Is anyone else tired of dystopian predictions? Today, I’m going to consider perfection. This may not be what most people imagine as utopia. But the realm of Association 4.0™ is pretty close to my ideal for my clients and their organizations.

Several years ago, .orgSource coined the phrase Association 4.0 to describe the approach needed to succeed in the digital marketplace.  We were looking toward the future and trying to understand what impact the 4th Industrial Revolution would have on our community.

As part of our research, my business partner, Kevin Ordonez, and I interviewed leaders who we identified as ahead of industry trends. We also organized a team of colleagues to participate in Think Tank discussions. Those conversations resulted in our Association 4.0 books. They form part of our framework for helping clients to navigate a business climate that is constantly reshaping and reinventing itself.

Understand the Environment

Until now most of us had not had the opportunity to meet Industry 4.0’s ambassador to the world of business as usual. Courtesy of COVID, we’ve all been introduced to Disruption. But beyond upending our best-laid plans, what is the significance of Industry 4.0? Where does the idea that history is turning a page come from?

The smart factory is an example of Association 4.0 technology.

The term was introduced into the popular vocabulary in a 2015 article by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chair of the World Economic Forum. The idea is that new technologies such as artificial intelligence, gene editing, and robotics are dissolving barriers. The boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds are vanishing. This phenomenon is creating changes that are significant enough, in the way that goods are manufactured and that work, and workplaces operate, to define a new era.

Smart manufacturing, characterized by connected sensors and input devices that monitor machine health and self-optimize the supply chain, is an example of 4th Industrial Revolution technology. Communication between humans and their tools occurs in real time over the internet. The smart factory, along with everything from smartwatches to dog collars, is part of the exploding internet of things. The digital drivers of these developments are industry-agnostic. They are altering economies across the business spectrum.

Identify Trends

Along with abrupt shifts in opportunity and challenge, i.e., continuous business disruption, these are other characteristics of Industry 4.0 and the digital marketplace.   

  • Exacting consumers who expect customized products and services delivered on-demand.
  • A constant stream of customer data available to upgrade products and services.
  • New partnerships designed to extend resources and to accelerate innovation.
  • The alignment of previously dissimilar, and even contradictory, missions and organizations.
  • A global employment market that gives workers opportunities to specialize, pick and choose assignments, and select non-traditional hours and workplaces.
  • Flatter organizations that are more collaborative and project driven.

These threads are intertwining as culture, work, production, and technology become more tightly woven. No single phenomenon can be characterized as positive or negative. Each comes with benefits for some and consequences for others. The key is understanding how to stay in the sweet spot—or the place that we call Association 4.0, by maximizing the positive and avoiding the negative aspects of change. 

Use Technology to Expand Vision

As an entrepreneurial organization, .orgSource is accustomed to change management. In considering how to position our clients for Industry 4.0, we realized that the attitudes and strategies that help us, and other entrepreneurs, to stay ahead of the market could also support association executives to navigate a new, highly competitive landscape.

Association 4.0 leadership requires a combination of attitudes and skills plus the willingness to put technology at the center of business. It is focused on learning and building an organization that innovates based on the changing needs and preferences of its customers.

Fully integrated software systems make this approach possible. Technology must work across platforms and provide a 360-degree view of your organization’s world. Learning how to use that data to develop an intimate understanding of constituents and execute strategies based on that information is the goal.

On the other hand, systems, and the connectivity and statistics they generate, have limited impact without context. Values are the true agents of innovation. Association 4.0 leaders share these qualities:

  • An agile mind
  • Boundless curiosity
  • Courage to adopt new ideas
  • Willingness to change before change becomes inevitable
  • Consideration for organizational success over individual agendas
For leaders who confront the unknown, the payoff can be substantial.

Meg Ward, Co-Founder of Gravitate Solutions, expressed the importance of ideals like this. “Associations are able to bring people together to share a common experience. I believe that’s unique and valuable. How they leverage technology, and other tools, to keep that heartbeat strong, not just at the annual meeting, but throughout the year, will be central to their future success and well-being.”

Balance Risk and Opportunity

Bold visions aren’t achieved without risk. Learning to manage risk is an essential skill for Association 4.0 leaders. When boards are brave enough to confront the unknown, the payoff can be substantial. Sandy Marsico, Founder and CEO of Sandstorm Design, told me this story about an organization that took a risk to make its vision a reality.  

“The National Association of REALTORS® has been our client for 15 years. We had the privilege of watching them grow REALTOR® University, a project that was both innovative and enterprising from the ground up. Their vision was to offer a master’s degree in real estate. In order to launch a global online university, they created an entirely new organization. It took courage to commit to a major investment with so many moving parts. But now REALTOR® University has expanded their reach beyond what we could have imagined.”

Embrace Problem-Solving and Innovation

Ideas like Realtor University pick the house up and put it down somewhere new. Many organizations don’t have the resources to make such a significant leap. But you must cultivate the intellectual capital to find the right path around inevitable obstacles. That means either growing your own or recruiting people who love to solve problems.

Even associations that are at the epicenter of innovation need their creative muscle. Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, understood that the manufacturing industry’s fear of job losses, as a result of new technology, might produce governmental regulations impacting his members.

Even organizations at the epicenter of innovation, can use creative muscle.

To address the issue, in May of 2017, CTA organized the “New American Jobs Summit” in Washington, D.C. The event gathered policymakers, industry leaders, and key influencers to examine the future of employment in the United States. It explored how government and the private sector could collaborate to develop a competitive workforce, create new high-wage jobs, and foster economic growth in the face of rapid technological innovation, an aging population, and increased global competition.

Be Agile

Even when ideas pop like flashbulbs on the Red Carpet, without the ability to set new initiatives in motion, innovation is useless. Reaction, revision, and reinvention are standard operating procedures in the corporate world. But moving with that agility inside an organization where decisions are made by consensus, volunteer leadership changes frequently, and strategy can be subject to a new leader’s preferences is challenging. The CEO is the only person with the power to create an environment that is prepared for and welcomes change, but it can be a heavy lift.

Joey Knecht, CEO and Managing Director of, recommends that leaders turn away from politics and focus on business. “Leaders must understand how to leverage technology and minimize politics in their organizations,” he advises. “A lot of people are tired of the politics that pervades many associations. They see that two percent of the membership are driving the bus and the other 98 percent are along for the ride. Executives need to find ways to make participation more equitable and enjoyable.”

Use Data to Drive Decisions

Data offers a path toward objective decision-making. The fancy graphics and charts that technology makes available are not just show ponies. A deep understanding of your members and the marketplace is central to the Association 4.0 approach. The ability to access and analyze accurate data unlocks that knowledge.

David Martin, CAE and CEO of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, made this observation about the importance of integrated technology systems. “Going 100 percent digital allowed us to get a 360-degree view of our constituents. SCCM can focus investment in its most important customers, see patterns in demographics, and respond with changes in pricing or adjustments in strategies. The data we collect and analyze provides new ways of thinking about customers that drive revenue growth in the short term and create insight into future behaviors and new product development in the long term.”

See Beyond the Present

Meeting change head-on requires the humility to ask questions, to experiment, and to make mistakes and start over again. You must see beyond the present to recognize future potential. No one can execute all of this perfectly. The joy is in the challenge. Solving problems and creating ideas, activities, and things that didn’t exist before is the essence of Association 4.0, and that is the sweet spot for success in the digital future.

Read profiles of Meg Ward, Sandy Marsico, Gary Shapiro, Joey Knecht, and David Martin in our Association 4.0 books.

When you want to put your organization in the sweet spot, call on .orgSource.