Here’s why associations are primed for a digital renaissance

Rebrand. Restructure. Evolve. Associations, some say, are prime targets for the disruptive forces of Silicon Valley. About 33% of individual member associations have experienced decreasing membership over the past five years. But has the demise of associations been greatly exaggerated?

The argument goes like this: social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook are making associations irrelevant as millennials resist the ‘joiner’ tendencies of their parents – preferring to connect online rather than at annual conferences. Marketers, who can reach dental hygienists or insurance brokers through AdWords, are making an end run around glossy association magazines. And low-cost online videos from YouTube to teach would-be members “how to.”

{mosads}But savvy associations have doubled down on technology in recent years. And as it turns out, the very technologies that would threaten the historic value proposition of associations may pave the way for their tech-enabled second act. When association executives meet at the annual ASAEmeeting in Salt Lake City this week, they have cause for optimism. Here are three megatrends that promise to buoy the growth of associations.

Unbundling of the Degree

For generations, the bachelor’s degree has been the default currency of the labor market. It has become an article of faith among hiring managers that degrees signal the expertise of candidates within their field. But that privileged position is now under assault as employers question both the cost and value of higher education’s ‘bundle’ in search of more tangible evidence of skills that matter in the workplace.

Certificates are now the fastest-growing postsecondary credential, with over 1 million awarded in 2013. A recent U.S. Census Bureau report showed that 19 million U.S. adults have earned a certificate, including 6.4 million who have no other education beyond high school. And who, besides governments, are the largest issuers of non-degree credentials? Associations.

How would you vet the skills of an accountant, let alone a wood flooring expert, as an employer—or a consumer? The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), which has been around since the 1800s, recently ditched paper certificates in favor of “digital badges” that offer better reliability and “more visibility.” The National Wood Flooring Association even has its own “University,” offering credentials through a range of courses and hands-on training opportunities.

The convergence of “clickable credentials” and mobile computing means that consumers and employers can have transparency, in real time, into what a professional knows and can do. And the evidence is mounting that members care. About half of all millennials and Gen Xers cite access to credentials and accompanying job opportunities as among their top association benefits.  

Over time, association-backed digital credentials will compete with the primacy of degrees for the attention of hiring managers and distinguish professionals in an increasingly crowded online marketplace.

Social Networks: Trust and Verify

Conventional wisdom suggests that social networks will hasten the demise of the association. But in an information economy where digital credentials are the coin of the realm, associations are gaining unprecedented currency on social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook.  

Gone are the days when certificates gathered dust on the walls of your local accounting or HVAC shop. Today, social networks allow professionals to share evidence of skills and competencies at scale. Joiners they aren’t, but millennial workers want to stand out and get noticed. It stands to reason that according to LinkedIn, profiles with certifications are 6 times more likely to get viewed.

Associations bring meaning to social and professional networks because they provide a mechanism to authenticate and verify claims. Social networks allow associations to convert members into marketers who use and share credentials publicly. Employers browse credentials to discover candidates and match candidates with jobs. What many see as a threat to associations may prove to be their biggest asset, providing unprecedented scale to drive membership growth and visibility.

From Content to Assessment

One challenge, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, is that hiring managers don’t trust or recognize “many of the companies and organizations behind the badges and courses.” Without authentication, digital credentials might lead to what workforce guru Tony Carnevale describes as “chaos” with “no one body setting a standard.” Associations, in contrast, have always played an important role as validators of skills and expertise, setting the standards for their respective fields. And in the digital world, that role will likely expand and evolve.

In the old paradigm, education and assessment were bundled, with association members paying a fee to take a course followed by an assessment of content knowledge. Today, educational content is online, free and ubiquitous. Professionals share videos online and best practices in online communities, webinars, and discussion forums. But while content is increasingly commoditized, assessment and authentication are becoming premium goods.

Technology now allows associations to assess members at a distance. Bubble tests are giving way to distributed networks of experts who provide the ultimate validation of skills and know-how in their field. Asynchronous video paired with mobile technology allows nurses or welders to record their work, develop portfolios, and receive feedback from thousands of association members worldwide. After all, consumers and employers don’t want to know if someone passed a test – they want to know if someone knows how to do the job.  

Associations are nothing if not resilient and uniquely positioned to see the big picture across the industries they serve. We see a future for them that is bright. Technology won’t put associations out of business. But it might very well showcase their ingenuity, and create entirely new roles for them to make an impact for their members, and beyond.

Paul Freedman is the CEO of Practice and Founder of Entangled Ventures, a San Francisco-based educational technology studio. Jonathan Finkelstein is the Founder and CEO of Credly, a platform for digital credentials and open badges.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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