An abundance of resources and thought leadership delve into the responsibilities of board members that enable successful associations. One responsibility that many organizations are embracing is long-term thinking about the future of the association. This type of thinking — called foresight — is perhaps more important than ever given the rapid pace of change in this time of transformation.
As stewards of their organization, boards must be ready to navigate the association — and its industry or field — through these changing times. With their collective insight, experience, and expertise, boards are best equipped to consider the changes that will impact associations and their members during the next five to 10 years.
To help association boards do this, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) developed evidence-based research called ForesightWorks. ForesightWorks seeks to provide association leaders with intelligence about emerging trends that could impact an association along with the tools to analyze them and address them.
In its ForesightWorks research, ASAE identified 50 drivers of change that could impact associations in the next decade — and beyond. The drivers of change are separated into six categories: Content, Learning & Knowledge, which incorporates trends in education, meetings and events, the rejection of expertise, and other topics related to how we learn and consume content; Data and Technology, which includes artificial intelligence, predicative analysis, blockchain technology, cybersecurity, nichification, and other trends; Demographics and Membership, which looks at our aging world, empowered women, demographic shifts related to immigration, the emergence of younger generations in the workforce, and trends in how people socialize; Economic Conditions, which encompasses industry consolidation, global power shifts, the anticipated stagnation of the U.S. economy, and the sharing or gig economy; Society and Politics, which includes political polarization, American inequality, declining trust in institutions, among others; and Workforce and Workplace, which incorporates automation, diversity and inclusion, the rise of freelancers and contract workers, and the bifurcated workforce.
The task of thinking about your organization’s long-term future — especially 10 years in advance — may seem a daunting and overwhelming challenge. Here are some tips for how boards and staff can engage in productive discussions about the future:
- While ASAE offers 50 drivers of change, start with two to three that you think will impact your organization the most. Some associations share the list with key board members and have participants select their top two and then tabulate those that are most often cited. During this process, ensure you are pinpointing the drivers that will bring the most change to your industry or profession, and most impact to your organization.
- Put time into preparation. Each board member should review the selected drivers in detail, and consider how they could develop a potential action plan. The more one understands about the drivers, the better.
- Don’t rush the conversation. Allow enough time for discussion either at a retreat or over several shorter sessions. You can even have a productive conversation about a specific topic over a lunch hour. Document the key themes of the discussion so you can review during your future planning sessions.
- Once the drivers are understood, start the visioning process. Be aware that there is more than one possible future – try splitting the board into three groups and discuss the “preferred” future, the “probable” future and the “feared future,” then compare notes.
- With your key drivers in mind, document the products and services that your members will need in 10 years and what current offerings they won’t need. This can help fine-tune existing operational plans and illuminate where the board wishes to focus resources.
- If more insights are needed, engage a future-focused task force to work independently and bring their ideas to the full board.
- Don’t go it alone. Involve strategic planning experts who can help you through the process.
- Get everyone involved. The board’s engagement and buy-in to this process is critical.
- Future thinking isn’t one and done. Change is rapid, so revisit often, especially when new forces or disruptions occur.
- It’s OK to disagree. In fact, healthy dissension about these issues may generate innovative solutions and ideas. Not everyone may be able to agree on what the organization should do about a given change, but it’s more important to know that a change is coming. Document all ideas on how to handle it.
While the need for foresight should not replace the essential need for traditional strategic planning, association boards must be prepared to anticipate the long-term changes, so the organization remains relevant and members are ready for what’s next.