Half a year into the global COVID-19 pandemic, visionary associations are using the crisis to re-imagine their business and membership models, eliminate obsolete offerings, embrace digital transformation, and invest in new product and market development. Decisions that were once made in months or even years are being made in weeks. Moving staff to telework from home, canceling periodical print issues, making offerings digital, and postponing or transforming conferences into digital formats happened in a flash.
Yet, this is just the beginning of what needs to be done.
Let’s face it: this is probably the most challenging time in the careers of association executives and board members alike, as decisions you make now will shape the future of your association. Now more than ever, you need to decide where you want to be in 5, 10 and 20 years. The “new normal”, as many have come to call it, accelerated the trend towards a digitally integrated world.
Still, few associations have recognized the intrinsic intersection of digital transformation and internationalization. With more products, programs, and services available through the internet, most organizations are becoming increasingly visible outside their home markets. Geographical boundaries are becoming less important. People can access content using technology from anywhere in the world. Internationalization, therefore, might just be a natural consequence of digital transformation. So, is your organization ready to engage international audiences? Are you approaching digital transformation with a global mindset?
If internationalization and digital transformation have been increasingly important for some, many associations have been slow at embracing the necessary change to make them a reality. Others have failed to realize the direct relationship between both. Digital transformation provides a unique opportunity for international reach and in the same way, international opportunity fuels the need for better technology and digital channels.
In fact, if COVID-19 has had one positive effect, it lies in the fact that it presented a unique opportunity to think about digital transformation in the context of internationalization. Have you considered that innovation within this context might be the answer to some of your challenges? Rather than jumping to find ways to fix what you have, think about what your members and customers need. Think about which markets are underserviced and how new market development might give you access to a broader audience and additional sources of revenue. Take the time to understand where you can have meaningful impact on your members and society and challenge your team to disrupt your own models.
Now is the time to reassess your core. Your mission should guide your decisions. It may sound counterintuitive when everyone seems to be trying to react as fast as they can, but strategic planning has never been more important than it is today. Despite the time pressures generated by the perceived need to take your conferences to a virtual environment and come up with new distribution channels online, this is not the time to make rash decisions that could jeopardize your financial well-being. It is the time to take a break, look at your organization with an external lens, involve your stakeholders and allow yourself to imagine what your organization will look like tomorrow. Yes, you will need to do this fast, but you may not have another opportunity as the one presented by this pandemic to reassess your priorities, fix what has not been working and put the pieces in place to guarantee future success. Demonstrate purpose!
Case in point
Associations know that the time has come to pay attention to delivering content in a more efficient way and online. One that has successfully embraced digital transformation is The Risk Management Association (RMA). Nancy Foster, RMA’s President & CEO, was quick to recognize the need for quality digital products to serve the needs of an increasingly demanding and globally interconnected industry. She and her team had been moving towards digital for months, but the pandemic accelerated the transition. In her own words, “RMA recognized in early January that the coronavirus would severely impact our members, and, in fact we engaged a Ph.D. on January 6th to assist us. We developed a pandemic planning white paper which we delivered to our members in early February”.
RMA transitioned their entire member service function online by March through the development of a coronavirus resource center. They delivered over 30 webinars within the next few months, starting in early February, and conducted weekly peer-sharing calls among key stakeholders. “COVID-19 served as an accelerator for our transition from a legacy meeting and events company to one highly focused on digital delivery”, Foster said. “A shift that is also making our association more accessible to our international community, which has shown substantial interest in our new offerings.”
RMA is not the only success story. Scott Stuart, Chief Executive Officer at the Turnaround Management Association (TMA), led his organization through quick decision making on what he calls “Pivoting with Purpose”. He believes that “leading through a crisis means making strategic decisions with care but being unafraid to make hard and sometimes unpopular decisions”. According to Scott, turning their model within a matter of weeks after the March shutdown was a decision that, while disruptive, was based on an assessment that this was going to be a long-term crisis his organization had to manage with immediacy. As a result, TMA created new online programming, flipped their annual conference to virtual, and assured member support in definitive and defining ways. “We played offense!”, he said, and added that doing that likely saved TMA from issues other associations are first coming to grips with in the “new normal”.
Transform with a global mentality
Some associations are still contemplating moving their conferences online, considering how to digitize information and exploring novel ways to stay in touch with their members. Several have already done so, some did it within days, and others are struggling to make it happen. Yet few are doing so with a global mentality. Although RMA and TMA are great examples of visionary organizations excelling in understanding the intersection of these areas, few organizations seem to be truly challenging their membership models, few are thinking about how to transform with a global mentality and even fewer are focused on strategy. It seems COVID-19 took everyone by surprise and almost everyone has been on reactive mode. Is yours one of those organizations?
Membership models are being challenged and now that everything is online you have an opportunity to have a more global model. Traditionally, associations offered online content to international markets and often the perceived value was lower in comparison. Now that everyone needs it, how will you step it up? How do you empower chapters to take lead on in-country operations and participate in global product development efforts? Do you localize? How do you take advantage of economies of scale? Do you need a subscription-based model? How do you become more inclusive? How could you get to a point where all new programs, products and services are produced with a global mindset?
For each organization, the answers will be different. But the process will be the same-—they will emerge from thoughtful and timely strategic planning based on the specific needs of your constituencies. And it is likely that they will be based on digital transformation and internationalization—they are intimately connected. This is even a good opportunity to work more effectively with your Board of Directors and partner with other stakeholders to create the association of tomorrow. Embracing a disciplined and yet flexible strategic approach will be key to success. With vision and action, your association will thrive well into the future.