My Association Journey – Why Associations Should Focus on Having a Digital Strategy

In 1994, I joined the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. I was a young communications professional excited about the opportunity to learn from a seasoned PR and Communications executive. Much of my job for the first couple months was pretty boring, writing obituaries, editing documents and helping out where I could.  I was happy they were willing to purchase a PC for me as the other staff were using Wang Computers.

A couple months into the job, our very forward-thinking, technically minded Assistant Executive Director, David Martin, CAE, came to my desk and asked if he could talk to me. He said “Since you are the only one here who knows how to use a PC, would you like to work with me to help build the AANS website?” Of course I said “Yes!”

That night I went to Barnes and Nobles to buy a few books on how to create a website and David sent me out to California to learn HTML from the vendor we would be working with.

The website became a huge focus for the organization. It would provide a new member service with very sophisticated applications, a new brand, the greatest communications tool for the organization and more. They may have been the first association to have a web presence.

This experience was a game changer for my career. It seems like yesterday but it has been 20 years. My career continues to be focused on website strategy, IT, member services and new product offerings for associations. I have been involved with many website redesigns focusing on IT infrastructure instead of the brand, product and content strategy, worries about Y2K, creation and discussions around app development, the rise of social media, the move to the cloud and much more. In the majority of cases, the executive leadership struggle to understand how to talk to IT, spend too much time considering whether or not they should engage with a new technology offering and do not know how to engage their IT staff who can help support moving their organization forward.No matter how technology has changed, associations  continue to struggle with understanding and utilizing IT support and services to its fullest. They have also been risk adverse and are afraid to venture into “new territory”.

Today, it is more important than EVER to Embrace Digital in order for your organization to Thrive.

Does Your Organization Have a Digital Strategy?

Is your digital strategy working for you?

If you don’t yet have one, do you know why you should?

Often when associations think of elevating their presence in the digital space, they focus on acquiring and maintaining the actual technology—from mobile to social media to cloud and beyond—rather than the strategy needed to transform an organization digitally.

But according to a July 2015 report by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte (“Strategy, Not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation”) it is strategy—not the technology—that will be key for organizations’ succees in the digital world.

While you won’t be able to take the digital leap without the required technological tools, the path to digital transformation must start with a strategy. Just as you wouldn’t take a road trip without some form of GPS, you don’t want to design a road map for your organization without incorporating digital strategy.

So what goes into a good digital strategy? Here are important considerations:

Support from leadership. In order for any major initiative to succeed, it must be championed from the top down. Leaders must set the organizational tone and culture that will allow digital efforts to flourish and innovation to thrive.

A clear focus on transformation. A digital strategy should not only focus on the needed technologies but should keep an eye toward the future. The MIT/Deloitte study found that while less digitally mature companies tend to focus on technology’s operational role, the most digitally mature organizations go beyond this to focus on transforming the business through technology. Any good digital strategy must have what the study’s authors call a “transformative vision” for innovation and decision making. It’s easy for associations to get bogged down by the day-to-day details of operations, but keeping your digital strategy’s scope and objectives forward thinking will give your organization a competitive edge.

No fear of failure. According to the MIT/Deloitte study, successful, digitally mature companies are more comfortable with taking risks than organizations with less digital maturity. One key factor that makes an organization less risk-averse, the study’s authors note, is a leader who is not afraid to fail. Further, more success is gained when these leaders transfer the notion of embracing failure to their employees so they, too, become less risk-averse. This is another area where leaders can set the tone.

An engaged—and skilled—workforce. Employee culture is often treated as an afterthought in business strategies, including those that involve IT. Successful organizations put culture front and center and are rewarded when it sets them above the competition. Research has shown that organizations with engaged cultures have a competitive advantage over those that do not. Organizations with successful digital strategies not only engage employees, but they ensure employees have the skills that are needed to turn digital aspirations into reality. A good digital strategy will outline what technologies are needed and ensure the workforce is trained in the required skills to implement those technologies. Are there skill gaps in your association that could be filled through training and development of talent?

Finally, associations must recognize that a digital strategy is an ongoing process. With a rapidly changing field like technology, priorities are likely to change—sometimes often. Smart organizations recognize this and adjust their digital strategies as needed over time to respond to the inevitable changes.

As your association begins its digital transformation journey, be sure to start with a good strategy. For assistance, call upon .orgSource, leaders in IT and digital strategies for more than 10 years.



  1. Great story, Sherry and you are so correct about the lack of strategy in associations. Board’s want to get right to the decisions on infrastructure and don’t want to “waste” time developing the strategy first. We all have lots of stories that fit this paramenter. Thanks for this post.
    Ronald (Sr.) Moen


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