Associations once had an almost ironclad lock on opportunities to meet and communicate with like-minded professionals or with business associates from one's industry. Whether those opportunities were considered professional networking or social networking, they were the primary occasions most people could count on to find others with professional and business commonalities and to establish ties with them.
Association conventions or conferences were gold-mines for networking and they were milked for all they were worth by people who understood the value of community. Many of today's association leaders risk losing those gold-mines to other associations or even to companies and invididuals who recognize that "networking" is undergoing an enormous transition. They are risking this loss because they are either ignoring innovations or they simply do not comprehend the depth and breadth of the changes taking place before them.
It is no longer necessary to initiate networking at an association function. Instead, one may network by using Plaxo, LinkedIn, Ning or any number of other social or professional networking sites and services that are readily available on the Internet. The two former services have pre-existing platforms that enable one to easily link to others with shared personal or business interests. The latter, and many more like it, enables individuals or groups (or associations) to create their own social networking services. Now, networking can start well in advance of a live event. The live event is simply the natural extension of the network's reach. Other social networking sites have morphed from having primary objectives involving personal networking to some business-oriented sites (e.g., Facebook, MySpace).
The problem, as I see it, is that associations tend to be very slow to adopt alternatives to their traditional networking opportunities. They tend to want "tried and true" solutions to their problems, so by the time they are ready to give in to the trends that surround them, it may be too late. I'm not advocating the abandonment of traditional meetings for education, information, and networking. But I suggest that meetings should be viewed not as the beginning of the networking process as has traditionally been the case but, rather, as the culmination of the first phases of the process and the launchpad of new, more vibrant, and much more valuable networking processes. I view these more valuable networking processes as enablers all manner of transactions between participants, from information exchange to personal friendships.
While I think associations, in general, are far too rich in value to be replaced (at least not yet) by a social networking service, they are at risk unless association leaders insist on augmenting their traditional means of helping people establish connections by taking advantage of social networking opportunities.
I see signs that associations are opening up to using technologies to enable and to support social and professional networking. In fact, at least one such social network is geared toward educating association staff about the value of these technologies. But unless more associations follow the lead of forward-thinkers who recognize the need to adapt and adopt, associations at large risk becoming less relevant. And that would be a shame, because associations offer so much more than networking opportunities. Unless they offer networking opportunities in the very best and most useful ways possible, though, they do risk becoming dinosaurs. And we have a general idea about what happened to them.