Associations have traditionally done industry representation, but now their members are asking them to think about innovation, prominent futurist Rohit Talwar told participants in the 11th annual Euroconference, organised by Kellen Europe.
"The whole agenda for associations is up for grabs," said Talwar, CEO of Fast Future, which offers clients advice on foresight, strategy and innovation.
In today's post-crisis landscape, in which associations are finding themselves under increased pressure to generate business for their members and help them to develop their future strategy, they are forced to behave "almost like consultancies," he explained.
The need to adopt "a business, results-oriented approach" means that many industry bodies are approaching their members to say "look, we generated such and such new business for you," Talwar said.
He cited the example of plastic surgeons pooling their research funding together via their association as a means of achieving greater results, which can then be put to market by individuals as they see fit.
Industry experts surveyed last month by Brussels-based consulting firm Ellwood and Atfield concluded that stronger leadership from director-generals and board members is required if European business associations are to improve their effectiveness in influencing EU policies
Other key factors in the success of European trade associations are proactive EU public affairs driven by a politically aware secretariat, integrated communications lead by a director and demonstrable value of membership, according to the survey.
Will associations offer membership for free?
Talwar, meanwhile, singled out helping to generate new business, helping companies to develop their workforces and helping firms to secure their future as the three key benefits that members expect their associations to deliver.
He also highlighted the networking opportunities offered by membership of associations.
Competition from emerging economies and the emergence of a global Web-based economy have heralded the emergence of new business models.
Talwar said companies were facing a choice: provide your product for free, or make it fantastic. "This has already happened in the online world and it's happening in the physical world too," he said, citing hotels no longer charging for hosting conferences on their premises as an example.
"Associations are facing the same challenge: members will want clear results if they are going to keep on paying membership fees. Otherwise they will buy these services elsewhere as and when they need them," the futurist predicted.
"Associations need to find new ways of generating added value or they'll be under pressure to provide free membership," he warned, urging them to "think link the customer" in developing new industry models and mindsets.
Talwar also drew attention to another dilemma facing European industry federations: whether to help their European members to compete with non-EU rivals, or attempt to sign up companies from all over the world and serve them too.