Do Associations Really Get Technology?

By Hank Berkowitz • December 14, 2015

Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser
Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser

Yes, according to our expert panel and the top tech stories of 2015 (with some caveats).

There are two things you can count on this time of year: One, tech will be at the center of the last-minute holiday shopping blitz; and two, many of the latest tech tools and gadgets will be on the wish lists of those who influence association capital budgets. Whether you think 2015 was a good year, a bad year, or a ho-hum year, it’s hard to ignore the pronounced changes that technology and innovation have had on our lives at home, at work and on the road.

Wait a minute. Aren’t technology and innovation the same thing? Not necessarily, according to many of the association thought leaders we checked in with.




Don’t confuse technology with innovation and vice versa. RealLilTweetables

You may have cool gadgets, apps and tools, but are you using them correctly to meet member needs? RealLilTweetables

As the world becomes more competitive, associations must demonstrate the value of membership. RealLilTweetables

Our most popular tech stories of 2015 may surprise you. RealLilTweetables

Rita Chen Fujisawa, COO of the California Association of Health Facilities, once told me that technology is not necessarily innovation, and vice versa. “Innovation could be a new process or approach to solving a problem that we want to reward, not necessarily technology. Also, developing an app isn’t innovative per se, unless it’s in an industry that’s not very tech savvy,” she said.

Tom Hood, CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs, agreed that ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ shouldn’t be used interchangeably. ”Technology is what it is, while innovation is a mindset and a process to bring new ways of serving members and differentiating your association from other offerings in the market.” Hood also said we tend to confuse innovation with invention. Unlike an invention, which is a patentable new product or service, Hood said innovation is about “creating new value in anticipation of future industry and customer/member trends.”

Jodi Ray, account manager for Blue Sky Broadcast, said that innovation is about finding the right way to make use of the right technology. “Associations have many different technologies at their fingertips. What’s important is how they use it. Is it really meeting a member need, or streamlining an administrative process, or is it just cool to have?”

Fara Francis, chief information officer of The Associated General Contractors of America, believes technology and innovation are separate concepts, but often work hand in hand. “At times technology could be quite innovative. Other times an innovative idea needs the technology to bring it to life. The smartphone is an example of innovation and technology. While the idea of creating a smartphone was indeed an innovative one, the application of technology was central to its success,” said Francis.

Association Adviser’s Top Tech Stories of 2015

Is your organization a disruptor or a disruptee?

Disruption is a hot buzzword right now. But what does it really mean, and how do you know if you’re in the midst of it? Hood said disruption is caused by the rapid changes and evolution of technology, new forms of competition, and other trends facing business and associations. Think Uber’s impact on the taxi industry or Airbnb’s impact on hotels. For associations, Hood said disruption is about “the competition for learning, information, and even community that has been enabled by the rapid evolution of the web.”

According to Francis, disruption refers to any process or technology that shocks the “establishment” into adopting a new way of doing things and replacing the old way. “By the way, associations can be disruptors too, by becoming more flexible and open to change,” said Francis. “The world is becoming more competitive. Associations have to demonstrate the value of membership to their constituents. It is imperative that you embrace flexibility and adaptability.”

Blue Sky’s Jodi Ray said associations that are willing to re-think every aspect of their operations will emerge as their industry leaders. “Disruptors look at challenges with a blank slate rather than [with] preconceived notions,” she said, adding that they take an “anything goes” approach to brainstorming so they can find unique niches and capitalize on them.

Prepping your association for the future

Hood said MACPA has hired a world-renowned futurist who teaches a “science of certainty” course. It’s about identifying hard trends that are likely to emerge — from technology to demographics to government regulation. “If you identify opportunities around these ‘future facts’ then your risk goes down and your future ‘ready state’ goes up,” observed Hood.

According to AGC’s Francis, your association’s IT leaders must recognize which trends are applicable to the organization — i.e., mobile, cloud and security — and which are not. “For example, if you’re a health care association, then trends in cybersecurity and infrastructure security are very important to you,” Francis said.

Tech’s impact on professional learning and career development

Each year, our annual association communication benchmarking report reveals that continuing education and professional development are among the hottest topics of interest for association members.

Topics Most Important to Association Members, 2011-2015
According to Francis, the ability to gain CEUs and other professional development credits online continues to drive high membership value. “Online learning systems such as LMS systems are critically important to provide this value. A well-designed online learning platform that is easy to use is [now] expected by members,” said Francis.

Blue Sky’s Ray said associations that are effectively using online learning are finding new opportunities for revenue and member engagement. “Their partners and platforms can help them quickly and cost-effectively deliver engaging live virtual events with time-sensitive content by industry experts. Or their learners can access content on demand from any device,” said Ray, who agreed with Francis that the key factors for success are ease of use and personalization.

Derek Poarch, executive director of APCO International, said, “Technology is changing at a record pace throughout the public safety industry, so we offer members many ways to keep current with everything from next-generation 911 to cybersecurity.” The APCO Institute in Daytona Beach, Florida, trains over 16,000 people a year, both in-person and online. APCO holds two technology forums every year, plus a summit that’s focused exclusively on broadband. Poarch said APCO is also taking the lead in making sure apps for public safety and emergency response are as safe and effective as possible, including the launch of an online app resource called AppComm. This allows public safety communications professional to easily download, vet and comment upon new apps.

See our Corner Office profile of Poarch for more insights.

Technology’s impact on the hiring process

Aaron Roesch, a recruiter for Naylor Association Solutions, believes automation and technology are leading the way in talent acquisition. “It affects everything from applicant tracking systems and screening tools and software, to automated social media job distributor tools and employee referral marketing, to HRIS systems that help onboard and manage employee data,” said Roesch.

Brian Choate, executive vice president of Timberlake Membership Solutions, observed that “increased search criteria will better define job parameters and online communities and review sites provide applicants with better insight on the prospective company’s corporate culture and HR values.”

Chip Sharkey, vice president of human resources, Naylor Association Solutions, agreed technology has dramatically altered and expedited the hiring process. “Candidates have much more knowledge about a company than they used to. Some candidates will not apply to jobs if the process is difficult, time-consuming or cumbersome. Companies that do not move quickly will lose good candidates,” added Sharkey.

For more about association career trends, see Kelly Clark’s article about association work and hiring.

Is IT a department or a strategy?

According to Hood, tech is a “powerful enabler and accelerator” of your association strategy and that strategy should drive technology, not the other way around. Ray agreed. “Associations should first determine their strategy and process, then find the right software to execute it. In other words, fit the tool to the problem, not the problem to the tool.”  AGC’s Francis concurred. “When technology is considered one of the drivers of business strategy, an organization can improve operations and revenue since technology creates the ability to generate enhanced products and services for members.”

Beacons, wearables and conference mobile apps

According to Francis, associations are experiencing a vastly improved on-site conference experience with the advent of wearable technologies, mobile apps and other related gadgets. “Attendees no longer have to print out schedules. They can edit their badge info online, connect with each other via the mobile apps, check in to sessions, and [take advantage of] so many other great social features. Further, exhibitors receive more value for their investments with access to analytics and other data about the conference and its attendees,” said Francis. Hood agreed, saying beacons, wearables and conference mobile apps are further examples of hard trends that offer “a tremendous opportunity to rethink the member experience we offer.” While Ray lauded the people-connecting-to-people aspects of these aforementioned technologies.


Ken Tencer, CEO of Sypder Works, Inc., observed in a pithy post that a lot of great companies have new, innovative ideas that go beyond the development of technology. “Yes, they incorporate technology in their business model, but so should we all. Most importantly, these companies understand and anticipate market trends, and find new and engaging ways to solve challenging consumer problems.”

So, try this exercise before your next off-site management gathering: Look at the paragraph above and substitute the word “association” for “company” and “member” for “consumer” and you’ll have a leg up on your next strategic plan. To that end, Hood recommends a new video from Dan Burrus about becoming an “anticipatory organization” that spends more time seeking opportunities than managing crises.

Have a great holiday and let’s hit the ground running in 2016.
Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.