If you imagine that AI, robotics, and automation are launching a future where you issue commands to mechanical workers while relaxing with a cold one, I’ve got bad news. A recent conversation with Kim Robinson, President of FrontlineCo, highlighted the idea that the business changes we’re experiencing are not streamlining work. Innovation is adding sophistication, complexity, and choices to every process.  

As president of a thriving association management company, Kim has a unique perspective on the industry. Along with a panoramic view of its position in the business marketplace, she has insight into the clockwork of administrative details that makes an organization successful. When Kim agreed to be interviewed for my Association 4.0 podcast, I was thrilled with the opportunity to pass her insights along to my audience.

In 2020, when I chatted with Kim for my book “Association 4.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation,” She offered this prescient advice:

“For me, entrepreneurship means taking a visionary approach and never being satisfied with the status quo. . . You should also scan the horizon to identify trending developments. . . Nothing stays the same.  To survive, you’ve always got to be looking for the next opportunity to improve service.”

Kim shared those ideas about change before most associations were ready to abandon well-worn security blankets for more adventurous strategies. I was eager to hear how the last two years have shifted her perspectives and her clients’ priorities.

FrontlineCo supports small to mid-sized associations within a variety of industries and professions. The company gives these groups access to the information, talent, and stability typically reserved for larger organizations. Those resources are especially valuable in the volatile economic and social environment we’ve recently experienced.

“Among the benefits an AMC offers,” Kim observes, “there are two significant strengths that help organizations navigate change. The first is: AMCs do a great job managing transitions. If talent moves on, the organization is not left with a vacuum. Multiple executives are already familiar with the history and operations. They can immediately pick up the ball.”

AMCs do a great job managing transitions.

“The other advantage is access to a breadth of experience that would be difficult for a single association to accumulate. My company includes 30 people with expertise organizing a variety of initiatives for multiple clients. We love sharing what we learn from our experiences, the good ideas and the pitfalls, across our client base.”

I was curious to hear how the pandemic had impacted that diverse group of organizations.

Make Room for Choice

“For my clients in health care, there was a profound impact,” Kim advised. “Although there weren’t any excessive financial losses, everyone experienced the disruption in their jobs and their personal lives.”

“Because volunteers were under so much stress, the board structure became more challenging. It was difficult for people to focus on the organization when they were concerned about their own careers and family struggles.” 

“On the other hand, although the transition to virtual events was a heavy lift, from a financial perspective, there were many positives. Collegiality and networking are a cornerstone of association life, and people really missed those opportunities. But I think the way members interact has permanently changed. Many of the strategies we adopted during the pandemic are here to stay.”

“A number of my clients fought the idea of a virtual conference tooth and nail,” Kim recalls. “When we didn’t have a choice, they realized that the experience was better than they anticipated, with the bonus of a lower price tag. We opened the door to possibilities. Members will continue to meet in person, but those gatherings will be for different reasons and activities.”

Respect Roles and Build Trust

As initiatives expand to meet new market and member demands, leadership becomes increasingly complex. Boards will need to understand the multiple possibilities in a digital marketplace. And governance structures must be flexible enough to allow exploration of those options.

I asked Kim what advice she would give to volunteers to help them successfully navigate continuing change and innovation.

A strong board/staff partnership is critical.

“Whether they are my clients or not, I always tell board members that their partnership with the staff is critical,” Kim replied. “The strength of that relationship links to their potential for success. Trust makes everyone’s work more rewarding and productive. When we respect each other’s roles and our shared vision, collaboration is at its best. It’s the teamwork that makes this industry fun.”

“If that camaraderie is missing in your group, I recommend that you find ways to repair broken trust or adjust roles that have slipped out of alignment.”

“When I see board members start moving into administration, I remind them that by focusing on operations they are giving the big picture short shrift. I can manage the association, but I can’t set the vision. That’s a job for the volunteers.”

Explore the Future

Imagining the future has never been more important. The association industry is at a unique point in its development. Technology is upping the game for everyone. It’s forcing groups that are unaccustomed to innovation to operate differently. Like most leaders, Kim and I spend time thinking about how business models should change to engage the next generation of members.

“I think we’ll continue to evolve,” Kim observed. “There are more options. You can have your own staff, or you can hire an AMC. Some associations have actually become AMCs by managing their chapters or other affiliated groups. Industry and especially the labor market will continue to be competitive. It’s harder than ever to attract great talent.”

Addressing the talent shortage is one of the areas where organizations must become more creative. More groups should look to AMCs and other third-party providers, for temporary, or even ongoing, specialized support. Before you begin a lengthy search, ask whether you really need this expertise as a permanent part of your staff. Or is there a partner who could augment your resources?

“That’s an excellent idea,” Kim agreed. “Maybe the shift from competition to collaboration is another change we’re experiencing. For example, FrontlineCo has specific expertise in marketing and learning management systems. I would love to share the information and skills that we’ve gathered to help a smaller association or another agency that doesn’t have that capability.”

Marketing is a skill set where resource-poor organizations may struggle to keep up with the future. Not that long ago, getting the word out was as simple as sending a postcard to your mailing list. Once there were only a few ways to communicate and we knew where our customers were located.

The recently baptized “MarCom” is another example of how we’ve kept old strategies and, with the shift to digital communications, added multiple new options. There are numerous social platforms, email, and text. Yet some people still prefer the US mail and the phone. Members are bombarded with messages, and remote work has made keeping track of that audience complicated. Using tech tools to gather data, create personas, and segment messaging adds a new expertise to the mix.  

As association professionals, our job is to master all these advancements to strengthen our own careers and improve our members’ professional lives. Kim summarized our thoughts like this:

“We’re experiencing turmoil, but it’s not unique to associations. Nothing is settled. Business will continue to evolve. I have clients that are more than 100 years old, and what’s obvious is that we can’t keep repeating what we have done for a century. Even though the uncertainty is stressful, the opportunity to help an organization discover innovative approaches is exhilarating. The benefits extend beyond me and my own business. Sharing insights with others in the industry and learning from our collective experiences improves the landscape for everyone.”

So, go ahead. Enjoy that IPA. But don’t look to technology to extend your happy hour.