Is Your Association Digital or Digitized?

December 1, 2021 Staff Writer

The past two years have taught us valuable lessons, and many of them concern our relationship with the digital products and services we use. We learned that we could move quickly and not get everything right the first time, and the world didn’t end.

 For too long, too many of us in associations assumed that digital transformation wasn’t for us. It was too expensive and too hard, and it required too much technical knowledge and talent that we couldn’t afford to recruit. Besides, our members didn’t really care all that much, anyway – they didn’t mind mailing in their registration forms and checks, and they wanted to attend our professional development trainings and conferences in person.

 The pandemic forced us to tell ourselves a new story. We had to throw out “we can’t because …” and tell ourselves “we will, and here’s how.”

 With regard to digital transformation, it’s no longer a question of “will we, or won’t we?” Circumstances have conspired to force association executives to think about how we’re going to do digital, bringing it into the core strategy of the organization, not as some separate project that lives in IT, and to think about how we’re going to be effective and how we’re going to know.

 In “The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation,” written by PROPEL’s Maddie Grant and Elizabeth Weaver Engel of Spark Consulting, the authors relate an interview they had with Martin Mocker, professor at ESB Business School at Reutlingen University, Germany, and research affiliate at the MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research. Professor Mocker was also a co-author of Dr. Jeanne Ross’s book Designed for Digital: How to Architect Your Business for Sustained Success. This interview helps us think about digital transformation in very helpful terms.

 Dr. Mocker said that two separate transformations are often conflated by executives: Becoming digitized and becoming digital. Although both can bring about substantial improvements in business performance, they are not the same thing.

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 Using Mocker’s definitions, becoming digitized involves using various types of technologies to improve operational excellence in business processes like reliability, throughput, and cost efficiency. Organizations have been becoming digitized for decades.

 Becoming digital, on the other hand is new. This involves using various types of technologies to move beyond business processes improvement into creating business offerings that are customer facing and revenue (profit) generating. Becoming digital allows an organization to rapidly innovate to solve customer problems it couldn’t previously solve.

 More traditional companies like associations may feel that they can’t become digital like companies that were “born digital,” like Uber and Airbnb. Fortunately, according to Professor Mocker, they can, but it will require more than simply buying gadgets or SAAS. It will require culture change.

 As The Enterprisers Project put it, “Digital transformation is the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business, fundamentally changing how you operate and deliver value to customers. It’s also a cultural change that requires organizations to continually challenge the status quo, experiment, and get comfortable with failure.”

Mocker suggests that associations tackle five key questions:

  1.     Do you know what your customers want and are willing to pay for?

Organizations answer this via co-creation with customers and via experimentation. Successful organizations know that it’s critical to kill products that aren’t working fast and know how to do that.

  1.     How do you go fast without creating a mess?

We find that the larger the organization, the bigger the mess experiments tend to create. Rather than constantly creating new platforms, successful organizations focus on creating – or finding – “digital Legos” they can snap together so their teams aren’t constantly having to reinvent digital assets.

  1.     Are you the only organization that is going to use the digital platform?
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Successful organizations open their APIs (application programming interfaces) to outsiders.

  1.     Who is developing the digital offerings?

Successful digital transformation requires new ways of working, new staff roles, new organizational structures, and new types of management, where managers coach rather than making decisions in a hierarchical, command-and-control fashion.

  1.     Do your operational systems support your new offerings?

Successful organizations are able to scale, which requires reliability in internal operations. 

Still struggling?

Professor Mocker gives this advice, “Do an honest assessment of where you are – you can use the five questions to do that – and create a roadmap of where you want to go. Start small by conducting experiments and committing to using them to learn directly from your customers through the process of co-creation.”

The challenge, particularly in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, is to learn what customers want and which of their pain points you can address digitally as fast as possible. That will enable you to rapidly move out of crisis mode, preserving your revenue-generating products while also conducting valuable digital experiments.

You may be able to do this work within your team, but you may also need some background information about the process. We recommend “The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation” written by PROPEL’s Maddie Grant and Elizabeth Weaver Engel of Spark Consulting.

This guide can help you start thinking about how your association can use technology to better serve your members, customers, and other constituents. It’s packed with information but also has a sense of humor. We think you’ll find the case studies particularly helpful.

If you need more hands-on guidance, we’re here to help. You can reach us any time at PROPEL.




Photo by Marius Masalar

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