Mr. Wolfe Goes to Washington


Free lunch

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Last week, I got a card in the mail from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the main newspaper in the Twin Cities area. It was a pitch to me, a Sunday-only subscriber, offering access to the daily newspaper at no cost. My first inclination was to throw it away, as I have accepted similar offers in the past, the catch being that the offer was good for only a couple of months, after which I was automatically billed at the regular rate. But, as I looked at the card, I noticed that I was to receive the daily newspaper by e-mail - and there was no tiny message saying I would have to pay at some time in the future.

I called the circulation department, and was surprised to learn that it was, in fact, a free subscription, with no end date. All I had to do was ask for it, and each day I would get e-mail with a link that would download that day's newspaper. Yet I'm still paying only for the Sunday edition. How does that work? How can the publisher go through all the work of getting stories and photographs, collecting related information, writing the text, laying it out, and give it to me at no charge? This isnít new; like many of you, I regularly visit major news service websites, where I read current or past articles without paying a single cent.

The publishing industry - including newspapers, magazines, television, and radio - is in trouble. All of them are competing to give away their primary source of income, and there is no end in sight. On the consumer side, we all want instant access to current information, but we don't want to pay for it. Which brings to mind another adage - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

It's a short journey from the publishing industry's problem to one of our own. Members want to have current information about construction products, CSI standards, continuing education, certification programs, and more, yet many of them believe it should be free, or at least covered by our annual dues. It's fine to say we're a member-driven organization, and that what the members want is more important than running CSI as a business, but if the business end fails, there will be no member services.

I have seen many e-mails and posts on that accuse CSI of creating new products just to make more money. In a sense that's true, as we do have to pay for development of those products, but the truth is that far too many of our programs over the years have lost money. In the good old days, when we relied on the annual convention as a major source of income, it didn't matter. The SpecGUIDE program cost far more than it brought in; PerSpective, the performance specification program we produced in a joint venture with the Design Build Institute, was a financial black hole; and after moving the annual convention to Chicago for three years, our golden goose became a tarnished turkey.

To be fair, the economy played a big part in the decline of the convention. Before 2001, we had experienced an unprecedented ten-year growth in construction, and we were due for the downside. The economic downturn, which economists say began late in 2000, led to several bad years for the construction industry. Jobs were lost, companies reduced support for organization membership, and manufacturers cut back on exhibit budgets, all of which affected CSI, and other organizations, as well.

Again, to be fair, the current officers and directors were not there to enjoy the good years, nor were they in office when those decisions were made that created or maintained money-losing programs. To offset declining income in the past several years, the board of directors, going back at least to Phil McDade's presidency, found many ways to reduce costs and live within our means. Board meetings were eliminated, travel to regions and chapters was put off, critical computer upgrades were delayed, staff and office space were cut, and more.

One of the biggest problems we face is declining membership. From 1992 through April 2001, membership increased each year; although I don't have figures at hand, it is reasonable to assume that membership was on a fairly steady upward course long before the '90s. We hit our peak in April 2001, with 18,299 members. Since then, our numbers have been falling, far more rapidly than they rose. In September 2006 we had 15,268 members, a decline of seventeen percent in five years. It isn't hard to calculate what that means in terms of annual income.

We have been fairly successful at cutting costs, but that can go only so far, and it does nothing to increase the value of membership. On the other hand, we have missed opportunities to be leaders in new technologies and trends in the construction industry. We were content with the success of our paper-centric standards, ignoring the obvious need for standards for electronic information, and BIM has moved on without us. We have done little to promote the National CAD Standard, or to provide education and certification programs for CAD technologists. Some of our most vocal members believe that writing specifications is still the heart of construction documents, while it has been clear for many years that CAD programs will be able to automatically generate specifications without the need for the traditional specifier. And, even though we created a certification program for construction administrators, we have done nothing to draw those people into CSI. Specifiers are still important, but there will always be a need for the CA people, in far greater numbers than specifiers.

The Board is determined to reverse these trends, and we see a number of problems that must be addressed. It may not come as a surprise, but our image is one of the problems. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but as the saying goes, "perception is reality" - regardless of the truth. Surveys conducted by the Greenway Group indicated that CSI has a good reputation, based on its decades-old work with document standards, but they also indicated that CSI is seen as a group that is no longer relevant in today's fast-changing world. If we are seen as having nothing to offer, there is little hope of generating the interest necessary to bring in new members.

In the case of our demographics, perception is, indeed, reality. Many have commented on the shortage of young people in CSI, and in construction in general. Why is that the case? One reason is that it is difficult to be a young specifier. Until one has had years of experience, learning about construction products and the way things go together, it is difficult at best to make good decisions. That's only a small part of the problem, though, as specifiers are a minority of our members. More important is that young people, having grown up with computers, e-mail, and cell phones, are accustomed to getting what they want now. They have more commitments, see more value in relaxation and less in work, have less time for volunteer service (except for their children's activities), and don't want to spend countless hours in committee meetings.

We can no longer expect to find people who will conform to the way we have done things for the last fifty years. Rather, we must provide what young design professionals and young industry professionals are looking for, and we have no time to waste. Reorganizing our board of directors is but one part of what the Board sees as a solution. Other elements include new products, such as GreenFormat; education and certification programs for CAD technologists; a complete overhaul of the Institute website; expanded online education, and the use of podcasts; and more communication directly to the members. There is also the branding initiative, which is intended to change our image, but until we have more of value to offer, it can't go far.

It will be difficult to change, but we have no choice; it won't be easy, and there will be a price. There has been a lot of talk about volunteerism, and there is no doubt that volunteers made CSI what it is - but we no longer have volunteers in the numbers required to get things done. In the last several weeks, attention has been focused on the proposed reduction in the size of the Board, but if anything, we will require more members willing to do the work to provide those things that will bring members back to CSI. Unless, of course, you can find someone else to pay for lunch.

Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA
Institute Director, North Central Region, CSI

© 2007 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, 

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