Weighing the Return On Not Investing

Written by Reggie Henry on March 21, 2019

A while ago, while keynoting a conference on using data and new technology, and there was one particular person in the audience who was full of questions. This person was asking about the Return on Investment (ROI) on this, that, and the other. At a certain point, I got off the stage, walked up to this attendee, and asked them what inaction will result in, what is the return on not investing? What if your association members think you’re not forward thinking? What if that one new technology could be transformative for your organization? Without investing, what can you to do keep up with their everyday lives vis-à-vis technology?

There was satisfaction in witnessing how many people had an “ooh” moment! C-suite staff are no strangers to discussing investing, but it’s less common to talk about inaction. How do we measure what happens when we don’t invest? What’s the price of missing out?

As far as technology goes, the shift in weighing the return on investing and the return on not investing is everything. When technology used to come and go, there was a beginning and an end. Now, technological investments don’t have finish lines, they are ongoing business investments. Technology has exploded in the past 5-10 years and we’re constantly catching up and creatively coming up with metrics for the non-stop innovations around us. Anything we focus on is constantly iterated until it may look the same but is completely new! For example, look at Apple products. iPod classics were discontinued in 2014, and five years later, there are over 2 million items available at the Apple App Store. With the runaway growth and success of iPhones, we have Apple Music, and the iPod is a default application in your phone now.

Now, how can you begin discussing the return on not investing on technological growth? How can you possibly risk not investing? The idea is to replace failing with learning, and approach any risky investment with that mindset.

I failed extremely well a while ago. Member accounts to Listserv were the top 2% or 3% of why people joined ASAE. I started thinking it was a bit old school, and that new platforms and software were emerging that offered so much more. I was excited and eager to move forward, but with Listserv being such a valued service, there was resistance from staff and members to replace it.

The association serves the members, and I needed to build a case for them to trust the vision of what would become Collaborate. How can I engage the community in something they hadn’t experienced before? To put an image to a virtual concept, we asked “What might an association town square look like? What’s happening here? What interactions are going on?” With answers like debating, selling, and learning, it became clearer what I was hoping to build for the community. The idea of an online association town square was something people could buy into, and the return on not investing was non-existent.

Involving the community in this investment was paramount to its success. The concept was enthusiastically validated, and the much-needed execution iteration sold itself! Like in many cases, investing in the community isn’t necessarily investing in a thing, but in the results the thing will bring.

That being said, the actual execution sucked so badly. During a board of directors meeting, I went straight to the president and said “Thanks for investing in the idea! Now let’s get back to work.”

On a related issue, this is why I love the Technology Fail Fest held at out Technology Conference every year. It’s a group of risk takers who tried something new and failed, and now they can share what they tried, what they learned from its failure, and the steps to move forward! This is so much more than just celebrating failure for the enjoyment of storytelling, this is about institutionalizing failing it as a way of learning! This is a conversation on how to get off the dime on something and move forward.

People interact with technology every day, and every day, the expectations are raised. For an organization to fall behind is risky business. There used to be a 10-year gap between technology coming into its own and it being adopted. Now that gap is gone. The universe is shrinking and expectations have changed, things we used to think were risky can no longer be put off. Association professionals see the world evolving outside of their organization, then don’t do what needs to be done. The return on not investing in technology is faint. It’s time to face this reality, eliminate excuses, and find ways to deal with it!