Perspectives on Technology for Association Boards
Technology advancements can occur at lightning-fast speeds, resulting in a nonstop wave of new products, software, services, apps, third-party providers and more. Such conditions can make it daunting for a board of directors to guide an association's technological strategy.
Scott Johnston, vice president, Information Technology Services, SmithBucklin, has some simple, straightforward advice for those uneasy with technology’s fast pace and the change that often comes with it.
“Technology is like a house,” he said. “You move from one house to the next, and you do so because your needs change. It’s not a bad thing. Similarly, managing technology can mean moving from one platform to the next. But it is important not to view it as a failure or crisis. Your needs are changing. It is a natural evolution.” And just like when moving to a new home, managing technology can lead to nervousness, anticipation and excitement.
With the housing metaphor in mind, Johnston has “moved” many times throughout his 33-year-career, which started in high school when he worked for a software company testing its products and writing the documentation (in the old days when software not only came on a floppy disk but included an actual manual explaining how to use it).
Johnston focused his career on supporting the technology needs of associations for almost 20 years. Below is a Q&A that covers his take on technology and how board members can get the most out of it for their associations.
Board Forward: What kind of technology can help an association grow?
Scott Johnston: Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms — through which applications are hosted by a vendor or service provider and made available to customers over a network, typically the Internet — have brought about great flexibility and reduced costs to a wide range of systems. The best offerings are adding new features at an incredible rate.
Examples of SaaS platforms used by associations include association management systems (AMS), which have features such as membership database, dues-processing, event registration and more (YourMembership.com, Socious); video conferencing (Zoom); online meetings (GoToMeeting); customer relationship management (Salesforce.com); marketing automation (HubSpot), to name a few.
BF: And how can SaaS programs help an association be flexible?
SJ: It is interesting that everything from video conferencing to AMS is moving to SaaS platforms, allowing associations to basically rent what they need. This approach allows for great flexibility and has led to more choices being available. It is great because things that were not possible a few years ago are now not only possible, but really affordable.
An example is using video to communicate. I see high school kids using free tools such as Hangouts, a video chat service provided by Google, to collaborate on homework projects. In the past, they would have to meet at school or coordinate an in-person meeting, which can be challenging (not only for children, but also for association volunteers and business professionals). In addition, they use tools like Dropbox and Google Drive to access files on any device. It allows them to work collaboratively and see each other’s edits in real-time. What is going to be interesting is when these kids join the workforce and expect to have at least that level of tool at their disposal. Anything less is going to seem like printed memos did to people after the adoption of email.
BF: What do you see as new technology trends that can greatly impact associations?
SJ: One trend that is accentuated by technology is increased personalization. For example, members can have different experiences when visiting an association’s website because of their user profiles or past engagements with the association. Once someone has registered for an event, the content they see can reflect that, showing them specific sessions or speakers rather than a more general display. And, if they registered the previous year, you can make it easy for them to simply renew that registration for the next event. It is also possible to give them a link similar to what Amazon provides to make it easy for customers to order something they have ordered before.
Another trend regards how members access information. Associations can deliver an experience tailored for a specific device. This does not have to be just a mobile site that lets you see some information clearly on a small screen. Instead, it can be an experience that delivers all the content reworked for optimal display on multiple different devices, designed in a way that lets members interact with it in whatever way they need to.
BF: How would you encourage board members to think of technology? How can it help them meet their strategic goals?
SJ: Technology is not an end in itself. It is a means to achieve an outcome. It is easy to get caught up in technology for technology’s sake. Don’t get distracted by buzzwords or bells and whistles. Work closely with your staff to make sound business decisions. You have to identify what you want to accomplish and then often you will find that there is technology that will help you meet your goals.
And it is important to realize that technology can help meet goals in the same way that a well thought-out strategic plan can help, or having a proven process to manage change can help. Technology is a tool. Ask yourself, “what do we need to accomplish to achieve a goal and what are the tools and methods we’ll use to do that?” Maybe technology can play a role. In some cases, of course, it can create breakthroughs, generate new opportunities or decisively deal with a challenge. There are certainly a lot of tools that are available now that were not available before. So from that perspective, technology (or the tools that it enables) can be a big help. Evaluating those tools is much more of a business function than a technology function, though.
BF: How can the board and staff work together on technology?
The process of evaluating, selecting and implementing a technological tool can be very complex. An association’s board (and its staff) should not feel they have to be technological experts, but they should be prepared to ask tough questions of those who are. How was this tool selected? How was this need established? What alternatives to this product (or even this process) were considered? Were privacy and other compliance issues dealt with properly? Each group is going to have their own sticking points and making sure that everyone is on the same page regarding these issues can go a long way toward ensuring a successful outcome.
JULY/AUGUST 2015 EDITION
| Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for almost 70 years.