Why Does Innovation Challenge Associations So Much?

During this week's ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Salt Lake City, a trend of discussion during different sessions was that innovation quite often requires quick work, something many associations are not known for. How can we make the big, hulking machine a little easier to turn?

When it comes to what the corporate world can pull off, do association executives ever get jealous of how fast many of their for-profit equivalents can move?

That’s not to criticize the work that associations do, which is often monumental. One look at the lauded American Society of Plant Biologists platform Plantae highlights the potential associations have to do something big and bold that gets people talking. But, let’s be honest, the average association turns a corner about as effectively as a tour bus, and switching gears is by no means easy.

Let’s be honest, the average association turns a corner about as effectively as a tour bus, and switching gears is by no means easy.

I’m of the opinion that, at an event as large as the 2016 edition of the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, themes eventually appear in the subjects that get discussed during the event, and one that loomed particularly large on Sunday was the idea that associations can’t always move fast enough to innovate, or even, in some cases, keep up.

You may have heard variations on this statement in the past—and bringing it up again makes it kind of provocative, because, inevitably, organizations will wonder if I’m talking about them, specifically. (Not naming names or even criticizing specific tactics, honest.) But I think if anything is gonna change, we gotta bring it up and talk about it. A few things that got this topic on my mind:

At one point on the expo hall floor, I had a lengthy discussion with someone about how the startup-driven API model that has been embraced by the for-profit world was in some ways anathema to the lengthy, process-driven approach associations tend to take in deciding on a bedrock product like an association management system. As a result, products that might be well-suited to an association’s needs—say, an intuitive email platform like MailChimp—may be harder to embrace because the decision-making is more deliberate.

An excellent session on digital learning technologies started out with a bit of a spiel about how for-profit education firms are more adept and offering approaches like microlearning and microcredentialing, technologies that tend to be more compatible with the public’s busy lifestyles. When it comes down to it, the argument went, associations struggle to approach fast-moving platforms such as Uber and Waze. David DeLorenzo, a longtime association executive who is a recent addition to the DelCor staff, at one point emphasized that what he and fellow speakers (Bean Creative’s Layla Masri and EDUCAUSE’s Veronica Diaz) were pitching was by no means an extreme approach. “You don’t have to be revolutionary to do this,” he said.

A surprisingly small number of hands went up during a session on virtual offices, when the audience was asked how many of them used Slack, a piece of software that has taken the corporate world by storm. (To be fair, a few more hands went up on the next question, about whether people used a chat app at all.) That’s not to say that organizations have to use Slack, or that it’s even the best idea—but considering the nature of the session was about communicating with people separated by long distances, the lack of hands reinforced a point that was already on my mind by this juncture.

A Tale of Corporate Hubris

Oddly, the thing that probably got this whole discussion on my mind happened before I even touched the ground in Salt Lake City. On my flight in, I caught a documentary I had been wanting to see for a while, the Colin Hanks-directed love letter All Things Must Pass.

It’s a film about Tower Records, the music-obsessed retail chain that started small and nimble—launching large, low-key record stores all along the West Coast, New York, and eventually in Japan and elsewhere—only to be brought down by a combination of hubris, mismanagement, and Napster.

At first, the company was well-positioned to turn vinyl records into a major subculture, at one point opening up a famed location on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California, that was frequented by Elton John. As the company grew, it handled risk aptly—it was willing to expand to the Japanese market almost on a whim, then doubled down when Japanese consumers proved big fans of vinyl records. But problems arose as the company matured: Tower was woefully ill-prepared for the internet; it found itself the target of a class-action lawsuit due to its high prices; and the company’s aggressive overexpansion, funded by $110 million in debt, eventually proved to be a company-killer. (Well, outside of Japan. It’s still big in Japan.)

“Tower, in almost 40 years, had always grown,” Hanks explained to NPR last year. “It had always made money. It had never lost money. … Well, I think there was a lot of stuff that Tower did not see coming.”

It’s a classic tale of corporate demise. And somewhat tellingly, the film was funded not through traditional means, but by Tom Hanks’ son putting up a Kickstarter and raising more than $90,000 to fund the project. It’s the tale of a company getting caught off-guard by the internet and failing to reverse course—a tale that wouldn’t exist without the internet.

Association executives have some big advantages that Tower Records did not. For one thing, Tower was a notoriously disorganized company, one that had some immensely innovative ideas (there’s another documentary, Art Gods, about one of those ideas), but was perhaps too complacent about its core business.

The company couldn’t zag because it had doubled down on zigging. And it became clear, at a point when it was too late for the company to reverse course, that zagging—i.e., jumping online—was what truly mattered.

Why Innovation Challenges Associations

One big advantage that associations have over this slumbering corporate giant is that they’re very well organized. But despite that organization, many associations may find they’re poorly suited for zagging.

For the association space, what’s the root cause there? If you ask me, it comes down to an inability to make a decision quickly—whether through challenges with boards or a desire not to rock the boat by taking risks. And that ultimately can lead to decisions being made through the path of least resistance.

During their well-received opening presentation at #ASAE16, astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly repeatedly rejected the tendency toward complacency, with Scott explaining how it was the one thing holding him back from being a good pilot during his time in the Navy.

“I got too comfortable with the status quo,” he said.

Innovation is, almost by definition, a willingness to challenge the status quo. How can you ensure that the status quo isn’t holding your association back?

The kind of left turn that might give some associations some trouble. (iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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