Mr. Wolfe Goes to Washington

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An important - and amazing - decision

For an organization of people who live on communication, and create standards for exchanging information, we have done a poor job of communicating with each other and with others in the construction industry. We have an unfortunate history of introducing important activities and significant changes with no advance warning and no explanation. I'm not saying these events are wrong, or that they shouldn't have been done; on the contrary, I know that our leaders have discussed and weighed alternatives, and acted in the best interest of the organization. The problem is that members generally have not been aware of the reasons behind the decisions of our board of directors, committees, and task teams.

A significant and promising departure from our lack of publicity was seen in the last few years when the MasterFormat Task Team took extraordinary measures to engage other organizations, and to keep CSI members informed of its work. In that case, the need to obtain buy-in from the industry demanded visibility, but even when a similar demand does not exist, we have an obligation to keep our members informed about Institute decisions and activities.

We must remember, though, that communication is not a one-way street. Even if Institute sent out daily e-mails, they would do no good if members didn't read them. We may not have done as good a job as we should have, but the Board and staff have told members about some Board and committee activities through articles in the CSI Leader, NewsDigest, and Construction Specifier, and on the Institute website. We can't ignore what's available and then complain because we didn't know about something.

Regions and chapters share the responsibility of communication, and must help get information to their members. Although Institute will always be the primary source of information, it is by nature remote and impersonal. Chapters, the organization's primary point of contact for members, are in the best position to give a personal touch to the message. This is not a simple matter of retelling what Institute publishes; it requires active participation by region and chapter officers and chairs to develop an understanding of Institute activities, the logic behind them, and the effect on members and the industry.

Unfortunately, there has been a decline in communication at the region and chapter levels. One of my favorite spare-time activities has been seeing what our chapters are doing, through newsletters and websites. Having been an editor myself, I have been on the mailing list for many chapter newsletters for several years. The number of hardcopy newsletters I get has fallen off in the last few years as chapters have taken advantage of the cost savings possible through going to electronic newsletters.

If those newspapers had all been replaced by e-newsletters, members would at least have the opportunity to read about CSI, but along with the decrease in hardcopy newsletters, there has been a reduction in the total number of newsletters. Some chapters no longer distribute their newsletters, but merely post them to their websites. The newsletters still exist, but members now need to actively seek them out before they can read them. More disturbing is that some chapters have stopped producing newsletters altogether. I imagine most of them assume their members will visit the chapter websites and find information on their own, but the range of information that can be offered in a newsletter is usually not delivered.

As a long-time proponent of e-mail and the Internet, you might think I would be pleased with the move to electronic communication, and to some extent that is true. Those chapters that send out e-mails telling members about coming meetings and other important events are making good use of new technology. The same can be said of those chapters that send their newsletters out by e-mail. I still believe a hardcopy newsletter is a basic member entitlement, but that may be nothing more than a symptom of old dog-new trick syndrome.

The downside of relying on websites for distribution of information is that it just doesn't happen. Few members regularly visit Institute, region, and chapter websites, and when they do, they are usually after specific information, such as the date of the next meeting. For the most part they do not linger, digging through the pages to find everything available. It can be argued that most members didn't read hardcopy newsletters, the NewsDigest, CSI Leader, or Construction Specifier, either, but I suspect they were read more extensively than are websites. Even when a newsletter went directly from inbox to wastebasket, there was a chance that a headline or picture might hook a member. Hardcopy newsletters and magazine often went into briefcases for reading when convenient, something that doesn't work well with electronic documents.

Dick Eustis, editor of the Maine chapter's newsletter, and I have had a number of discussion about this subject. He claims that members of his chapter have adapted well to the computer age, and make good use of the chapter website. As time goes on, I expect more members to make the transition, but a large obstacle remains. As I surf CSI websites I see far too many that are out of date, or that hide important information. I'm not talking about day-old information, but descriptions of events that took place months ago, year-old newsletters, and contact information for last year's officers.

A complicated site is not necessary, and each chapter should have at least a basic website. All it really needs is information about the next meeting and contact information for officers and chairs. Having more can make the site more useful, but only if it is maintained. Members will use a simple, current site, but stop going to a more extensive site that is out of date.

Members must take interest in our organization and do their part to stay informed, but Institute officers and committees must lead the way by improving communication with members, chapters, and regions. A little advance publicity would go a long way toward reducing member complaints about "surprise" activities.

2006 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, swolfe@bwbr.com 


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