Significant transformation, driven by increasing adoption of all things digital, is occurring in many areas of our working lives. The institution of the professional body (membership organisation, professional associations, et al.) has experience in weathering change; a great number of professional bodies in London predate Churchill. While technology effecting change is nothing new, the rate at which the landscape is shifting is increasing, with indelible results for the people and organisations unwilling to adapt.
This article highlights some of the more prominent themes of the discussion and serves to capture the spirit of the event in highlighting the appetite for change.
To facilitate the discussion around transformation, as relevant to the purpose driven business models of the professional body, digital transformation consultancy Atmosphere brings together those interested in driving change from within professional bodies for an ongoing roundtable debate under The Chatham House Rule. The bodies represented members from a wide variety of professional backgrounds with delegates ranging from Chief Executive to Senior Digital Project Lead, creating a healthy blend of perspective for the discussion.
The Atmosphere Professional Bodies Digital Leadership Summit is an ongoing event. To find out more about our event programme, or about the other work we do, please contact us.
The question of digital governance is a complex one
The theme for this event, held in late May, was focused on the action required to lead change, so it was fitting that the speaker leading out for this session had the title of Director of Business Transformation (with an anecdote that this title was adopted after it became apparent that “Director of Business Process Reengineering” would not fit on a business card).
Professional bodies are complex organisations; within 1 week of our speaker commencing this new role, a Director of Digital was appointed in another department, so a key step was to leap on to the opportunity to work closely with this person. The Director of Digital and Director of Business Transformation ‘must be married’ to meet the business objectives for embracing and thriving amid change in this example.
Similarly, it was suggested that the functions of marketing and IT must develop a shared narrative of where any problems exist within the organisation, as often these ‘problems’ are borne out of technical solutions being misidentified (and often sold in) as a panacea. It is considered very important that time and energy must not be expended on identifying who is responsible for the situation, neither should it be spent passing on the responsibility of who should solve the issue. One key insight was that it is important to reconcile the functions of marketing “we need to update the website” and business services “we need to buy a shiny new CRM” within the organisation. The solution does not come from either one in isolation; marketing and business services are condemned to work together to avoid drowning amidst the requirement to adapt.
This complexity adds to the challenge of evolving as required. It was cathartic for the delegates to swap notes on just how many websites, social media accounts, and internal CRM systems were being managed; the respective counts of 30, 50, and 5 being high, but not uncommon, numbers being bandied about the room. The question of digital governance can be a complex one.
A situation familiar to many of the delegates was shared regarding governance over digital assets and corporate branding; a situation which is accelerated and increases brand risk in the age of social media, instant impact and exposure. One delegate adding that they had recently discovered that a “subcommittee of a regional subgroup” independently set up a new group on social media using association branding but without adopting policy; no governance, no awareness, no controls.
“When a problem is identified, you create a paper and form a committee.”
The sheer number of stakeholders, functions, assets (digital and physical), and (being pragmatic) sources of revenue, often make decision making the function of several different committees. Often this process can take years from the submitting of a paper highlighting the problem, to a point where the problem is ready to be tackled. Precious time consumed with discussion aiming for consensus while the marketplace marches on. Innovators and disruptors enter the market, and the attention of the audience drifts very quickly to those offering what it is that the audience wants, and that is delivered in the manner in which the audience has come to demand it. This is, of course, easier stated than activated, as one of the delegates noted.
“Unlike a house that can be knocked down and rebuilt, the professional body has to be evolved and updated on the fly.”
While the specific route to achieving organisational agility is of course a unique journey for each professional body, common threads include establishing a shared vision, empowerment leading to a rise in customer centric thinking, and the breaking down of workplace silos.
The organisation needs somebody in a role that will ask the right questions and apply due diligence when acquiring IT.
There is a need to make a shift in order for IT to become a partner for the rest of the organisation with a sufficiently large enough umbrella to capture IT purchasing across the business, rather than having technology decisions being made in each department independently. A delegate shared one experience demonstrating resistance to share data within the organisation. An anecdote was shared about the response to a request to integrate CRM systems, which alarmingly was not dissimilar to what one might expect from the NRA when questioned on the matter of gun control.
Another challenge is that of ownership regarding the IP being created as new systems are integrated into the business, and how to begin a transition of the systems and IP in-house as a core capability as a means to reduce exposure to suppliers. Too often we hear of multi-year technology projects which, despite promising the world result in a less than flattering response from the teams who inherit them in their day to day operations.
This raises important questions about the caution required as we typically empower technology oriented questions to an occasionally ‘technology disoriented’ set of senior stakeholders. Given the pace of digital change, digital experience can rapidly lose relevance, and the right questions must be asked in order to ensure projects have the best chance of success. Seldom will all the right questions come from the digital seniority or from within the organisation.
While there is plenty of thought into the strategy, often the clutch to engage the vision is missing.
“We invest a significant amount of money every year in updating our pdf.”
As an example of leadership provoking the right questions and seeking opportunities to improve, one organisation decided to run fundamental personification and testing of the customer journey with regards to joining. This exposed no fewer than 5 steps.
1) Navigate to the ‘join’ webpage
2) Download a pdf
3) Complete form by hand
4) Scan form
5) Email form to a contact within the organisation
The data journey then continues, with internal resource required to enter the handwritten form into the database. Only then is a response able to be generated and sent to the customer.
Not only was this cumbersome for the newest members, but this journey is required annually as part of the renewal process. The incumbent technology is driving the experience, rather the other way around. The business must design services around members going forward to move from a position of ‘signing up’ to one of ‘please share your email address so that I can begin to build a relationship with you.’
As an example of ‘test and see’, another organisation made a small investment to record a series of expert led, topic specific lectures (traditionally delivered from the lectern to a live audience) and offering the lecture to be viewed remotely as an opt in. Huge success was realised, as demonstrated when the system crashed due to the overwhelming demand. Having demonstrated the response, the business case now exists to invest in this with greater gusto. The results came from the appetite to “just do something” so as to listen and learn and, if it all goes wrong, to acknowledge and share the learning opportunity.
Leadership is key; the business is often aware of the ongoing inefficiencies and issues, yet may often be waiting for the opportunity, the question, the challenge, even the permission, to do things differently and begin the process of improvement.
“We created a burning platform. People ask me ‘is there enough stuff on fire now?’”
A question was raised regarding the perception amongst the organisation of a ‘burning platform’ and how quickly do organisations need to move. Some staff and many members have been part of this one organisation longer than our delegate has been alive; significant resistance to change exists, both internally and externally. To combat the response to change of ‘I don’t have time’, one organisation adopted an accelerated variation of agile project management methodology. By moving to fortnightly sprints, the organisation has countered the lack of ability for rapid decision making, drawing a line in the sand and demanding action to be taken within short focused periods of work with very positive results.
By making an operational change, demanding that the business embrace moving quickly, and asking brave questions with the desire to challenge thinking, a shift to where the organisation is beginning to ask, ‘What is it that we can we do now?’ has been achieved.
“If we don’t sort it out, our people will simply run away to someplace else where the IT works better.”
The member experience is a direct result of the employee experience; don’t think just about the member experience.
It’s not just about the members. Many of our staff will say that they don’t know what digital transformation is and naturally will not be enthused or too supportive. We need to be able to transform our business and see if we can make their day to day working more efficient. It was agreed that today’s professional body simply cannot be a collection of hundreds of staff wanting to act like it is at the cutting edge whilst operating like a university from the 1960s.
One organisation found traction in positioning transformation as the solution to staff concerns, and means to improve their own experience at work. Achieving greater efficiency, streamlining of process, leveraging of data, customer centricity and more; these all ceased to be feared challenges related to change, and instead became relevant and value driven pursuits to better serve the membership.
Rolling out 16 shiny new IT modules is of little value if you have a staff member who just wants to be able to manage a simple set of tasks better, and drive efficiency in their daily operations. Management can be guilty of creating initiative overload, whereas the people at the coalface can already identify which activities can be stopped, which can be improved, and what new activities need to be started to improve both the working lives of the employees as well as the value delivered through to the members.
By starting with workshops to explore the current staff experience and identify pain points, focus was shifted to reframe the staff as the initial beneficiaries of transformation, with the shared objective being in allowing them to deliver increased value to the membership.
“If you have a poor system and modernise it electronically, you now have a poor electronic system.”
Leadership must also trust those charged with transformation; Leadership do not need to fully understand transformation, but it certainly helps. With a swathe of analysts and six-sigma gurus and the like, one group still found that they deliver very little. And the reason they don’t deliver is that those on the operational side of the business don’t own the problem.
There is a growing demand from the members for us to have, and to state and opinion.
For another, very newly formed, organisation, the membership is looking to the association to take the risk and be the first mover; the industry as a whole is far behind other sectors largely due to complications around data and privacy and a general lack of appetite for adopting new technology. In this situation, the responsibility to lead transformation for the sector lies with the professional organisation itself. The professional body has the trust and the support of the membership to litmus test the change required to drive the profession into a more digitally enabled future.
Professional bodies need to embrace the power of the question mark.
Professional bodies are well equipped to conduct research. This can run for a year and then the findings are released, but often released as statements.
For example, we can begin to say: “These are the findings of our research, what the market has said, what do you think about this?”
This brings the organisation to the centre of a conversation, and a position further out of the firing line should somebody disagree. The organisation needs to feed the audience with information that serves to start a conversation. This conversation can happen efficiently and transparently on LinkedIn, a platform that many delegates felt their organisations could be better at embracing and managing.
It was felt that our members are more passionate and insightful than the organisation and yet were not used effectively. The members are ‘one hell of a salesforce’ for our organisation, but champions are yet to be leveraged effectively. The professional body needs to enable the membership to promote in conversation. As brand is now manifested as behaviour, no business in today’s world retains the ability to broadcast what they represent; that power has long shifted to those who consume and share. Brand is the aggregate of the conversations that are happening right now, both on and offline, with or without the input of the organisation.
To close: Paperless offices and flying cars
A delegate reminded the room of context. “When the internet first arrived we were told that we were all doomed, information could be gotten from anywhere, the old members’ clubs were history, nobody would need to meet face to face, offices will be paperless, flying cars etc. etc. yet none of that has happened.
What has happened? In a world where everybody spent their life staring at a screen, they absolutely love face to face communication; the value of the network has never been higher.
People are drowning in information and are desperate for somebody to curate it for them. All the core purposes that the professional body was set up for still exist and the same fundamental question still needs to be answered.
The journey of digital transformation is one of renewing the relevance of the professional body in today’s digitally enabled world and placing the audience and the membership back at the centre of the business. While the flying cars are not yet here, greater propensity to share, abundance of information, organisational shifts and disintermediation are just some of the changing market dynamics that threaten the professional body that is resistant towards embracing change.
While the experience is by no means painless, it is essential. With the right focus comes the opportunity to bring renewed value to all stakeholders, and ensure the survival of the professional body into the next century.
This discussion was facilitated by Ben Hart, founder of business futures practice, Atmosphere. To find out more about our Professional Bodies Digital Leadership Summit, or anything about the other work we do, please contact us.