unnecessary, but there are a lot of unnecessary operating policies. The latter are often determined by well-meaning members of the Board, who are simply unfamiliar with the practicalities of association management.
During a routine review of one of my association's management accounts, one of the more engaged Directors asked me to account for $500 I had spent on a new computer for the office. I explained that one of our older machines had finally broken down and that I had gone to the local electronics store to replace it. A seemingly ordinary straightforward decision. One of dozens that I made daily.
The Director was not satisfied. He wanted to see our Equipment Purchasing Policy to ensure I'd followed due process. I had followed agreed process, albeit not by using an Equipment Purchasing Policy. I used our Financial Regulations, which delegated authority to me for single purchases up to $15,000, and I followed our Procurement Policy, which outlined the decision-making procedures for purchasing goods and services. For a $500 computer, the decision-making process was simple: it was broken, and we needed to buy another one.
Multiple, third-party quotes were not necessary, no selective tendering exercise was needed, and no second signatory was required. We had contingency funds in the operating budget for this type of purchase, and I made the decision accordingly. We were, after all, only eight members of staff. Our equipment register constituted eight PCs, two printers, a photocopier, and a coffee machine. Why on earth would we need an Equipment Purchasing Policy?
"But that is what I would expect any university to have in place" was the Director's response. And therein lay the problem.
Ours was an association that operated within the university sector, but we were not a university. At the risk of sounding like a broken record (because I make this point a lot!), association management is not the same as that of the profession which the association represents. However, because Directors are usually elected from an association's membership, they understandably bring with them and seek to apply their experience with organisational management, which frequently is completely out of context.
As part of Directors' orientation, senior staff should attempt to acquaint their Board with the basic principles of good association management. In my case, through active dialogue and a simple Board training session on policy management, we dispensed with the proposition of yet another layer of policy and needless operating procedures. Senior management teams and/or Boards should also review their policy portfolios regularly and challenge the legitimacy of some of their more marginal procedures. Colleagues should question if policy directly relates to and benefits the association, or whether it is just imitating a Director's workplace practices?
Fashioning and enforcing policy for policy's sake does not improve organisational performance. Nor does it enhance transparency or scrutiny of decision-making. It merely sends the message to staff that policy is more important than people, which is completely demoralising and far more damaging than any potential $500 overspend on an equipment budget. Dispensing with excessive operational policy and removing the administrative burden of maintaining and adhering to gratuitous procedure will inevitably realise operational efficiencies in terms of freeing up staff and Board time and resources. Perhaps more significantly, it will serve to boost staff morale and team energy by removing the restraints of cumbersome process and unwarranted procedure.
Andrew Chamberlain is a former association Chief Executive and is now Managing Director of Consort Strategy (www.yourconsort.com), a consultancy firm specializing in leadership development, organisation improvement, and business growth. For over 10 years, he held leadership positions in professional associations and membership bodies across the UK. Before this, he spent several years working on education and environmental policy at the Scottish Funding Council and Scottish Government in Edinburgh, and the Ministry of Education in Wellington, New Zealand. Based in Cambridge in the UK, Andrew travels internationally to provide consultancy support on association governance and management.
W: www.yourconsort.com | www.themembershipexchange.com
As Andrew points out, overlapping policies and similar issues can begin and become compounded when new board members and directors join an organization, bringing with them the processes they are accustomed to. Often, this migration goes beyond the responsibilities their roles demand of them, as they would otherwise know that particular ground is covered. This underscores the importance of everyone knowing their role when it comes to association management. This is covered in the book 199 Ideas: Build a Better Board by Douglas M. Kleine, CAE (Editor.) Get your copy to learn more.