It is impossible to write an article regarding the use of technology in the association management field without being worried about your facts and opinions being out-of-date by the time the article is published and distributed. However, I’m going to try.
Technology advances have changed everything about associations and their meetings and conferences. From the way people find out about events to the way they register to (at least for the past two years) to even the way they “attend” events, the use of technology has become the assumed method for participation. That’s fine, because it has proven to be more cost-effective, accurate, time-efficient, and much safer than old-fashioned methods. Moving forward, there are, I believe, some things we need to keep in mind.
1) Not all members/attendees should be considered equal – when it comes to technology.
We still have some huge generational gaps in many organisations. Large scientific organisations still contain as many as five different generations actively involved in the society. While the youngest generations are anxious for your organisation to adopt the most recent technological advances (they think you are going too slow), the older generations are just getting comfortable with some of the basic technologies (they think you are going too fast).
I’ve heard for years that organisations need to use technology in the most efficient ways, and for those members who can’t or won’t adapt, the organisation just needs to move on and admit that maybe they just aren’t the right organisation for those members anymore.
Really? Would you rather have people who have been members of your society for years, maybe decades, just drift away because the organisation has moved on technologically? I think you need to be careful about how that is communicated to your members who struggle with some of the newer technologies. Of course, it is less efficient to give members OPTIONS on how they can participate, but shouldn’t we at least show some empathy for those who struggle with technology?
Just a quick suggestion: if you don’t already do so, develop videos and other methods to assist members in using the organisation’s technologies, especially on-site at events.
2) There is no excuse not to be data-driven – or data secure.
One of the best aspects of technology advances is the ability to gather more and more data to assist in organisational decision-making. Information that associations used to have to buy or subscribe from third-party companies can now be obtained and stored easily in-house.
However, having the right data in your systems is one thing: being able to access it and use it effectively is another. We also need to remember that all associations, professional organisations, chambers of commerce, etc., obtain confidential information about our members, stakeholders, attendees, sponsors, exhibitors, and other partners. This makes it even more important that data management and data retrieval are in the hands of trained professionals.
Another important aspect of having accurate and relevant data available is the fact that cyber-security has become a global issue of importance.
The volunteer leaders of your organisation are coming from workplaces and companies that are relying more and more on data to drive institutional decision-making and planning. They are going to expect their trade or professional organisation to mirror government and private sector best practices in the way you keep your information and systems secure. (Note: The Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Institute, the association for which I serve as Executive Vice President, has sponsored several cyber security programmes for its members that have enable member companies to upgrade their own systems and head off a growing number of problems in the manufacturing community in North America).
3) When looking to the future, data will be even more important.
As was just mentioned, one area where data is increasingly critical is organisational planning. For many years associations used to call it “long range planning” but you rarely hear that term used any more. Planning committees looking five years or more into the future has become a much less reliable way of envisioning your organisation’s size, scope, financial position, membership base, etc. The main reason we stopped calling it long range planning is because things change so fast that it is nearly impossible to comprehend all of the changes and variables that will impact our associations that far in advance.
What we CAN do a better job of right now is strategic planning. Yes, most groups are still limiting their planning to 2-3 year cycles, but they can be more focused (strategic) because of the availability of more credible data. This data not only supports or refutes many of the assumptions that are made during planning sessions, but it also provides the metrics and benchmarking criteria necessary to monitor the strategic plan as it is being implemented. At certain data points the organisation can adjust goals, reapportion resources, restructure committees and staff, etc. The quality and how much trust the leaders place in that data can help keep the organisation on track and provide higher value to members and stakeholders.
Associations need to engage members not only through various technologies but also by helping members gain new skills as they master and use these technologies.
The ability to “mine” critical data using technology provides associations with opportunities to be more efficient in many ways, but also puts a burden on the organisation to be able to manage the data in a secure and effective manner.
Data based planning is perhaps the most important outcome of effective data management. The credibility of your organisation is based on its ongoing success in returning value to its members, and your data management capabilities can be the cornerstone of that credibility.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Levin, CAE, CSP has more than 25 years of experience as an association executive and is also an internationally-known speaker and consultant to the nonprofit and association community. He currently serves as executive vice president of the Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Institute, an international trade association, and as president of B.A.I., Inc., his speaking and consulting firm. He is also the current president of the National Speakers Association National Capital Area Chapter.
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