Cricket Club Development Network: doing what it says on the tin

Ask anyone who runs a cricket club what preoccupies them and the list will look little different to the concerns of anyone running a small (or not so small) business: cashflow; finding the capital to invest in maintaining and improving facilities; recruiting and retaining good people; developing and differentiating a quality product to confront ever increasing competition; navigating the rapidly changing social and business environment in which the organisation operates; and grappling with the growing complexity of regulation and stakeholder expectation. Little wonder that the burden of sustaining the heritage, as temporary guardians, of often historic and socially (and sometimes economically) significant local community institutions, can be a lonely and long-term commitment.

Yet there is little business support specifically geared to the needs of recreational sports clubs in general and cricket clubs in particular. The advisors in local county cricket boards are mainly qualified cricket coaches with limited business experience. Their inevitable focus is on club development in terms of promoting better players, playing facilities, and mediating appropriate policy and practice coming down from the England & Wales Cricket Board. Their role is supportive and can add significant value at the tangents where it touches the clubs’ agenda, but the relationship is rarely core to clubs’ day-to-day operational existence.

The expertise in running cricket clubs is in clubs. Forging professional expertise and personal passion, the volunteers who run clubs are as likely to call on their own experience and knowledge, or seek advice and guidance from the networks that form their personal hinterland, as they are to draw on the professionals in cricket’s governing structure. That expertise involves applying the strategic, management and functional capabilities required to run a business to running a cricket club.

That’s why the Cricket Club Development Network was formed in February 2015. Its aim was to do what it says on the tin; to provide a mutual support network for those running clubs committed to broad long-term development objectives. It is run by club officers, with club officers, for club officers; a peer-led, peer-driven community of practice sharing knowledge and experience, sources of information and signposting resources to better enable its members to take on the challenges they face.  It anticipated that pooling and sharing expertise will expand the sum of knowledge across the Network, help fill knowledge gaps in individual clubs, and create a wealth of information and resource that could be cascaded down to all clubs. Although, initially, it has targeted Clubmark or aspiring Clubmark clubs, as an identifiable subset of the 6,000 clubs in the UK more likely to be focused on broad development objectives, the Network is open to officers of all clubs.

It is a virtual network based on LinkedIn, a professional networking platform with groups for almost every conceivable profession, trade and interest. Pre-launch research showed over 50% of club chairmen were already registered on LinkedIn – reinforcing evidence of the professional complexion of the community – and only one click away from Network membership. There was no need to set up an expensive bespoke membership platform; cyberspace is awash with such ‘churches without congregations’.

The Network now has 630 members representing nearly 600 clubs. That’s 35-40% of Clubmark clubs around the country from Cornwall to Durham, Norfolk to Dyfed. Our original 50% recruitment target was based on the LinkedIn membership research and the likely attraction of such a network to the broad mass of club officers. Some have been in post for years and may not see the need for a network. Others would inevitably be deterred by its virtual nature.  But many of the current members were new to LinkedIn when they joined and the membership profile traverses the age and experience range of the club officer community. So that 50% target is now a minimum and we are actively seeking members through a variety of channels beyond an inexact mailing list gathered from Play Cricket and ‘word-of-mouth’ promotion by the many advocates in the Network.

The recruitment effort could be transformed by ECB and county board endorsement. But we have never sought that. We have sought open dialogue and regularly update key ECB people on our progress. Inevitably there is suspicion, in some quarters, around an initiative that is not driven or sustained by the centre. Undoubtedly, that is not helped by a rigorously enforced policy to exclude from joining all whose primary purpose is not as a club officer.  However, that policy is important to promoting open, full and frank discussion which would not happen if professionals were part of the Network, even as passive observers. Learning is as valuable from sharing mistakes as successes.

The independence of the Network, mirroring the strongly federated nature of the cricket club community, is a critical part of its value proposition. We are a community of practice, bound by a common interest in growing and promoting the game in the local communities in which our clubs operate. It is a grassroots group, facilitated but not led by any one individual or group of clubs. There is no hierarchy and members represent clubs across the full spectrum from premier league to village green. The core challenges of running a club are largely the same, irrespective of size, and there is as much to learn from successful small clubs as from successful big clubs. The history of communities of practice is littered with examples which failed because the common interest was too weak, diluted by emerging factions, or agendas too obviously driven from the top or outside the community. The Network has to be a forum free to evolve a coherent club perspective and not some imposed internal or external manifesto.

That said, one of the founding objectives of the Network is to promote increased understanding of club interests and to overcome the historical mistrust between clubs and centre which so obviously impinges on effective implementation of any strategy for recreational cricket. That is only deliverable if we are focused on the highest common factors not lowest common denominators. We are pleased the ECB asked for our support in testing the new online Clubmark 2017 and club development portal; most of those involved in that testing were recruited through the Network. And we welcomed the opportunity to present well-considered concerns and recommendations, in a Network webinar with ECB’s participation and growth team, to contribute to the success of All Stars Cricket before the programme was launched in May.   But clubs have to be involved in developing, not just delivering, strategy and its component programmes.

There are times and issues in which the clubs can also lead. If the Network can effectively harness the cumulative knowledge, experience and personal and professional hinterlands of those involved. It promises a vastly greater intellectual property resource than is possible at the centre. Take, for example, the considerable challenge represented by the EU General Data Protection Regulation which ALL clubs will need to comply with by May 2018. This has been the subject of fervent discussion for many in business for months and, by osmosis, the club community and now the Network. It will have far-reaching consequences for clubs’ membership administration, communication, marketing, team and match management. Clubs using external third-party software for storing information, collecting player availability, and sending emails or App messages will need to have data sharing agreements in place. It is a threat to continuing use of Play Cricket and ClubSpark in their current form. And there are exacting obligations for data storage and reporting of breaches with punitive fines for getting it wrong. We are told GDPR is on the radar screen of county boards and ECB – but the evidence suggests, at best, only part scoped – and there are confused messages as to when any guidance will be forthcoming. By contrast, in the Network, awareness of the implications has been raised in a running discussion for some weeks with clarification coming from professional and functional experts in our membership. In the absence of cricket specific advice, relevant resources from other sports or voluntary organisations have been signposted. I would expect this to evolve into a discussion of emergent best practice. Which suggests that we could help save ECB some time and cost in scoping their response.

Harnessing the intellectual property or, at least, collating the captured knowledge, information, and signposted resources from nearly three years activity is beginning shortly. It is already available to members in the back library of past discussions should they wish to wade through the list.  But survey and anecdotal evidence suggest much has been imbibed along the way. I, for one, can testify to the time saved, mistakes avoided, best practice influenced and ideas sown through the Network’s deliberations. I hope, as a result, my club is more future-proofed than it was three years ago. Ultimately, I would like the leaders of several thousand other clubs to be able to say the same.

If you would like to join the Cricket Club Development Network, apply here, connect to me on LinkedIn or email john@swannick.com. Please ensure your club officer credentials are in your LinkedIn profile or advise me separately.

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