The twenty first century chamber of commerce
About ten years ago, when I was a member of the then Gloucestershire chamber of commerce, the chairman said a very wise thing.
“What is a chamber of commerce?”, he asked. “It’s a room (a chamber), in which people meet to do business (commerce).”
If a chamber of commerce is not providing this “room”, then it is failing in what must be its fundamental, defining characteristic. No amount of help with export documentation is going to compensate.
Of course, this room isn’t literally a room. It is a facilitating environment in which members can:
- refer work to each other
- set up joint ventures (however informal)
- help each other, whether by introductions, information, support or anything else
- find suppliers and clients form within the chamber
- help the chamber be more effective.
If a good, constructive, useful environment is created, members will thrive, by extension the chamber will thrive, and the wider business community will thrive.
There would a room in each of two domains: the physical and the digital.
In the physical domain, there may well be an actual room in which people meet periodically. But that is just a starting point, in the same way that a bus stop is the starting point of a journey, not the journey itself.
I have to say that I have not found any organisation in which the physical provision of a good enough facilitating environment is anywhere near as good as it could be (and digital implementations lag further behind, if they exist at all).
I don’t, however, think this would be either particularly difficult or particularly expensive to set up.
But a problem arises…
But there is a problem and this stems from a second answer to the question, “What should a modern chamber of commerce look like… ?”
I think it also looks like a group of people positively and proactively working together—not for their own benefit, particularly, but for the benefit of others and of the chamber. The degree of commitment I see (or don’t see) in business membership organisations (including chambers) is very variable, very patchy, very conditional.
Of course, businesses legitimately join the chamber for a number of perfectly valid reasons (such as help with export documentation) and I am sure there are members who have no interest in growing their business through their membership of the chamber. But my suspicion is that that percentage is in the low teens.
I have to say that, in the chambers I have been a member of, the level of support of the chamber by the membership has always felt low. I would guess that the percentage of people not renewing their membership who say they are leaving because “I didn’t get enough from the chamber” is traditionally high.
The problem, when you have a group of disaffected people, is that expecting enough of them to stop being disaffected simultaneously that a tipping point is created, thereby helping the rest of them to shift—that expectation has zero chance of coming about.
It rests on leadership
As with all groups of people who are not as motivated as they could be, the answer lies with those who would lead them. The team is only showing the bosses what’s going on for the bosses. It’s the same in a business, a football team, a hospital, a family.
The modern chamber of commerce, therefore, needs a different approach to leadership—both in its understanding of what that means, and in how it implements that understanding. It’s in the nature of leadership that leader show the way.
I think it’s an approach to leadership which seeks to foster a set of interdependent relationships between members and between the chamber and each member. It certainly isn’t one which encourages members to become dependent, waiting for the next bit of help and walking away if they judge they haven’t received enough.
A tiny, tiny example. Nowhere on the Business West website that I can see is there a page called “How to get the most from the chamber”. If there were, I suggest one piece of advice would be to have a meeting with an appropriate chamber manager in which the member and the manager work out how the chamber is going to help the member develop their business over the next twelve months. Whilst this would involve a commitment from the chamber (which it would be as well for it to stick to!), crucially, it will also have to contain a commitment from the member to do various things, attend various meetings and generally “show up”.
This page might be in two parts. The upper part would be “What you can expect from the chamber and its members”. The lower part would be “What the chamber and its members can expect from you”. That’s what interdependent relationships look like. If the example seems crude, that’s because it’s “one size fits all”. Members will range from those genuinely, and rightly, insulted that the chamber thinks it has to tell them this to those for whom it might as well be written in Martian, so incomprehensible are the concepts. It would need flexibility and finesse in its implementation.
In summary, “What should a modern Chamber of Commerce look like to you in a digital and global age?”:
(1) there should be a facilitating environment, in each of the physical and digital domains, in which members can really do business together
(2) there should be a new approach to leadership—one which can be driven through the membership—focussed around the creation, nurturing and development of interdependent relationships.
by Jeremy Marchant . corrected 18 february 2015 . image Free images