Can the EMA Come Back?

BOSTON (06/02/2000) - The association that guided electronic messaging through its formative years and helped turn it into a business staple is now struggling for survival and trying to redefine itself.

The Electronic Messaging Association (EMA), once the preeminent messaging industry group, is battling industry change and three years of what some call mismanagement. The organization's annual conference in April was poorly attended, and critics took that as a sign that the EMA was on its deathbed.

But the EMA, which now calls itself the E-Business Forum, says it is simply an organization in transition. The Forum is defining messaging's role in e-commerce as manifest in technologies such as directories, security, supply-chain management and Web services. Some say, however, that the EMA has lost focus and won't survive the year unless it can clearly articulate its mission and deliver tangible services to end users.

"EMA is an industry organization that has been tremendously successful, so successful that e-mail is now ubiquitous," says Gary Rowe, a former EMA board member and now an executive with The Burton Group consulting firm in Midvale, Utah. "Now they have to decide whether to move into another area or just disband. The EMA was all about creating awareness, education and solving industry problems, but those problems have been solved."

The group's acting president and CEO Lauren Haywood says the EMA is committed to moving on, that it is financially viable and is preparing to launch new programs aimed at educating the industry on the role of messaging in e-commerce.

Observers say the job will be difficult because the group is near bankruptcy, a charge the EMAdisputes. "We have the money to run the organization, but do we have to be frugal? Yes, we do," says Dave Folsom, secretary and treasurer of the 10-member board of directors. Staffing has been cut by more than half, and board members are taking on extra work. Haywood says she cut $300,000 out of this year's budget by moving EMA's publications online.

She says the nonprofit group has $300,000 in cash and $200,00 in a growing reserve fund.

And the EMA this month is planning to roll out some new programs. The first is the publication of a revised copy of its Privacy Tool Kit, first published in 1991 to help companies develop privacy policies for messaging. The revision reflects today's messaging industry, Haywood says. The kit will be published online and updated quarterly. The EMA also will host the week-long E-business Institute, taught by university professors and focusing on such topics as supply- and value-chain management. EMA also is adding a jobs database to its redesigned Web site.

That's not enough for some observers. "I'm looking for a charter they can get passionate about, something more than a marketing slogan," says Joyce Graff, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, who co-chaired the EMA's management committee for five years in the mid-'90s. "I haven't seen that spark. What's the unique added value from this organization? Right now it's a 'me too' thing."

Haywood says people are down on the EMA because it is changing: "We will be different. But look at how the industry has changed. We are headed in the right direction. We are getting our stride back."

That stride was formidable in the mid-'80s and early '90s when the EMA helped draft the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 and produced the Privacy Tool Kit. It also helped facilitate interoperability between messaging platforms, including X.400.

But the EMAlost its way when the Internet blossomed, and observers question whether the group can interpret the emerging e-commerce market. "When Internet mail and SMTP took off, EMA missed the curve," says one former board member who wished to remain anonymous. "They failed to follow the issues and lost relevance."

"It's sad that with messaging going gangbusters and with over one billion e-mail addresses out there this industry association is in tatters," says Eric Arnum, editor of the Web-based newsletter "Messaging Online."

Critics direct much of the blame for EMA's downward spiral at former CEO Victor Parra, who reportedly bet the organization's reserve fund on building a Comdex-like trade show. Parra was fired in 1997 after EMAdepleted a nearly $1 million reserve fund to stage its conference and exposition in Philadelphia.

But his successor, Kerry Stackpole, who resigned last month, didn't do the clean-up job he was hired to do, some say. "The old Irish saying 'May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you're dead' seems to belong on Kerry Stackpole's wall," Arnum says. "If they fold because of Stackpole's decisions, people will be upset."

A second former board member says, "Stackpole screwed it up, he left the scene of the crime." The source says bad management and overprojections for attendance at EMA's conference led to revenue shortfalls, as did declining membership.

Stackpole denies the allegation: "Clearly they don't understand the facts. I took over after we had just lost nearly $1 million. I had to rely on what we had in reserve to try and make it better."

Insiders say even after the Philadelphia spending spree, the EMA had money on hand, but that too was lost. By last fall, sources say, the group had depleted its remaining $800,000 certificate of deposit reserve and had only $60,000 in cash. "They were living paycheck to paycheck," says another former board member.

Stackpole acknowledges the organization lost money the two years under his leadership. "I was trying to turn the Queen Mary, and we had to try and sustain our programs and services on a tight budget."

The troubles have been a revelation for board members, who also might be accused of taking their eye off the ball.

"The board has become very proactive in watching finances and numbers [for projected show attendance] in hopes of bringing EMA back to health," says Lisa Pratt, vice chairman of the board and a user member from a large Northwest manufacturing company. Pratt says her company is aligned with the new EMA focus on e-business as are other member organizations, including Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. and Chevron Corp.

But the EMA has needed a health checkup for some time and little has been done.

In 1998, the EMA's big projects were to develop guidelines for certifying messaging specialists and acting as an observer to a fax interoperability test run by the Internet Mail Consortium. In 1999, the group tried to launch a four-city traveling tutorial but three of the four dates were canceled and money was lost.

Also in that two-year time frame membership was falling and show attendance was off. A record 3,300 people showed up at the annual conference in 1997, but by this year only 1,200 were present, although Arnum and others claim it was half that. At its height, the EMA, which is unique in that it brings together users and vendors, boasted 500 member organizations, but now lists about half that number.

Participation in the EMA's committees, which investigate topics such as interoperability and standards, has dwindled as members lost interest in issues that have for the most part been resolved.

A move is now underway to reorganize EMA committees into four core groups focused on e-business infrastructure, applications, awareness, and government and legal issues.

But it won't be easy to achieve success. "It's too early to write the EMA's obituary," former CEO Stackpole says. "But they are clearly restructuring and downsizing, and getting into a fighting stance."

"It's sad to see them become irrelevant," Messaging Online's Arnum says.

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