Associations Disrupt Before They Die

When skeptics forecast associations will die, they typically point to some disruptive innovation that could undermine the value associations offer.  Associations and nonprofits keep proving them wrong and choosing to disrupt themselves and adapt rather than die.

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christiansen coined the concept of disruptive innovation and created a series of best-selling business books and resources based on it.  A disruptive innovation occurs when competitors introduce a good-enough product or service down market then move up market to displace established and more costly options.  Since many organizations offer innovations and features beyond what many customers need or want, they can be easily disrupted.  Faced with this vulnerability, smart organizations find ways to disrupt themselves and defend their customer relationships and markets.

Associations are exploring good-enough alternatives to their own premium products and services.   Here are four innovative initiatives we see more associations exploring and implementing:

  1. Start an open access journal.   Determined not to lose their leadership in research and knowledge creation, some association journal publishers are piloting their own open access alternatives.  Lower cost structures and “pay to publish” fees help offset some lost revenue, but these are admittedly early days in figuring out viable business models for open access.   

  2. Offer a virtual alternative to major meetings.  A very large percentage of association members cannot afford to attend conferences in person; even loyal participants have schedule conflicts that preclude their attendance.  Rather than cede this market for professional development to inexpensive or free online education, associations are repurposing their major conferences into a good-enough virtual version of the live experience.    

  3. Expedite credentialing through microcredentialing.  In all but the licensed professions, only a small percentage of people ever pursue traditional credentials.  Many people just need to demonstrate competency quickly for a specific job situation. Certificate programs were an attempt to meet this need; now the good-enough solution is microcredentialing and digital badging.  Because credentialing organizations find it politically tough and financially risky to disrupt a strong legacy credential, they are testing ways to design microcredentials as today’s  expedient solution and an easier path to the full credential someday.

  4. Invite microvolunteering for impact.   The traditional path to leadership and recognition in associations involves serving on committees and task forces, teaching and writing.  Now through social media and other digital technologies, people can earn recognition and reputation quickly for their contribution and impact in a field.  Rather than let these talented people find their own way to exercise influence outside association channels, innovative associations are creatively matching their time and gifts with short-term, high impact microvolunteering  opportunities.  

What seems key to the success of these disruptive innovations is designing them as “both-and” rather than “either-or” strategies.  Strategic associations are not panicking and running away from what remains valuable in their established programs and services; neither are they ignoring that business as usual could be disrupted. They want to be first to find the viable alternatives to what they do best.