I found a relic of my former life when I was organizing my files. It was a presentation I created back in January 2020. The title was Association 4.0—Creating Community in a Less Social World. I planned to use the deck to launch a new series of in-person Think Tanks. The topic was going to expand on an earlier discussion about how Industry 4.0, or the digital revolution, would impact associations.
You know what happened next. Shortly, after I scheduled the meeting, I had to cancel. Everyone had more pressing issues to worry about. In hindsight, I’m amazed at how accurately the title reflects the challenge we were, and are, facing. Today, both everything and nothing has changed.
Here is how the landscape is vastly different—
One year ago, most leaders weren’t overly concerned with technology. Upgrading systems seemed like an expensive and complex process that didn’t directly address the most pressing challenges. Now we’ve experienced why it’s important to invest in the best systems you can afford.
If you doubt the wisdom of this advice, consider what remains the same—
The pandemic may have changed our habits and slowed the economy, but it did nothing to stop the progress of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In fact, the virus threw gasoline on a fire, accelerating a situation that was already precarious. Associations that weren’t prepared for digital commerce experienced a painful struggle to keep pace.
My presentation reminded me that although we can see the other side of the pandemic, we are still in the middle of Industry 4.0. It is critical for associations to continue evaluating our culture, systems, and operations every day with fresh eyes.
Understand Industry 4.0
I never imagined that I would be a technology nerd, and I’m not in the traditional sense. The relationship between ones and zeros isn’t what interests me. What grabs my attention is the power those configurations give us to live and work more productively. For several years, Industry 4.0 has been in my sights as a phenomenon that associations must reckon with.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by the fusion of biology, technology, and the material world. It can seem more like science fiction than something that is happening in our current reality. The quick delivery of a vaccine to fight COVID-19 is just one example of many technological marvels. With each development, the window between fantasy inventions and real products and services grows smaller. These are examples of the kind of “miracles” that are becoming commonplace.
- Researchers are developing brain-machine interfaces that aim to restore mobility to people who have suffered a stroke or some other traumatic injury. Other areas of exploration are to restore sight, hearing, and even memory.
- Robots are increasingly human-like both in appearance and ability. See this image of Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, Japan, demonstrating an advanced android clone of himself at the Global Future 2045 congress.
- 3D printers are now capable of operating in harsh and remote environments. Machinery or tools that break down in locations such as mines or on oil rigs can be replaced quickly.
It’s challenging to imagine how these breakthroughs could impact the daily business of running an association. But that’s the thing about Industry 4.0. What happens at the macro level very quickly trickles down.
Study the Market
Awareness of what is making waves across the digital marketplace is key to staying afloat. Every leader should be familiar with the trends that are shaping this upheaval of the economic, cultural, and social order. Blockchain, 3D printers, and virtual reality may not be in your immediate future, but association executives should understand how this technology is impacting other areas of the economy.
For a forecast that is closer to home, review these assumptions about the association industry, that my business partner, Kevin Ordonez, and I outlined in our book Association 4.0: Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption.
- Consumers will be impatient and exacting. They will want customized products and services delivered on demand.
Imagine: Customizable continuing education modules that employ artificial intelligence to answer a user’s questions.
- A constant stream of customer data will be available to continually upgrade products and services.
Imagine: Newsletters that are produced on demand and curated based on each reader’s areas of interest.
- Businesses will discover new structures for partnership and collaboration designed to deliver greater benefits to participants and to accelerate ongoing innovation in all their activities.
Imagine: Contracts that include agreements and royalties related to ideas rather than products and services.
- Organizations that, today, seem unaligned will become indispensable to each other.
Imagine: The American Heart Association and The International Society for Stem Cell Research collaborating to facilitate the development of new heart valves made from stem cells.
- Employees will be part of a global marketplace giving them greater opportunity to specialize, to pick and choose assignments, and to select non-traditional hours and workplaces.
Imagine: Associations that have no permanent headquarters and few full-time employees.
- Organizations will be more collaborative and project-driven and less hierarchical.
Imagine: Employees being organized and led based on standalone projects rather than ongoing functions.
We developed this list almost four years ago, and it’s interesting to see how many of the concepts are already fully realized. I am struck by the convergence of opposites that technology creates—customized and individual versus global, location neutrality versus professional specialization, and commonality among organizations that would seem to be unlikely partners.
In addition to making opposites attract, Industry 4.0 merges activities that were once considered distinct. Both of these characteristics are evident in my own business journey.
Step Up to Association 4.0
.orgSource began with the focus on technology. But as digital processes have become integral to every area of operations, our activities have naturally expanded to include strategy and marketing. We do our best work for our clients when we can take a holistic approach. This broad perspective is the key to stepping up to Association 4.0 rather than becoming a casualty of Industry 4.0.
Opportunity for associations today lies in developing an overarching digital strategy. Most organizations invest in technology, but without a strategy, systems like an AMS or an LMS are just a collection of tools waiting to be harnessed for true digital business.
The ability to put all the moving parts together and help associations make the leap from vision to action in a volatile business environment is extremely rewarding. .orgSource is never done growing, and neither are our customers.
As we find our way out of the pandemic, I hope leaders will not view this as a time to return or retreat. It should be the opposite. We need to embrace what we have learned and accept that there will be no end to the need for innovation. The exploration of what your organization can be or become must be fluid.
I am often asked to find solutions for:
- Boosting participation at events
- Engaging younger members
- Managing change
- Moving strategy to execution
These questions are important, but they are distractions from the bigger picture. Industry 4.0 demands that you continually evaluate why your organization exists, where it should go in the future, and what you must do to arrive there.
With all of the choices and competition for your members’ attention, ask yourself why they should engage with you. Then, accept that the answer to that question will never stop changing. The pandemic may end, but Industry 4.0 demands that the need to reinvent will continue and grow.