Associations Forecasts in Four Flavors Direct from ASAE Nashville

ASAE Nashville 2014 proved to be the right place to take the pulse of associations and get a sense of what people forecast for the future of associations. Which of these four plausible forecasts best describes your association’s possible future?

The aspirational future forecast: Associations that choose to lead and innovate in this era of increased competition and creative disruption can look forward to the age of association entrepreneurship. This forecast comes from Gary LaBranche, CAE, CEO of the Association for Corporate Growth and author of an Association Trends retrospective analysis of Committee of 100 trends forecasting in 1964, 1994 and 2014. “To ensure association relevance, leaders must create and nurture a culture to continuously monitor, engage, innovate and adjust as conditions and needs evolve. This calls for reinvention: of value models, revenue streams, structures and engagement vehicles,” he wrote.

The feared future forecast: There are too many small and medium size associations competing with one another in the same markets, and this will no longer be sustainable. This forecast came from an association management company executive sharing her confidential assessment of the limitations of her own clients. She believes smaller organizations will have to consolidate as special interest groups into larger, more effective associations that can dominate their particular market.

The disruptive future forecast:  Associations of any size will use emerging technologies to connect with and amplify their capabilities within highly networked communities. This forecast comes from the ASAE Foundation’s research into knowledge and learning by the Institute for the Future.  This IFTF research challenges association management business as usual and compels associations to shift to a second curve in their business models, services and structures. You have to disrupt yourself or be disrupted. 

The expected future forecast:  Associations will become increasingly sophisticated in how they practice association management or lose the race to those who adopt smart business strategies.  This forecast comes from my own assessment after hearing how some associations are getting very serious about the business side of their associations.  

I agree with at least two of the three parts of this LaBranche/Committee of 100 forecast:  “Associations will be less distinguishable from for-profit organizations in management, governance and marketplace decisions.”  Associations still find it hard to evolve their governance systems.  After listening to three associations explain their efforts to get their governance house in order, I am not sure associations are on track to do more than tweak their existing governance structures. Tradition and culture is simply too strong to make this change easy.

As for making management and marketplace decisions like for-profit businesses, I agree. However, I also caution associations to follow Adam Braun’s advice offered at Digital Now 2014 and claim their identity as “for purpose” associations.  Purpose comes first; business capabilities are a means to that end. 

In Nashville, I was wowed by association executives using the power of data analytics and data visualization to understand the problem and see potential solutions for achieving purpose. They were using data visualization to find meaning in the data most associations now collect and underutilize.

In another session I was awed by how Thomas Ingram, executive director of the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, got his members to move from a closed to an open economy of data. This is one of the ten shifts IFTF identified in the future of knowledge and learning research. Trade associations have long provided proprietary industry data as a member service; what DEMA is now creating will enable member companies to improve their bottom line with actionable business intelligence on local customers and markets.  

To reinforce this expected future forecast I also drew upon sessions exploring pricing strategies—price smartly for profit to be able to invest in your mission and innovate; as trends in professional publishing— interactive digital, open access, global markets and new forms of peer review are forcing even hidebound journals to change; and as the changing face of society—your best strategy for reaching multiculturals is a total market strategy because Millennials are a multicultural generation and they will make up the majority of your future association members.

In the closing ASAE session, incoming ASAE Chair, Susan Neely, CAE, President and CEO of the American Beverage Association, challenged everyone to urge purpose-motivated Millennials to seek a career in association management.  If the expected future forecast is accurate, we can assure them association management offers meaningful purpose, smart business strategies and processes, and real opportunities for talented people to innovate.