Saturday, August 28, 2010

Association Advantages for Innovation

Here's part three of the "innovation for associations" white paper I'm helping to write while chairing the Innovation Task Force for the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. As I've described before, our overall goal is to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community, and we've been analyzing several case studies of innovation in the for-profit community to see if those successful models can be adapted for the association world.

Part one of the white paper focused on the principles of innovation we identified from the case studies--organizational traits that are necessary to create a true culture of innovation. Part two discussed some barriers to innovation in the association world--obstacles that associations need to overcome if they are going to embrace the principles. Part three is the flipside of the barriers--organizational advantages that associations possess and which they can leverage for greater innovation.

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Potential Association Advantages

While associations in general experience the barriers described above when it comes to adopting the for-profit world’s principles of innovation, there are also several advantages that associations have over their for-profit counterparts given their unique organizational position and structure. These advantages include:

1. Direct access to the mind of the community

Innovative organizations know the needs and desires of the constituencies they serve—what we described above as understanding the “mind of the community.” In for-profit companies, this community is generally comprised of customers external to the organization. Developing an effective mechanism for understanding their needs can therefore be time-consuming and expensive. But an association’s community is made up of its members, and members typically comprise a number of established networks internal to the organization. Boards of Directors, committees, task forces—even supplier networks and, sometimes, staff departments—they all provide associations with a direct connection to their community that for-profit corporations committed to innovation would envy. These ready-made networks of key stakeholders are a clear advantage for developing a successful process of innovation within an association, as they can be continually leveraged for suggesting, selecting, testing, promoting and, ultimately, using the resulting innovative products and services.

2. Experience with diverse teams and team-based decision-making

Although associations are often hampered by overly complex organizational structures and decision-making processes, another clear advantage they have for adopting the principles of innovation is their experience in bringing diverse teams together for collective action. An association can be thought of as a gathering of colleagues/competitors who have come together to advance their given profession/industry while advancing their own careers/businesses. In this environment, associations have developed several successful strategies for identifying common objectives, creating partnerships, and dealing with dissension and debate—all based on helping diverse constituencies focus on the elements that unite them. When coupled with a targeted objective and clear decision points, these same strategies can be effectively leveraged as part of an effective innovation process.

3. A stewardship position for its profession/industry

Most associations enjoy a position as advocates and champions for their particular profession or industry. Although there is certainly competition in the association world, each successful association is viewed by its constituents as a necessary institution—something critical to the continued growth and development of the profession or industry. They generally would not be members if they did not think so. This provides the well-managed association with a kind of stability not enjoyed by for-profit entities, with some buffering from the vagaries of the marketplace. This should, but often doesn’t, allow for greater risk-taking opportunities in associations. But the reality is that association members are often committed to the success of the association, and to its ability to serve their needs, in a way that customers are not committed to the success of all but the most iconic companies. Their vocal leadership and participation can be effectively used to help an association find innovative solutions for even its most perplexing problems.

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I'm sharing the sections of our white paper here on Hourglass to hopefully get some feedback from a broader cross-section of the association community. Please comment and tell me what you think.


Jamie Notter said...

I don't know, Eric. The words make absolute sense, but I think of associations I know and it doesn't pan out. Yes, we have direct, internal access to the community, but do our Boards and Committees actually give us an innovation advantage? Not in reality! Yes we are good at legislative leadership, but I'm not sure that really helps with innovation in real life, because it typically leads to lowest common denominator decisions which are almost always low risk. And maybe the stewardship position actually works against innovation because it makes people more afraid to fail. What do you think?

Eric Lanke said...

Jamie, you've identified why we call this section "potential" association advantages. Most associations have these advantages for innovation available to them, but many do not leverage them effectively. As our task force moves forward with identifying practical innovation strategies for associations, we will, among other things, be looking for concrete ways that associations can translate these potential advanatges into real advanatges. Do you have any thoughts in this regard?

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