AMS: what’s old, what’s new, what’s next

With the ASAE Technology Conference starting tomorrow, I began thinking of the predominance of association management system (AMS) vendors that will be displaying their latest and greatest in the exhibit hall. Then I started thinking of my own humble beginnings when I first went into business in the 1980s. No, it didn’t have anything directly to do with AMSes at the time (at least not that I knew of), but it was fun to cast my mind back and realize how far we’ve seen association information management evolve over time.

When I founded PC Innovators (which eventually became DelCor), I was writing custom databases using R:BASE. While R:BASE and dBase had significant market share, database management solutions continued to evolve with the likes of FoxPro and Paradox.

Of course, these relational database programs were designed primarily for developers with programming knowledge. It wasn’t until we started seeing the Windows-based desktop database solutions (like Microsoft Access) that database management started to become more accessible to non-programmers. 

Similarly, the AMS market has evolved from the early days of custom databases focused simply on tracking members to enterprise-wide systems for automating processes and tracking member engagement across the association (e.g., committees, events, sales, advocacy, social media). 

In fact, with the evolution of member-focused systems to constituent- or customer-focused systems, we see today’s AMS vendors emphasizing that the core of their systems are actually customer relationship management (CRM) systems, with additional related functionality. That approach applies to both traditional AMS vendors, as well as those vendors who have built their AMS functionality on a CRM platform (e.g., Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Salesforce). 

Today’s AMSes interact with a variety of other systems – including content management systems, learning management systems, and social media – not just the accounting software like back in the day! The emphasis on enhancing a system’s ability to integrate with other systems so as to centralize and share data, is a positive development that keeps improving as technology advances. 

One of the most notable changes we’ve seen in AMS market over the years is the user experience. In the early days, association staff used dummy terminals and eventually moved to desktop systems. Now, the focus on web-based systems makes the AMS accessible to staff and constituents around the clock, regardless of location. Whereas staff used to rely on DOS programmers for custom-developed AMS functionality, today’s AMSes offer significant tools available to the association IT staff. End users – including, in some cases, volunteer leaders – have greater access to data and dashboards to view member profiles or trends. 

Although AMSes have changed drastically over the years, some of our advice about selecting and implementing an AMS hasn’t; for instance:

  • When selecting a new system, spend time reviewing, changing, and improving your business processes. It’s a much better option than paying for expensive customization.
  • Associations spend a lot of money on a new AMS, but often don’t invest sufficient resources in requirements analysis, project management, and ongoing training – necessary ingredients to ensure long-term system success. Don’t overlook these critical areas.

Where will AMS technology go from here? Integrations and a system’s application program interface (API) will be key for the future. The API is the code – or set of instructions and standards – that allows systems and applications to communicate with each another and share data. If you select a system with a strong API, you will have more flexibility for integrating with the best systems on the market for your needs, which might include social tracking, personalization, or data analysis.