The new year has arrived. We popped the champagne and wished 2020 goodbye and good riddance. There is a vaccine, so an end to our year of living separately is somewhere just over the horizon. On the other hand, the Low Touch Economy is here to stay.

I’m struck by 2020 as a defining moment. Like September 11, 2001 and the recession of 2008, 2020 leaves indelible change in its wake. Those earlier cataclysmic events ended the days of boarding a plane without a security check or getting a mortgage with limited collateral. The aspects of business and life that have been permanently altered by the pandemic are still uncertain. But it’s clear that although the masks will come off, distance which was a necessity, will become a choice.

It may seem as though the Low Touch Economy is an invention of COVID. In reality, this phenomenon had already been simmering for a long time before the virus brought it to a boil. Consider the number of retail stores that were floundering in 2019. If COVID hadn’t created a new normal, technology would have.

At the beginning of the pandemic, .orgSource fielded numerous questions about how to react in this uncertain environment. In May, Sharon Rice, Managing Director of Business Strategy, and I presented a webinar to provide guidance and discuss the ins and outs of business in the Low Touch Economy.

Most of those recommendations weren’t new ideas. It is advice we have given our clients for several years now. The strategies that maximize technology and smooth the path in the digital marketplace are effective in any volatile situation. As we begin a new year, I’d like to emphasize that although the virus will recede, the business environment has been permanently transformed. New approaches continue to be critical. If you have not made the following adjustments to your playbook, add them to your list of resolutions for 2021.  

Become Digital

This is the most important advice I can give for the new year. If you’ve made ad hoc technology improvements, don’t continue to work with half-baked solutions. Formalize a plan to fully integrate people, systems, and strategies. Preparing your team to embrace new business processes is the hardest part of a digital transformation. You’ve already accomplished that goal. Use that leg up to your advantage.

Go Lean

Agility and speed will continue to be critical business attributes.

Agility and speed will continue to be critical business attributes. Shed weight that is keeping you from acting quickly. Paring down is not easy, but it is a necessary challenge. Don’t allow sentiment to interfere with sunsetting unproductive activities. Face the hard realities. If the annual conference attendance has been declining, start to reimagine that event. Consider what you’ve learned about your members’ virtual participation and apply that knowledge to future educational offerings. There may never be a better opportunity to introduce significant change. Focus resources on programs that are resilient.

Deliver Core Competencies

Resilient programs remain important over time because they are core to your members’ well-being. Sharon recalls, “In the 2008 recession, certification was extremely resilient. Even in industries that were severely impacted, certification held its value. Members viewed the credential as a skill validation that would help them either retain their current position or move on to something new. I’m not as confident that certification is going to continue to perform well,” Sharon says. “Today, we have a much higher rate of unemployment than we did in 2008. People who aren’t getting a paycheck are unlikely to spend dwindling cash on a costly certification program.”

On the other hand, Sharon notes, that many workers are going to need new skills. According to a 2019 report from the Brookings Institute, one-quarter of American jobs are at high risk for automation. Sharon cites warehousing as an example of an industry where the pandemic has accelerated that trend.

“Warehousing has been automated for some time,” Sharon observes. “However, until now, many companies weren’t willing to make the investment in new systems. Social distancing provided a major incentive for capital improvements. Now, displaced workers will need to find other employment.”

Sharon views microlearning as an effective method for associations to help workers experiment and retrain incrementally. She suggests engaging volunteers in creating these short bursts of education designed to expand professional horizons. The  emphasis, she advises, should be on skill building. Make it easy for volunteers to participate by providing templates and training.

If your association does not have a learning management system, that purchase should be on the 2021 agenda. There are many options available, including less costly non-traditional platforms. If an LMS is not in your current budget, PowerPoint with voice-over is a universally available technique.

Build Trust

Don’t let an undisciplined board drag you down rabbit holes.

Don’t let an over-enthusiastic or undisciplined board drag you down rabbit holes. Take steps to help them engage more productively. Of all my recommendations, this one is probably the most challenging. Although you can’t easily change your board’s size, you can discuss the need for more effective deliberations and begin conversations with the board chair and executive committee about how to trim the governance structure. If you don’t have at least one or two directors you can communicate with frankly, cultivate those relationships and enlist people to be your advocates.

Scenario planning is another way to build trust and streamline decision-making. Sharon advises, “When you can’t predict the future, gaming out the options gives people a sense of control. You can make assumptions and develop a response to each set of circumstances. Working with the board to review and approve a scenario plan instills confidence. When members realize that you are prepared for a variety of outcomes, they are more likely to let go of the reins and trust you to lead.”

Create Community

Members need their community more than ever. According to the National Restaurant Association, “At least 100,000 restaurants are closed – nearly one in six. Three million restaurant employees are without a job, and the industry remains on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of the year.” Consider how you can use technology to support stressed workers and build public awareness.

Several frontline medical associations did a fantastic job providing a venue for real-time information. I participated in live webinars on Facebook where physicians shared expertise and experiences. It was fascinating. Those organizations used an unprecedented situation to take a risk and try new tactics. As a result, they created a sense of community that extended far beyond their membership.

Sharon recalls a similar situation, “In 2008 when I was working for APICS, very few people knew what supply chain was. We capitalized on that and created opportunities to help both members and the public understand their professional importance. Building awareness is something associations can do for their constituents right now.”

Go on the Offensive

Constant reaction leads to burn-out. The new year demands an approach that is both energetic and creative. Sharon advises, “Get on the offensive and accept the lasting changes. The phrase ‘new normal’ resonates with me. We’ll find equilibrium again, but it won’t be by looking backward for January 2020.”

Being proactive means that you pay attention to trends as they emerge. If you resolve to welcome a new environment, you will position your association for success.