In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, associations increasingly recognise the importance of embarking on a digital transformation journey to stay competitive and relevant.

Digital transformation is not merely about adopting the latest technologies; it’s a holistic process that reshapes the way associations operate, engage with members, and deliver value.

Over the past seven years, our team has assisted a number of associations with their digital transformation efforts. From embracing the latest digital marketing tools and helping with the urgent set-up of learning management systems and online communities during the pandemic to navigating the unsynchronised pieces of software into integrated tech infrastructure, we’ve helped associations navigate this complex process.

In this article, I’ll explore the five most common pitfalls in the digital transformation journey I observe in my practice and provide insights on how to avoid them.

1. Insufficient Strategic Planning

One of the most common pitfalls in the digital transformation journey is inadequate strategic planning. Associations often rush to adopt new technologies without a clear understanding of their goals and objectives.

Sometimes, they embark on the digital transformation journey simply because “everyone is doing it,” while other times, a persuasive software salesperson convinces them to buy a shiny new solution to solve all their business problems.

The common assumption is that implementing new technology will naturally drive business transformation. Unfortunately, it won’t. Figuratively speaking, if you can’t drive, even the latest model of Ferrari won’t take you too far. Business processes and objectives must always come first.

To avoid this pitfall, it’s important to ensure that digital strategy aligns with your association’s mission and objectives and is based on a comprehensive assessment of your current business processes, member needs and industry trends. Engaging key stakeholders to gain their insights and perspectives, and creating a roadmap that outlines specific goals, milestones, and KPIs to measure progress are the first essential steps in embracing new technology.

2. Neglecting Member-Centricity

A second common pitfall of digital transformation is losing sight of members and their needs, expectations, and feedback. Associations exist to serve their members, and any digital transformation initiative should prioritise enhancing the member experience.

When rolling out a new system or technology, we often see that associations focus on internal processes and the technical side of testing, and the user testing stage simply doesn’t exist.

To avoid this pitfall, gather insights from your members about their preferences, pain points, and digital expectations. Conduct surveys, hold focus groups, and analyse your digital data to gain a deep understanding of members’ needs and behaviour. Member and team journey mapping can be a great first step in building your roadmap to digital transformation, and using member experience information to tailor your digital initiatives will provide personalised experiences and value.

3. Underestimating the Importance of Data

It never ceases to surprise me how often data management is overlooked in digital transformation projects. When moving to a new AMS/CRM, it’s not rare that software providers don’t include data assistance in the project. As a result, this step is often neglected, and the client doesn’t understand the scale of data migration. Sometimes, it results in losing a lot of historical data, or data being migrated unstructured and unclean.

Another thing to look out for is data security and privacy. Most likely, you’ve heard about the nationwide data breaches happening in recent years across different businesses. Another common issue is not complying with the Spam Act. For example, marketing emails being sent from different email software, and when a user unsubscribes in one system, they continue receiving communications from another software. This oversight can have severe consequences, including breaches, legal issues, and reputational damage.

To avoid these pitfalls, prioritise data security and privacy from the outset of your digital transformation journey. Develop clear data governance policies that outline how data is collected, stored, used, and shared, ensuring compliance with relevant regulations, such as the Australian Privacy Act 1988, or GDPR if you work with global audiences. Educate your staff and volunteers on data security best practices and the importance of protecting sensitive information.

4. Underestimating Time and Resource Requirements

Another common pitfall of digital transformation is the tendency to underestimate the significant time and resource requirements involved.

At the beginning of a digital transformation project, the initial question is often centred around the cost of the software. However, it’s important to remember that digital transformation involves many hours dedicated to planning, implementation, testing, and ongoing maintenance.

Another critical aspect is the setting of realistic deadlines. It’s not unheard of hearing such ambitious timelines as ‘needing a new CRM within eight weeks’. While it’s theoretically possible to implement a new tool within this timeframe, doing so while maintaining uninterrupted service to your members and ensuring proper integration with current systems is a challenging task.

Over-reliance on software providers or consultants is another common pitfall. While software experts provide valuable assistance, it’s crucial to recognise that no one knows your organisation, your members, and your unique challenges better than your own team. Consultants can guide you, but your team members should actively participate and take ownership of the project. If your team needs more confidence with technology, consider investing in their training, as tech skills are as crucial as any other business skill in today’s digital landscape.

When considering resources for your digital transformation, it’s important to look beyond the software implementation cost. Consider expenses related to your team involvement, data migration, ongoing software subscriptions and maintenance, training, technical support, and future upgrades. This comprehensive approach to budgeting will help ensure that you are adequately prepared for different aspects of your digital transformation journey.

5. Not Accepting that Digitisation is Dynamic

Last but not least, it’s important to avoid the notion that digitisation is a destination rather than an journey. Some organisations may fall into the trap of developing a rigid three-year digital transformation roadmap with no room for adaptation or change.

The necessity to adapt to the realities of virtual events and remote teams during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the AI’s unexpected grand entrance into our daily lives this year, are examples of the dynamic nature of digitisation.

This dynamic nature of digitalisation brings us back to the importance of items #1 and #2 in this article – digital transformation is not solely about technology; it’s about aligning current technological opportunities with your association’s strategic goals and meeting the evolving needs of your members and industry.

Digital transformation is a journey that holds immense potential for associations to thrive in the digital age. However, it’s not without its challenges.

When embarking on a digital transformation journey, it’s important to remember that it’s not an ad-hoc project, but an ongoing process. Embrace it as an opportunity to evolve, enhance member experiences, and achieve your association’s long-term goals.

This article was originally published in “Associations Evolve: 2024 & Beyond Journal“.