Unpacking the Association CIO’s Bag

  • Photo of Mike Guerrieri
    Mike Guerrieri

Association CIOs rely upon an array of people, processes, tools, and talents to fulfill their organizations’ strategic objectives. So, what’s in an association CIO’s IT bag?

Behind a restaurant’s menu is the strategic mind of an executive chef. They make sure the kitchen is appropriately staffed and equipped to deliver the dining experience their menu promises to guests. For example, a high-end restaurant might have an expensive, multi-course, farm-to-table menu sourced from local farmers and fishers. While a casual restaurant might have a less expensive menu that relies on processed ingredients from large wholesalers.

Similarly, an association CIO is the strategic mind behind their association’s technology. They develop technology strategies that deliver the desired user experience to members, customers, and employees.


Chefs carry an important bag to work—their knife bag. Knives are a big deal to chefs and cooks. They try out lots of them before investing in the ones that feel right. And they don’t just leave them around for others to use, they take them home each night. The chef must have the right stuff in the kitchen too—the right people, equipment, processes, and ingredients to deliver the optimal dining experience.

To help the association achieve its goals, the CIO must be sure the IT department has the right stuff in its ‘bag’ to effectively manage the four pillars of The 501c IT Maturity Model™:

  • Technology management and strategy
  • Infrastructure/network management
  • Data management
  • Digital presence

Any CIO who wants their association to reach a higher level of IT maturity must strive to improve performance in these four areas—and must assemble the best people, processes, tools, and talent to do so.


Association CIOs and executive chefs both have a strategic focus. They leave operational responsibilities to their deputies: IT directors and sous chefs. This delegation is necessary because the management/strategy side of the IT bag is pretty full, with digital transformation taking up a lot of room.

The CIO leads their association through digital transformation—the adoption of an association-wide strategy and culture that integrates digital technology and a digital-first mindset throughout the organization to better deliver value to members and customers.

The essential ingredients of digital transformation are:

  • A technology plan that supports the association’s strategic objectives.
  • Technology project prioritization.
  • Policies that ensure the organization can deliver on its promise to members and customers.
  • technology assessment to find out if the association is focusing on the right areas. For example, if your IT maturity score is low in one function, you’ll need to increase investment in that area.

The CIO is not only the IT leader, but also the technology advisor to the C-suite and business departments. They’re the in-house technology consultant who helps departments with selection and implementation projects. Two additional and essential competencies for the IT bag are:

  • Change management expertise for projects involving changes in technology and/or processes and the accompanying impacts on people and culture.
  • Project management expertise—either on staff or brought by external consultants.

Association CIOs, like chefs, must be masters of resource management. They must have sufficient resources available to invest in technology, staffing, and professional development for staff—something often overlooked by IT departments (and restaurants).

In kitchens and offices, the goal is efficiency. The CIO encourages staff to automate and streamline processes wherever possible. They also recommend technology that facilitates collaboration.

The most valuable resource of all is people. The CIO ensures the association has the right IT talent with the right technology skills. They don’t all have to be employees—you can have other people carry your bag by outsourcing tasks, hiring IT consultants, or hiring professionals on an interim basis. An agile approach to talent gives a CIO the ability to scale up or down as the project load demands.


In restaurants and associations, the proverbial buck stops at the desks of the executive chef and CIO. These leaders rely on their deputies (sous chefs and IT directors) and vendor partners to keep systems and networks in running order. They ensure nothing impedes the productivity of staff, whether they’re in the building or working remotely.

With lots of integrated systems working together, vendor relationships are key to delivering the experience that staff, members, and customers expect. The chef or CIO’s implementation of their strategic vision determines what’s best done by in-house staff and what’s best done by external partners.

An executive chef, for example, may decide the kitchen (and payroll) isn’t designed to support a full-time pastry chef. Instead, they partner with a bakery to provide desserts and baked goods that meet the executive chef’s quality standards.

A CIO may decide to outsource network management to a Managed Services Provider so the IT team can work on strategic initiatives. This approach to IT budgeting allows staff to focus on their true core competencies while ensuring predictable expenditures.

Cybersecurity has risen to the top of the association CIO’s bag. CIO.com report said CEOs believe their CIO’s top priority should be upgrading IT and data security to avoid cyberattacks—improving cybersecurity is job security. Along with prevention, CIOs also have to prepare for the worst by having a business recovery and disaster plan.


Kitchen management is both art and science. Chefs must be fluent in breaking down the numbers: figuring out which menu items stay and which should be 86’d, watching food and labor costs, and keeping a tight grip on inventory and waste. If the chef doesn’t focus on this data, the restaurant won’t last long.

Data management is also a critical element of technology strategy. Association leaders rely on data to understand the needs and preferences of members and make sound decisions about programs, content, and communication. But data management has come under a stronger spotlight for several reasons:

  • New focus on data-informed decision-making and the need for better data governance and analytics.
  • Increase in data breaches due to cyberattacks.
  • New privacy regulations, such as the EU’s GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act (and more to come).

Many associations CIOs are facilitating the development of an association-wide data strategy and helping to make the changes in organizational culture that are necessary to become a data-informed organization. For example, they’re taking a ‘privacy by design’ approach to data management.

The IT department may not take ownership of data governance, but the CIO must ensure that someone does—perhaps the AMS ‘owner.’ Data integrity and security are only possible with a data governance plan.


Every executive chef knows the power of Instagram for getting diners in the seats. The restaurant’s digital presence is a team effort with kitchen and front-of-house staff working together to raise awareness, attract the attention of media, and build a loyal fan base.

Likewise, the association CIO is part of the team behind their association’s digital presence. Communication and engagement with members, prospects, and other stakeholders is vital to an association’s mission and relevancy. Members have access to knowledge resources and peer-to-peer networking on the web and on their phone. They will learn, organize, and ‘associate’ without you—unless the CIO and the IT team work with business departments to provide the type of online experience that members and customers want and expect.

The association’s revenue growth is dependent upon marketing strategies that are supported by data and integrated technology. For example, the AMS, website, and marketing automation software must share data that helps staff understand member needs and interests.

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