It’s the End of the World as We Knew It

At the Hotel Bar

What would you do if you discovered today that all the skills and competencies you have developed at work were suddenly obsolete? This is not as far-fetched as it seems.

In 1900, 6,000 horses hauled trolleys in New York City. Think about what this requires. People to raise horses. People to grow feed for horses. People to make tack and other equipment. People to drive horse-drawn trolleys. Think of the professions and industries that supported these individuals and companies.

By 1902, an overwhelming percentage of the country’s streetcar tracks ran on electricity. Almost overnight, an industry and everyone connected to it became virtually obsolete.

For over a decade, the Association Laboratory environmental scan, Looking Forward® Impact, accessed (along with nine other studies) for free via the Looking Forward® Dashboard, has investigated the forces influencing association members and the resulting implications on the association’s business model. Enjoy complimentary access to the Looking Forward® Dashboard, compliments of Association Laboratory Inc. Review the data, customize it to your needs, and download the information from 10 different association sector studies.

In 2024, the most recent data indicates that associations and their leaders should ask themselves, “Will I be obsolete?”.

Looking Forward® Impact assessed more than 60 factors impacting association members. The analysis identified five themes with the most substantial impact on the association business model.

Technology Convergence: We have now reached a critical mass – where technology is ubiquitous and accessible.


The Internet of Everything (IoE) is the networked connection of people, processes, data, and things. From starting your car via phone from your living room to transferring money between accounts, the IoE has effectively eliminated boundaries between money, information, and people.

We live in a world where everything and everyone can communicate with each other. From banking to the workplace, traditional historical boundaries have been effectively eliminated.

Now add in artificial intelligence.

AI is not new. Fifty-two percent of association respondents to Looking Forward® Impact identified Artificial Intelligence as having a substantial impact on their members – and that was in 2017. Seven years ago, a majority of association executives believed that AI would have an enormous effect on their members.

In Association Laboratory’s Looking Forward® Impact 2024, 73% now say assessing and adapting to current and emerging artificial intelligence tools will impact their members.

What is different? ChatGPT and other large language models.

AI models like ChatGPT make information access and processing power accessible to everyone. It eliminates the boundaries between disciplines. Now, anyone can be a coder, a designer, or a mathematician.

Changing Audience Needs: Emerging audiences have different needs and no idea who you are or why they should care.


Over the years, the association community has often discussed the impact of generational change. Association Laboratory research has shown that more than broad generational assumptions are needed in guiding strategy or leadership decisions. While generational stereotypes sell books, they don’t really inform effective strategy in a meaningful way.

This does not mean that changes over time do not have an impact. Everything happens slowly until it happens all at once.

One of the principal implications of the COVID-19 pandemic was the disruption of historical behaviors. Members who may have routinely attended events suddenly discovered those events were less valuable than they thought. Members discovered new alternatives and experimented with other options for community and content.

The result? A significant number of younger professionals have yet to have meaningful experience with the traditional activities of associations.

The historical association business model was designed to serve the needs of the Baby Boom generation. Generation X and the business environment were sufficiently similar that the association business model has mostly stayed the same for 75 years. Consider the following new strategic assumptions.

  • Reduced Barriers – No barriers exist between people, information, money, and competencies.
    • People have much greater access to content, community, and competency than ever before.
  • Disrupted Behaviors – COVID disrupted historical patterns of behavior.
    • People’s experiences with associations have changed (or didn’t occur), and they are now actively considering who they engage with.
  • Increased Options – Employers, for-profit entities, self-organizing groups, and other associations are active in the same space as your association.
    • People have never had more options.

The following data from Looking Forward Impact® highlights how this issue challenges association executives.

Younger professionals, 30 years or younger, have more choices than ever and less experience with associations than at any time. They don’t know who you are. They don’t know why you exist. They don’t understand why they should care.

M & A Activity – Larger, more resource-intensive organizations provide different support and have different needs.


Looking Forward® Impact has been tracking the increase in merger and acquisition activity for over a decade. M&A activity creates larger, more resource-intensive organizations that have substantial implications for associations. Consider the following.

  • People working for larger companies have different needs.
  • Larger companies provide people with more resources.
  • Larger companies have more influence on professional decision-making.

The result? Employers are a growing source of competition for associations. In just three years, the percentage of respondents identifying employers as competition to their association increased by 56%.

As employers become more resistant to subsidizing external engagement and travel, their influence on employee engagement decisions will only increase.


Professional on Professional Combat – Employers seeking sufficient rather than optimal competencies push professionals together.


As the chart indicates, workforce issues have been a substantial challenge facing the association community for many years. The following chart shows the percentage of chief staff officers citing identifying, recruiting, and retaining a qualified workforce as an issue impacting their members.

One implication of workforce challenges is the adoption of technology to either improve productivity or replace employees. If you have used a kiosk to order at McDonald’s, you are familiar with this implication.

A second implication is recruiting staff with sufficient competencies to perform the job with upskilling or training.

If an employer can’t find the right person, they see someone sufficiently close that they can be trained.

This results in different communities of professionals competing for the same job.

Professionals traditionally separated by competency now compete for the same positions or work.


Association Competition – Eliminating boundaries and the intersection of professional audiences creates a savage competitive climate for associations.


Historically, associations identified, nurtured and protected a professional or industry community. Going around associations was financially and technologically prohibitive – and few organizations had the content or community competencies necessary for success.

That day is long past.

People now recognize the value of your community and are no longer prohibited from engaging your members directly. Eliminating financial and technological barriers to communicating with association members allows other entities to bypass your association.

Associations face growing competition from organizations that realize establishing relationships with their community is beneficial and are no longer inhibited by boundaries that make this effort expensive.

The following chart highlights the growing competition from other associations and for-profit organizations and demonstrates the number of competitors associations need to consider.

In the face of this competition, associations and the people who lead them must create something unique and valuable if they are to survive.

Pretending your historical assumptions are valid and your industry or profession’s former role is still critical is foolish in the face of many other credible alternatives.

Last Call


In closing, in 2024, the data continues to show how the historical assumptions that drove association strategy are less and less valid.

While the challenges for associations are substantial, so are the opportunities. Changing audience needs create opportunities for new association roles, products, and services. The same tools that create increased competition are also available to associations.

The association sector has the community and tools necessary for success; we must tap these assets effectively to reinvent the next association business model.