Innovation has to be a strategic priority for associations because our organizations don't just serve a set of members/customers. Every association is the champion of a set of core beliefs that make a real difference (or don't, if you get my drift) to the work of entire industries, professions, or other fields of endeavor. And, as we all know, while our members and customers will change over time, our guiding ideals are designed to be constants. We must innovate, therefore, to meet the short-term needs of today's changing markets, as well as the long-term demands of our organizational missions.

Accelerating the need for stronger and more effective strategic action on behalf of association innovation is the simple realization that no association exists separate from the global economy that is now taking shape. No matter the size or scope of your organization, you are part of an increasingly open and inclusive economic system to which all kinds of people and organizations around the world can contribute. The World Wide Web, and all of the new communications, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing technologies it supports, are creating a direct link to a global marketplace in which innovation is more and more the main focus. Are you and your association ready to compete in this environment?

Consider, for example, how China and India are approaching innovation. The Chinese government has set a strategy for the country to become an “innovation nation” by the year 2020, at which time the intent is for half of China's economic growth to come from scientific and technological invention. Most observers believe, however, that China must take steps beyond economic reform to achieve this daunting goal. If the country is to be truly successful in building an economy based on creativity and imagination, China will need to open its society, allow the free flow of knowledge (by not blocking access to Google and other Internet sites, for example) and guarantee individual freedoms to all of its people.

At the same time, India today is one of the most active hotbeds of innovation in the world. Many companies, both large and small, are using India as a base of operations for research and development activities in a number of different industries. There is considerable R&D activity in China as well, but India appears to be the “it” place for considerable nonmanufacturing innovation, including in fields such as design, software development, and travel services. For India, the primary obstacles to be overcome on the road to realizing its innovation aspirations are insufficient infrastructure and an economy that may not be able to sustain its current rate of growth.

Despite the challenges both China and India face in the years ahead, we would be myopic and foolish to discount their proactive pursuit of innovation leadership. The governments and the working people of these two great nations are motivated to make innovation the core of their economies, while our own national commitment to innovation remains in doubt.

As an association leader, you do not have the luxury of ignoring the emergence of innovation as the dominant topic of conversation on the global scene. You have a responsibility to bring that strategic conversation to the forefront inside your organization immediately. Will you accept that challenge?

“You do not have the luxury of ignoring the emergence of innovation as the dominant topic of conversation on the global scene.” — Jeffrey De Cagna

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Editor's Note

Welcome to The Innovation Agenda, our new column designed to spark new thoughts on innovation in and through the association world. It is written by Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC and a contributing editor to Association Meetings. We hope this column will provoke conversation and provide some impetus to move associations forward toward positive change. Please send your comments, insights, challenges, and suggested topics to Jeff at