Get Strategic With Your Technology
By: Samantha Whitehorne
With less time and money than larger organizations have, small-staff associations can find it difficult to stay up-to-date with technology. Brian Birch, CAE, deputy executive director of the Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA), isn't fazed by the challenge. "I think technology is the single-biggest equalizer for small staffs," he says. "Yes, we have cost barriers, but we still need to deliver the same things as large-staff associations, whether that's online content or learning or meetings."
But Birch, who's been a member of SIMA's six-person staff for eight years, says there is one critical thing small staffs need to do to remain nimble and competitive: align their technology plans with the organization's overall strategic plan and mission. "When we look at any piece of technology, whether a learning management system or outsourcing email to the cloud, we try to look at the big picture," he says. "We ask, 'What are our priorities?' and 'How will this decision affect the whole system long term?'"
Here are some lessons he's learned that will help others heading down a more strategic path.
Start with a plan. "Technology isn't the same for each organization," Birch says. "Plus, it's constantly changing and growing." To handle this, Birch developed a three-year, macro-level technology plan that looks at what the organization wants to accomplish. "The main point we strive for is that it be an open system," he says. "Is it scalable? Can I leverage other partners and services? It is flexible?"
Keep integration in mind. One specific goal Birch wants to achieve with the plan is to get all of SIMA's data sources integrated and streamlined. The organization has multiple silos of data—including its AMS, meeting registration system, private community website, and other systems—that currently don't integrate well. "On their own, the data's easy to use and adopt, but together it's hard to aggregate reporting," he says. "Even if there is no perfect system, if I can cut the number of silos in half in three years, it will make a huge difference. We'll be able to provide better member service and understand better what they value."
Appoint a lead. If you don't have a point person, Birch says, different staff or departments will make technology decisions that work only for them. "You need someone looking at all sides—data management, security, customer value, and how it applies to the strategic plan," he says. And it's OK if you don't have a technology expert on staff, Birch says, as long as the person who takes the lead has access to an outside IT expert or colleagues he or she can use as a sounding board. The lead person should also be thinking about what's next. "After all, the minute you commit, you have to be planning two years down the road," Birch says.
Do your research. When you start looking at investing time or money in new technology, think about strategic priorities and how the technology will affect your membership. "Seventy-five percent of your time should be spent on research, discussion, analysis, and asking what you really want to do. The rest should be finalizing a vendor and then implementation," Birch says.
If you do the work upfront, everything else is a lot easier because you know your priorities. "One challenge we face is that people don't take the time to understand or research or properly communicate what they need," he says.
Involve the right people. SIMA launched its private content and community site, GoPlow.com, almost two years ago. One of the first questions Birch asked was, "What else are we doing or do we want to do that this project can help accomplish?"
He knew one group wanted to launch a new website for SIMA's magazine, another wanted to create a blog and social networking tool, and the education committee wanted SIMA's online content easily accessible and searchable. By involving these groups in the technology project, SIMA was able to develop something "that did all of that and was more effective, plus we saved money, avoided duplication, and had a greater impact in the market," he says.
While Birch is happy with the success of the project thus far, he's the first to admit he's run into plenty of hurdles. "Technology is all about tradeoffs; some stuff will work for you, and some won't," he says. "It's just important to keep moving forward."
Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Snow and Ice Management Association
Staff size: 6 (including two remote staff)
Budget: $1.2 million
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