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Taking stock today to design associations for tomorrow

By Carol-Anne Moutinho, MBA
Principal Consultant, Strategy and Organizational Development, The Portage Group

It’s 2019 and technology is both the boon and bane of our existence. We are more globally connected than at any time in our history. We can watch events unfold on the other side of the globe in real time and from multiple perspectives. We can get groceries without ever having to leave the house. Doctors can use 3D printing technology to make prosthetics; soon, even heart valves, skin and other organs will be made-to-order.

At the same time,  technology has created a state of perpetual change, volatility and unpredictability. Entire industries are disappearing before our eyes, while others are undergoing fundamental change and rapid evolution. Whether it is cable TV, retail, banking or health care, no sector or profession is immune.

For organizations of all kinds – and associations in particular – technology has been a particularly disruptive force. It is no secret that most associations cannot continue to do things the same way they have always done them and hope to weather the storm. The change at hand is irreversible…and it is just getting started.

Although technology will be (and already has been) the death knell for some associations, it also presents an opportunity for associations to step back and take stock of what the future holds and what their role should be.

What does technology mean for the future of your association? The answer may well depend on how your association responds to the following realities.

The players in the game are changing

The players in many industries and professions will look vastly different in five or 10 years than they do today.

On the trade association side, supply chains are evolving as manufacturers increasingly deliver products right to the doors of their customers. Industries are consolidating as the big fish continue to gobble up the small ones, resulting in both a steady membership decline and a membership makeup of increasingly large companies. An added challenge is that many of these larger players have internal resources in areas like research, government relations and training and may wonder whether they really need to belong to an industry association at all.

Several industries are simultaneously seeing a rise in technology startups and other small and medium sized enterprises that are giving traditional players a real run for their money. As the association works to cater to their traditional membership base, there is a risk of alienating new and smaller market players where there are competitive interests or where priorities may differ.

Technology is also driving change in the professional world where traditional roles are evolving – or in some cases being replaced due to artificial intelligence and other technological innovations. Skilled labour shortages are fast becoming a debilitating issue in several industries, such as construction where companies in markets across the country are scrambling to fill positions in all manner of skilled trades. In other professions, such as healthcare, evolving and expanding scopes of practice are making it difficult to define where one role stops and another begins.

The commoditization of the association value proposition

Associations used to be the only game in town when it came to niche-level advocacy, content, education and networking. In many professions and industries, the internet has opened up a world that allows easy, low-cost and low-barrier access to hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of competing programs, services and events.

With similar value offerings from multiple other associations, as well as organizations in the private and public sector spaces, to say that associations are finding it difficult to compete with better-resourced providers is an understatement.

Uncovering sources of value that are truly unique in this crowded landscape is an ongoing – and elusive – challenge that many associations face today.  Becoming laser-focused on what your association ‘owns’ is more important than ever in being able to differentiate your offering from everyone else. Engaging in strong and mutually beneficial partnerships where there are opportunities to expand each partners’ reach, reduce overhead or otherwise enhance programs and services to members is also an increasingly common strategy among associations looking to increase their value offering and competitive edge.

The evolving makeup of professions and industries across the globe have significant implications for associations and the stakeholders they serve. Associations must reposition themselves and their value offering in light of tomorrow’s realities. This is no easy task in industries and professions where future market entrants may compete with — or even replace – existing members and other stakeholders.


Designing operating and governance models to withstand volatility

For two consecutive years, The Portage Group’s study of association trends revealed the ability of associations to adapt and be nimble in a rapidly evolving environment as the single most important – and urgent – issue facing Canadian associations.

It is easy enough to look to the Teslas, Apples and Googles of the world for great examples of what adaptability and nimbleness look like; however, for member-based organizations that are by their very nature democratic, hierarchical and oftentimes purposely bureaucratic, many continue to struggle in a world where constant evolution is a must for organizational survival. Government is also requiring associations to pivot quickly as populist and conservative administrations promote less red tape while the next (or previous) administration introduces stringent regulations.

Adopting flexible structure and processes that enable ongoing adaptation and evolution to survive and thrive in this new state of constant and rapid change is a third important challenge today’s association leaders have to grapple with. Whether it is reducing board size, instituting advisory groups to more rapidly get feedback to drive decisions, or centralizing chapter or other local-level governance and administration, finding ways to reduce bureaucracy and redundancy is a central focus for organizations seeking to respond more proactively to the world inside which they operate.

Taking stock

Given how our world is changing, will associations exist in the future? I do believe there will continue to be a need in society and business for organized opportunities to connect, learn and to leverage a strong and united voice speaking on behalf of professions, industries and other special interest groups; however, the typical association of tomorrow may look vastly different than it does today.

We are witnessing an era of stock-taking in the association world, where sector leaders are realising that continuing to do things as they always have been done is no longer an option if they wish for their organizations to survive – and thrive.

Following are some stock-taking questions you may wish to consider in thinking about the future of your association:

  • What does the future look like for your profession or industry?
  • Who are the individuals and organizations that will impact – and will be impacted by – your sector?
  • What are the future issues, challenges and needs of your sector?
  • What unique role will your organization play? What do you own?
  • Which stakeholders will most benefit from what you will have to offer?
  • What are the implications of your future value and stakeholders on your organizational model and decision-making structure?

You may find that the answers to these questions point to a very different looking association than what you have in place today. 

Carol-Anne Moutinho

Carol-Anne Moutinho is principal consultant, strategy and organizational development for The Portage Group, bringing over 12 years’ experience working with member-based organizations to position them to thrive in an increasingly complex and volatile environment.  Her sector leadership is based on hands-on experience, research, analysis and consulting for many dozens of associations in areas that include organizational development, governance, member and revenue models, member needs and engagement, and strategic planning.

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