Shaping the Digitally Connected Trade Body

Ben Hart

Trade body and membership organisation critiques their digital future

How does the trade body and membership organisation take to the concept of a digital future? Is digital transformation a challenging prospect for them? What issues do they see ahead and what are their opportunities? These were just some of the questions discussed by trade body and membership organization delegates at a recent workshop jointly held by Atmosphere and the CIPP. The focus of the workshop:The Digitally Connected Future: Trade Bodies and Membership Organisations, was how to adapt to a digital age. The workshop highlighted the threat to professional bodies from online communities, free webinars, TED talks etc. Many participants were discomfited by this, for some it was because they already sensed this while for others the implications were alarming. As one delegate commented: “is our future then digital or nothing?”


Another commented:” Our members are more digitally advanced than we are.” Exactly. If your members are more digitally enabled than you are then they are likely to spend more time on other sites and less time on yours.

Being clear about what your purpose is

Digital transformation requires a digital strategy and that presupposes that you are clear what your purpose is. When delegates were asked: “Why do you exist and for whom?”, the question revealed many different answers: “We share our thought leadership and say what our position is on a particular subject….and we provide accreditation which every salesperson in our industry has to have.” “We have gone back to where we started. We are a knowledge organization, a facilitator, rather than being an accrediting and qualifications body.” “ We save our members time by giving them up-to-date information that they need to do their business.” “Our job is to represent our industry to government and the public and be a forum for discussion.”

Meeting the online challenge

These purposes raised a key question: “Where are you delivering value?”. The consensus of the delegates was that they were principally providing knowledge and expertise and facilitating a community where this could be shared. But online communities are doing this too, so where is your unique value? How can you counter the threat that these communities pose? In order to be noticed online you need to have an attractive online value proposition. You need to be welcoming, accessible and friendly. So the question was asked: How intimate are you with your members online? Are you loved or are you just respected? Are you offering a warm place where people can converse and share? This generated some very different responses: “That would sound rather fluffy to our members. They just want to know how we can improve their bottom line.” “Ah, but to our members' conversations and sharing are important. They treasure the sense of community that we provide.”

Organising your knowledge and making it accessible

One topic that galvanized the delegates was how they captured knowledge and information and how it was disseminated. All the delegates felt that they were not doing this well enough. For example: “ We have lots of knowledge but we are not updating it properly, because everything is in silos, and because there is no cross-referencing between us and our members. So we have a lot of cold knowledge, all very relevant, but not enough hot knowledge, e.g., what members have experienced and learned in the last few months.” This comment typified what many delegates felt. Their organisations have so much data and knowledge and their members have lots of experience that is often very recent and therefore up-to-date, but how can all this be brought together and become live and therefore shared? It was suggested that maybe trade and membership bodies could create a structure for collective knowledge where everyone learnt together and where learning is organized by the network rather than by a central nexus. This would be a big leap for most trade bodies and membership organisations. Some delegates foresaw difficulty in implementing such a change especially where information was proprietary or legally regulated, while others could imagine taking this step.

Introducing change

The need to change the delivery of information and initiate digital transformation brought up a lot of concerns: “How do you determine the pace of change? We’ve tried to introduce a self-service approach to some things on our website and our members dragged their feet and kicked against it.” “I’d be worried that we invested in more digital technology, and then found that it wasn’t being used.” These concerns underlined the frequent comment that ‘we need to keep our older members on board while also bringing in the younger ones.” Another delegate added:” The younger ones will adapt to all things digital, but the older ones often don’t want to.’ Yet at the same time the delegates were also saying that they shouldn’t allow the ‘old guard,’ to determine their organisation’s future. This was trenchantly expressed by one delegate: “Trade and membership bodies need to move away from that old boy network. We need to be more inclusive, more accessible, less blinkered, and less committee bound. We need to move that way, because the younger generation will say, ‘why do I need to be part of that?’ Young people have so many options. Trade bodies could just die.”

Imagining our organisations in 2030

The workshop challenged delegates to imagine what trade and membership bodies would be like in 2030, with the added scenario that they had no paying members and all their research, information and training was free. How would they survive? What would be their assets, what would be their online proposition, and how would they reach out to their audience and engage with them? Collaboration was seen as an important solution by all the delegates. Trade and membership bodies would need to become highly innovative in securing income.  What would this mean? “We would have to become much more open to the world in every way, and be a different kind of body.” Delegates took away many practical ideas from the workshop. Three in particular stand out. The first was to start out on the road to digital transformation, even if only in small steps, the second was to emphasise the community aspect of their trade or membership body and that meant being much more responsive and personal in their communicating and thirdly to collaborate and reach out to others beyond their organization. What this workshop did was to make delegates think more clearly about what it is that their organization was in business for and what it needed to do. This feeling was summed up by one delegate: “I found this workshop very encouraging that despite the diverse nature of the associations here, we all seem to have the same problems, but that also means that we have access to a lot of solutions. I did think that there are things coming up for our organization now, not just in 2030, which we have to deal with, and that means that we have to foster a dialogue with our members.”

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