What If Your Members Were Replaced by Robots?

The revolution may be coming to an industry near you, and machines probably won't have much need to join associations. Whether it's five years away or 50, the advance of workforce automation is a challenge your association—and your members—ought to be preparing for now.

Twitter turned 10 years old this week. Associations, contrary to some dire predictions back then, have survived the past decade’s rise of social media, in large part because not much actually changed about our basic desires for belonging, community, and collaboration. The tools are new, but it’s still our fellow humans using them to connect.

But what if, in the not-too-distant future, your association’s target audience became less and less human? Perhaps then you might have some greater concern.

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that we’re about to take a step beyond the typical day-to-day worries of the association membership professional. We often cover nuanced membership tactics here at Associations Now as well as the proverbial 30,000-foot view, but the effects of future workforce automation—when robots take over!—is Felix Baumgartner territory.

Anything that could be an existential threat to your members is an existential threat to you.

But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. And how could you, anyway, with news of driverless cars, drone package deliveries, and artificial board-game grandmasters making headlines seemingly every day?

Chances are, your members are thinking about it. Two weeks ago Pew Research Center shared data on Americans’ predictions for workforce automation. About two-thirds of those surveyed said robots and computers will definitely or probably do much of the work currently done by humans within the next 50 years. (Pew’s findings also showed an interesting Lake Wobegon effect, as 80 percent of those surveyed said they expect their own jobs will continue to exist in their current form in 50 years. Hmm.)

Futurists and forward thinkers have been raising concerns about workforce automation for a few years now, and the World Economic Forum’s January report on The Future of Jobs [PDF] says a historic shift is imminent. “We are today at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and genetics and biotechnology are all building on and amplifying one another. … On average respondents expect that the impact for nearly all drivers will occur within the next five years, highlighting the urgency for adaptive action today.”

The truth is that you won’t wake up one day to see a crowd of C3POs in your office or at your next conference. “Robots” is merely shorthand for the increasingly intelligent technology arriving in various forms. More likely, your association’s industry and members will see technology and machines creep in bit by bit, task by task, job by job. But don’t make the mistake of ignoring it—or letting your members ignore it. Gradual change is pernicious because it’s so easy to dismiss. (Just ask Hemingway, or polar bears.) And anything that could be an existential threat to your members is an existential threat to you.

So, what exactly is an association’s role in helping its members navigate this new frontier? I’m not sure anyone has a great answer to that question—it’s an open debate over whether labor automation will send us to a life of leisure or aimlessness—but these suggestions may be a place to start:

Open your membership doors to your industry’s disruptors. To modify an old adage: If you can’t beat ’em, get ’em to join. When automation begins to affect your industry, by bringing it inside your realm—opening membership to the inventors, producers, and operators of such new technologies—you increase the chances for mutual collaboration among traditionalists and innovators. Follow the lead of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, for instance, which launched an affiliate group last year, the Association of Robotic Milkers, to serve a growing part of its industry. Or the American College of Emergency Physicians, which placed innovation front and center at its annual conference, inviting cutting-edge vendors to showcase their products in an “emergency room of the future” exhibit.

Develop new training and education for your members on how to adapt. Your members will need to learn how to leverage automation to their own advantage or advance their skills to take on the roles that aren’t yet being absorbed by technology. Or both. Look to examples from the past decade in industries like real estate and auto sales. The internet profoundly changed how consumers shop for homes and cars, completely removing barriers to information. Realtors and car dealers are no longer gatekeepers; today they must work more like expert advisors. The National Association of Realtors and the National Automobile Dealers Association are helping their members make that transition.

Engage your members in envisioning their future. Fear of change is normal, but if future change takes the form of “robots,” that fear might be cranked up to 11. Your association can serve as the convener of the best minds in your industry to tackle the challenge of workforce automation and envision solutions collaboratively. Here, instilling a collective open mind is crucial. More than a few associations maintain ongoing “of the future” task forces or think tanks, such as the Center for the Future of Museums, the Center for the Future of Libraries, the Schools of the Future Conference, and the Meeting Room of the Future.

None of these efforts is new; rather, each represents the kind of work associations have long done to lead their members into the future. Such initiatives may prove to be more valuable than ever as this “fourth industrial revolution” approaches. As a membership professional with enough on your plate, you might go back to your current recruitment campaign or engagement program when you’re done reading this and file these concerns in your “maybe later” folder. But remember that the only surefire wrong choices in facing the future are trying to stop it or keeping your head in the sand.

How does your association anticipate major trends influencing your industry and membership? Have your members already been forced to adapt to advances in technology and automation, or will it happen soon? Share your thoughts about the robots in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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