innovation in associations: who's doing it

An ‘innovative association’ may seem like an oxymoron, but changes to the membership models of the past are now causing a wider embrace of disruption and the possibilities of innovation. And it’s high time, because associations that rest on their laurels risk losing the battle for relevance.

At Restaurant & Catering Australia (R&CA), innovation is less about asking for permission first and more about begging for forgiveness later.

“As our CEO likes to say, it’s like pushing a truck down the hill. If it crashes, then we’ll deal with it later,” R&CA’s Partnerships & Education Foundation Manager, Jo Dettmann, says. “It’s about trial and error as a pathway to success.”

This is an attitude that has changed markedly in recent years. From moving beyond its state-based roots towards a national future, to recent launches into social media, signature member events and the creation of its own consumer brand, R&CA has been willing to fail fast if necessary to find new ways to support  and represent its members.

innovation 1.jpgHowever, the association’s forward momentum may be uncommon. Research from the Australian Society of Association Executives (AuSAE) found the four traits associations would rate worst about themselves were ‘future focus’, ‘managing change’, ‘innovation’ and ‘commercial growth’.

This was despite 48% of associations claiming the threat of disruption they faced was either high or extreme, and another 42% of associations who were expecting moderate disruption.

Brendon Ward, who was CEO of AuSAE between 2015-17, believes the current report card is mixed. “There are more and more associations now saying, ‘we need to consistently improve, because if we stay where we are we’re going to become obsolete’. So there is an increased focus on continuous improvement,” he says.

Ward believes one of the key hurdles is that associations have few resources to spare on innovation. “This means it becomes more challenging to invest time in thinking and planning and being innovative,” he says.

AuSAE research found ‘insufficient resources’ was the single biggest problem holding associations back from peak performance, closely followed by board capability, traditional mindsets and resistance to change.

Innovation for restaurateurs

The core remit of R&CA is to help members survive. With an industry churn rate of 25% annually and average margins of 3%, Jo Dettmann says support and representation is critical to sustainability.

“The cost structure makes it incredibly difficult to make money,” Dettman explains. “A lot of people in this industry do it for passion and the love of it. In some cases it’s a better financial decision to put money in the bank.”

That’s why the association’s ability to innovate is critical. From lobbying government through its policy unit, to providing members with events and training, its support makes a real difference. But beyond trying to innovate with their own operations, allying with external innovators can be an advantageous move.

For example, Dettmann says the association has recently partnered with innovative online training provider Typsy to help provide training options for members in more convenient and engaging ways.

“Typsy provides online training on a subscription basis on small but interesting topics whenever it can be scheduled. For example, where a restaurant wants to train a barista on milk frothing, they will film the best barista in the world to provide tips and post that online, where there are thousands of videos.”

In the events space, the association is meeting change head-on with its Future Forums, where TED-style speaking sessions help attendees grasp innovations that are changing their industry, from online reviews and social media, to new food delivery systems, cyber security and emerging industry disrupters.

"Beyond trying to innovate with their own operations, allying with external innovators can be an advantageous move for associations."

As the R&CA’s members work around the clock, the association has also needed to be particularly creative with the way it communicates. This has included a move to embrace digital channels, where it is able to connect and reach members where and how they like in new and helpful ways.

“Our members might work anywhere from 6am in the morning on one day to 2am in the morning the next, so reaching them is incredibly difficult. We have really needed to innovate in terms of communications to reach them, because it’s not a 9-to-5 industry,” she says.

The R&CA has made moves to enhance its relationships with organisations that have resources and information that it can leverage for the benefit of members. That process has become easier since the association completed a five-year transition from being a state-based to a national organisation.

“That is really an innovation in itself. The state associations were dismantled and all our restaurant and catering businesses are now direct members of the national association,” Dettmann says.

“There used to be teams in each region providing advice on matters including industry partnerships, but we’ve been able to completely do away with that replication. I work in sponsorships and partnerships and we used to have seven different proposals across the table, but now that process has become hugely
more efficient.”

The R&CA even went beyond more core functions in 2004 to create its own consumer brand – Savour Australia – that has become a website and magazine promoting the industry to consumers.

“The objective of the Savour Australia brand is to encourage consumers to dine out more often and spend more when they do. That was one of our early innovations where we realised the traditional remit of an industry association wasn’t just to encourage the government to reduce costs, but to grow the pie as well,” she says.

Innovation for learning professionals

The Institute for Learning Professionals (ILP) is another association that has found time to innovate, this time from harnessing strength from within.

CEO Kerry Brocks says a lot of ideas come from talking with Fellows on its National Advisory Board.
“They are very interactive with the ILP. In August 2016, we also had an ideation and collaboration meeting, where we invited members to come in and influence the ILP’s approach going forward.”

Lightbulbs.jpgAt the association’s member centre in Brisbane, the ILP also gets some new ideas. “We have training rooms and meeting rooms and hot desks. Sometimes if we have members at hot desks, we catch up on their world and see if there’s anything we can do to support them.

The result? Brocks says she learned an important lesson. “The biggest thing I have taken away is we are offering so many things to members, but the motto should really be ‘less is more’. We are now fine tuning what we do and clarifying that for members.”

At advisory board meetings, the association runs one-page concepts past its Fellows to see what they think of ideas and suggestions and if they will be of value to members.

“In the past we just got an idea and said ‘let’s do that’. Now we have a screening process where we ask what it’s going to look like, and the impact and value it will have, then we prioritise” she says.

Having clarified its approach, the association has now put a range of new items on its agenda for 2017. “One thing we are going to have in 2017 is a uniquely styled conference – a hybrid conference, taking place in September. We will have hubs around Australia and internationally that will enable us to bring international speakers in and have networking in various places, including the Gold Coast, Perth and Melbourne.”

While incorporating virtual elements, the content itself will be innovative. Built around a future of learning theme, experts will help ILP members with strategy, design and delivery and technology.

Another focus will be supporting and enhancing ILP members’ ability to monetise their hard-won IP. The association is also seeking to unlock its ambitions for international growth.

“We are looking at launching overseas. There are two countries we are focused on now, so we are getting our model sorted and will look to launch by the second half of 2017,” Brocks says.

Dare to be different?

Omer Soker, author of The Future of Associations for the Australian market, has argued innovation can be either ‘Yin’ or ‘Yang’. “Yin is soft, nurturing and sustainable. Yang is hard, fierce and short-lived. Yang innovation is the next big product, service or program launch. Yin innovation is continuous improvement, cultural change and improved efficiency. Both are essential,” he says.

Associations have been warned if they don’t learn to innovate, their future could be at stake. “Disruption can also be Yin or Yang,” Soker says. “Yang disruption is the government cutting your funding, or new competitors stealing your market share and influence. Yin disruption is the momentum of your member needs changing over time, or the quiet resistance of traditional mindsets.”

However, Associations Forum CEO John Peacock says the term ‘innovation’ itself can be misleading. “There’s the question of the definition of innovation. Associations are always going to be doing things to help and advocate for members, and innovation is doing those existing things better.”

He says that by enhancing their culture and looking at possible measures such as financial incentives, associations could more effectively push their value proposition forward.

“You need a very strong culture of encouraging innovation among staff and you need to tap into the ideas of the membership,” he adds.

“There is usually no financial incentive for an association employee to innovate because they don’t own shares. This can put associations at a disadvantage to corporations, because they have a different financial imperative,” he says.

Former AuSAE CEO Brendon Ward agrees that the definition of innovation needs a reboot. Rather than getting scared of the concept, he believes associations should instead be realising the fact they are already doing it.

“People often think innovation means doing something completely different but in my view, a lot of innovation is about achieving those incremental changes, as well as a step change,” he says.

“More and more associations are asking how they can stay relevant and asking what to do to improve. That can be something small at a conference, or a wholesale change, like a new product line.

“But the important thing to remember is that associations can innovate, and they do innovate every day – probably without even realising it.”


This article originally appeared in Association Professional magazine. Download the digital edition below.

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