Emerging Leaders Think Tank
In 2019, the Association Forum board of directors approved the evolution of the Association Forum Foundation into a Think Tank for the association industry that would engage it in an on-going dialogue regarding emerging and disruptive issues in the industry. From these conversations, the Think Tank would then produce relevant and applicable content and provide valuable resources to advance the association community.
The first Think Tank was convened in June. The session was led by Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, who has been the main facilitator of the Think Tank and driving force of the program. bringing together leaders and executives for an in-depth conversation on the topic of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The room was full of high-level individuals representing the C-Suites of a variety of associations, as well as from the for-profit world. The resulting discussion was robust and thought-provoking, but Peacy noticed a certain demographic was absent from the conversation—the younger generations.
In order to hear from the future of the industry, a Think Tank was convened with members of Association Forum’s Emerging Leaders program. FORUM is pleased to share some of the key takeaways and talking points from that discussion.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
When one thinks about previous industrial revolutions, the technology that emerged in those periods is most likely the first thing that comes to mind—steam power, electricity, mechanization, nuclear energy. But the most important function of these innovations was how they affected change for humanity, both positively and negatively, allowing for dramatic shifts in the day-to-day lives of people—how they communicated, the work they performed and the accessibility of knowledge and travel.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF):
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is about more than just technology-driven change; it is an opportunity to help everyone, including leaders, policy-makers and people from all income groups and nations, to harness converging technologies in order to create an inclusive, human-centered future. The real opportunity is to look beyond technology and find ways to give the greatest number of people the ability to positively impact their families, organizations and communities.
For association professionals, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and nervous about rapid technological changes. The not-for-profit industry has less resources to invest in the latest digital innovations and a potential leadership gap over the next few decades could leave the industry with fewer individuals to shepherd it through trying times.
However, when you reread that passage above from the WEF, you’ll notice that the it places people squarely at the focus of this new world, which is exactly what this industry does. Associations are structured around providing opportunity to members to “positively impact” their professions and communities. If that remains the core of your mission, and you put the people of your organization first, then you will be on your way to having a culture that is nimble, ready to utilize emerging technologies and focused on the future.
As one attendee of the Emerging Leaders Think Tank put it, the “haves” of the world will always be first adopters of new technology. Large corporations with profit-driven budgets have the ability to experiment and field-test emerging technologies. For associations, that may mean being on the outside looking in for a bit, but once that technology makes its way to your organization, it will have the power of several years of high-profile beta-testing behind it.
Breaking down bureaucracy
A large topic of conversation for the Emerging Leaders was the elimination of bureaucracy. The classic association model, built on a foundation of volunteer committee leadership, can naturally form bureaucratic barriers that hamper innovation if not continuously re-assessed.
The attendees at the Think Tank agreed that one of the key ways to lessen bureaucracy is through transparency, starting with the board and leadership. There needs to be direct lines of honest communication between varying levels of the organization. Transparency breeds trust, and trust empowers young professionals to perform their jobs at higher level than if they are operating in silos.
The need for transparency isn’t exclusive to internal structures and staff needs. Members want to have a full understanding of the value of their membership. This becomes increasingly important as newer generations are adept at efficiently finding what they need—a quick Google search might lead to the answer they seek quicker than attending a session or watching a webinar.
Make it simple, but don’t dumb it down
Associations need to clearly communicate their value to newer generations and make it easy for potential and current members to receive that value. Of course, this is in no way unique to Gen Z and Millennials—Baby Boomers and Gen X also appreciate a succinct understanding of benefits and systematic ease of use. The newer generations, however, have a higher level of expectation based on the world they’ve grown up in.
Of course, ensuring simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing it down. As a result of being bombarded with information, news and advertisements at every turn, newer generations are adept at recognizing when they are being talked down to or sold a dream. Buzzwords and empty promises cause young professionals to tune out.
Deliver the content and experiences that matter
Professional development, networking and education have long been cornerstones of the association industry and that isn’t going to change anytime soon, but the way that these experiences are delivered to members have changed drastically. Associations need to not only understand how their members want to receive content, but also appreciate that there are differences in needs even within similar demographics.
The Emerging Leaders, who were all of the Millennial generation, each expressed their own personal preferences when it came to content vehicles. A 27-year-old, city-based marketing professional might have vastly different expectations than a 27-year-old finance professional who lives in a suburb. By lumping a generation into the same bucket, (i.e., all Millennials love webinars), does a disservice to that audience and makes assumptions of an individual that may not be true.
Personalization, therefore, needs to be a top-of-mind issue for associations. From the communications you send to the education vehicles you offer, members should have the ability to access the content that is relevant to them without jumping through hoops. Of course, the catalyst for effective personalization is clean and accurate data, which brings us back to that core essence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the emerging technologies need to support the needs and wants of the people, helping them positively affect their communities.
Continuing the conversation
As the Association Forum Foundation Think Tank continues its work, it will continue to engage a variety of association professionals and executives on the trends and issues that matter most both today and tomorrow. These conversations and explorations into the topics that are important to the industry will help to guide our research and move the needle on finding solutions to the problems that associations face.