How Associations Support Evolving Professions

evolvingprofessions October 10, 2017

As occupational groups grow and diversify, associations need to adapt to their members’ developing needs. Recent ASAE Foundation research looks at the different roles associations play in supporting growing—and changing—professions.

Historically, professions were restricted to fields like law and medicine. Today, professional and related occupations, such as the technical, managerial, healthcare, and social science fields, make up one fifth of the U.S. workforce. The ASAE Foundation’s Practice to Profession study looks at the nature and definition of professions and the formation of professional associations in relation to the professions they serve.

Professions, by definition, provide a service, draw from a defined body of knowledge, have an advocacy group, have a code of ethics, and practice self-regulation. Professional associations support all of these defining factors. Professional associations provide education, knowledge creation and dissemination, education and certification, advocacy and promotion, and member support and networking.

The study categorized types of associations according to the functions they perform to support their members. Qualifying associations serve as a point of comparison in the research, as these organizations conduct all the main functions of associations—knowledge creation and dissemination, education, advocacy, and member support.

Other associations fulfill more specific, but no less significant, roles for professions:

  • Certification associations or boards specifically function to provide certification to members.
  • Occupational associations advocate on behalf of members and support member communities, often focusing on a subgroup within an occupation.
  • Knowledge exchange societies focus on education and knowledge creation and dissemination. Scholarly societies and associations typically fall into this category.
  • Network and prestige associations focus on facilitating member support networks.

In addition to these categories, other member-serving organizations include trade associations, labor unions, and other groups that fulfill the needs of occupational groups.

Associations form and evolve to adapt to professions, and the research suggests that associations will have to become more nimble due to respond to workforce trends.

Associations form and evolve in relation to members’ needs, and the research suggests that associations will have to become more nimble to respond to workforce trends. Hyper-specialization in certain fields, jobs that fall into more than one professional category, and the increase in career changes all have repercussions for associations.

For example, some professionals may come to an association for skill building and networking but may not identify as a member of the professional group. Associations that offer learning may want to add skill-specific education in addition to career-building offerings.

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Alternately, professionals may join an association that serves their general field as well as one that serves their specialization or subgroup. As intersections increase, association leaders may feel compelled to compete for members. Instead, they can look for natural alliances—connected to meetings, education, or other content creation—with related associations that support different functions.

Economic, technological, and societal trends are resulting in the formation of more, and more diverse, professional organizations. Association leaders need to determine the best ways to reach potential members and serve existing members, and understand what membership organizations are competing in their sphere.