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Make Your IT Team Your Business Partner

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Over the past several years, mobile, collaboration tools, cloud technology, and big data have changed the role that the IT team plays. And their work continues to evolve: Tomorrow’s IT department will be more focused on showing how technology can help improve business and better serve members.

A November 2021 Wall Street Journal article [subscription required] ruffled a few feathers when it recommended it might be time to pull the plug on the IT department. While that seems like a drastic move, the IT team does need to continue to work toward being a business partner, not just a technology partner. In other words, it’s not just about repairing laptops, updating software, and fixing printers anymore.

The relevance and necessity of technology was brought into clear focus during the pandemic. Associations turned to it immediately to keep their doors open, and suddenly no one had an excuse to claim ignorance or indifference about technology.

It underscored and validated a key trend: the democratization of technology, said American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Chief Information Officer Tori Liu, CAE. The pandemic accelerated technology literacy, and now there’s a lower tolerance for staff to say they don’t “get” technology.

“I don’t hear that anymore,” Liu said. “I always see staff rolling up their sleeves and diving in. I think we need to foster that culture.”

Technology Champions

The democratization of technology means that expertise does not exist solely within the IT department. Rather, there can be technology champions throughout the organization. “It doesn’t have to be someone with ‘technology’ or ‘information’ in their title,” Liu said.

No matter what department they’re in, these staff are advancing tech at the organization and have a future-focused mindset. They understand new technology that’s coming down the pipeline and how they can leverage it, along with the existing tech stack and how it can best be utilized to serve members.

“The technology champion has to be a business partner to the rest of the organization.” — Todd Tolbert, CAE, VSTI-Partners

“The technology champion has to be a business partner to the rest of the organization,” said VSTI-Partners COO and Partner Todd Tolbert, CAE. During the pandemic, technology was leaned on in a way that hasn’t been seen in the association space in a very long time—maybe ever. “We need to continue to really focus on the business use of technology,” he said.

The prior focus on servers, phone systems, firewalls, and internet connections isn’t as prevalent—or relevant—anymore. That means IT staff needs to change their view from nuts and bolts and hardware to how the organization should use technology.

“How do we pull these ecosystems of tools together to be a cohesive technology that enables our business, not just as silos of data or functionality?” Tolbert said. It’s also important to tie a technology strategy to the vision of where an organization wants to go and its overall mission.

While democratization is good, having a clear understanding of how ethical decisions are made is essential, too. “Ethics is an up-at-night issue for me,” Liu said. There needs to be a clear understanding about how decisions are made about people’s data and the technology products that associations are leveraging and using, especially around artificial intelligence.

“With greater democratization of technology comes greater responsibility,” she said.

Next Steps

Going forward, technology champions will need to open their minds and move past what’s historically been done in the association space. “The future of the IT department is similar to what it’s always been,” Tolbert said. “Keeping your eye on the horizon and not just discarding something because you think your organization would never pay for it or there’s not an application.”

Data analytics are going to be key, especially for helping to put the customer first. “As a whole, we are talking a lot more right now about personalization and how we can better serve members by leveraging data,” Liu said. “One of my key priorities this year is to continue building out the infrastructure that would support initiatives like that.”

Liu and her team are focused on structures that can support larger initiatives around automation and personalization and providing access to data so ASHA staff can make knowledgeable decisions as the group moves forward.

Technology champions need to move forward in adopting technology that can empower their organizations and rethink how the data comes together. “The answer is not a new association management system,” Tolbert said. “The answer is what makes sense to get the appropriate data together so you can make the decisions you need to make, monitor what you’re doing, and really run your organization as a better business.”

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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