Why Association Leaders Need to Be Tech Leaders

The problems that association members face are increasingly rooted in technology. Execs will need to root their solutions in technology as well.

What kind of business is your association in?

I’ve heard people ask this at association events a lot, and it’s usually a trick question. You might think you’re in the business of serving nurses, or oil companies, or arctic scientists, and so on, the spiel goes. But in reality, we’ve all quickly learned at these events, you’re in the business of connection, say, or education, or standards-setting.

None of that is incorrect. But here’s my variant on it: Like it or not, you’re a tech association.

The leadership of every association is duty-bound to understand the forces of technology that are changing the lives of its members.

In an article last week in the Wall Street Journal, columnist Christopher Mims argues that “every company is a tech company,” and that the age of siloing tech issues in an organization has long since passed. “We’ve entered a period of upheaval, driven by connectivity, artificial intelligence and automation,” he writes, and that’s pressured companies into retooling how they do their business, and how they structure their leadership.

He cites the example of Walmart, which fended off the financial collapse that Sears now faces by bringing in “technical co-founders” to the C-suite and shoring up its technical strength and know-how. “As the competitive landscape continues to change and technology becomes ever more essential to how business is done, investments that might have seemed too risky a few years ago now may sometimes turn out to be the best path to survival,” he writes.

This is not to say that associations, a la Walmart, need to look to acquire tech startups, or even acquire a “tech startup” mentality. You don’t have Walmart’s budget, for one thing, nor are you likely facing the kind of headwinds that Sears is. By saying every association is a tech association, I mean simply that the leadership of every association is duty-bound to understand the forces of technology that are changing the lives of its members and its members’ customers, and to help create products and services that address those changes.

There are plenty of examples of how associations are already doing that. But two articles I wrote for AssociationsNow.com last week helped bring the idea home for me. In one case, Associated Builders and Contractors devised a get-out-the-vote campaign that served ads from ABC to people that analytics determined were likely both working in the construction industry and engaged voters. In another, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association responded to the recent romaine lettuce crisis by coordinating with other associations, growers, and federal agencies to develop an efficient way to inform consumers of where and when romaine lettuce is grown.

Neither are whiz-bang tech solutions in the sense that a new technology is being invented or that a new revenue stream is being devised; but neither are they solutions that are tried-and-true standards of websites, databases, and newsletters. ABC—with the assistance of an online marketing firm—thought creatively about what “get out the vote” means in 2018, and didn’t restrict itself to member-only contact to do it; the produce associations will have to come up with a way to respond to FDA and CDC concerns by giving members a system for labeling that won’t be financially and logistically onerous. Neither of these solutions spring from the IT department or CIO’s office; they’re a product of leadership recognizing that leading on issues means factoring technology into their processes.

The Journal’s Mims observes that many companies are now “bringing tech talent into the highest executive ranks,” which is a smart move. For associations that are too small to do that, the challenge for leaders will increasingly be: Do you have enough of a grasp of the tech landscape to produce solutions that will be meaningful to the members you serve?

(Natali_Mis/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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