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Leveraging technology to lead and serve.

When it comes to setting technology priorities, member service guides the way. Here's how several associations are making technology decisions designed to help their members succeed.

Whether the business function is delivering time-sensitive information just in time, making continuing education available night and day, or easing the effort of contacting a key legislator, the fundamental principle involved in making decisions about an association's use of technology is member service. And no wonder, since member service is the focus of most association activity. At the same time, the needs of the association staff must be considered, albeit for different reasons. "When we talk about technology," cautions David A. Coriale, vice president of Business Information Technologies, Inc., a Silver Spring, Maryland-based consulting and systems integration firm, "it is important to distinguish between internal and external uses, and how the association determines its priorities with respect to these two distinct areas."

For many associations the evolution of technology development began with internal membership management system. Often, there was no choice. Older equipment could not be easily serviced, and, as Philippe Moisa, director of information systems for the American Insurance Association, Washington, D.C., points out, "you had to have a whole staff of people to maintain the old technology. For updating, a full-time programmer was essential--it was very expensive.

Mark S. Streger, executive vice president of association management software provider ABLAZE Business Systems, Inc., Falls Church, Virginia, explains that "in 1994 the technology curve changed and organizations no longer needed to buy their own mainframe computers. They could simply use a box server and run their databases from there." It was possible to "convert old systems to off-the-shelf systems, which today have tremendous flexibility. "

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Washington, did exactly that, by replacing an old mainframe computer built in the early 1980s with a Novell system and PCs. "We moved a light year ahead," explains Managing Director Jon Durnford, "allowing us to track much more detailed information and to respond more intelligently to our membership."

Pinpointing priorities

Once updated management systems let associations conduct operations more efficiently, the pressures for expanded external uses for technology grow and are increasingly justified by added-value goals. "These enhancements," articulates Streger, "save time, increase productivity, and encourage member retention-all key elements for why the association exists."

At the Ohio Credit Union League, Columbus, for example, Bill Butler, vice president of technology, sees a huge business opportunity for his organization to play an active role in converting outdated "legacy systems." In particular, the core data processing systems, put in place 10 or 12 years ago in member credit unions, must be converted to platforms that can interface with home banking systems.

Formulating a process to determine the technology priorities most important to the membership is one of the biggest challenges for association management. Explains Loretta DeLuca, president of Business Information Technologies, "decisions can be influenced by a great variety of points of view. Everyone has `heard about something great' that they think you should implement immediately."

According to Coriale, "the most successful way to determine technology priorities is to use a cross-functional advisory group, where representatives from various departments are brought together to discuss ideas relative to the use of technology. Since it is based on consensus building, "at least you are not fighting dissension when you make a decision. You also need a good facilitator who will keep the goals of the group in mind at all times."

Edison Electric Institute, Washington, D.C., "utilizes a network of committees consisting of representatives from the membership who work with staff liaisons to identify the need for products," reports Theresa Kramer, CAE, director of product marketing and electronic publishing at EEI. An effective outgrowth of this collaborative committee process is EEI's home page task force, which uses a Web site enhancement report to assist the Web product developer in formulating a business plan. A subgroup of the task force, the online team composed of technical and marketing staff, then works with the product developer. "It's very involved, because the enhancement must continue to fit the mission, conform to legal considerations, fit into the marketing plan, and be doable by information systems," elaborates Kramer. EEI's director of information systems, Jon C. Arnold, adds, "Without the task force, we'd drive the webmaster crazy."

Ray Roper, CAE, president and chief executive officer of Printing Industries of America, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia, had a ringside seat when "the entire industry experienced a sea change in the underlying technology that drives the printing industry; we've gone from analog to digital technology." Realizing the critical need to provide support and leadership, PIA put together its digital printing council, "a steering committee composed of representatives of companies that utilize digital presses.

"The output of the council has included a bimonthly newsletter and two how-to books to assist members in making technology decisions--both of which have been best-sellers," notes Roper.

With 44,000 members, the American Society of Microbiology (ASM), Washington, D.C., must use a number of tools when it comes to deciding on technology priorities. According to Executive Director Michael I. Goldberg, technology priorities "should be a synthesis of what members are looking for and what will enhance staff efficiency." Focus groups and a variety of periodic surveys--"some of which we put up on the Web and one done every five years by Gallup to survey 2,000-2,500 representative members--have included significant questions devoted to technology."

However you organize it, cautions Kathleen M. Krajewski, president of the technology consultancy Krajewski and Associates, Inc., Rockville, Maryland, "don't put so many people on the task force that they get fragmented and lose focus."

In the end, the success of any technology strategy depends on the support and commitment of association leadership. As in the implementation of individual technology systems, points out Durnford, of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, "the executive directors and CEOs must know there will be hang-ups, glitches, problems with the time line, bottlenecks--but despite that they must be consistent in providing full support."

Deciding on deliverables

Members and mission drive technology choices so directly that what to do almost comes naturally. Consequently, EEI delivers the Daily Energy News, its flagship online product, via push e-mail. "Every morning the News is kicked off to the electronic mailing list," says Arnold. "Not only does the push technology make it more convenient for the user (who doesn't have to look up the Web site), it gives us more visibility. Subscribers can redistribute the News at their site, and we estimate that 10,000 people read the News daily. "

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters uses broadcast fax technology to focus on important, time-sensitive issues. According to Durnford, the association has implemented special software that interfaces with the fax machine. When a survey is returned by fax, the software can identify the response as a survey rather than as an ordinary fax. It can even tally the survey results.

"This was important when we were facing the significant issue of changing the date of our annual conference in New York, a schedule we had kept for 40 years. We broadcast faxed a survey to 1,200 members just prior to our annual meeting. Within three days we received and tallied 600 responses without manual data entry. The technology allowed us to administer the survey in time to present the findings at our membership meeting."

Shannon S. Carter, projects manager at the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, Aliso Viejo, California, relates that with health care in flux and hospitals less and less willing to send nurses to conferences, "we need to take education to them." Early next year AACN will begin offering continuing education courses online to its 76,000 members. "AACN is accredited to provide this type of program, and the nurses can, for example, register to come online one night each week for a particular class. The AACN online advisory team, composed of 12 volunteers from across the country, will develop different ways to offer education online."

Says Goldberg, "Hyperlinks within our Web site to legislators' e-mail addresses allow ASM members to educate legislators on issues that may affect the science or the membership. We have several thousand members who are involved in this sort of communication."

Another creative use of technology was developed by the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Delaware, in partnership with the American Multi Media Group, Auburn, California, to produce a PMA virtual trade show. "Not only is the Web site an added service, providing information prior to and after the actual trade show," explains Bryan E. Silbermann, CAE, president of PMA, "with floor plans that can be printed out and a list of exhibitors, the site also allows buyers to plan their time on the show floor more efficiently and provides a platform for exhibitors to advertise effectively to a highly targeted audience."

Is risk inherent to embracing new technological solutions? Absolutely, but it's calculated risk. Association executives interviewed for this article suggest several techniques for minimizing risk and maximizing budget dollars allocated for technology.

* Avoid being too close to the cutting edge. "Experimentation tends to be a very costly venture, explains Goldberg. ASM tends to lag behind deliberately, because we want to take advantage of proven technologies."

* Insist on open architecture. Moisa recommends that "when considering new technology, the systems you implement must plug in and live with other applications. The more open the system, the better."

* Maintain a test site for Web site enhancement. According to Goldberg a test site that is separate from the actual production site affords not only a way of demonstrating products for member comment prior to making a decision to change Web site design or content but also a place to test a decided-upon change before it ever goes into production.

* Work with partners whenever possible. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses has worked in partnership with CINAHL Information Systems and Information Resources Group, Inc., to tap into their databases for literature searches. According to Carter, "in many cases it would cost us a lot more to develop our own databases and search engines than it does to rely on someone else whose business it is to do so."

* Recognize that there will always be a trade-off between technology and functionality. Krajewski explains the dilemma: "The systems with the most functionality are the older systems that have been tried and modified. State-of-the-art systems, though they include emerging technologies, provide fewer features. It is impossible to have complete functionality while being on the cutting edge. Associations should consciously balance newer technology with functionality."

Pushing positive perception

Accepting and adapting to a new system have much to do with the system's successful implementation. Resistance to new technology is most likely to occur when it is staring someone in the face, and according to Silbermann, of the Produce Marketing Association, it's good to "titillate the interest of the members by building in an advantage to those people who can get information faster. This is an effective way to create a cause for migration to the new technology."

Durnford's experience in implementing a membership management system included many of the elements of a typical installation. His advice:

* Start with an internal needs assessment. After interviewing every staff member who will be using the new system, create a formal request for proposal and include the staff's needs right in the RFP.

* Share the big picture. Keep members and staff informed, share the time line, involve them in decisions, and tell them if the activity gets behind schedule.

* Select a team leader. The team leader needs to be able to devote the majority of his or her time to the conversion during the entire conversion period.

* Train, train, train.

Moisa used a similar interactive approach when he chose "people on the front lines, a group of seven or eight people from member companies that represented every available platform from Windows NT to Lotus Notes, to test the first versions of a new software application. " After the group reviewed its findings, the association set up a videoconference to allow group members "to dump on the table all their problems with the software. But the whining and moaning is worth it," says Moisa, "because we can then respond properly to their comments--and they can never say they were not involved."

In initiating the membership certification program at the Ohio Credit Union League, Butler realized that "isolating concrete issues affecting perception of the system was a key factor in calming people down. Once we responded to specific problems, staff perception of the system became more positive, and they were able to see its benefits."

Building on the basics

"Many clients are now giving a very high priority to technology boot camps," says Coriale, of Business Information Technologies. These intensive training sessions are often included in the programming of major meetings and conferences. "Other seminars and conferences are provided by a variety of sources--associations themselves, vendors, and consulting groups," he adds.

Krajewski recommends "preparing a training plan and assigning a budget to go along with it." Most associations are using a variety of training methods depending on the nature of the training, the number of people involved, and the resources available. Here's what some associations are doing:

* Modifying and expanding existing programming. Printing Industries of America, says Roper, has revamped its President's Conference so that 30-40 percent of the agenda consists of technology programming. "We're also in the process of consolidating with the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, an association which focuses on effectively implementing technology--much of which they do by providing training for printing company employees. Both organizations feel we can better serve our industry--add a lot of value--by doing this."

* Offering experimental forums. The Produce Marketing Association added an annual technology conference in 1996 to create a laboratory atmosphere in which members may experiment with new technologies. "People in the industry must kick the tires, see how it runs--and then maybe adopt it in their own companies," explains Silbermann.

* Creating alliances and partnerships to provide training. James E. Olsen, who at the time of the interviews for this article was the president of the Pacific Printing and Imaging Association, Seattle, found PPIA competing with the University of Oregon when it came to providing training in the electronic printing technologies that have transformed the industry. "Our most successful training initiative," he says, "has been to combine forces between PPIA's technical graphics and trade show seminars and the University of Oregon's continuing education department. "We merged the programs into a joint series offered at the association's annual trade show." The university negotiates the contracts, prints the programs, and organizes and promotes the seminars. PPIA chooses printers that will trade out service, often obtaining free paper that a vendor might want to promote to the print buyers and designers who enroll in the seminars. "We share equally in the profits from the seminars."

* Training the board of directors. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses is buying laptops for its board members and sending them to computer camp, according to Carter. "We will have a whole day of training on e-mail and the Internet; plus we've loaded on certain kinds of word processing and calendaring software," she says. "We hope to be able to work with our volunteers online a lot."

RELATED ARTICLE: Tips for Managing

Experienced association and industry executives offer these general insights into technology management:

* Create a strategic technology plan, and budget for technology every year. Kathleen M. Krajewski, president of the technology consultancy Krajewski and Associates, cautions, "You wouldn't just buy a car and never get it serviced. If you service it every year, it will last much longer. It's the same with technology--and you can even recycle it rather than replace it."

* Use multiple delivery systems. Jon C. Arnold, director of information systems at Edison Electric Institute, notes, "Your Web site important, but viewing, surfing, looking, hunting--people really don't have time for that. Augment your Web site with a simple system to push e-mail! to select groups. "Michael I. Goldberg, executive director of the American Society of Microbiology, agrees: "Once you've decided on what you are offering, provide multiple ways to get the same information. We've come up with internal hyperlinks and lots of alternative ways to get to the same place quickly."

* Do your homework. Only after you've completed your research should you propose a technology plan with options and budget figures, advises Jon Durnford, managing director of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. "Then boil down the information and present the board only with what they need to know--no bells and whistles. Keep the presentation at the governance and policy level; don't involve them in what color the screen will be or what icons will be on the desktop."

* When working with the board, first concentrate on getting approval for the process rather than for the budget. "As soon as possible in the plan year," explains Loretta DeLuca, president of Business In-formation Technologies, "get approval to start the process of evaluating technology needs, giving the board some broad generalizations as to potential cost, but no firm numbers. In the end, you must sell the technology benefits to the board in terms of improved member services, the ability to attract better staff, and the overall customer service orientation it will allow."

* Always keep the needs of the membership In mind. "As CEO, be careful that you are not spending so much time investigating how technology can benefit you in terms of the operation of your association that you fail to focus on how technology is impacting your members," reminds Ray Roper, CAE, president and CEO of Printing Industries of America. "I often visit member plants; if I didn't, I wouldn't have nearly the understanding of how the digital technologies are impacting on them and what they need from us in order to deal with the technologies."

Carole Schweitzer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.
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Author:Schweitzer, Carole
Publication:Association Management
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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