Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.
An analytical mindset with the right mix of technology know-how and business intelligence can help drive change.
Melissa Garcia, CAE, says there are typically two kinds of people in associations: blue people, who are business-oriented and bottom-line-focused, and red people, who use and apply technology to solve problems.
“What I’m looking for is a very special kind of person—what’s known as ‘purple people,’” Garcia says, using a term coined by Wayne Eckerson, a noted researcher and consultant specializing in ideas that straddle business and technology. “Purple people can speak both languages, translate, get a project done, and do it without miscues.”
Garcia is herself an example of a purple
person. A decade ago, she was working as the director of annual meeting and program development for the Society for Neuroscience. Today, she’s leading up SfN’s technology division with a growing staff focused on business improvements. It started about a decade ago with the implementation of a new association management system.
“At the time, our IT director kept saying that we needed an AMS, and our executive director kept saying, ‘Prove it,’” Garcia says. “Fundamentally, our notion became that if you want to lead and make a change, it had to be from a business perspective first.”
In her new position, Garcia uses an analytical mindset—what she calls “business intelligence”—to guide problem solving. Her division, Digital and Information Strategy, is a cross-functional team that’s leading SfN’s digital transformation.
Fundamentally, our notion became that if you want to lead and make a change, it had to be from a business perspective first.
—Melissa Garcia, CAE
“At first, it was just me and half of another staff person’s time,” she says. “As the organization changed, we grew. We kind of became the project management office, and today, we are a staff of 35.”
The division includes three distinct departments:
Technology Services. Garcia calls this team the doers. “If you hand them the specs, they’re going to deliver it,” she says. Projects have included the development of two new websites and implementation of the new AMS.
Information Strategy and Business Analysis. Big-picture thinking, especially about business processes, falls to ISBA, which focuses on business continuity and efficiency. “An ISBA project might be something like the back-end integration of a new learning management system. They’re going to project-manage that integration and plug it into something like an AMS,” Garcia says.
Digital Strategy. This is a member-focused team. Unlike the other two departments, Digital Strategy is dedicated to user experience—how people are engaging with the website or responding to digital content. This group routinely works closely with marketing and communications.
While each of these teams has a technology component, Garcia says the foundational principles guiding the work are business-driven.
“That’s where my purple people come in,” she says. “I need a team that can deal with the technology but problem-solve for the business need.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled “Purple People Power."]