How Leaders Can Better Serve Members on Technology

A new study challenges association leaders to innovate on technology strategy. Luckily, the people who can help them get there aren't far away.

When it comes to technology at associations, a new study offers some good news and bad news: Association members are tech-savvier than associations tend to think, but there’s still a lack of forward thinking when it comes to bringing innovative tech ideas to them.

Those are two of the key findings in “Tech Success for Associations,” a new report from the ASAE Foundation that explores how well-served members are when it comes to technology. In general, associations did well in terms of what the study calls “IT maturity,” sophistication in terms of databases, websites, content, and social media—77 percent of the associations surveyed ranked as “marginally effective” or higher.

The first thing CEOs should do is talk to their members.

But only 9 percent qualified as what the survey defines as “innovative”—strategic and well-organized both in terms of current and future needs. And when members expect innovation in most of their technological interactions outside their association, the study argues, associations ought to feel more pressure to raise their game.

“The issue has to do with how the external world is changing,” says Charles Colby of Rockbridge Associates, which led the research for the study. “Some of it is expectations being shaped by technology leaders like Amazon.com, or any number of cutting-edge organizations providing content and information. Your search functionality and ability to manage documents is driven by Google. People’s expectations, particularly among younger members and prospective members, are being shaped by that.”

I’ve written in the past that CEOs can’t just relegate addressing these changes to the IT department—technology implications ought to be woven into strategy discussions, and the tone from the top is often the first line of defense when it comes to IT breaches. The new study suggests one upside for CEOs when it comes to understanding member needs: They’re a lot smarter about technology than is usually thought. The association world has a higher proportion of members who are “explorers” (33 percent) than the general U.S. population (25 percent), and much fewer outright tech “avoiders” (6 percent, compared to 13 percent nationally).

For the association executive looking for clarity on tech direction, then, the answers may very well reside within membership. “The first thing [CEOs] should do is talk to their members and understand their members’ perspective,” Colby says. “There is a tendency to underestimate how tech-savvy association members are. I think that can include a perception by the IT professionals. What is not realized is that association members tend to be, by and large, educated, they’re professionals with a higher propensity to embrace and adopt technology.”

Not all the news about associations and technology is upbeat. After many years of drum-beating about the importance of making content mobile-accessible, a fifth of those surveyed reported offering only limited mobile capability. Colby says CEOs need to take the lead in understanding pressing issues such as mobile and data integration, and head up strategic discussions to understand what resources are needed.

That’s especially critical at associations that may not be large enough to maintain an IT staff. The report suggests that such an environment isn’t such a bad thing, since it can allow a CEO to act nimbly. “There is an advantage to having the chief executive serve as the IT decision maker—such organizations have no personnel barriers to considering technology solutions alongside strategic decisions,” says the report, but adds: “whether technology systems are managed in-house or outsourced, the decisions must be made with the larger strategic vision for the organization in mind.”

So the CEO is charged not just with understanding the association’s technology needs, but providing resources for increasing its expertise. “It’s important that any IT stakeholders or professionals within the organization have continual training and that their training covers looking ahead, understanding what’s cutting edge, what are the new opportunities,” Colby says. “Investment in infrastructure is a big one to consider, realizing that technology is a potential game changer or something that can really move an association forward.”

Ultimately, decisionmaking on technology resides with the CEO, but if IT professionals don’t get a seat at the table, Colby says, the association is missing a crucial piece of what helps make it functional, let alone innovative. “They need to be involved in planning and part of the strategic planning process and strategic planning needs to consider technology,” he says. “The worst possible situation would be where IT finds out afterwards what decisions have been made and then they have to implement.”

What do you do to understand your members’ technology needs, and how do you integrate technology into your association’s overall strategy? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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