Excellence is never a given. Being identified as the best in anything from soccer to sales requires commitment and hard work. But for decades, associations easily held pride of place in their industries. Members saw us as a professional home, their most trusted source of advocacy and information. Yes, we had to win that loyalty. But there weren’t many contestants vying to take it away.

Today that privileged spot is challenged on multiple fronts. Even before COVID-19, the rapid pace of technology and its impact on culture was upending traditional business models. Long-standing equations for success are out of balance. And, without guidance, trying to keep pace in an unpredictable digital market can be a frustrating exercise.

If an organizational evaluation isn’t on your agenda, now is the time to revise your schedule. Relying on outdated patterns of member engagement, employer-based dues payments, and annual meeting revenues is the opposite of a strategy for success. In fact, it’s not a strategy at all.

Associations are called on to redefine excellence and discover ways to deliver value that align with an environment and expectations driven by technology. At .orgSource we call this new benchmark for performance Association 4.0, or the ability to keep pace with the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Over the last decade, we’ve focused on defining how an organization that strives to be best in class should look and act. We’ve interviewed icons and iconoclasts of association leadership, conducted focus groups, and developed surveys. We even wrote two books on this topic. Our paper “Pathways to Organizational Excellence” is the distillation of that research.

This post is Part One of my elevator version of Pathways. Although I might need more than one ride to share it with you.

Excellence Equals Value

Excellence orbits around value. You can produce Nobel-worthy content, have an award-winning website, and a list of member benefits as long as your arm. But if those offerings aren’t enticing your audience, then you’re not delivering value. Associations must focus on deeply listening to these three groups; then, understanding and addressing their unique needs:

To deliver value, your offerings must entice the audience.
  • Individual members/customers–by helping them in their career development and enabling them to perform their jobs at the highest level.
  • The profession/industry—By assisting the field to grow and thrive.
  • The public—By using their expertise to contribute to community improvement.

These characteristics support fulfilling your constituents’ needs:

  • Focus—A clear understanding of your purpose, vision, goals, and objectives.
  • Resilience—The ability to adapt to change and achieve long-term sustainability and relevance.
  • Health—Positive performance across a range of well-defined metrics, including financial stability and the professional development and engagement of staff, volunteers, and members.

Seven Strategies for Change

Excellence still depends on how well you get things done. But here’s the difference. You can’t keep referring to the same playbook. The competitive landscape is crowded, the workforce has shifted, and digital skills are the norm. Association professionals are challenged to not only master new technologies, but we must also rethink our core operations, strategies, and values. The organizations that succeed will use technology as a catalyst for innovation, customer engagement, and social impact.

Yes, that’s a tall order. You might wonder what it means to undertake this journey. Based on our experience, we’ve identified seven qualities that characterize operating at the Association 4.0 level:

  1. A flexible structure that allows for timely change: Look toward the future. Make evolution a constant. Be prepared to act on trends and avoid disruption.
  2. Innovation, risk-tolerance, and experimentation: Make room for creativity. Empower and reward staff for breaking new ground. Tolerate experiments that don’t deliver, promote psychological safety, and encourage transparent dialogue.
  3. A diverse mix of skills and perspectives: Prioritize professional and organizational development. Build a positive culture that includes a spectrum of skills, value diversity, equity, and inclusion in thought and demographics.
  4. Built for Action: Design processes for efficient, timely decision-making.
  5. Robust Business Intelligence Systems: Use data systems to support decision-making and produce clear, multidimensional metrics to guide initiatives.
  6. Enabling Technologies: Integrate digital strategies throughout the organization and understand the broader significance of a robust digital approach.
  7. Financial Performance: Pursue diversified revenue streams. Actively manage existing products, develop new offerings, and ensure access to capital for future investments.

Compassionate Leadership

These are qualities you can use to manage operations. But we are also committed to the idea that effective technology is guided and informed by human values. The HEART framework is a set of companion characteristics that support professionals in bringing foresight, empathy, and compassion to their leadership styles.

We view HEART as the foundation for all digital initiatives and as a key ingredient for sustaining excellence. The letters stand for:

  • Humanize: “Fostering Connections/Empathy”
  • Empower: “Unlocking Potential”
  • Ascend: “Reaching New Heights”
  • Reimagine: “Visioning Possibility”
  • Transform: “Catalyzing Change”

You can read more about the HEART framework on my blog. I’m passionate about promoting this leadership style, and I would love to share my ideas with your group.

A Continuous Journey

The most important point about all these activities is that they are not an end in themselves. Excellence in the digital age is continuous quality improvement. There is no point of arrival, only ongoing departures to new and interesting territory. Although that momentum may seem challenging and even a bit scary, it is the speed at which we need to travel to keep members on the journey with us and ensure we remain their trusted tour guides to professional success.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this Post.

To learn more about Association 4.0, book time on my calendar to chat.