Is Association Technology at a Turning Point?
A recent deal in the association technology space raises some interesting questions about the state of the sector and what’s next. What’s holding associations and their vendors back, and what needs to happen to push things forward?
A decade ago this June, the Boston Celtics started to put together the moves for what would eventually be considered one of the most audacious combinations of talent under a single logo that the National Basketball Association had ever seen.
The prior season, the team had finished with just 24 wins. But after two blockbuster deals—trading for Ray Allen and signing onetime Minnesota Timberwolves superstar Kevin Garnett in free agency—the deck of cards suddenly looked stacked in the Celtics’ favor, giving existing star Paul Pierce and his teammates just the backing they needed to lead the team to new levels of success. The team won 66 games during the 2007-2008 season and breezed its way to an NBA title without a lot of trouble.
These three stars weren’t the only great players out there—Western Conference NBA rosters have traditionally been fairly deep, for example—but this combination of puzzle pieces was well-timed for the era. (It also inspired another similar collaboration a couple years later, when LeBron “The Decision” James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat, helping the team win two championships in four years.)
I admit that when I first heard about the deal brokered by YourMembership to bring on Abila and Aptify under the Community Brands banner, comparisons to legendary sports teams were where I directly went—because it is a fairly significant combination of technology talent under a single bench. It’s not the only great team out there, but the talent level is hard to deny.
But I think that the case can be made that it also reflects the era that we’re in, with regards to technology in the world of associations. Like in the NBA, deals like this don’t just happen because they sound good on paper—there’s often an underlying tactical need driving things.
JP Guilbault, the president and CEO of YourMembership (as well as the president of the new joint organization), explained that one factor driving the collaboration is the growing level of competition that associations are facing with their business models—with much of that competition generated by for-profit business models that are nudging into spaces like online communities and education.
“They are in a competitive landscape like no other, and they need to target and operate their businesses in different ways, and change the way their business is running,” he explained in an interview.
(This, fittingly enough, was a point that Abila had touched upon in a recent report it had done on the association education market.)
In the context of the purchase and reorganization of the three companies under Community Brands—Abila, with its interests in cause-based nonprofits, fundraising, and association management; Aptify, which targets an array of membership organizations, including unions; and YourMembership, with its job board and online learning offerings, among other elements—the goal appears to be to hitting different aspects of the market, large and small.
(The brands, by the way, will remain separate.)
The Major Pain Points
Guilbault noted that perhaps the largest problem facing associations lies with their technology stacks—in other words, the digital infrastructure that keeps the organization chugging along. The problem? Those stacks aren’t always being run in a way that keeps them up to date.
“Some [organizations] are running very current and very true process protocols to stay current,” Guilbault conceded. “But others have outdated versions and outdated licenses, and that expands over their software and their servers, and they’re using open-source and proprietary source code that is becoming more challenging for those organizations to maintain.”
These issues can create challenges down the line in areas like cybersecurity and the embrace of mobile platforms (which is an area where Guilbault says associations are struggling). As a result, for-profit organizations often find they can move more quickly on tech-based business needs.
And some of that goes both ways: With mainline business applications moving in the direction of software-as-a-service tools that are often inexpensive, vendors may need to find ways for their technology to better converse with this wide variety of tools—along with the way that it makes an individual association’s tool set fit like a glove.
“This is a place where association technology needs to expand,” Guilbault said of cloud-based platforms along the lines of Box or Trello, adding that the role of association technology vendors is to consider what is right for organizations and create offerings that adapt to those specific needs.
Big (and Small) Innovation
Of course, it is important to look into the future and see what’s out there as a potential game-changer, and something that Guilbault excitedly spoke about was the idea of virtual reality bringing a new level of authenticity to remote meetings like webinars, along with the growing role of predictive analytics, machine-based learning, and non-UI applications (think Amazon’s Alexa).
On the other hand, though, big shiny objects are great, but sometimes the big wins can simply be amassed by thinking differently about resources already being used. Some of this stuff, in fact, is often quite basic: Guilbault spoke multiple times of the importance of keeping server software up to date, along with the potential cost savings to be had by tying the use of the Internet of Things to asset management.
His example in the latter case? Having onsite printers in an office set up to automatically purchase toner cartridges as they’re needed. That may sound like a very basic idea, but that’s kind of the point—these ideas aren’t out of this world.
“I like to talk about the practicality of things, and some of this stuff just isn’t hard,” he noted.
You may have Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce on your team, but when it comes down to it, sometimes it’s the free throws that matter most.