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August 2003 - Visions!

I have of late been reflecting on the implications of the word Society. This word is the core of the name that we have collectively given our organisation. Are we, however, really a Society or perhaps would Association be a more accurate choice of word? Roget's Thesaurus offers some guidance in this. According to Roget, an Association has flavours of:

Co-ownership, partnership, solidarity, club, clique

whilst for Society the following are offered as alternatives:

Partnership, alliance, cooperative, secret society.

There is an interesting distinction here. All the alternatives for Association are rather passive and have shades of meaning implying membership for the benefits that can be gotten from the whole. The alternatives for Society, on the other hand are all based on the concept of working together, of sharing and of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

"We include the word Society in our name but are we really a Society?" is the question I have found myself asking these last few weeks as I have struggled with the Mouthpiece review. There are many members putting a lot of time and energy into the Society for the benefit of all the members. They are, however, a minority. Can they, nay should they, sustain that input, that effort? Does the membership really want the fruits of their labours? While we may not aspire to be a Secret Society complete with special handshakes, it is instructive to consider what binds such a Society together. A common passion? Common beliefs? Total commitment to both members and the organisation?

Instances that have triggered these thoughts over the last few months include:

  • 26% response rate to the web-site satisfaction survey.
  • 1 branch response to requests for views on the future of Mouthpiece.
  • 33% return rate on requests for authorisation to put membership details on the web-site.

A recurrent message is being sent by these failures of the membership at large to make but a small effort for the greater good of the Society. It is important to consider these signals. Are those of us putting our energies into the Society simply mugs, or as one friend put it "suckers"? I don't believe this is the case and I for one derive considerable satisfaction from my humble efforts with the Web-site. I also gain considerable satisfaction from being able to share my knowledge and experience with others - that is what being part of a Society is all about.

The question as to whether we are mugs or not, needs to be turned around. Rather we should be asking "Are we being responsible spending the hard-earned contributions of members on things we enjoy doing if the membership couldn't care less?" This is one of the questions I have been wrestling with as I put the Mouthpiece review together with David Johns. What are the aspirations of the membership? Should we be striving to become recognised as Professionals? Should be striving for excellence and to advance the field? All of these are professed aims of the Society. Should we rather be striving to become button pressing technicians simply doing a job?

Many of those who have sent in their web directory authorisations have indicated that they would be happy to act as mentors and to participate in collaborative research. This is great and certainly fits with my vision for the Society. With the widespread fear of involvement and commitment evident amongst the membership at large, however, is it worth setting up any form of mentoring programme or trying to facilitate collaborative research? Do we, as a Society, have the passion, the will to make this work?

In deliberating on the future of Society publications, I kept coming back to the need for the Executive and the Board to hold a clear Vision for the Society that serves as the driving force leading us into the future. This vision should inform the activities of the Web-site, Mouthpiece, Board and committees within the Society. This line of thinking, however, begs the question "What Vision?"

Anybody can dream up a Vision. If a Vision is to be effective, however, it cannot be imposed. It must, rather, evolve from the expressed individual visions of the members. The difficulty in obtaining feedback - positive or negative - on issues as they arise suggests the majority of the membership don't hold a vision for the Society or possibly even themselves. Alternatively their vision is that the Society is really pretty unimportant.

An element of the membership is trying to raise the profile of the Society as a Professional Body of Respiratory Scientists. We are striving to help junior members develop themselves and secure improved career prospects into the future. Is this consistent with the collective Vision of the Society or are we out of step with reality?

Are we really and truly a Society or rather simply an Association of individuals? Should we strive to be a Professional Society and accept the responsibilities that go with that? These are important questions that need answering if the Society is to prosper into the future. I believe we are at a crossroads and have to choose between an uphill path to greener pastures or a downhill route to more sheltered but grazed over pastures. The choice is yours. Each and every one of you reading this has to make that choice.

Let's here some viewpoints on this so that we can get these questions answered and better inform the decisions on our future, yours and mine.

'til next month,


August, 2003




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