Guest post by Helen Anne Richards, CAE

Shelly Alcorn's warning at AMS Fest in November was pretty clear – if you aren't paying attention to how machine learning and artificial intelligence could affect your membership, you should start right now. Ignoring AI could be a fatal mistake for your association.

Okay, that's a little over the top. But it's also on target.

Shelly is a principal in Alcorn Associates Management Consulting. As a CAE, she spends her time thinking about how associations can become better at what they do. As a speaker and a futurist, she challenges her audiences with sometimes disturbing realities.

Case in point: Many of us are thinking about AI in mostly nebulous ways. We’re wondering if chat bots might be useful in our call centers or if AI can help us spot trends in the data we collect about our members. Or we're ignoring the entire subject because we can't pay for the technology anyway, right?

Most of us aren't thinking that our members might be out of jobs because of AI, but that's on the horizon for almost half of current U.S. jobs in the next 10 years. A smaller segment of the workforce could be replaced by intelligent automation in just three to five years. And without members, who needs an association or an association staff?

Determining Who Is At Risk

A 2013 study titled The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization? examined 702 current U.S. jobs and calculated the probability that those jobs could be computerized. The study included Machine Learning, Mobile Robotics and advances in Artificial Intelligence, among other advancements, in its scope and assigned a probability score to each of the job categories.

The study concluded that jobs that are highly skilled, such as surgeons, economists and landscape architects could resist computerization because technology and a demand for high-skill levels will allow those workers to avoid mundane, repetitive tasks in order to focus on more abstract and creative services. Similarly, jobs that require relatively low skills, such as those in service industries, will also flourish because a machine can't bring you your dinner or make up the hotel room you just used.

Losses, however, are predicted in the middle. Jobs such as insurance adjusters, loan officers, paralegals and legal assistants are at risk, among others. We've seen the effects of disruption in many communities where computers and robots have replaced human workers in manufacturing facilities. The resulting layoffs and loss of income are real and terrifying.

Still not convinced? Consider this: earlier this year, Fukoku Mutual Insurance Company replaced 34 of its "white collar" workers with IBM's Watson Explorer. Watson reads medical documents and determines payouts based on injuries sustained, medical history and the procedures administered.

The company expects to spend $1.7 million on initial costs and up to $128,000 each year in maintenance. It expects to save $1.1 million annually.

Fukoku isn't an isolated example. Other Japanese insurance companies have deployed Watson or intend to do so in the near future.

Why Should We Worry?

Association execs have only to look at disrupted industries to find cautionary tales. Newspaper associations, for example, have had to reinvent themselves in the past 20 years. As newspaper revenues and staff levels have declined because of disruption from the internet, associations have merged, loosened their membership requirements, reduced association staff levels and generally managed with lower revenues.

Reduced membership is not the same as zero membership. What would these associations do if newspapers and reporters no longer existed at all? It's a question association execs might ask about their own membership.

What Can You Do Now?

If you're working in an association whose members are at risk, particularly members at risk in the near-term, you have two options:

Option One: You can ignore the issue and hope that the predictions are wrong. (If you choose this option, you might want to update your skills and your resume. When you lose most of your members, you'll need a new job.)

Option Two: Start conversations with your staff members and your members now. Make it a group project. Clarify your mission. Examine your organization's flexibility. Research what puts your members at risk. Discuss what additional skills might help secure newly-created jobs. Figure out how your association can use its resources to help members navigate what's coming.

Associations are innovative enterprises dedicated to serving members, industries and professions. Now may be the time to redefine what serving your members really means.

Read more about the Watson in the Japanese insurance industry here:

Alcorn Associates: Associations and AI Advancements in the Insurance Sector
Discover Magazine: IBM’s Watson Replaces 34 ‘White-Collar’ Employees at Japanese Insurance Company

Helen Anne Richards is a freelance business writer connecting associations and the companies who serve them. She is a former association exec and holds the CAE designation, as well as an MA in journalism. Read more about her at