Whither the ISA?

Whither the ISA? In his own inimitable style, this is the question asked by Eoin O’Riain of Read-out.net, in a blog entitled “Whether the ISA?” (Link). But the question is well asked, enquiring whether the ISA will find a role in the post-internet, post-recession world.

Magazines, websites (like Processingtalk and Read-out), industrial fora (like the ISA, InstMC), market research organisations (like ARC, IMS, SRI) and even standards/approvals organisations (like Baseefa, TuV, IEC) exist as an “overhead” service to manufacturers. Some would go so far as to say that we are parasitic organizations. We are only tolerated, financed and survive provided we continue to deliver a service that is economically acceptable to the manufacturers, and tailor the service to change as the need develops.

Many years ago, there were exhibitions. These were supported by lavish stands from the major suppliers, and people went there to see what was new. In the UK they were dying before the arrival of the internet, because the majors discovered it was more efficient to run their own shows, with conferences, calling them User Group Meetings. Then, later, the internet allowed everyone to have instant access to an exhibition and news of the latest products, sorted by subject area and industry, so the only reason for customers to attend a gathering was to interface with other similar users, and the user group discussion format was confirmed. The latest release from the ISA shows they are catching up, for 2010, with the ISA Automation Week focusing on the conference, as opposed to the show. Regrettably they are heading into the major problem that has developed even for the manufacturers, the big user conferences are too broad, not specific enough to create a user group with enough common interests. Plus the ISA cannot afford to support the meetings financially, like the Emersons, GEs, Yokogawae and Invensi of this world.

So whither the ISA? “The ISA is all about knowledge”, says the ISA President. So the ISA has to be the one place an automation professional will turn to, to learn something, instantly, via the web. Recently I criticised the WINA branch of ISA for a webinar on wireless instrumentation which had a price tag of USD40. There is another such webinar listed in the Processingtalk newsletter this week for USD40, alongside, and competing with, a lot of free webinars from the manufacturers. We all know the hit rate on “actually useful” information from Google is maybe 1 in 4: who will turn to the ISA to spend USD40 on a webinar that might have a 25% chance of being relevant? Certainly not the internet readers in India, Algeria, Argentina, and out of work or freelance engineers in the UK or anywhere else, and these are the community the ISA must lead, and provide access to. These are the people the major suppliers cannot readily access from their own resources.

The manufacturers will only support the ISA if it offers something they themselves cannot: if the ISA did become a source of impartial free knowledge, which is actually used, suddenly the manufacturers will spend time providing and contributing to the knowledge (so that their ideas are getting the right emphasis, of course), and supporting those ISA activities. Once the ISA only serves users that are the specialists in big US corporations, they provide nothing that the manufacturers do not already have on their databases.

My point is the same as Jon DiPietro of the Boston ISA branch, who also echoes Jim Pinto: “Sell scarcity, give away abundance” (Link). Jon goes as far as saying make ISA membership free, to build the network of automation professionals (Yes, I am an ex-ISA member, once the firm stopped paying for the subscription, and I reviewed the benefits at the time). The ISA should strive to build their network amongst the internet generation, give away the education, to establish the ISA position as the place for knowledge, and then will be able to sell the scarcity within, and the assets derived from having the network.

What proof is there this will work? Pro-Talk, and all the Talk sites, are built on the principle of free publication, free access to all news stories, free newsletters – free for readers and for manufacturers. It started in 2000 and initially had no income at all. The Talk sites are now consulted by maybe a million readers a month overall, because they have effectively established a known and trusted internet “exhibition”, a searchable database (of all active suppliers) that users can configure, and that they know has input from all the suppliers. Then Pro-Talk are able to sell advertising, because the manufacturers want to put a message in front of a certain profile of the user community – the ability to do that is the scarcity we can sell!

[Footnote: Centaur , the publishers, amalgamated the Pro-Talk websites with the Engineer website in Summer 2011: apparently they were not satisfied with the amount of advertising being sold!]

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