THE ASSOCIATIONS IN COVID-19 TIMES: The Strength of the Group

By Claudia Paoletti | Managing Partner Kilpatrick

The essence of Associations of any type is to put together people united by common aspects like job, interests or geography and with underlying values of sociality, spontaneity and sharing. The sense of belonging and the bonding often go through the organization of events and physical networking actions aimed at making members meet and get to know each other.

The unprecedented covid-19 emergency has clearly messed up any program organized by the associations and has required different actions that have not been tested previously except in some sporadic cases.

At Kilpatrick, we have always believed in associations, so we wondered what challenges the associations have faced in this period, how it has changed them internally and how their approach towards members will change while not being able to count on the events and the physical presence of their members.

In this sense, we wanted to ask some questions to representatives of Italian and international associations. For this interview we have involved:

Isabella Covili Faggioli – National President of AIDP Association for Personnel Management (A network of over 3000 active members, 16 regional groups, an international network that promotes a serious and responsible development of managerial culture in the human resources field).

Guido Carella – President of Manageritalia (National Federation of Tertiary Managers which associates over 37 thousand managers, middle managers and executive professionals)

Andrea Spiriti – President of the Italian Aerospace Network – IAN (Consortium of Italian SMEs operating in the aeronautical and aerospace sector and with offices in Italy and abroad).

Paolo Bazzoni – President of the Italy-China Chamber of Commerce – CICC (with the mission of promoting the economic growth of its members through the training, promotion and development of the local business community) and Member of the Board of Bonfiglioli Drives Co. Ltd.

How did you manage to satisfy the sense of identity and belonging of the members without being able to count on the physical events in this period characterized by the Covid-19 emergency?

Covili Faggioli: After a first moment in which we all had a thousand ideas going through our minds but unable to plan for anything, we understood that we had to be strict in evaluating the hundreds of proposals that came up to keep the level of engagement of the members high. Fortunately, AIDP thrives on credibility built over time, the sense of identity is embedded in what this association represents in a serious and never instrumental way. With these assumptions, these new ways for the association have resulted in a greater participation of the members and has increased the sense of belonging, being able to see in AIDP an important point of reference for confronting and relating even in complex and totally unexpected moments like these. During this period, we even had the nice surprise of new members joining and historical members who declared how important it was to be in AIDP. Nothing is built in a day and we could not, with some webinars, even at a high level, keep the members close if they had not already felt part of this professional family where, with great generosity, those who do things by making available their time and their professionalism, do it for the sense of community and the greater good.

Carella: We brought all our contacts and services online, expanding what was already there. We have given the online aspects in all its forms an even greater charge of empathy. “We are always here” was our commitment, a slogan that we already had and that we strengthened. We talked more with our managers individually and also did ad hoc surveys to understand from them how things were doing on the field. We talked on social media. We developed webinars on various topics, which completely replaced online events.

Spiriti: The critical issues introduced by the pandemic have led to the need to deeply review the approach and strategies. Fortunately, the Italian Aerospace Network has always been characterized by a natural predisposition to a sense of identity and a sense of belonging separated from physical events. This derives from the very nature of IAN, a network of Italian companies that reside throughout Italy, from the nature of our reference markets extended throughout Asia and from our basic approach that since the beginning was based on the activity of a support team located in different countries and continents. Therefore, we were naturally led to use, as much as possible and as long as it was accepted by the interlocutors, an approach in which technology played and plays a fundamental role. Regardless, the pandemic situation has led to the cancellation of all physical events (meetings, fairs, missions, etc.). We therefore had to heavily review one of the aspects that characterizes our business. We intensified “remote / online” meeting opportunities and designed specific activities that could somehow be carried out effectively even without a real physical interaction. Of course, this has produced a significant delay in all the planned activities but also the creation of new opportunities, different, but not necessarily less effective. Last but not least, we can say that the sense of identity and the spirit of belonging has also been, in a certain sense, strengthened. The critical issues have in fact allowed to “skim” significantly the companies strongly motivated by those that instead were present only for “convenience” and “limited interests”.

Bazzoni: Undoubtedly the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, which started already in January in China, has conditioned the normal course of the activities envisaged by the CICC, especially for the months between February and April, leading us to develop a package of initiatives and webinars focused on concrete ways to support our companies in China, with the integration of Help Desks for information on services, subsidies for post-Covid19 recovery in the various territories and municipalities.

From May onwards, with the renewal of the Governing Council, the CICC has, in harmony with the new strategy of territoriality / focus on quality support services and collaboration with the various Chinese municipalities, significantly increased the initiatives to promote Italian business through sector surveys and giving companies and partners a range of services. Bottom line, we have seen an increase in our membership base, as well as a greater opening of Chinese counterparts to business opportunities, in line with our Mission. This gives us confidence for a more solid loyalty of our membership base during the year.

How have you been able to create the sense of community filtered by technology? Were you ready or did you have to “experiment”? What were the biggest difficulties?

Covili Faggioli: Fortunately, in the national secretariat we have efficient people, accustomed to the sudden difficulties gained through the organization of increasingly participatory and complex conferences over the years. To our advantage, the components of regional governance are no different. At the beginning we thought that one platform was enough to satisfy the requests of the various groups but then we realized that we needed two platforms due to the pressing and numerous requests of the AIDP groups that during this period organized hundreds of virtual events of the highest level. The difficulties were only quantitative and not qualitative, but we managed to satisfy everyone.

Carella: We launched a series of interviews with associate managers that told us how they were facing the emergency within their company. A way to do a live storytelling that would make them protagonists and involved in sharing the experiences of those days and moments. A way to lead by their example and their voice those who trust them and want to move forward with strength. A way also to reiterate and strengthen the role and value of managers. We were ready, we have also been a community online for a long time, we only had to strengthen and expand the ways and methods of meeting and dialogue. To strengthen the sense of membership, we have also put in place new services that would allow us to cover covid-19 risk and offer remote health services. A completion of the many professional and personal services already present and all accessible remotely.

Spiriti: IAN’s activity has always employed technology in a massive way, by choice (reduced size of the organizational structure) but above all by necessity (localization and extension of our reference markets, mainly Asian). With this in mind, we did not have to experiment, it was a question of optimizing the use of technology without completely eliminating the human factor and the component of “human relations”, a fundamental element of commercial development activities. In this sense, we had to work on both fronts. On the one hand, by improving relations through a more careful programming of recurring activities, on the other by using the technological tool (remote meeting) in taking better care of the dynamism of the activities (greater and more frequent interaction between the participants), reducing as much as possible the duration of the meetings, thus optimizing the time in favor of greater certainty. The difficulties encountered are essentially attributable to two factors: the different time zone and the progressive reduction of attention by the interlocutors. The first aspect has been mitigated through the creation of a shared awareness. Everyone faces the same organizational difficulties regardless of the role (customer-supplier), therefore everyone must somehow give up consolidated comforts. The second aspect, as anticipated, was mitigated by trying to reduce the duration of the meetings by optimizing the schedule of activities and trying to define the next step for each topic / activity discussed.

Bazzoni: Technology has been a means of accelerating the inclusion process and opening up to new ideas and opportunities to support business, but the real driver has been the focused attitude of concrete service to our companies in the territories: work in the field meaning management, networking, and follow-up. Synergy with institutions is fundamental. Territorial delegations, redefinition of the priorities in the pipeline, with a continuous attention to the needs of our members (Italian companies and Chinese Friends). Certainly, learning by doing, like everyone else… but no crisis for us, on the contrary, the situation has stimulated the ‘make it happen’ approach with more drive and energy!

How do you imagine the future of associations? Will the “new normal” be the one experienced until February or will there be definitive consequences and changes in the way your associations’ activities are set up for the future?

Covili Faggioli: Our Association will experiment, like others and like many other companies, with a new system that provides both solutions. The usual one because there is nothing more rewarding than meeting in person and the virtual one when it is possible to solve problems that do not require any physical presence. The National AIDP congress was moved to May 2021 from May 2020, we could not think of hosting a thousand people virtually or with attention to distance. The national congress is an incredible moment of network for sponsors and many others and events like this make sense only if done live. For our board and governance meetings, those who were unable to participate were already connecting in the distance, now perhaps we have more equipment and more familiarity, so it will not be new to continue doing so.

Carella: There is no doubt that this experience will teach us to make better use of all the possibilities of online technology. As e-commerce has become a new, pleasant and unexpected obligatory experience for many consumers who are still completely traditional in the way they purchase, so has it been for many of our associates in the use of services and in the many possibilities of building and being a community. The future will keep the most useful aspects of the online experience and will encourage at the same time the return to a high-quality, face-to-face offline experience in person. We will have to find the right strong mix of what this sudden, obligatory and totalizing online experience has taught us and made us perceive in its real potential. As always, in the crisis there are opportunities that must be seized and put into the system.

Spiriti: Nobody has a crystal ball and future scenarios (too many variables) can hardly be predicted. On the contrary, we must try to work more on the positive elements that emerged during the “critical” period. In the past we were used to face-to-face meetings, today we realized that most of them could be replaced, without major problems, by “online / remote” meetings. In the past, the panorama of “live” events was overabundant with respect to the actual need, or better to say, with respect to their actual effectiveness. Let’s say that at this moment it is essential to work on the effectiveness of the activities to the full advantage of an optimization of the time resource and with a significant reduction in costs, direct and indirect. Even more directly we can say that “working less but better” is not only an ambitious goal, but also a real need.

Bazzoni: It is difficult to foresee a standardized New Normal, due to the different realities in the different countries and the influence that system managerial cultures are having. Associations absorb this. From our point of view, the concreteness and the ability to manage and support this New Approach of online / offline services gives us much more push on the territories, more attention to realizing the needs of companies, which ask for facts. We measure ourselves on this and work in absolute synergy with the institutions. Certainly, more inclusiveness, empowerment of “company style” KPIs that generate services and increase the penetration of the Italian company system in the territory; therefore, more authority to create new business opportunities for the country system.

Looking ahead – Conclusions 

As the health threat hopefully easy off in the months ahead, some aspects of the day-to-day life of associations will return to their pre-pandemic forms. Face-to-face interactions will eventually resume. However,some disruptions brought by COVID-19 will remain and become key elements of associations’ operations.

To succeed in this new world, associations must successfully combine traditional strategies with new technology-enabled innovations and continue experimenting with new ways of providing their services, building community and engaging with their members.

Additionally, associations must plan for increased uncertainty, embrace change and be creative in finding the best ways to advance the interests of their members while prevailing in the new normal. Afterall, associations are realities made by people for people.

To read the italian version, click here.