Please Save ISA: An Open Letter to Leo Staples

Today, ISA released the official press release announcing the accession of Leo Staples of OGE to the Presidency of ISA. Leo and I go way back as ISA volunteer leaders, and I sent him this before I posted it, so he didn't feel like I was trying to blindside him.

An Open Letter to Leo Staples, ISA's New President

Dear Leo,

I want to congratulate you on becoming the new ISA President. It is a great honor, and it is very well deserved. You have done a great deal for both your society and the profession of automation in your career, and this is a fitting capstone to it.

While I congratulate you on your very high honor, I sure wouldn't want your job. Not now.

You are entering office at a critical and difficult time for ISA. A very long time active ISA member recently said to me, "ISA is on a collision course with irrelevance and determined to fall off the cliff. I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to be interested in whether it lives or dies."

I'm not going to recite the litany of real problems you've inherited from your predecessors. You know them as well as I do. Even one of them could tank ISA's future, but you've got many, all together and intertwined. I'd be more sympathetic, but you wanted the job, you know.

Instead of reciting your problems, and asking you to do something about them (boy wouldn't that make this letter easy to write) what I'm going to do is to make some specific suggestions for several areas that require your action. These aren't my suggestions alone, but the suggestions of quite a few members with whom I've been discussing the future of ISA for the past several years.

Mission

You have to decide what ISA is to be, going forward. We haven't done a good job delivering on our existing mission, and we need to look at what we CAN deliver, and make that our mission. I suggest you create a simple, easy to understand and work toward mission statement for the second decade of the 21st century.

Once you have figured out what the mission needs to be (and it HAS to be achievable and not have any motherhood statements in it) you can work out the details of getting there and delivering the goods.


Membership

It used to be that membership in ISA was worth something for career development, but that's not the case anymore based on results. You need to give up the risible attempt to say that the 20,000-odd mostly North America-based members are representative of the automation profession. Several people have made the suggestion that ISA move to a "freemium" membership model, and I encourage you to do that as fast as you can.

Value Add

We have known for at least 20 years that most members, when we ask them, say that the member benefit that means the most is the magazine. That is substantially changed. The trade show is gone, and it isn't clear if the replacement will succeed. The standards have some value, the books and training have some value, but there are lots of other societies and entities that do those things too. You must come up with a unique value add proposition for membership real soon now, whether people pay to be members or not. I am not the only person who has pointed this out, repeatedly and loudly, but I've been doing it a long time, and I continue to say it. ISA has very little value add for membership, and it shows. There are more automation professionals in North America than ten times current membership. In the whole world there are over 1.2 million automation professionals, and ISA has about 20,000 members. Based on results, ISA membership is increasingly irrelevant, just like the member said. If you don't come up with some real value add, the society eventually will dwindle and die. That would be a shame.

And while you're at it, make sure that that value add for members also means some jingle in ISA's pockets. It is only because of superior financial management over the past thirty or forty years that ISA has the time and funds to consider these problems instead of quietly closing the doors. Doing all or most of the things I'm suggesting will make that jingle go a lot farther, and require less to keep the wolf from the door.

Governance

Get rid of the Council of Society Delegates, and get rid of the District and Department Vice Presidents. Slim down the society's governance and make the offices on the executive board open nomination and open election by the membership via electronic voting. There should be a President, a President-Elect Secretary, a Treasurer, and two or three At-Large Board Members, and that's it. Parliamentarian is an advisory staff position, fillable by the executive director. And please, please get rid of the Old Presidents' Club. 

The one thing I would add to Governance is a full time audit committee that is not staff, not the accounting firm, and not the Finance Committee-- that reports directly to the Executive Board and does NOT consist of members of either the Finance Committee or the Executive Board, or individuals who have recently served in those positions. The audit committee should be charged with formal financial oversight of the society, unlike the current Finance Committee's charter.

Staffing

Based on comparison with other societies and NFPs with similar membership sizes, ISA has way too many staff. Some of this is the attempt to do everything for absolutely everybody that we keep trying to do (like our mission statement forces us to). You have outsourced magazine publication, now look at what to do with books and training. There are competent people out there who can do publishing and training a whole lot better than ISA can, based on results to date. And no offense to our hardworking and overworked staff in that area. When somebody like iGroup or Elsevier has 1500 book salespeople, and when every magazine has at least five full time sales people, it is a bloody miracle that staff does what they do, with one person per activity and a centrally located revolving hatrack.

Automation Federation

The Automation Federation needs to sink or swim on its own, or it will continue to be a huge moneysink that you keep pouring funds into. What it is has changed a lot, and I don't think it still belongs under ISA's umbrella. This is not to say that ISA should stop being a member organization, just that it is time to kick the kid out of the house.

Once again, I want to congratulate you on your very well deserved elevation to the ISA Presidency. I have known and worked with you on ISA business for many years, and I know you are up to these challenges. Go get 'em, Leo.

Best personal regards,

 Walt

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  • One great thing that ISA is doing is hooking up with Hannover Messe (Hannover Fair, Interkama) to try to resurrect the ISA Show. This year, they will have an ISA pavillion in Hannover, but the real challenge will be to bring Hannover Fair here. The Messe people are also linking up with IMTS this year, so it will be interesting to see how that works out.

    I have long advocated combining the ISA Show, Sensors, Plant Engineering, a half-dozen other dying shows, and all the vendor shows (Emerson, Rockwell, Honeywell, etc.) under one roof, and the Hannover Messe people are the only ones who could bring that off. I, for one, would love to see the ISA Show back in all its glory. Imagine McCormick Place filled with automation and control equipment! That would put ISA back on the map and make it relevant again.

    I went to probably 25 ISA shows in a row, but I haven't been to one in several years.

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