Make Your Members Your Innovation Partners

Innovation is hard, but you don’t have to do it alone. At this week’s digitalNow conference in Austin, Texas, association executives and entrepreneurs are exploring ways to bring about digital transformation in partnership with members.

Talk to any association CEO today about organizational change and, no doubt, you’ll hear the words “digital transformation.” Associations of all sizes are putting serious thought into strategies that help grow business in a digital economy. Your staff may be on board with this kind of change, but what about your members?

That’s a key theme at the digitalNow 2018 conference this week in Austin, Texas, where speakers and attendees are asking a pointed question: How do I involve members in my digital transformation?

Mellie Price, executive director of commercialization at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas and cofounder of SoftMatch.

Mellie Price, executive director of commercialization at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas and cofounder of SoftMatch, a firm that matches startups and investor businesses, challenged association leaders on Monday to think like funders who can green-light and accelerate members’ ideas.

“Find members of your ecosystem—anybody that you share and derive value from,” said Price. “Treat each idea like an initiative. You’re either going to fund it, or you’re not.”

These days, associations need to think, act, and, as my colleague Ernie Smith points out, acquire for innovation. That’s an idea Price would likely get behind. She’s a champion of “co-innovation,” which she says happens “when two or more partners purposefully manage mutual knowledge across organizational boundaries.”

Often, Price said, an association has a specific “unfair advantage” that can bring its members to the table to co-innovate.

“What’s that thing that only you have?” Price asked. “Leverage your core asset into a new dimension … [and] extend it through collaboration.” That advantage might be your organization’s brand or reputation, or it could be intellectual property or data.

If you’re wondering what that looks like in the association world, consider the American Geophysical Union’s API challenge. The program, launched last year, gave participants access to AGU’s Fall Meeting data to develop apps that could help members advance scientific discovery. Executive Director and CEO Christine McEntee, in a Monday panel discussion, said the competition tapped into members’ interests as data-driven scientists.

“We’re getting our staff to co-create with our members, who are probably the most natural with data and algorithms,” McEntee said.

Last year’s winners produced a map visualizing scientists’ networks, a search engine for AGU’s content, and a web-based interactive that drew connections between different presentations given at the fall meeting.

Those tools are now helping the organization to push forward on a path to digital transformation, McEntee said. And because the challenge was so successful, AGU is planning to launch two new API challenges in the coming year.

Although the digital economy isn’t exactly new anymore, it’s constantly and rapidly evolving, and that poses an ongoing challenge even to digitally savvy organizations like AGU.

“It’s like pushing a wet noodle up a hill sometimes,” said Kathy Trahan, CAE, president and CEO of the Alliance Safety Council, speaking on the panel with McEntee. But a good leader can build capacity and ask if something is or isn’t working for members.

“There’s a lot to do and a million ways to do it,” Trahan said. “So it’s asking: Which technology is going to be an enabler? And which technology is going to connect the data in new and important ways?”

How have you enlisted your members in co-innovation? And how has it helped you to push forward on digital transformation?

(Warchi/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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