Before embarking on an association management software (AMS) selection this year, get clear on two things:
- Why you want a new AMS
What you want in a new AMS
LET’S START WITH THE WHY.
Why is your organization considering new association management software? Do you need new functionality? Is your software so customized you can’t upgrade it? Is your association starting a new line of business?
Identify the reasons for change and the timing behind it, and make sure they’re legit reasons. A common pitfall for associations is investing in a new AMS simply because they think it’s time or they fall for some new cool technology. Not good enough!
Instead, answer this question: How will a new AMS better support your organization’s goals?
If you can’t answer that question legitimately, press pause and carve out some time for internal organizational reflection before going any further.
NOW FOR THE WHAT.
Teri Carden, founder of ReviewMyAMS.com, often shares this advice: “Finding the perfect AMS is like finding the perfect spouse. They don’t exist. Find the best AMS for your needs.”
What do you want in a new AMS? Addy Kujawa, CAE, executive director at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Executives, once said during a brown bag lunch, “You need clarity on requirements.” Usually when an AMS doesn’t live up to expectations, it’s because the requirements analysis process wasn’t thorough enough. The necessary questions weren’t asked, the necessary buttons weren’t pushed, and the necessary changes weren’t considered.
MAKE ROOM ON STAFF’S PLATE.
AMS selection and implementation require an investment of resources – not only money, but staff time too. You can’t expect staff to fit this big project into their packed schedule alongside their regular work. You must allocate real time for staff to work on the project.
Make sure the people on the project team don’t think it’s a horrible, overwhelming chore. Break the process down into manageable chunks for those who have to do the work. And don’t forget to celebrate each milestone and make time for fun – a key aspect to any successful organizational change.
How should you prepare staff for a new AMS selection and implementation? Let’s start with homework. No grumbling, please.
SELECTION HOMEWORK: IDENTIFY REQUIREMENTS.
Include the right staff in the requirements gathering process – those who are working with your existing system(s) or who need information from the system. Their knowledge of your system and processes – both the pros and cons – is extremely valuable during requirements gathering. Dedicate time at the beginning of the selection process to understanding and documenting system requirements and business processes related to the system.
Too often, staff don’t sufficiently prepare for this type of project. They don’t go through a comprehensive requirements analysis. Instead, they expect vendors to ask the right questions and show them exactly what is needed.
Remember: your association should drive the requirements and selection process, not the vendor. It’s your association’s job to educate vendors about your goals, requirements, and processes – not the reverse.
Vendors can only work with the requirements you provide. They won’t know your association’s needs or the problems you’re trying to solve until you educate them either in person (highly recommended) or in your RFP. They must understand your association’s mission, goals (both high-level and operational), and how technology is supporting your association in achieving those goals.
Give vendors clear information about the business processes that are critical to your organization. How do you use your current AMS? What manual processes are you still relying upon? How are members (or customers, attendees, etc.) interacting with the CRM portion of the AMS, and the AMS as a whole? What type of data and reports do you need to pull from the AMS? Do you need it to be mobile friendly?
An AMS is part of an ecosystem of related vendor partners and software that interact and integrate with it. Sit down with each of your existing system vendors and ask them which AMS they integrate with the best and why. Include the entire ecosystem in the information you provide to vendors so they know about all possible integration points.
FYI: RFP VS. RFI
After you’ve identified and documented requirements for a new AMS, it’s time to find out which vendors offer the best solution for your needs. The most common practice in the association world is to send out a document describing your association’s selection process and your requirements for an AMS.
Vendors then respond to this document by providing information about how their solution would address the needs you’ve outlined. Associations use two versions of this type of document on a regular basis.
Request For Proposals
One option is the request for proposals (RFP). Typically, an RFP provides a detailed description of the project, including background information about the association, organizational goals, and core business functionality. System requirements are described, as well as a summary of supporting requirements, such as software licensing, training, timeline, and directions for the vendor’s proposal.
You should allow up to a month to develop a thorough RFP that includes detailed requirements in addition to information about business process flows, integration needs, and governance for the selection process.
Request for Information
The other option is a request for information (RFI), a more compressed version of a RFP. An RFI is typically used to narrow down the field of potential vendors before sending out an RFP to request formal proposals. It contains high-level information and less detail about business processes and individual requirements. Based on the initial information provided by vendors, the association decides which solutions are worthy of a more in-depth review.
An RFI takes only a few weeks to prepare since much of the background information about the association and high-level requirements are readily available.
CHOOSING BETWEEN AN RFP AND RFI
Regardless of the size and scope of the project, an RFI is often the best option for starting initial conversations with vendors. Then, follow up with personalized demonstrations of the solutions that pass muster. The knowledge gained from these conversations and demonstrations will help your association develop a focused RFP for the final 2 or 3 vendors that you want to seriously consider.
EMBRACE THE CHANGE.
If you haven’t been through an AMS selection and implementation before, let me break the news to you: any system implementation is a change management experience. Is your association’s culture ready for that?
Change management starts at the top. Your association’s executive and senior staff’s mindset about change will determine the ultimate success of your AMS. So, here’s what you should do.
Take advantage of this once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity to review and improve existing processes, and examine how AMSes have changed as well. However, be aware of and sensitive to any resistance to change among your colleagues. Don’t think it’s only the “old folks” who will resist change. Risk aversion knows no age limits, nor does tech aversion.
Sometimes people will come around if you can find a replacement for their “safety blanket” – a report or a process they’re attached to, maybe that membership form they designed 10 years ago. Help them find the next generation of that same form, and you’re likely to ease their discomfort with change.
YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE DONE? THE BEST PART OF THE PROJECT IS JUST BEGINNING.
To ensure a positive outcome for your AMS implementation, think of its launch as the first day of a new phase of the project. What I mean is: your project doesn’t end at launch; it transitions into another phase after you get to know your new AMS. I know you thought it was over, but this is when it gets really interesting.
Try to launch with as much baseline functionality and process as possible, that is, with the least amount of additional configuration and customization on top of the baseline system. Save 20-30 percent of your budget to further refine and configure the system after you have used it for 3-6 months.
KEEP ON TRAINING, KEEP ON LEARNING.
Listen up, because this is critical: the investment in your AMS doesn’t end at launch.
Many associations don’t dig deep enough into their AMS. You need to pursue additional training after the initial launch if you want to take full advantage of your system’s functionality.
Your annual budget should include funds to support this additional training, including user conferences where staff can learn more about the AMS and prepare for new releases. Find (and fund) ways for your staff to share their experiences and education on the software with colleagues throughout the organization, so every AMS user knows the latest updates, tricks, and nuances.
YOUR AMS VENDOR IS YOUR PARTNER – TREAT THEM LIKE ONE.
Think of your AMS vendor as a partner. They have a stake in your success too. Consider them an extension of your staff. Beyond having a deep knowledge of their product and its capabilities, they’ve helped all kinds of associations use their AMS for all types of business processes.
They’ve seen their AMS implemented to solve a wide range of business problems, integrate with a number of different systems, and produce all kinds of reports. Seek their advice. They may have new approaches to solving some of your association’s old problems.
NOW YOU’RE READY TO ROLL.
And so is your new AMS. You’ve planned thoroughly for launch, your staff are trained up (and management has an ongoing training plan), and your AMS vendor has your back. Your new system will meet expectations if you do your homework before selection (requirements analysis) and make the commitment to sharpen your AMS skills after launch (fully funded training for your staff). Start your AMS journey on the right foot and keep investing in that journey to achieve long-term success.