Digital technology continues to transform many areas of our lives and professional bodies (membership organisations, professional associations et al.) are no exception. Technology offers the opportunity to transform the way these organisations perform, from communicating with their members and delivering services, to engaging in wider social debate.
To better understand the challenges faced by professional bodies, digital transformation consultancy Atmosphere brought together key stakeholders from nine bodies for a roundtable debate under the Chatham House Rule. The bodies represented members from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, as well as a cross section of sizes and turnovers, with delegates ranging in experience from Chief Executive to Commercial Director, enabling a good spread of perspective was in the room.
To kick things off, one organisation explained its own journey of digital transformation. The process began as a technical requirement about 18 months ago when it became clear that the website needed to be overhauled and a view taken as to how to join up the disparate ‘digital’ activities running across various parts of the business. However, the more the team tasked with leading the project looked at it, the more it became clear that there were wider issues.
The old website represented the dysfunction of the organisation in that its arbitrary sections didn’t really make sense to the outside world. It was an inward looking site that served to reflect the structure of the organisation rather than members or other interested parties. There was no digital vision to lead the investment in new technology that was required, so the organisation brought in Atmosphere to help with the project.
“I didn’t really ‘get it’. I thought the process we were undergoing would provide a roadmap for tech implementation, but that actually came a lot later.”
The organisation was undergoing a period of change with a growing membership, mainly due to successful expansion internationally through offices in Singapore and a soon to be realised Middle East office. The nature of the membership and its competition was also changing. Training, which is a core service and a significant revenue driver, is increasingly provided online and no longer is access a function of membership. Disruptive forces such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are also competing, so the organisation can no longer rely on somebody committing to two years to do one of its courses as the sole bastion of knowledge for the industry being represented.
Digital overhaul therefore had to be accompanied with a reassessment of what the organisation was for. This process of defining purpose was used to engage with staff, empowering them and bringing them onside as part of the process. Working in a cross functional way, team members from different parts of the organisation helped define customer personae to help focus their efforts by giving a picture of who the members were and what they needed. This in turn helped to reframe NPD and web development by placing the audience back in the centre of the picture.
It also became clear that the organisation needed to invest in people, culture and processes or the technology would perform sub-optimally.
With such a transformation on the cards, a different approach was adopted. Like many professional bodies, change can come slowly due to a reluctance to let things go live until they are ‘perfect’. However, the organisation opted for a more iterative approach that broke with this philosophy. It needed to be more agile, and so adopted working to a series of 90-day sprints, a common practice employed by the technology firms of silicon valley. This allowed the project to be broken down into more manageable chunks and reassessed regularly. It broke out of the more traditional two-year development cycle and gave the organisation a way to move forward with confidence.
“My proudest moment was putting the site out in Beta. It is something that just wouldn’t have happened in the past and was an indication of how much we had changed the organisation.”
A project that started with the FD worrying about cost became about the strategy that will underpin that investment. The outcome has been organisational change and a parallel soul searching about the brand and its future value proposition. Hard decisions have also been made about resource allocation, but the result is an organisation that is more in tune with the demands of its members.
The experience chimed with the other bodies present. Although each was at a different stage in its digital transformation, they had plenty of examples of how digital was changing their organisations, and the challenges that brought.
Vision not process
There was widespread recognition that digital transformed the nature of the organisation’s role. Some felt that they could become too aligned to tasks rather than vision – how long it took to answer members’ queries, rather than assessing what they really needed.
Professional bodies can be wedded to the traditional way they have operated, it was felt. Smaller associations can be more agile and act more quickly because they realise that things don’t have to be perfect.
When it comes to communicating with members, it was suggested that digital required a simple, relevant and ‘less is more’ approach. Organisations need to earn the right to be heard among a plethora of competing voices targeting their members, moving towards short alerts, news posts and apps allowed members to choose what and how much content they want and when they want it; communications in the format that the contemporary member would prefer to consume it.
Professional bodies remain repositories of huge amounts of information that is relevant to members, and the group felt that this more detailed material could still be accessed when required. Documentation such as regulations can be out of date as soon as they are published, but digital makes them dynamic living documents that can be constantly refreshed.
Digital presents an opportunity to look again at what services and products an organisation provides for its members. In some cases, looking afresh at the organisation’s ongoing purpose can provide an opportunity to ‘kill off’ focus areas that are no longer relevant, although this can be politically awkward.
Organisations must remain aware of commercial opportunities at a time when the nature of their products and how they are sold is changing. In digital times, it is harder to sell on the ‘weight of the report’, but if bodies can demonstrate that they are part of the debate digitally, then opportunities may arise to provide a service on a chargeable basis.
“You can’t please everyone. When you look at the bell curve of the membership, there is a core group with particular needs, and maybe this should be what you aim to serve. You can spend a lot of time and effort on the needs of minority interests.”
At the same time, there is a tandem need for targeted and personalised information that digital can service, such as for international members with specific requirements. One organisation said it envisaged a ‘digital self-service machine’ to provide for its international members.
Face to face remains paramount
The urge to meet and network is as strong as ever, with Millennials often desiring this as strongly as older members. Digital options, such as social media haven’t replaced meetings, but are a strong supplement to them. One size doesn’t fit all, with regional meetings remaining important and popular for some bodies. Different countries also have a different appetite for face to face, with international arms valuing them highly.
“Social media ‘lights up’ ahead of meetings of our younger members. They plan what will happen ahead of the meeting and then discuss it at length afterwards, but they still want a physical meeting.”
Some organisations are also trialling the use of digital collaboration to support its members. Digital may also provide a way for members to contribute something back to the association. The fact that membership is a two-way thing is sometimes lost on newer generation, but through technology, this engagement is easier.
There was consensus that there was a need to involve Millennials in transformation. As well as being the future of the organisation, they are ‘born digital’ with a preference and aptitude for technology. Their input is vital.
An influencing voice
Social media have given professional bodies a new way to communicate with members and the outside world. But it has also allowed members to create their own platforms for debate and raised the question of whether it is best to have an owned presence socially or simply have a voice.
Organisations can’t control the debate in the social space, let alone own it, so it was felt that a more agile approach was sensible. Although organisations could have their own Twitter feeds and LinkedIn groups, these were no longer the only places for members to make their voices heard. Being aware of these other conversations was vital, it was felt, as they were sometimes more truthful than on managed forums.
“It’s no longer a case of ‘build it and they will come’, but you can provide an authoritative voice and bring people into the association by presenting that voice and expertise on relevant forums when the opportunity arises.”
Professional bodies are reliant on the efforts of those who join them, which provides strength in terms of commitment and experience. However, there was a feeling that it could slow down digital transformation and that sometimes an outside voice could provide a new perspective – even Apple and Google bring in outsiders.
However, the voices inside an organisation need to be heard, and another option was to simply ask people in the organisation what the priorities should be and entrusting them with the power to make that change. At the same time, somebody has to be prepared to tell them when to stop if progress is not being made.
Defining an organisation’s purpose should always come first, but organisations can no longer agree objectives annually. A more iterative, agile approach is required and if this is well articulated, people shouldn’t deviate much.
Overall there was great excitement about the potential of digital technology to transform professional bodies in many ways, some of which may not even be apparent yet. It was agreed that ignoring the challenge of change is not an option, but that implementation posed key questions about the nature and purpose of professional bodies in the future. In a space that was evolving quickly, it was agreed that there was a need to share experiences and best practice on an ongoing basis, and that organisations should get on ‘Just do it!’
About the author
Stuart Derrick is a journalist and business writer and has been a successful freelancer for the past ten years, primarily covering business issues such as marketing, HR, motivation, travel and SME growth issues.
Stuart has written for a selection of titles including: Marketing, Campaign, C&IT, Event, Revolution, Growing Business, Printwear & Promotion, Broadcast, Children & Young People Now, Sunday Times, and Mail on Sunday.
This article has been modified to suit this format by Burke Turner