Achieving a Shareable Information Ecosystem for Your Association

By Jacqui Olkin and Duane Degler

Today’s association may be a producer of information, a curator of information, and an authority on subjects within its profession. It may be a publisher, education provider, event sponsor, public advocate, and think tank, and it may own different technical platforms to house the information associated with each of these roles: a website, journal site, magazine site, chapter sites, learning management system, and so on.

No wonder this information, in all these different systems, is increasingly difficult to keep up-to-date, maintain without redundancies, and present in an easily discoverable, unified way within the association’s information ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the association’s information exists in a larger context: Its profession’s information space. To contribute content and other information to allied organizations and others with an interest in the profession, the association must concern itself with existing industry data standards and nomenclature. Standardizing information makes it more easily understood in context, retrievable and shareable across systems, and maintainable without duplication.

Where to Start?

How can your association provide information that is easily discovered by members and other customers, as well as harmonious with the way other organizations publish their information? The task seems daunting, but it can be approached methodically in small, achievable steps.

1. Audit your information. Knowing what you have is the first step to making sense of information diversity. It allows you to set internal standards for production and maintenance. It’s also a good opportunity to get rid of, consolidate, and revise content as needed.

2. Know your users. Take time to understand why and how people and organizations use your information and what is most important to them. Listen and observe. Recognize that users often ignore traditional internal fiefdoms; content “crosswalks” are critical to support user tasks. You will want to focus your effort on standardizing, classifying, and exposing your most valued content.

3. See what’s possible. Understand your various systems and how they could be integrated. Start with a vision of an integrated whole–a seamless, enterprise-wide search, navigation, and data-sharing experience. See what tools you have internally and what are emerging in the market. Linked data (and “linked open data,” i.e., publicly available information and vocabularies) are increasingly able to help your silos “play well” together. And both commercial and open source technologies are creating capabilities we didn’t imagine were affordable a few years ago.

4. Actively engage in what your field is doing to create standards and shareable information. Associations are commonly both participants in and thought leaders of professional communities. Many fields have established standard thesauri to describe their subject domain, and rules for how to apply terms to content. There may be governing bodies or committees who develop and update the thesauri and set additional standards for data classification and portability. Find out what your field is doing with regard to data sharing and get involved in the collaboration. It’s likely to be a lively conversation, as new technologies and interoperability requirements pose challenges and opportunities in every field of endeavor.

5. Set your priorities. Develop and gain consensus on a simple roadmap toward improvement. This shouldn’t be a massive tome. Ideally it’s a one-page view of your strategic direction, regularly discussed and easily adjusted as your member and customer demands evolve. Your roadmap shouldn’t be solely owned by one person or department. It’s a shared understanding embodied in a simple, living format.

6. Begin to incrementally apply standard terms and tags to your information, and plan for the future. Your integrated vision for search and navigation should be powered by a flexible taxonomy (system of classification, metadata) that assigns the same topics to journal articles, news items, continuing education courses, and books in your bookstore.

But remember, the perfect can be the enemy of the useful. There are ways to avoid epic taxonomy-creation efforts! Even if you can’t do everything at once, take steps to prepare your content for a time when it can be aggregated and searched in a more holistic way.

Start with a lightweight taxonomy that includes terms and relevant metadata for each type of information you produce or curate. Keep a focus on how your association constituents and people in the larger profession find your information through organic search, browsing, and cross-linking.

7. Find partners. Once you have some goals in mind, seek out the right partners to help make those plans a reality, such as information architects, designers, technologists, and product vendors. Forge alliances with other organizations that share similar goals or that already manage information in ways you expect to do in the future.

Remember, it’s always best to get started. Prepare your information for the future, even if you take small steps initially to achieve larger goals later.

Duane Degler is co-owner of Design for Context, and an experienced strategist who leads user research, interaction design, and content management projects for association, commercial, and government clients in the U.S. and internationally. Email:

Jacqui Olkin is a user experience consultant with Olkin Communications Consulting, creating strategic, usable web and mobile experiences for associations.


[reprinted, with permission, from ASAE’s Associations Now Plus, Oct. 6, 2015; retitled from 7 Steps for a More Accessible Association Information Ecosystem]