Alex Beall is a freelance writer based in California.
As technology evolves and association professionals require more tech tools to get the job done each day, the responsibility for learning and understanding technology is not just for IT anymore.
Dianne Vance, CAE, knows all too well the challenge of staying up to date. As head of the ad sales and business development department at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and a 20-year-plus veteran of the association world, she has watched technology change, the IT department grow, and management expectations shift to a view that even employees without technology backgrounds need to take on new technical responsibilities—including herself.
"It's really important for someone coming into a sales role in an association to be comfortable with technology, put the effort into learning it, and be forward-thinking as to how to use new technology to create revenue streams," she says. To learn those skills on the job, Vance tapped into ASCE's IT department, finding a mentor, reaching out to her network, and seeking out training courses.
An adventurousness and a willingness to learn and adapt is key. It's really attitude over skills. We can teach skills; we can't teach attitude.—Ray van Hilst, Vanguard Technology
Vance's story is becoming more common. As associations work to keep up with the latest technology tools and offer members online experiences that match those provided by for-profits, non-IT personnel are now finding they require more technical knowledge and skill to carry out their day-to-day responsibilities.
"Everything is constantly changing. There's so much stuff coming at us that if you're not willing to roll with the changes and experiment, your skill set will get left behind," says Ray van Hilst, director of client strategy and marketing at Vanguard Technology. "An adventurousness and a willingness to learn and adapt is key. It's really attitude over skills. We can teach skills; we can't teach attitude."
So what are the tech skills that non-techie association professionals need in 2016? These days, you'd better know your way around your website's content management system (CMS) and get comfortable accessing and analyzing data. And a dash of video and audio know-how definitely won't hurt.
An association's website is one of its most important tools for both managing and communicating information. And as the most public-facing asset, the website's potential for driving business results is enormous, raising the stakes for staff in nearly every department.
"More members will use your association's website than anything else you do," says van Hilst. "More members will use your website than read your publication, than go to your conference, than take your webinar, than buy a book. And more nonmembers will go through it as well. So, it behooves every facet of the organization to understand how to use the website to achieve their goals."
Vendors can help an association select and build a CMS and even offer training in how to use it, but once it's launched, internal staff need to be able to manage the upkeep, van Hilst says. "On the day-to-day basis you're going to have to have some basic skills," he says. "Can you use the systems that you've purchased? Can the nontechnical people use the content management system, and if they need to, is it flexible enough for them to use it?"
Thad Lurie, CAE, chief operating officer at EDUCAUSE, says today's CMS systems are generally user-friendly and allow multiple users across an organization to make changes simultaneously.
He agrees with van Hilst that staff training is key. "Having an understanding of what the content management system should be doing, and, if you have difficulties with formatting or you want to do something with a bit more advanced technique within your website, then those are things that people can be trained on," he says.
While many web functions can be completed by widgets and point-and-click actions in the CMS, many non-IT employees working with content on the web could also benefit from a basic understanding of coding—specifically HTML and CSS— that allows them to make small adjustments like editing a tag or modifying format.
While knowing code doesn't need to be as complicated as software development, Carly Silberstein, CEO of association management company Redstone Agency, Inc., says it goes beyond just adding a new skill to your resume. For association employees, the ability to make small changes to a website's code can minimize an association's dependence on developers, which helps keep costs low.
"There are courses that are offered for beginners that don't really know the lingo and don't really know how the computer system interacts with, understands, or digests the coding," Silberstein says. "I think that basic knowledge should be sufficient for doing day-to-day tasks."
Beyond websites and content management, if there's another tech-related word that associations can't escape right now, it would be "data."
And associations need to do more than gather data; they need to gather relevant data and analyze it in a useful way. "Everything rests on data, getting the analytics, and really being able to engage with the data and make informed decisions," Silberstein says.
Because of this, employees should know how to use the software that tracks data pertinent to their departments. For instance, membership teams need to be comfortable with the organization's association management system or customer relationship management program.
"Anything that captures data [and allows you to] analyze, check, and change data points is very relevant. And it's only going to get more relevant as we move into the future with the internet of things and big data," she says.
Data can help identify what content to publish and how to communicate it, who members are and what they want, and which prospects to reach out to with which offerings. But it's only effective if an association properly interprets and understands it.
"It doesn't really matter what department you're in or what your job function is," Lurie says. "Data across the organization and understanding your membership and their needs more deeply and more accurately and then using that data to guide your decisions is incredibly important."
While associations continue to figure out how to best analyze and use the data they have to make decisions, many also are finding new ways to explain and illustrate it, namely through data visualizations and infographics. Several free and low-cost programs can help showcase data in easy-to-read charts and graphs, and association professionals, particularly in communication functions, would be smart to familiarize themselves with these tools.
An infographic "just takes the numbers, the unsexy part of all the stuff—you think of a spreadsheet with 90 rows and columns—and it makes it into an understandable, valuable projection or visualization of what's going on," Silberstein says. "I think it gives you more of a holistic picture in a manageable way that can be understood by stakeholders."
Speaking of pictures, should association execs have the skills to shoot, record, and edit their own photos, videos, or audio pieces? Maybe, maybe not.
"Audio and video are definitely becoming a very big focus for marketing initiatives," Silberstein says. But since these skills are specialized and often not used in everyday work, associations with budget available may want to hire a professional to execute these projects. However, in the case of a small-staff association with fewer resources, editing and recording skills could be a helpful asset.
Lurie agrees that associations should be using visual and audio elements, but the skills to do so don't need to rest within the association.
"They're going to need to edit the video. They're going to need to produce the video. They might need to add music or change sounds. And those are all skills you definitely want someone to have, whether it's someone on your staff or a contractor that you work with," he says.
The main goal, van Hilst says, is knowing enough to ask informed, precise questions to make sure you get the results you want from a vendor.
No matter how technology advances, association professionals will needs to continue to keep up and learn new skills.
"Keeping technology in the association world top-of-mind, making the changes, and learning the skills needed to keep the industry moving forward are key," Silberstein says. "Keeping an open mind to what's out there is what association professionals should really have. It's not really the skills, but it's being open-minded to what's coming over the horizon."