Building an Association Technology Ecosystem From the Ground Up

Building an Association Technology Ecosystem From the Ground Up

How much time do you spend thinking about your technology? If your association management system is humming along, I’d guess that you don’t think about it very much at all (unless you’re on the IT team). And that’s fine … until it’s not.

To explain what I mean, let’s think about where we’ve been. We’ve come a long way from the days when every department had its own database or spreadsheet, and very few associations had a central store of member data. Today, we have access to a wealth of technology tools, inside and outside of our AMS ecosystems, to help with our association tasks.

Most of us have cobbled together systems that do the job, but when our systems make life harder, rather than easier, we start thinking about making a change. Unfortunately, a new system doesn’t necessarily solve all our problems and, if we haven’t done the early discovery work, can even make life harder. It doesn’t have to be this way!

Outline Your Priorities 

To future-proof any of your future technology decisions, I’d like to suggest this helpful exercise that can help you determine what’s essential in your technology ecosystem, what’s important to have, and what’s just nice to have. This exercise frees you from the constraints of budgets and allows your creativity to provide new insights into your technology priorities.

Ground Rules 

You can do this exercise as individuals or as a small group – five to seven people is a good target number of participants. If you want to involve more people, run several groups and combine their ideas.

The first ground rule is hard to embrace for practical people who work within budgets  – you must not consider the cost of anything during the exercise. Attaching budgets and prioritizing needs come later. For this first step, dream without restrictions.

Now, answer this question: If we could build our technology ecosystem from the ground up, starting with nothing but our data, what would we include?

Write down everything your group suggests. This is a brainstorming session, so don’t assign values to the suggestions. Right now, you just need a list. Ideas can be:

  •     Enterprise-wide – like a data warehouse or website
  •     Program specific – like a community tool, meeting registration, or project management software
  •     Event-specific – like new apps or virtual meeting software
  •     Individual-specific – like new communication channels, calendars, or grammar assistance

Try to uncover all the areas where technology intersects your association. Tech is ubiquitous, so sometimes it hides in plain sight. Communication tools, especially, can go unnoticed. Spend some time brainstorming your list.

You Have a List. Now What?

Once you have a list of everything that you could possibly want to run your association, move to the next step, and compare your list to the technology you currently have. Think about these questions:

  •     Are you considering programs that require new technology?
  •     Is a lack of technology keeping you from launching a new program?
  •     Are you delaying needed programs because you don’t have the technology to support them?
  •     Are you continuing to use outdated technology because everyone is familiar with it?
  •     What are the major flaws in your current system and will a new system fix them?

Some problems have nothing to do with technology, and it’s helpful to recognize which problems technology can actually solve and which ones it can’t.

Review Your Mission

Take a fresh look at your mission and vision statements. Does your current technology help you meet those aims? Would new technology make a substantial difference to the delivery of your programming or would it simply make staff members more productive? This is important because, in the next step, you’ll want to be sure that you’re true to your mission and vision.

Prioritize Without a Budget

Take your wishlist of technology and ask your team to prioritize the items without regard to cost. You will attach dollar figures to them later. Then, ask them to rank the various parts of your current technology. You’ll want them to consider current programs, events, and member relations, as well as those you might be planning.

This part of the exercise uncovers the value your team places on current and ideal technology and can start valuable discussions about the mission, goals, and future.

Return to Reality

Of course, you and your team work in the real world where budgets matter. You could decide that your current system can handle your programs with a plug-in or two. Or you might decide to sunset your current system and start fresh regardless of the anxiety change brings. The answer will be specific to your association. 

Shopping for a New System

If you decide to invest in a new technology ecosystem, you can use the work done during this exercise to inform your search. By envisioning what is possible and prioritizing functionality, you can provide valuable information to your consultant or software company. It will help you write specific RFPs that will guide the bidding and selection process.

Many associations never consider what might help them move forward and spend too much time trying to simply replace what they have and make it work better. Customizing a new tech ecosystem to your mission and needs will drive better buying decisions and, ultimately, a more effective association.

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