Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
Technology is tightly linked to an association's strategy and budget, and staff and members use its tech infrastructure every day. But CEOs still often give it short shrift. Here's how leaders can better connect technology and business results.
Association executives can't know everything. And it often seems like technology is the thing they know the least about.
A CEO might have an aversion to social media and databases. She might not consider it a strategic matter. Or he might simply be overwhelmed by the jargon. Regardless of the reason, the organization can wind up drifting into AMS systems or overall IT structures that are poor fits, supervised by leaders loath to address the problems.
"The IT side of the house has always had a bit of a language and knowledge monopoly that is hard for the C-suite to overcome," says John Mancini, president of the Association for Information and Image Management. "Pretty soon, you wind up in technical discussions that you have no competency to deal with. I think there's a tendency to just throw the problem over the transom and figure that IT people will figure it out."
That approach can get messy—and often expensive. But a few leaders have demonstrated that they can lead on technology without being tech experts.
Where IT Reports
According to ASAE research, an association's head of technology typically doesn't report to the chief executive.
To whom does the highest-ranking IT employee report?:
(Source: Benchmarking in Association Management: Technology Policies and Procedures, ASAE, 2011)
Until recently, the American Gastroenterological Association struggled to coordinate its tech efforts. It wanted meetings apps, for instance, but different teams would work on them, leading to confusion and redundant effort. The problem, says Thomas J. Serena, AGA's co-executive vice president, is that nobody at the VP level was supervising projects. "My diagnosis was that we had a governance problem," he says. "Somebody needed to be in charge of decision making."
AGA commissioned technology consultancy DelCor to conduct a study of its technology, which came back with a few findings: The association needed to better define who was responsible for technology strategy, better link technology to strategic goals, and create a forum where technology issues could be discussed. In response, AGA hired its first vice president of information technology, but it went looking for somebody who was more than a tech expert.
"The person we were looking for had to have some business development acumen, somebody who could connect the dots among the various departments and projects," says Serena.
That may be the most obvious but the most common blind spot for associations: Tech expertise is missing in high-level meetings, be it among staff or board members. According to a 2011 ASAE study, less than half (41 percent) of IT directors report directly to the CEO. That's a problem, because most CEOs don't have a strong enough grasp of technology issues to think strategically about them.
"I'm a big believer in that it's not what you know but who knows what you need to know, and do you know them?" says Tom Hood, CPA, CITP, CGMA, president of the Maryland Society of CPAs.
But effective management is not just about having an expert in the room—it's about asking the questions that connect technology to the association's overall strategy. "Even before you dive into the IT part, are you really clear about your organization's purpose and strategy?" Hood says. "If you're clear about that, and you see the hard trends about technology, then it's easier to get the right people in the room."
For a CEO who isn't thinking strategically about technology, the solution to a problem is often overly simple: Spend more. Or spend less.
In a previous association executive role, David Zepponi, president and CEO of the California Association of Community Managers, invested in a fully loaded database system that its staff couldn't manage. "It's so easy to buy the bells and whistles and not have somebody to ring the bells and blow the whistles," he says.
On the other hand, executives who need to cut back on expenses can see the tech budget as a juicy target. Bob Waller, owner of Association Headquarters, an association management company, says he sees a lot of associations looking to scale back their budgets, but they still want a robust AMS system and website.
"If there's a whole bunch of things you want your website to be able to do, and to also integrate with the database, a thousand dollars isn't going to cut it," he says. Instead, Waller prompts clients to emphasize goals over budget lines. "Worry about the results. What do we want this to look like?"
Trevor S. Mitchell, CAE, executive director of membership and technology at ARMA International, agrees that technology discussions need to be attached to strategic goals more than budget lines. "The blind spot in most business functions is they know what they need but don't ask why they need it," he says. When the technology head is in the room, he says, that person is in a position to explain that the right fix isn't necessarily a brand-new system but an upgrade to the current one, for example.
So a CEO doesn't need to know particular tools inside and out but does need to know enough to ask the right questions.
"We forget to ask the questions that we would with a lot of other suppliers," says Zepponi. "What are you doing with your company? How big is your company? How many contractors do you have? ... And they need to understand the kind of organization you are. It really does come down to relationships. There are really very few box solutions out there that are going to work."
No matter what the hype—or the research—says, if people can't or won't use it, it's not good technology.
In addition to knowing how technology links to strategy and what's involved in vetting a solution, an executive should also have a sense of what an association's members or staffers will tolerate. "Most systems fail not because they can't do what they're supposed to but because the users simply reject it," Hood says.
That's part of the reason AGA's new CIO has a business-development background—to build relationships with the members using its services. For instance, as it moves more into live online education, AGA is looking not only at what LMS serves it best but also at how it connects with the educational offerings members are used to.
"We're able to look at our education offerings holistically," Serena says. "I get to spend more time talking about the strategic issues because the VP [of IT] is able to handle the implementation."
Although CEOs need to understand technology, they also need to avoid getting lost in the weeds, and Mancini cautions that the perfect can be the enemy of the good.
"You can get overly preoccupied with the hardest 20 percent of a technology question," he says. "The only people who can help the organization stay focused on the most important aspects are the CEOs. [They should] know enough about the technology to help the organization and understand when you're crossing over from that 80 percent. Focus the effort on the 80 percent. That's when you can get the best results."
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Connect the Dots."]