ISA — Only Incremental Progress

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

ISA should make some bigger moves, starting with a clear change in governance. With $30+ million in the bank and high-value real-estate holdings, the society is simply a "melting iceberg".

A version of this article was published by:
Automation World, June 2006

The Instrumentation, Systems & Automation Society (ISA) has made some progress over the past couple of years. This year’s president, Ken Baker is enthusiastic about recent accomplishments:
  • Re-branding, with a new tagline and mission statement
  • InTech magazine redesign
  • Key appointments, including the new Executive Director, Patrick Gouhin, who is widely respected
  • Automation Federation, a commitment to advancing the automation profession through support of member organizations, initially ISA, OMAC and WBF
  • Innovation Alley: Industry guru Dick Morley appointed “Innovation Czar,” with his first “Innovation Alley” at Automation West, in Long Beach, Calif., in May, to be expanded at ISA Expo, in October in Houston
  • Global Business Partners, a senior staff position to manage growth outside North America
  • Certified Automation Professional (CAP) program.

Melting iceberg

I’m somewhat less enthusiastic about this progress, which I see as only incremental. My own concerns are about the longer-term prospects for ISA in a global environment. To me, some of these moves are just “rearranging the deck-chairs”.

In an accelerating, global business environment, ISA is falling increasingly out-of-step. The big, hard decisions are not being made; perhaps, with the present governance, they cannot be made. The Society is led by a clique of conservative people who inhibit real progress by advocating only incremental steps. Volunteer office holders are at once the Society’s biggest asset and biggest liability. Mostly engineers, many of them are inexperienced in business. I’ve asked senior corporate executives why they don’t get involved—and the response is, “too much analysis-paralysis”.

Behind the good intentions, these are the telling results. Revenues in 2005 were $15.3 million, just a slight growth over 2004, but with a surplus of $1.68 million that is a significant increase. Membership of 28,937 in 2005 is down from 30,109 in 2004—primary indicator of a melting iceberg.

Fundamental changes needed

I’m a big-picture person and I’m impatient for fundamental changes. ISA has $30 million plus in the bank, which is simply collecting interest and providing a false sense of security. In addition, the property value of the headquarters buildings has soared. This financial clout would allow the Society to make a lot of major moves—but no one has the ability to make that kind of decision.

ISA shows are attended by engineers and technicians, and attendance is declining. Major suppliers don’t exhibit at ISA Expos any more; they run their own private shows with better results. The Automation Federation is a big name for an insignificant collaboration. OMAC is already controlled by ISA, and is now stagnating. The other affiliate, WBF (formerly World Batch Forum), is a relatively small organization (only 500 to 1,000 members).

ISA should make some bigger moves, starting with a clear change in governance by appointing more “czars” to drive change. It needs to provide tangible member benefits. It should make some major acquisitions—a good start would be the ARC Advisory Group. Finally, it needs to expand its international presence.

Inserting some 'heart'

Let me close on a positive note. During the recent ISA President’s meeting in Orlando, Fla, Kim Miller-Dunn, of Emerson Process Management, was selected by the Nominations Committee as President-elect. She will be the first woman to head this Society, and I’m hopeful that she will insert some “heart” into the overly analytical leadership. She told me:
    “I found the recent meeting in Orlando to be one of the more spiritually uplifting meetings in recent history. I base this on the behavior of the attendees at the social events; when you can get 20 to 30 ISA people playing sand volleyball, and another dozen or so on the dance floor, something positive is happening!”

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Copyright 2006 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA