Transforming Associations to Meet 21st-Century Challenges

by Seth Kahan

Transforming Associations to Meet 21st-Century ChallengesThe issues are real. Imminence is becoming urgency. To meet the future, it’s time to transform many associations. That’s why we are putting resources and news online at our new website

Market conditions are changing rapidly. Breakthroughs with Internet technology; social methods for interacting (like Twitter and Facebook); private sector companies providing education for free that was once a reliable profit center for associations; the disruptions are compounding and accelerating.

As market conditions are changing, so are member expectations. In some cases even the role of the association itself is being disrupted. For example, until recently associations were the sole providers of the specialized education necessary for professionals to stay current in their fields. Professional societies and trade associations can no longer maintain that dominance.

In the face of such disruptions, the question becomes: what value is the association uniquely able to provide? Member organizations used to provide face-to-face opportunities, the sole venue for members to network with others and build collaborative relationships. But technology has given us many other options. People often get together on their own at self-organized events. The resulting turmoil is threatening many professional societies and trade associations.

The leaders of these organizations are now challenged with authoring their destiny for the decade ahead. And yet, they have little access to peers to sort through the issues. They need a safe place to be creative that is also stimulating, thoughtful, provocative, informative and professional.

Association CEOs and Executive Directors need a place where they can think together. This is why I am spearheading an effort I call, Association Transformation.
My idea is to build a community of visionary leaders, people who are focused on crafting the future. I have put together a group of Guiding Lights, association leaders recognized for forward thinking drawn from a number of professional societies and trade associations.

I have the help of Ron Nicodemus, co-founder of BioAgenda and a thought-leader event specialist who has put together hundreds of such professional gatherings, bringing together the best and brightest in multiple sectors for such luminaries as Disney Institute, NFL Superbowl Marketing, PBS, and many major networks.

Association Transformation will become that gritty, but safe place for leaders to come together, grow, innovate, and generate. We will provide them with the stimulation and research they need to think together and shape the future of associations.

The benefit that can come from this is enormous. There are immediate payoffs in the cross-fertilization of ideas among people who are truly visionaries, who can instantly transpose best practices from peers to their own organizations. But even more than that, in this forum leaders can productively interact and generate from their own business acumen and experience new ideas to help their members and their organizations thrive in the 21st century.

Participants will benefit from both immediate ideas and tactics and also increasingly the ability to influence an entire industry. Member organizations are integral to the fabric of America. They still need a place they can count on to help them prepare for the future of the professional disciplines and the businesses of American society. This is a fundamental and ongoing need. America is not going away. If anything, it’s evolving rapidly in our increasingly connected world.

I believe in the power of communities to build bridges to a new, positive world. That is why we are building this forum for visionary leaders to forge their future.

I’ve been involved in several initiatives in completely different sectors that have been highly successful in vision-driven change. At the World Bank I was part of the team that built 120 knowledge communities in about 18 months, over 75 percent of which are still in existence some 17 years later. I was a convener, facilitator, and catalyst for these groups, where we were able to bring together the thought leaders in their respective fields to raise critical issues, grapple with challenges, and construct solutions. Together they reshaped the future of their respective areas.

I worked with Royal Dutch Shell to help build the community of people who birthed technological surveillance underground in oil and gas fields. I brought engineers, asset managers, and strategists together to think, work, design and build solutions that had global impact in what is today the largest energy company in the world.

These experiences introduced to me the transformative power of practitioners working together.

Association Transformation will serve individuals in the CEO/ED role by focusing on what it will take to successfully lead their organizations through today’s changing landscape. We will host our first event, the CEO Workout, on October 28 & 29, 2013, in Washington, DC. It’s an invitation only event limited to association CEOs and EDs. If that describes you and you want to attend, drop me a line. We are only taking 30 CEOs and already have more than 50% on board.

Visit our website at and sign up for the Association Transformation Newsletter, where every month we share research and broadcast upcoming activities. The new ideas generated will be shared broadly so associations everywhere, regardless of budget or size, can take advantage of what we learn.

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Transforming Associations to Meet 21st-Century ChallengesSeth Kahan  is Associations Editor for Innovation Excellence. Seth helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, American Geophysical Union, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His new book is, Getting Innovation Right: How Leaders Leverage Inflection Points to Drive Success. His previous book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, was a business bestseller. Learn more about Seth’s work at

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