Making a Model for Innovation

executive leader shooting off into the sky November 1, 2016

For many association leaders, innovation is an appealing but vague concept. A new research project supported by the ASAE Foundation intends to shed light on innovation and provide best practices for executives looking to introduce change in their organizations.

Discussion of innovation seems to be everywhere. As a result, many association executives want or even feel compelled to think about how they can foster innovation in their organizations. But what does that mean? And how do organizations do it? What strategies and practices have associations developed to nurture success, manage risk, and track return on investment?

Innovation in Associations, an in-progress research project by the ASAE Foundation, intends to provide a comprehensive understanding of how associations choose to innovate, the areas of their focus, and the best strategies and practices employed for these initiatives. The goal is to develop a set of best practices that will help associations nurture innovation.

The State of Innovation in Associations

Through interviews with association leaders and consultants about innovation in the sector, researcher Satish Nambisan, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, identified a consensus among participants around how they understand innovation. They traced the current innovation buzz in the association industry back to the recession of 2007-2008, which required organizations to rethink their business models and even the relevance of their work in the face of widespread economic hardship.

Interview participants believe that the association sector would benefit from bolder innovation models that reimagine what an association can do or be.

This early thinking on the need for change likely influences how many association leaders currently define and approach innovation. Most broadly, interviewees described innovation as a vehicle to "adapt to change," to "be proactive about external changes," and to "adapt to the marketplace." Interviewees also suggested that, for many associations, change is understood as "risky, as opposed to being essential."

The participants noted that innovation projects in associations often fit a specific profile—incremental, program-focused, and largely siloed within a single functional area. There is nothing wrong with this kind of innovation—such projects often address pain points and create vital change for an organization. Still, as one interview participant indicated, the association sector could benefit from bolder models, including more cross-functional and organization-wide efforts and ventures that reimagine what an association can do or be.

Metrics to Drive Success

The interviewees suggested several areas of opportunity for associations. All cited a need for regular and improved evaluation of innovation initiatives. Participants identified the development of metrics around innovation as a particular challenge, but a lack of accountability and evaluation may serve as a barrier to creating a culture of innovation in an organization.

Interview participants stressed that while associations may use member satisfaction surveys to gauge external reactions to change, member satisfaction alone is not sufficient to determine a project's success. A "portfolio of success metrics" connected to an association's mission or long-term goals is critical for understanding the impact and success of an innovative venture. Such metrics should connect the innovation to "ripple effects"—indirect effects that may help the association identify new innovation possibilities.

A number of participants believe there is more agreement in the sector around the need for innovation than there is an understanding of how to make it happen. The foundation research project will expand the industry's knowledge of how associations are innovating, the strategies leaders use to mitigate risk, and what professionals can do to measure success.

The next phase of research will focus on a survey of executives and innovation officers in the association industry. Research findings will be available in autumn 2017.