One of the biggest challenges any manager has is not knowing what you don't know. It's demanding enough to keep up with all the things you need to address without contemplating what other forces may be at work "out there" that could affect your members or your association.

Wouldn't it be great if you had a network of knowledgeable industry insiders who could keep you apprised of any new opportunities or threats developing in your industry?

Good news! You already have such a network — your suppliers.

Whether they are members of your association or the vendors you deal with month to month, suppliers have a wealth of information about your industry. They are out in the field dealing with your members and your competitors on a daily basis.

What's more is most suppliers are eager to share what they know. They appreciate being valued for their expertise. They know the challenges members are facing and what information or skills they lack. Plus, they often are aware of new technologies and other developments well before industry media notices them.

Awhile back, I was conducting an industry analysis as part of an association's strategic planning process. We had heard from members who were having issues with some suppliers, so we decided to interview a sample of suppliers to get their side of the story.

The interviews proved to be highly enlightening. Despite the fact that the suppliers were told upfront we wanted to discuss members' complaints, they were quite willing to talk and answer all of our questions, provided we did not quote them directly in any nonproprietary communications.

They accepted some blame for the problems, but they also pointed out to us where members were contributing to the problem and suggested ways we could educate them to reduce future complaints. In addition, they shared with us insights into how business in the industry was changing that provided valuable input into the strategic planning process.

Suppliers are great resources for all kinds of practical information as well.

When I first started in association publications, suppliers schooled me on the ins and outs of the printing business. They welcomed my curiosity and taught me all about paper, ink, technical processes and printing presses, even mailing regulations. As a result, I eventually was able to improve the association's publications and reduce costs at the same time.

Over the years, suppliers have helped me problem-solve ways to cut expenses, conduct projects on a shoestring and green a magazine. Because they have extensive networks, they are great sources for making new contacts within the industry. They also can be effective recruiters for your association, because they see firsthand the value you bring to your members.

The next time you are in a meeting or on the phone with a supplier, take some time to ask them how things are going. You may be surprised at what you learn.