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By Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE

One of the primary responsibilities association boards and chief staff executives (CSEs) must fulfill is providing thoughtful stewardship for existing business models as they navigate the disruption brought about by the powerful forces of societal transformation. As I wrote in an article in the August-September 2016 issue of the Association magazine, “all legacy organizations, including associations, will have no choice but to honestly confront the very serious business model challenges that transformation creates, and vigorously stretch beyond their existing capabilities in order to overcome them.” Business model stewardship is a critical and yet often overlooked element of every board’s fiduciary responsibility.

As part of this overarching focus on business model stewardship, senior decision-makers must take steps to build their organizations’ capacity to create distinctive stakeholder value at the same time they work to adapt their business models to confront emerging challenges and opportunities. While boards and CSEs themselves typically are not involved directly with value creation, they must invest in preparing the staff and voluntary contributors in their organizations who are to take meaningful and sustained action. To assist with this work, this article will explain what I call the “next rules” of association value creation that all serious value creators can use to guide and shape their crucial efforts.

  - Make value real - Building a truly stakeholder-first business model requires an empathic understanding of stakeholder problems, needs and outcomes, as well as a sustained commitment to developing solutions, services and support that substantively address those challenges. Associations can no longer afford to build their offers around mere perceptions or promises of value. Instead, they must consistently create actual experiences of value for the stakeholders they serve now and will in the future.

Amazon.com’s obsessive customer focus and value-centric business model has had far-reaching impact on stakeholder expectations for actual experiences of value, making it impossible to overstate the importance of this first rule. Indeed, it will be most worthwhile for serious value creators to view these rules through the lens of the expression “1 + 5,” with making value real as the immutable constant, followed by choice to apply the other five rules as appropriate to the specific value offers in question.

 - Make value “edgy” - The rapid pace of societal transformation is blurring time-honored boundaries and sharpening new “edges” for value creation, especially through ubiquitous access to increasingly powerful technologies, on-going demographic shifts and the new ways of doing business they enable. Instead of continuing to enforce their traditional barriers to entry, including membership, serious value creators must identify ways to transcend them to capitalize on these edge opportunities.

In addition, associations must strive to create new value by pushing beyond the limitations of their orthodox beliefs and embracing the edginess of distinctive, daring and even dangerous new thinking. Such risky ideas, as well as the unconventional people operating at the organizational edges who originate and spread them, are unique and invaluable resources on which associations can capitalize to craft unique solutions, services and support for their stakeholders. Instead of ignoring or marginalizing these voices, associations must begin listening to them with intention.

- Make value shareable - Nurturing consistent collaboration with diverse stakeholder networks depends on creating mutually-beneficial exchanges of value. It is essential for associations seeking to build lasting relationships with potential contributors to design and configure value for easy sharing across those networks. Once again, associations must avoid erecting unnecessary barriers to genuine collaboration, including the insistence on membership as a prerequisite for developing new relationships.

Smartphones are an attractive platform for making value shareable, and not simply because of their widespread adoption and frequent use by stakeholders. Creating value for mobile devices challenges serious value creators to think with great care about how to craft the most beneficial value offers, including designing the right configurations to deliver a significant impact in a small form factor and maximizing the ability to share by taking advantage of the full range of device capabilities.

- Make value open - In the physical world, scarcity increases value. In the digital world, abundance drives value, and today’s stakeholders have abundant digital access to the kinds of analog resources and relationships associations offer. With that in mind, associations must make their value offers as open and accessible as possible to create new combinations using other valuable resources, new interactions with compelling value-creating platforms and new connections with a diverse group of value creators.

Making value open does not imply making it available for free, and deciding which value can and should be monetized is primarily a business model design issue. Serious value creators view openness as an invitation to explore how they can integrate data, information and knowledge assets from a variety of sources into their value offers, with the intention of developing a deeper and more holistic understanding for the stakeholders who will use them.

- Make value smart - The growing complexity of a world experiencing intensifying transformation means stakeholders need value that makes them smarter. Associations must look for ways to imbue their value creation efforts with greater intelligence, including both intellectual capital assets and emotional intelligence resources. For example, by integrating real-time learning information with leading-edge practices for building empathic relationships along with feedback for improvement, serious value creators can exert considerable influence on their stakeholders’ professional performance and personal happiness.

Associations also need to begin exploring ways to leverage the extraordinary power of artificial intelligence (A.I.) platforms such as machine learning. A.I. technologies can help associations bring a new dimension of automation to the value offers they create, and can amplify their impact. The most significant consideration in applying A.I. to new value creation, however, is how it can enable the augmentation of existing stakeholder capabilities. While this aspect of next value creation is still in its earliest stages, serious value creators should pursue focused experiments to understand what is possible today.

- Make value “foresightly” - The most enriching value will help stakeholders anticipate and prepare for a full range of plausible futures. Associations must create value that enables stakeholders to develop a “foresightly” perspective on their personal and professional lives. By emphasizing the importance of foresight, associations can focus both organizational and stakeholder attention on the most significant challenges and opportunities unfolding on the horizon.

This process of learning with future is all about 1) making sense of the issues and challenges in play, 2) making meaning around the implications of those issues for themselves, their peers and successors and 3) making decisions about how to anticipate and prepare for their impact even before they fully manifest themselves. Creating value that simplifies this continuous cycle of thinking, feeling and acting to create the future will strengthen stakeholders’ readiness for whatever comes next.

To fully embrace these “next rules,” associations must be willing to abandon some of the most sacrosanct assumptions to which their boards, chief staff executives and other key decision-makers have adhered over many years, especially the preeminence of membership. Some staff and voluntary contributors may find these rules too intimidating or too much of a departure from what they know to accept. Serious value creators, however, will recognize these six next rules for what they are: a huge opportunity to think differently, to nurture strong reputations as genuine innovators and, most importantly, to make an enduring impact on the lives of the stakeholders they serve.

For the next decade and beyond, the forces of societal transformation will continue to be relentless and unforgiving as they go about reshaping the world we have always known. While this is a daunting realization for boards, chief staff executives and their value creators to contemplate, it also helps make the task at hand crystal clear. Associations must act decisively to harness these very same transformative forces to begin building thrivable business models, grounded in a fundamentally different approach to creating distinctive value for the direct benefit of their current and future stakeholders. It is an urgent priority, and now is time to get started.