Selecting an AMS is probably the most important technology decision your association will make. The challenge is that if you are a typical association, there is a good chance that no one on your team will have the technical bench-strength to help guide the decision.
This means that if you want to select the best AMS system for your needs you are going to need to cover this technology gap. This three-part guide is intended to help non-technical association staff understand three critical technical considerations of any AMS system selection.
To get started, let’s frame the landscape by looking at the three different classes of AMS systems.
What Suits Your Needs Best: SaaS, Hybrid or Custom?
When comparing association management systems it is important to understand whether you are comparing apples to apples or oranges, as the saying goes.
Almost every AMS system offers a similar set of features. What matters most is how configurable, customizable or extensible those features are. With that perspective we can divide AMS systems into three main categories.
At the lowest end of the cost spectrum are a suite of standardized ” software-as-a-service (SaaS)” solutions hosted in the cloud.
The core idea of SaaS is that the software company publishes a single software platform, which is then used by all its clients. Having a single, shared code base for all accounts can be an advantage, as it means that updates roll through to all clients automatically. However, it also means that associations need to be able to work within the constraints of this “one-size-fits-all” approach.
The more sophisticated SaaS solutions get around this by offering an ecosystem of plugins that can be used to extend the functionality of the base platform.
While this can be a good way to overcome limitations of the base product, it can also drive up the complexity of the implementation making it more difficult to manage and leading to a total cost of ownership that is much greater than expected. Depending on how they are configured some plugins can also negatively affect system performance.
Pure SaaS solutions are a good fit with smaller associations that are willing to change their processes and, if needed, their underlying membership data to align with the system’s defaults. However, many associations find the one-size-fits all approach too limiting for their needs.
Hybrid / Hybrid-SaaS Solutions
Hybrid solutions provide a standardized software system that is inherently designed to be configured and/or customized to adapt to the needs of each client.
While earlier hybrid solutions were often installed products, today there is an increasing shift towards hybrid-SaaS solutions that are cloud based and provide many of the advantages of SaaS without locking the customer into a one-size-fits-all solution.
It is important to note that hybrid solutions have a much larger variation in inner workings of the underlying source code. That underlying software architecture is very important as it determines not just what you can do accomplish with the system today, but also tomorrow. Of particular importance are two things: the system’s inherent upgrade path and its API readiness, as these will greatly affect your ability to evolve the system to meet your needs on an ongoing basis.
However, despite this importance I rarely see these questions asked during the selection process. (To help you tackle this in your selection process I will outline relevant questions and considerations you can add to your evaluation process in part III of this series.)
When dealing with hybrid solutions, you will also likely see some differences in what is offered based on the provider’s size, as vendors range from the solo developer up to multi-national corporations.
If you work with a large company, expect to see more pre-built add-ons and third-party integrations available. However, be ready for the total cost of ownership to be much higher overall. It might not be obvious, but when working with a larger organization you often pay more because 2-3 vendors may be involved in the implementation of a single add-on or feature.
Smaller companies will have a smaller range of default add-ons and third party integrations, but can often be more nimble when engineering an add-on or custom solution, both in terms of the total cost as well as the flexibility.
Custom solutions are systems programmed almost completely from scratch to meet the needs of your association. While these were very common ten years ago you see very few custom systems today, because the cost-value equation rarely makes sense.
Custom systems are fantastic if you need to do something very non-standard and have the expectation that once the first system is built that it will almost never need to change.
That is the Achilles heel of custom systems: They are inherently not designed for continuous change and given that they are built from scratch by a small team maintaining the system can get very expensive. An association using a completely custom-built solution will also often struggle with modernizing the system. Managing security vulnerabilities in older code as well as keeping the system up-to-date with modern technologies can also be quite challenging.
The success of any AMS selection lies in matching your choice with the needs of your association in a way that considers both short and long term outcomes. Knowing what category is the best match for the needs of your association is a good starting point to start an “apples to apples” comparison of AMS systems.
Up Next: Every association has rules it has to follow. In the next installment we will outline the importance of your “business logic” and how you can ensure that your AMS selection process captures any critical must-have rules of your association.
Julie King is the co-founder and president of Biz-Zone Internet Group Inc., a technology company that specializes in online publishing and website development for member-driven associations. She is also the co-founder and managing editor of CanadaOne.com®.