“You must treat yourself as a professional if you expect others to respect your profession. There is no reason the IT support professional should treat themselves any different[ly] from doctors, lawyers, or accountants.” —Kirk Weisler
As Kirk Weisler wisely points out, all respect starts with self-respect. Once a band of people who do the same job—but in different organizations—begins to discover each other, a professional association can take root. These people recognize that there is information to be shared about how they do their jobs—methods or information they have discovered that may make the job better and easier, or tough puzzles they are trying to solve.
There are three levels of value provided by professional associations: to the profession in general, to your organization, and to you personally. In turn, each of these dovetails with commonly identified features of a professional association: networking, education, career development.
Being able to share experiences and information with others in a similar line of work is the most common reason people join—and remain members of—professional associations. Operating in isolation, reinventing the wheel, and simply not being sure of the best course of action or common practices in an industry can be sources of frustration. Finding others who have faced the same challenges can be a relief. And having an established framework for continued communication can lift the weight of having to puzzle through a problem all by yourself.
Networking can benefit a profession as a whole by shedding light on common issues, providing a venue for ongoing discussions to establish standards and best practices, and disseminating information that is either formally or informally peer-reviewed. The association often provides the means for people to meet in person (conferences, conventions, and local meetings), a home for information online (websites, discussion boards, blogs, forums, etc.), and often a way to communicate rapidly (directories, email listservs, etc.).
Your company or institution reaps benefits because it, through you and other members, acquires information that might not otherwise be accessible. How else but through an association would your company have access to the thoughts and work of employees of a different, perhaps even competing, company? Operations can be improved and streamlined, and solutions found more quickly and easily, by mining collective knowledge than by individual research. You reap benefits because you can both gather and contribute knowledge. Gathering knowledge accelerates your ability to do your job and become a candidate for promotion and increased responsibility. Contributing knowledge boosts your self-confidence, gives you experience you might not get directly at your job, and earns you recognition in your profession.
As the saying goes, “you reap what you sow,” and professional associations commonly offer opportunities to do volunteer work of many kinds. You can serve on committees, fill a local chapter officer position, contribute written articles or papers, speak at conferences or meeting, and become a representative of your profession. Many associations encourage members to perform volunteer work outside their field as well, such as tutoring students, serving on advisory boards, and doing community service. This kind of participation deepens your connections with others in the association and the community, often producing lasting friendships. You can also find a mentor, or become one, or both. Then, if you should desire to seek a new position, you’ve got connections in place, and that is a solid place to start.
Most professional associations offer some type of training, education, and/or certification, and consider it one of their key missions. Once professional standards and practices emerge, associations can design curricula and begin offering classes or online training. Successfully completing one or more of these classes is recognized by certification, which verifies that you have learned those aspects of your job that have been identified as important. The association may realize tangible financial benefits from providing training, in addition to the intangible benefits garnered by demonstrating a degree of parity with other associations, such as those for accounting, financial management, and architecture.
The benefits of education, training, and certification to your organization are manifold. Having certified staff shows the rest of your company or institution that you are committed to excellence and interested in achieving and maintaining a high level of competency. Would you fly on a plane with a pilot who “really knows what she’s doing,” but isn’t certified or rated for that type of aircraft? Chances are you would not. Your company can demonstrate that it has “qualified pilots” by having staff that are properly trained and certified according to the independent standards and requirements of a professional association. Individuals certainly and obviously can benefit from professional education. Having a certificate may not make you any smarter, but it does demonstrate a certain level of dedication to and knowledge about your profession. All other things being equal, most organizations would choose a certified candidate over an uncertified candidate, even if certification isn’t expressly required for a position.
HDI research shows that more than 77 percent of organizations value individuals with certifications even if they do not require it, while less than nine percent of organizations do not perceive value to certifications. HDI’s own certifications rank second only to Microsoft’s among those identified as most important by survey respondents.
In addition to individual courses offered throughout the year, many professional associations hold local conferences. In most cases, these feature educational sessions where members and other attendees can listen to, ask questions of, and converse with subject matter experts on a particular topic, and learn in depth about successes, failures, and lessons learned. Local chapter or group meetings also afford opportunities for learning, since many are based around a presentation by a guest speaker or member, or perhaps a roundtable discussion on a topic of common interest.
Professional associations also publish journals, magazines, white papers, webinars, blogs, and relevant information in nearly every form, so you can continue to learn even when there are no events or courses running anywhere near you. (Many also offer formal online courses.)
Of all the definitions of career development I’ve seen, the simplest and most direct is provided by the National Career Development Week website: “Career development is the process of managing your life, learning, and work.”
While that might appear too broad a definition, thinking about your career encompasses your home life and what is commonly called “work/life balance,” your present and future at your workplace, opportunities for advancements and changes, and all the actions you take to succeed. Both of the previously explored features—networking and education—feed the larger considerations, such as:
- What is happening in my field that might affect my future?
- How can I connect with the organizations and people for whom I might want to work?
- What are people like me doing to succeed?
- How far can I advance, and how do I get there?
That list of questions can be as long as you’d like it to be, and at almost any step, you can reach out either to publications or to a fellow association member for guidance and information.
Consider the possibility of having people who have “been there, done that” just a phone call, email, or message board post away.
This benefits you directly in terms of your career path, but it also benefits your organization as you develop skills and knowledge that extend outside your area of expertise. It is one thing to be an excellent desktop support technician or support center analyst or manager; it’s another thing to be a support professional with a grasp of the business of support, the techniques of customer service, and access to a large array of pertinent information.
I mentioned that there was another advantage to belonging to a professional association, and it is this: direct financial benefits. As a member of an association, you receive discounted prices on just about every product or service offered by that association, and quite often just one product, course, or conference admission pays back more than you spend on an individual membership. Your membership will likely also include some deliverables (such as journals or magazines) at no extra cost, as well as access to studies and reports that would otherwise cost hundreds of dollars or more. Many associations arrange for discounts on other products as well, such as special access to online libraries and even group insurance—especially in associations where the majority of members are self-employed.
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Professional associations provide real, tangible value to those who belong to them. They become fellowships and institutions of learning, sounding boards and crisis counselors, and authoritative sources of information and nourishment for a career.
Roy Atkinson is HDI’s senior writer/analyst. He is an HDI-certified Support Center Manager and a veteran of both small business and enterprise consulting, service, and support. In addition, he has both frontline and management experience. Roy is a member of the conference faculty for the HDI 2012 Conference & Expo and is known for his social media presence, especially on the topic of customer service. He also serves as the chapter advisor for the HDI Northern New England local chapter.