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You are here: Home 2004 Vol.36 No.2, March/April 2004 President's Report: Advancing the Field
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President's Report: Advancing the Field

SIGCHI President, Joseph Konstan invites a discussion on how to make SIGCHI more meaningful for you.

As the new SIGCHI e-Bulletin takes shape as a venue for discussion as well as dissemination of information, I will be writing a series of articles about some of the basic challenges that SIGCHI faces as it charts its course for the future. This article looks at some of the conflicts between being a membership organization that provides good value to its members for their fees and being a professional organization that tries to advance the field and the profession.

While this challenge has existed for some time, it has become more important in recent years due to three related developments:
  1. Members of all sorts of organizations are looking for value in their membership. The good feeling of belonging may be enough for some of us, but others want to see the dollar-for-dollar benefit of holding a membership card. This isn't unique to SIGCHI or to professional societies, but is a broader phenomenon (as is documented by such researchers as Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone).
  2. Digital libraries create a new level of "ubiquitous service." While many SIGCHI members consider access to interactions magazine and SIGCHI's proceedings in the ACM Digital Library (DL) to be worth much more than the membership fee, many others already subscribe to the DL separately, or belong to organizations with site licenses.
  3. Conferences, which used to reliably return excess revenue to underwrite organizational activities, are in a more competitive market and no longer can be counted on to do so. Part of this change is the general reduction of funding for business travel. Part of it is the increase in alternative venues for professionals in our field. We should be proud of the explosion of professional training events, technical gatherings, research symposia, and the like, but we also must recognize that they put new strains on our existing conferences.

While each of these topics could itself fill a column, my point is not to try to "solve" the changes in the field, but rather present a resultant challenge. To put it simply: "How do we balance providing value for members with providing value to the field as a whole?" The SIGCHI Executive Committee (EC) struggled with this questions recently while developing a program to make a subset of conference tutorial notes available on-line. The key question was whether to limit this access to members or to make the content more broadly available. It was a hard decision. I think it is fair to say that every one of us believed that making the notes widely available would more quickly advance the field by reaching the many individuals out there who are not SIGCHI members. Some of them might even attend our conferences or join. But, we also have a responsibility to our members to provide them with value for their membership fee. In the end, we decided to limit access to members. I don't think any of us know yet whether we made the right decision, but we'll be watching to see what happens.

A second example that faces us soon is the question of how to build closer ties with our own chapters around the world. SIGCHI's chapter program (also known as Local SIGs) has thousands of members enrolled in dozens of chapters worldwide. Some of these chapters are large and formal organizations with membership dues, conferences, and other events. Others are small, informal gatherings. All of them are part of our field and part of our community. The challenge, as a membership organization, is in balancing the obvious benefit to the field from supporting these chapters against the fact that most chapter members are not members of SIGCHI itself. Indeed, the chapters are so effective that most chapter members may feel they get exactly what they need from the chapter and don't see a reason to join SIGCHI too.

There are several approaches to addressing this challenge. If we measure our influence and ourselves by counting our members, then we could create an inexpensive "membership light" category. That category could even rebate much or all of the dues to the local chapter. If, instead, we measure ourselves by our impact, we might choose to report not only membership, but also conference attendance and readership of our publications. In that case, we might be better off working more closely with our chapters to promote our activities to chapter members. Other possibilities exist, and we'll be exploring them together with our chapter leaders in the months to come.

These are just examples of a challenge that repeatedly arises. I invite you to join the discussion. How do you decide about joining organizations? Does giving membership benefits away to everyone lead you to quit (and take just the free benefits)? How would you balance investing in our members against investing in the field as a whole? I'd like to know what you think.


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