October 4, 2016 Society

The 21st Century, a brave new world for professional associations?

Last week, Communication Director Magazine, the magazine of my professional communications association, dropped through my letterbox. I opened it, flicked through it, and read some articles about a recent conference I attended. Remembering the interesting content that was presented, the fascinating debates that were ignited, and the conversations and fun we’d had at the conference, I felt a connection to people with whom I share a personal and professional passion.

This experience reinforced for me the relevance and importance of professional associations; that there is value in being part of a group of people with a shared purpose that goes beyond one’s own personal and professional life. Indeed, in a world where the very existence of professional associations is being challenged by the internet and the digitally networked society, where content and information are easily accessed outside of traditional mechanisms, it was reaffirming to feel a sense of purpose driven belonging.

Three years ago, when I became Director of Communications and Engagement of the International Water Association, it was clear that the association landscape was changing. Old models were being upended, disrupted. The benefits of membership no longer were ‘just in the hands of associations’. In a digital society, the personal and the professional became less distinct. People shared content more freely and pushed for open access. Content became available through different channels, virtual platforms and social media. The growth of virtual communities and digital media allowed people to network in unprecedented ways and at unprecedented speed.

These rapid and fundamental changes came at the same time that the World Economic Forum put water at the top of its global risk charter. Water was placed at the heart of the process that were to become the Sustainable Development Goals, and governments and industry were prioritising water as never before. The water profession, and water professionals, were suddenly in the political, economic and social spotlight … what an opportunity (and responsibility) for a purpose driven professional association like the IWA.

These two important trends were important vectors for IWA’s new Strategic Plan, 2014 – 2018, which built upon IWA’s purpose and vision by stressing the association’s role in working towards of a water-wise world.

An organisation with a clear purpose needs to be able to communicate it to current and future stakeholders, the IWA members and supporters of the future. It needs to not only be an authoritative voice within its existing networks, but also to be able to influence people from outside its networks on the issues that drive its vision. This isn’t a ‘nice to have’. In a networked world it is necessary just to remain relevant.

In this new world, digital communications are owned by everyone and can be seen by anyone. Digital is no longer the remit of IT, but an essential function throughout all areas of an organisation. In this new paradigm, we discussed the IWA’s way forward at length in focus groups, through questionnaires and one-on-one stakeholder interviews with IWA’s members, Young Water Professionals, Board Members and staff.

The passion and commitment our members and stakeholders had for the direction of IWA was apparent from the start. It was also clear that people understood the need for change. The digital proposition we evolved formed the critical link between the two areas of the communications strategy we were building: content and media relations, and network engagement. A foundation intended to enable the organisation to nurture connections, conversations and collaboration across all of IWA’s stakeholders.

The three pillars of this ‘Digital IWA’ are the IWA Network website, IWA’s social media channels and the IWA Connect community platform. IWA Connect is the physical IWA turned digital, a place where people can do online what they once did offline. It doesn’t seek to challenge other platforms like LinkedIn. Instead, it brings unique value to IWA membership by enabling members to connect within their communities of practice; or to network with other communities and individuals that share the same purpose driven commitment to solving water challenges.

Digital is not the panacea for associations. Yet without it no organisation will function in the world today. The IWA digital proposition aims to contribute to – and might very well accelerate – the work IWA members do to address global and local water challenges. In order to create impact with this purpose driven IWA journey, we aim to use the full breadth of digital that is at our finger tips. We look forward to being on this journey with IWA’s members now and in the future.