In 2017, Take Control of Your Technology

As we end 2016, associations and their employees are surrounded by cloud services that involve someone else pulling the strings. But why should they be the center of attention? Don’t be afraid to push your organizational weight around a little.

To start out 2016, I posed a point that has played itself out in numerous ways over the last 12 months: the idea that the middleman is in a position of power.

Now, to end the year, I go back to that conversation—and highlight its strengths and flaws. In many ways, the notion of the “middle” has come to define association technology this year. Ultimately, tech is the thing connecting associations and their members, and in many ways it defines how we can serve them.

Too many organizations and their users have been unwittingly put into business relationships where their needs aren’t put first. The catnip drew you in, but there’s no easy exit.

Being in the middle affords a lot of power to the companies, services, and functions that associations work with and use on a regular basis, be they social networks like Facebook, AMS providers, email marketing tools, or simple automation tricks. When these middlemen aren’t on your wavelength, they can leave you stuck supporting platforms that barely cut it, moving faster than you anticipated to keep up with a budding trend, or wondering if you should have invested your time in the first place.

When users get short shrift

Too often, associations are stuck on the sidelines, caught up in the whims of someone else’s decision-making, which may or may not have the association’s interests in mind. Too many organizations and their users have been unwittingly put into business relationships where their needs aren’t put first. The catnip drew you in, but there’s no easy exit.

A good example of this is Facebook’s growing power in the social media space in 2016. Many associations have become increasingly dependent on the social network as a way to engage with their members and communities. At times, Facebook has been called out on its power both in the broader culture and in the marketing space.

But it’s not the only one. Last week, two software-as-a-service stalwarts, Evernote and Dropbox, tried making changes to their service that ended up greatly angering their user bases. Evernote made a change to its privacy policy that allowed its engineers to see user notes in an anonymized way, in an effort to test its machine-learning approach. But it only angered its users, forcing a mea culpa and a course reversal from the company.

“By making its original changes opt-out only, so that users would automatically be enrolled into the new features unless they changed their account settings, the company sent a message—intended or not—that its technology was more important than its users’ privacy,” Mashable’s Karissa Bell wrote.

Dropbox, meanwhile, announced it was getting rid of a feature popular among power users: the ability to share files using a dedicated public folder. (Hey, Dropbox, my entire workflow is built around this setup. Mind fixing? Thanks.)

In both cases, the change benefited the company, not the user. There may have been perfectly logical business reasons behind these moves, but these cases highlight situations where user interests aren’t coming first.

Embrace Your Center of Gravity

For associations, the game is slightly different. You rely on software vendors with whom you have a contract, giving your organization more of a say. But the space is shifting in favor of cloud apps. In the November/December issue of Associations Now, my colleague Mark Athitakis reported that organizations are using 1,120 cloud apps on average, an absurdly high number that most CIOs probably don’t want to think about.

Prabhash Shrestha, CAE, vice president of technology at the American Gastroenterological Association, told Athitakis that he dealt with this glut of apps by creating a thoughtful-but-swift approval process that focuses on “the greater benefit of having software that everyone uses.”

But what are you supposed to do about an unorthodox business decision that some other company makes without considering your association’s needs? For a regular user, the easy answer is to just drop the service, but for an organization, the answer might be harder.

For these situations, I recommend three possible solutions:

Put some financial skin in the game. If there’s a platform you like using, pay for it. You have a lot more say over what a company does with its service if you’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for it. The reason Evernote changed course so quickly when users complained about its privacy policy is that many of those users paid for the service, and they were ready to cancel if Evernote did nothing. Those people pay as much as $69.99 per year; imagine how much say an investment of thousands of dollars might earn you.

Forge relationships with your vendors. The vendors you’re working with won’t have any idea what matters to you if they never hear from you. Get some face time in. Get them on the phone. If you’re considering a company you’ve never used before, get a demo in and start talking. Treat the process of taking on a new piece of software like you’re buying a house—and maintain the relationship accordingly.

If control matters, host your own app. Sure, Slack is awesome, but do you find the per-user price tag a bit much? Maybe the solution is an open-source alternative to Slack that does basically the same thing. (One exists: It’s called Mattermost.) It might require more maintenance than the always-on Slack does, but you’ll have more say over the product. Be sure the app is something you can support—you may find that your organization isn’t well equipped to, for example, run its own community software.

The middle is a desirable place to be, which is why so many startups found their place there in 2016. But shouldn’t you be the center of your own universe? If you regularly have to change your practices based on another company’s whims, the balance is off—and you should make an effort to correct it.

The new year is a great time to start.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

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

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