“Association leaders must use digital to change not just ‘how’ but also ‘what’ you do in your jobs,” says Sharon Rice, principal of Art of Planning Consulting and APICS’ former vice president of strategy, at the “Leading Digital: From Strategy to Executive” program July 19 at Rosemont’s OLC Education & Conference Center.

During the interactive program, produced by .orgCommunity and sponsored by Adage Technologies, facilitators addressed what’s driving digital change and proven ways for associations to successfully lead and respond to digital shifts.

Digital Disruptions Impacting Associations

Social media is the force driving change, according to Rice. In the past, associations represented the largest communities of professionals—but not today. In fact, U.S. digital platforms rival the size of entire nations:

  • LinkedIn has 433 million users, which is greater than the population of the entire South American continent
  • Facebook has more than 1.5 billion monthly active users—more than China’s population of 1.35 billion and India’s population of 1.29 billion
  • Twitter has more than 310 million monthly active users, which is approximately the same as the U.S.’s population

LinkedIn is “the” association disruptor, Rice says. Consider that LinkedIn reached a revenue base of $861 million at the end of Q2 2016, 65 percent of which, according to LinkedIn, supports career development. As several participants pointed out during the seminar, professionals feel they have to be a member of LinkedIn whether they benefit directly from services or not. It has become a professional mandate in the way that association membership was a professional mandate in the past.

“Social media is a force that’s driving change, not just a tool we’re trying to leverage,” Rice says. She adds that social platforms engage users to recruit other users to enhance their own benefit, they spread news and information more quickly than traditional media, and are adept at monetizing products, services, and data.

“You can actually get to know your customers better on social platforms than through your AMS or CMS,” Rice adds. “You will learn more about what motivates them, how your customers leverage social media and communities to learn.”

Where do associations land on the trajectory of digital disruption? Although associations are not included in the “digital vortex” graphic analysis as provided by the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, IMD and Cisco in 2015, aspects of association business are reflected in education, media and entertainment, as well as hospitality and travel industries. Also, associations represent all these industries and the professionals that support them.


“Digital vortex” is the inevitable movement of industries toward a “digital center” in which business models, offerings, and value chains are digitized to the maximum extent possible. The industries charted are most likely to experience the most disruption by 2020. As industries are drawn toward the center they are caught up in rapid and constant change as well as increasing competition.

Digital Strategy: 4 Essential Components

The key to a successful strategy at all of these stages is asking the right questions, Rice says. Adapting a Forrester planning framework, associations addressing digital transformation should seek answers to the following questions:

  1. Conceptualize. How can digital transformation ensure the sustainability of the organization? Why is a digital strategy necessary? What is your vision? What are you seeking to accomplish?
  2. Strategize. What is the plan for enabling digital transformation of the organization? How will you leverage digital to transform your organization? What capabilities do you have and what do you need to develop? What is your digital transformation roadmap?
  3. Actualize. What specifically will need to be done to enable digital transformation? How will you align the organization’s culture to the digital transformation plan? What processes must change or be optimized? What technology do you need to support the plan?
  4. Maximize. What should be measured to ensure success and continuously improve outcomes? How will you align staff performance goals to the plan? What metrics or benchmarks will you use to measure the effectiveness of the plan and implementation? How will you ensure that your organization not only improves but innovates?

“The conceptualization, or vision, is the most important step. That’s what determines whether you’re going to go big or go targeted,” Rice says. “Here, you determine what it is you need to do to continue to be in business and meet customers’ needs. It’s about identifying not just how to survive but thrive in the current environment.”

Rice says if you are struggling to create the vision, she recommends the “customer-facing digital strategy foundation.” First, you determine the audiences you want to build, then how you will engage these audiences and, finally, how you will monetize these audiences.

“You need to establish yourself with these audiences before you can take them where you want them to go,” Rice says.

Once you reach your target audiences, you must determine how to engage them. “That’s where content strategy comes into play,” Rice says. “Once you can convince your audiences you have credibility and have something they want, then you can monetize.”

Role of Project Management

Dean Comber, MBA, PMP, director of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists’ project management office (PMO), explains why establishing a PMO helps advance leadership and quality.

By adding a PMO, associations can reduce silos and greatly improve upon communication as projects are centralized and prioritized. Organizations can better align strategic objectives to projects instead of solving problems based on “we’ve always done it that way.”

A PMO also adds consistency in process, templates and systems. A PMO establishes an approach for analyzing lessons learned, implementing best practices, and striving toward improved quality.

Rethinking Traditional IT

.orgCommunity Co-Founder Kevin Ordonez emphasized the importance of information technology staff being key collaborators to an organization’s success. He also addressed trends and new skills needed for today’s association IT professional. These include:

  • Change from coding to managing vendors/cloud
  • Change from production to considering the user experience
  • Change from reports to understanding an association’s business in order to help make data-driven decisions for the organization
  • Change from “operating in a cube doing projects” to collaboration

Ordonez also noted that today’s IT leader must be:

  • Fast and decisive
  • Viewed as an enabler of progress and change
  • Considered a “strategic resource”
  • A collaborator
  • A great communicator

An IT leader also requires autonomy and must focus on customer support, the user experience and business analytics in order to be effective.

Continue the Conversation: How well is your association positioned to meet the challenges and opportunities of the digital age? Please share with the community how you are leveraging digital as a leader and as an organization.