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Interview with an Expert: Emilio Arocho, Director of Technology and Digital Strategy at FDLI

Emilio Arocho is a Washington, DC professional with over a decade of experience empowering nonprofit organizations by allocating their modest resources towards mission-focused digital transformation strategies. As Director of Technology and Digital Strategy at the Food and Drug Law Institute (FDLI), he facilitates data-driven decision making across teams and tailors cloud architecture and business processes to anticipate and exceed stakeholder demands. Emilio holds a BA degree from Mount Saint Mary’s University.

1. How long have you been involved with technology in the association space?

I’ve worked in nonprofits for the last ten years, and I was introduced to membership organizations in my current role at the Food and Drug Law Institute (FDLI), where I’ve worked since May 2016.

2. How did you get involved?

I’ve had a passion for using technology to work within associations since before I knew what the word “association” meant, whether it was creating a website for my sister’s Girl Scout troop in middle school, reporting bugs to open-source software organizations, or volunteering my time to an educational institution in order to assemble computers from spare parts.

Working at FDLI, a membership organization that advances education and dialogue in the field of food and drug law, is very much in line with the mission focus of my other nonprofit work from the last ten years of my career. It’s been a really natural fit so far!

3. What are some of the most common questions you get about technology?

The question I most consistently answer in my work is “so what do we do now?”

We have technology tools in place that can accomplish so much, offering more functionality than we have time for. Part of my job is to sift through the technical details, engage in dialogue with my colleagues and other stakeholders, and articulate a vision of change that focuses on the most high-impact return on our time and money investment.

It’s a lot of fun! Then I get to work on delivering that change, which is equally fun and rewarding.

4. What are the common mistakes you see people making when it comes to tech?

Ignoring emerging technology and digital practices is a bad idea. I find it much more productive to insert myself and my organization’s top-of-mind concerns directly into the fray, engaging with peers, technology providers, and thought leaders, to the benefit of our mutual understanding. It takes more effort, and it doesn’t always connect immediately with a positive business outcome, but doing this helps my organization navigate the winds of change effectively.

Similarly, it is possible to over-value familiarity when selecting a technology solution. Obviously, the ideal is that every tool works perfectly all of the time. And there are business cases where stability is rightly an absolute top priority (especially situations involving security, privacy, health and safety). But there are also times where you ought to leverage a constantly improving tool that delivers an outstanding user experience, even if there are more established, less outstanding tools out there.

Delivering excellent experiences with technology is less often about perfection and big financial commitments, and more often about having the right mix of attention to detail, ambition, and positive attitudes between your end users, staff, and vendor partners.

5. Can you share any stories or examples that help illustrate key points?

In the span of two years, FDLI adopted new technology for virtually every aspect of our business. We relaunched our website, converted to a different AMS, adopted a new webinar platform, and migrated to a cloud subscription service for email and office suite software, to name a few. These changes were not only modest financial investments, some have literally paid for themselves already!

We accomplished all this by adopting a very scrappy attitude, in which each bold step we took forward was done to meet clearly articulated business needs. When we adopt a new technology service, it’s a clear upgrade to what we had before, but launching it is just the first step to discovering even more effective ways to operate.

One quick example: within hours of relaunching our AMS and member portal, we saw one of our most highly respected members purchase one of our most obscure digital products. It was really affirming to know we were on the right track, and we began to see that modernizing our members’ online experience would pay off in novel, unexpected ways.

A few months into relaunching the member portal, we discovered more ways to optimize members’ ordering experience. These changes were just as impactful as the platform migration itself, if not more so. And we heard it from our members. We’ve collected some immensely complimentary emails that are hung up in my office!

6. Is there anything new or revolutionary in technology that you’re seeing when it comes to associations that people should be aware of?

It’s fascinating to me the ways in which lean startup principles are starting to become adopted everywhere, not only by large commercial organizations, but by nonprofits, associations, and even the federal government.

We are all collectively starting to recognize that a more nimble and iterative project management style is not only possible for nearly any organization structure, but it delivers excellent business results as well.

7. What trends do you expect to see in the coming year(s)?

I believe associations will come to invest more time in integrating design thinking and user experience principles into their digital work. Less and less associations will provide a PDF file as the default member registration method on their website, for example.

I also think associations will increasingly adopt an internal culture of continuous improvement and iteration, with big technology projects not being so loaded with heavy implementation and integration costs at their outset. A new tool or service may be prototyped, refined, and integrated with other systems over a period of time, in order to ensure it delivers a high degree of value before it becomes routinized.

8. What is the greatest value you see when it comes to technology and associations?

Because the rate of change with technology has quickened, the pressure to be flexible and ready to adapt is increased. If we are up for the challenge, we can equal peers in other sectors in our tenacity to leverage technology effectively, with the ultimate goal of serving our organization’s mission.

I think technology delivers the greatest value when it’s understood to be a means of achieving a greater purpose. It succeeds best when it’s built and used with that greater purpose in mind, along with the utmost compassion and empathy for its end users.

9. What are your Top 3 Tech Tips to share with the audience?

  1. Find time to experiment with unproven ideas or technologies. An association, regardless of its size or budget, should have the internal resources to run a few experiments each year. Maybe you want to try running an entirely virtual event for the first time, or maybe you want to A/B test a bold change to your member newsletter. It all counts. These experiments may not only have larger transformational value, they can also be rewarding professional development opportunities for staff.
  2. Engage deeply and enthusiastically with the user communities for the technology your organization is built upon. It’s really affirming to connect to a wider network, and I have found that the free insight gained from working with these communities often ends up having bigger organizational impact than much of the freelance or managed services work we pay money for!
  3. Feeling completely stuck in a technology problem? Look to entirely different disciplines for comfort and ideas. So many “technology problems” are actually strategy or culture problems in disguise. There was one time that reading about shoes completely changed the way I thought about data entry. Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime!


To learn more about Emilio, click here.

And to learn more about FDLI, click here.

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