The case for the digital transformation of membership organisations

Ben Hart
Membership organisations (professional body, trade body, professional association, et al.) must grasp the mantle of digital engagement and opportunity in order to remain relevant to the sectors and communities they seek to serve. The requirement is to transform into connectors of meaningful exchange with heightened relevance as opposed to broadcasters of givens. This article explains why the transformation from old world structures and behaviours to relevant and engaging convenors for the good of the profession will be mandatory for those that wish to survive and achieve purpose in a more digital and connected world. … The value propositions of membership organisations have remained largely unchanged for the many decades that they have existed; providing a space for professionals and companies to benefit from joining through an exchange of knowledge based value, legitimising and advancing the sector through accreditation, and influencing policy and public thinking.. The traditional business model is straight-forward; in exchange for a membership fee the membership organisation provides access to people, ideas and exchanges. There are some basic human truths in that the hook into membership organisations is often based around a sense of belonging and a pursuit of learning and recognition related to predominately a profession and its effectiveness. Yet these organisations all too often continue to operate with traditional structures which have prevented them from being able to adapt quickly to the new opportunities brought about by digital technology. Their behaviours are often steeped in tradition. The increasingly pressing challenge they face is how to remain relevant in a world where knowledge exchange is distributed, networks are self-formed and challengers proffer up more focused propositions that meet targeted audience need without the fat. The incumbents are big and retain considerable gravitas and authority, yet it is these same qualities that can hamper the agility and innovative approaches to delivering member value in the future. These approaches will form the means of protecting them from the threat inherent in a new breed of digital disruptors that are challenging existing business models across the majority of business sectors. The digitally connected audience of the present is an entirely different one to those that organisations and institutes have appealed to in the past. In today’s digital landscape full of gifting, sharing, networking and provision of insight and content by credible individuals typically for free there is both ample challenge and opportunity facing the professional membership organisation. In order to be fit and robust for the future membership organisations must be ready to adapt and leverage these new opportunities to:

Acquire, develop and disseminate new ideas and knowledge

Online knowledge magpies widely seek insight and interest related to topics and themes, adding to and evolving these whilst online narrators publish freely to a global audience en masse. Research and policy, once the bastion of the few, will increasingly become a product of aggregated online ideas and insight. The idea that someone sits behind a computer screen and drafts a long form document addressing a real or perceived need is dated given the notion that great online content that serves a purpose involves its audience and is a product of cocreation, its output digestible, actionable and easily syndicated. The role of the modern membership organisation will evolve to one of establishing where the most relevance and value can be gained through considered programs of listening, brokering conversation and leveraging derived data and insight to inform where need is both marked and not addressed elsewhere. In the online world many brains, voices and experiences are easily collided together to increase value. Inviting contribution, curating and involving constituents in the co-creation of new ideas and knowledge is not only contemporary, it is becoming essential for membership organisations. Once it is recognised that if they do not proactively engage in this way another network, provider or individual will. Co-creating outputs readily creates mutual reward through involvement and recognition. Membership organisations must then equip with the skills and means to syndicate and maximise the reach of these outputs. By marketing content online, applying the acquired knowledge and involving new audiences in and around it by reaching out and creating exchange around new ideas within networks, we start to paint a picture of the future. Furthermore, within any organised body of people reputation is increasingly being built through sharing the expression of learnings and the benefit of experience. The requirement is in the provision of a place where relevant content is created by individuals who are motivated to publish and who enable the crowd to contribute, critique and assess for value and applicability. This distributes the provision of new ideas and knowledge to the real practitioners as opposed to trying to retain authority and credibility at the centre of an organisational structure.

Leverage networks and crowds to increase impact

Membership organisations are at their most effective when they create and inspire a sense of belonging around a meaningful purpose. Yet a real difference is only made when the impact is a product of the actions that are undertaken leading to a resulting and communicable positive difference. Online we increasingly see gatherings of people where meaning and impact are delivered jointly. Providing the motivation for people to act requires a compelling reward mechanic, it is also self qualifying and those that choose to come together and act are those that are both qualified and interested in making a difference related to the purpose. Membership organisations gather people together, special interest groups, committees, branches or networks related to shared interest, topics or themes. What is changing is that this is no longer the sole remit of the membership organisation; people are both empowered and equipped with online platforms to do so of their own accord and in order to meet their own needs. In order to leverage this changing dynamic, membership organisations must first increase their visibility and awareness of where the exchanges related to their purpose are happening. Recognising that a self-formed group is where engagement is happening elsewhere (on LinkedIn for example) and knowing where is the first step. The role of the organisation then transitions to one of brokering and introducing the means and ability for these groups to turn exchange into accountable action that results in serving the core purpose, with authority and credibility. It’s not an easy gig. Lots of distributed activity in aggregate is what will make a difference. Finding the right ways to promote, leverage, and deliver results in exactly the right places requires an agile approach and an ongoing commitment to nurture the behaviours that connect and amplify whilst ensuring that the value of distributed conversation is realised. The old world model whereby research is carefully prepared back at base and then broadcast to members in the belief that it, having being read, leads to resulting change feels latent in this world of quick and co-created improvement. Impact in the future will come from driving actionable results that contribute to purpose from networks, online and offline. Digitally transformed membership organisations will play active roles in bubbling to the surface the benefit of shared experience, turning this into portable and easily disseminated outputs that may be acted on more widely and then amplifying the results to increase impact. The big thinkers (those that have made a difference, developed or simply given back) deserve recognition and celebration. In order to maintain relevance, this recognition can be expanded upon and actioned by the modern membership organisation. Further, this recognition is moving from a speaker slot or an award at an annual event to that of being amplified online through the reputation builders of syndication, online badges, or authority recognised through peer reward mechanics .

Develop new methods of skills transfer and accrediting learning

Whereas there will never be an absolute replacement of face to face training and learning the landscape for learning is rapidly shifting. People are sharing their knowledge and learning online freely meaning that courses and training that require paid for attendance and result in traditional certification are no longer the only route to growing in knowledge and skills, outside of on the job experience. Online reputation is what an individual might create or curate, including their commentary related to topics or themes collected, collated and shared online which are then recognised by peers. This is vastly differing to the way in which an organisation or institution predicates new models and methods for learning and development. With the ability for content to be created, evolved and shared quickly and cost effectively to a worldwide audience of whoever might like to receive it also means that keeping that content within the 4 walls of a classroom is a quickly dating paradigm. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) are platforms where the existing practical restrictions of learning have been disrupted, such as issues being resolved by global peers or ideas being transformed together, irrespective of geographical location. In addition, the transparent badging of skills and knowledge all mean that an individual can choose to develop at their own pace, leveraging what is important to them at any time through quick and remedial engagement with knowledge holders who are prepared to give back, and who are rewarded by growing their reputation to do so.

Redefine membership

It’s somewhat obvious that membership has and largely remains the mainstay of membership organisations, both in terms of revenue and continues to be central to the business model. Given the future view of the membership organisation outlined above, with a little crystal ball gazing and trend spotting it seems apparent that taking an annual fee from members in exchange for access to research, owned forums, events and other content is no longer sustainable. If the exchange of knowledge and ideas online are able to be turned into impact via action, coupled with future learning being a product of sharing and peer recognition, the relevance of a membership fee based model for professional organisations is quickly undermined. The disintermediation of content, authority and value is occurring now, not least as the members of the past are increasingly empowered to seek answers to their needs outside of the 4 walls of the membership organisation. Rather than membership fees as a catch all new models are required that explore access to peer recognition that is captured online; peer recognition that serves to increase a sense of belonging and reward for individual contribution to purpose and to shared action that creates impact. Membership organisations of the future must be equipped to connect, curate, activate and drive impact. No longer will relevance be a function of administering membership fees in order for isolated pockets to create assets that are effectively given to membership resulting in the hope of devolved improvement. Rather, membership organisations must take up the mantle of refreshing the membership paradigm by ensuring that purpose is paramount and that audience needs and engagement deliver recognised, rewarded and value led exchange amongst peers that results in transparent and accountable actions that create impact. The challenge is in how best to transform in order to ensure that the membership organisation of the future is fit to appeal to changing marketing dynamics and means of engagement to create relevance. New behaviours are required to engage effectively and collaboration and agility are required to ensure that the boat is not missed.

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