Are sharks circling your member base, eyeing bites for their next meal? Even if your association is trapped in a sea of competition, you can change course and sail toward possibility.

Sharon Rice, .orgSource Managing Director of Business Strategy, is our expert for guiding associations through tough markets. At .orgCommunity’s recent Innovation Summit, Sharon explored how Blue Ocean Strategy can help you bypass the sharks and find your way to offering unique and powerful member value.

That idea might seem a little miraculous. But divine intervention is not required. All that’s needed is a 360-degree shift in how you view your business universe.

This methodology was used to evaluate expanding the American Board of Medical Specialties, ABMS CertLink®, platform into new markets. Jennifer Michael, Chief Operating Officer, was on hand to provide an overview of CertLink and describe its development. 

Blue Ocean Strategy has the ring of a concept shaped by technology. Actually, the process is based on three decades of research conducted by authors Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based team was motivated by the desire to find solutions for struggling businesses like the Detroit automobile producers. Before their book was published in 2005, the authors “studied over 150 strategic moves spanning more than 30 industries over 100 years.” 

Move Beyond SWOT

Sharon explains the book’s premise like this. “Red oceans represent the current marketplace where the rules for competition are set. The SWOT analysis, which typically begins a planning process, makes you a prisoner of that crowded environment. SWOT keeps you stuck grasping for opportunities and mired in old thinking. Breaking out of this pattern is hard for many associations.

“Blue oceans are undiscovered territory. They are the space where you take the lead and others must follow. The idea is to differentiate yourself by putting the customer at the center of planning and building what they need. When you tailor your product to its consumers, competition becomes irrelevant. The process centers around those hallmarks of the digital marketplace, innovation and value.”

Cirque combines drama, daring, and special effects.

Uncontested space is the gift of Blue Ocean Strategy. The authors use Cirque du Soleil to illustrate this idea. The Cirque audience sits under a striped big top. Clowns, acrobats, and trapeze artists entertain. But that’s where the comparisons to Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey end.

Cirque marries theater to the circus and produces a unique, reimagined offspring. The show combines drama, daring, and special effects. It offers the audience a product that is not available elsewhere with a ticket price that sits in between the circus and a Broadway show.

Explore a New Landscape

For most associations, the ocean is growing redder. If your members are—

  • Tired of the “same old, same old” product portfolio
  • Turning to for-profit companies for professional development
  • Looking for greater value and diversity in your services
  • Losing interest in networking and in-person meetings

—Now might be a good time to reimagine products, services, and pricing.

“Competition is an unanticipated recent challenge for many associations,” Sharon advises. “Technology has opened protected space. Companies, like Udemy,  Online MedED, and Health Stream are encroaching on the professional development arena, and they are eager to attract your audience.

“We’re even sabotaging our own. Subspecialty groups are moving into the parent association’s territory. And networking, once a core association benefit, is no longer as important.”

These developments, coupled with the impact of events like digital transformation, the great recession, and the pandemic, are churning an increasingly red ocean.

Pricing is another factor contributing to rough waters. Kim and Mauborgne are adamant that cost is a critical element in their equation. Their research indicates that customers don’t want quantity. Members are seeking usefulness at the right price tag.  

“Traditionally,” Sharon observes, “associations have translated value into offering more of the same services. This approach increases the cost, doesn’t effectively address need or competition, and drives customers toward other options.

“Blue Ocean Strategy asks us to do something that may be counterintuitive,” Sharon notes. “Instead of piling on benefits, it challenges us to simplify. The goal is to identify products and services members can’t live without; then deliver those unique offerings at a price they can live with. You don’t need to be the least expensive option in the market, but competitive pricing is a must.”

Make It Real

Jennifer explained that in 2015, ABMS set out to improve the onerous 10-year maintenance of certification exam process for physicians. The goal was to create shorter assessments of specific content that could be administered over time. This initiative resulted in ABMS CertLink®. 

The organization wanted to create a user-friendly certification process.

ABMS realized that CertLink had the potential to transform the way that the assessment process was viewed. The platform removes burdensome activities, provides an ongoing learning and assessment process, and continues to offer the public a reliable marker of trust. Blue Ocean Strategy was used to evaluate the potential for promoting the product to new markets.

The mission of ABMS is to serve the public and the medical profession by improving the quality of health care through setting professional standards for certification in partnership with member boards. ABMS works with a federation of 24 member boards.  

Put Customers First

In 2015, ABMS set out to create a more user-friendly process for the member boards to assess their physicians. Their goals were to provide an ongoing learning and assessment process, offer physicians data on strengths and weaknesses, and fit more seamlessly into their lifestyle, all at a lower cost.

“We are committed to emphasizing feedback and learning to close the knowledge gaps,” Jennifer observed. “The product provides immediate detailed critiques and rationales. And there’s a dashboard that highlights individual areas for improvement and compares results to other participants. Physicians no longer must travel to take an exam.”

CertLink combines longitudinal assessment and personalized learning. Its benefits include—

  • Ease of availability on the web and mobile devices 
  • Relevant, personalized content 
  • Immediate performance feedback with rationales 
  • Guidance for formative learning and resources 
  • A dashboard for progress tracking 

The tool makes continuing certification an opportunity for learning, professional development, and staying up-to-date with current specialty practice. In addition, it’s convenient and economical.

Product development and improvement continue. Jennifer shared the organization’s ongoing research process. “ABMS studied the literature. We consulted with experts within education from K-12 to advanced academics. Each group has a different approach. We focus on activities that support professional expertise over time. Adding frequent quick assessments with spaced repetition to verify learning and the ability to include current and emerging content are areas we’d like to expand.” 

The platform’s current iteration already has 35,000 users. When ABMS surveyed this group, the product satisfaction level was 90 percent. The results signal success within their community, and ABMS is now investigating how to grow interest beyond the member boards.

Use What Works

This post presents Blue Ocean Strategy in broad strokes. “There’s a heavy overhead to implementing the methodology from start to finish,” Sharon advises. “However, the tools and the basic framework can help everyone to look at challenges in a new way and analyze a situation from a different perspective. If you are responsible for strategy in your organization, you might want to read the book or take the course the authors have developed.”

From my point of view, turning away from tradition and toward innovation is one of Blue Ocean Strategy’s significant benefits. Sharks are looking for a meal. To keep them at bay, find a new blue ocean.