Editorial Note: We’ve written about the importance of learning culture and suggested that fostering a learning culture requires a different perspective on learning and—by extension—what’s needed to support effective learning. It also requires re-thinking significantly how the stakeholders in your learning business interact, the assumptions they bring to the table, and how new perspectives translate into new strategies. The transformation of learning is, of course, very often a part of larger digital transformation efforts, and research by our colleagues Maddie Grant and Elizabeth Engel highlights just how important culture is to digital transformation. In their research and in this guest post, Maddie and Elizabeth address the relationship between digital transformation and culture in the context of associations—important players in the learning business—and many of their conclusions apply to learning business broadly.
Organizations of all types—for-profit and tax-exempt—have been talking about digital transformation for many years, yet association efforts continue to lag.
Why is that?
In The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation: How Intentional Culture Change Can Propel Associations Forward, we posit that it’s all about culture.
The main challenge associations face in digital transformation initiatives is that digital transformation is an iterative process that includes both technologies and culture. Associations focus on creating more value for our members and for the professions and industries we serve, which means we need to continuously change the way we work. And that means we need to be on the lookout for the tools and technologies that will enable us to change.
Which sounds if not easy then at least simple.
So why aren’t we doing it?
Our research revealed that, while there is still work to be done on the technology front, it’s not technology that’s holding our industry back; it’s culture and, more specifically, culture change. This is why a lot of the copious digital transformation advice that exists doesn’t quite hit the mark for associations. For-profit culture is fundamentally different than association culture.
What do we mean by that?
First, a member is more than just a customer. Your members are invested in your association in a way that “members” of Costco are not. Your board of directors has a very different role to play in the governance of your association than that of a for-profit board. Additionally, your board members are users (or beneficiaries) of your association in a way that for-profit board members, even those who are customers of the organizations whose boards they sit on, are not. For-profits don’t have anything analogous to chapters or affiliates. This all complicates culture work–there are a lot more stakeholders who are a lot more invested in associations than for-profits.
But internal association culture can be a challenge as well. Your association may claim values like collaboration and innovation. But is that really true? Maybe your collaboration is a little awkward—your internal departments are siloed and don’t generally share what they’re working on freely and effectively. So how will you suddenly start sharing data openly on a new platform?
Maybe your commitment to innovation is a little more talk than walk—you say you’re forward-thinking, but people get punished for taking a risk, at least if it doesn’t pan out. So how are you going to get comfortable experimenting? You need to get your culture ready for this work if you want it to succeed.
As Maddie is fond of remarking, digital transformation comes down to culture change + vendor selection.
From the technology perspective, that means you don’t want a mobile strategy or a data analytics strategy or a social strategy—you need a well-thought-out organizational strategy that includes these things. The tech of transformation (AI, cloud, data analytics, Internet of Things, mobile, social, Web) is not the end—it’s the means to the end of accomplishing your larger organizational goals in a coordinated and member-centric way.
But it’s the culture part that gets really tricky. How do you change your culture so it enables digital transformation rather than blocking it?
Digital transformation success starts at the top, with a specific mandate from your C suite, answering the “why” of digital transformation in a clear and compelling way. Your leaders, both staff and elected, must also provide strong, consistent support and resources, including budget. You also need an organization-wide commitment to identifying and, as necessary, adjusting your culture patterns—patterns that define what is valued inside your culture, which then drives behavior.
Where do you start?
Learning about what digital transformation is (and isn’t), why it matters, what barriers are unique to associations, what advantages our industry has—that’s all interesting and useful.
But how do you actually accomplish digital transformation in your association?
We have you covered:
- Assess where you are now.
- Secure leadership support and a funding commitment.
- Identify strategic areas where digital tech could make a difference.
- Review your legacy systems and processes.
- Recruit your team.
- Get comfortable with experimenting.
- Improve your culture management.
Then—and only then—chose your tech investments, and make it happen. In other words, to be successful, digital transformation must start with culture change and proceed to technologies, not the other way around.
For more on how to do all that, download the full white paper for free at https://bit.ly/3y4O6dy.
You can also join Maddie, Elizabeth, and the team from the Construction Specifications Institute (one of their case studies) for their first Webinar on the project Friday, July 16, at 1 pm ET. Find details and register at https://propelnow.co/events/digital-transformation-live-webinar.
About the Authors
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting. For more than twenty years, Elizabeth has helped associations grow in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she’s not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, and garden.
Maddie Grant, CAE, co-founder at PROPEL, is an expert culture designer and digital strategist who focuses on helping organizations prosper through culture change. She has specific expertise in digital transformation and generational differences in the workplace. She has explored the evolution of culture in the digital age through her books, including Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World (2011), When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business (2015), and the Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement (2019). Find Maddie at propelnow.co.