Three key ways to use innovation and technology for union growth

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How can unions turn tech innovation into sustainable, scalable growth?

Growth has always been important for unions, and in the current era of rapid economic transition, climate crisis and AI, it is more important than ever for unions to understand and use technology and innovation.

Growth is hard to achieve. According to the public data, in Australia only a handful of unions are achieving significant growth; overall, union membership has stayed stable over the past few years but density has declined.

The social, economic and workforce changes arising from the pandemic saw the rapid expansion in use of technology and innovation by employers. Many unions advanced in digital adoption, using new tools and technology to support organising, industrial support for members, and in general operations.

A significant innovation for many unions has been the transition to a new membership system, IMIS, via the Union Innovation Hub.

Many other unions have seen organisers use video-conferencing tools for remote and working-from-home organising, or messaging apps to have one-to-many organising conversations. (Many of these innovations are recorded in the publication Organising with 2020 Vision, published by the ATUI. Email for a copy.)

However, to drive growth at scale, there are three cornerstone innovations that unions must adopt: growth analytics, organising productivity, and omnichannel communications.

Growth analytics

Unions used to be data organisations. Back in the 1920s to 1980s, our data advantage was a near-monopoly on the “going rate”.

Knowing the rates of pay (and of course, other conditions) in the real economy for the occupations we covered allowed unions to organise workers.

“If workers doing x in another company are getting paid this amount, then you should get the same for doing the same work.”

This data was the lifeblood of organising, and gave us an edge over employers and governments.

But in the 1990s and 2000s, with the arrival of the digital and dot-com era, unions gave up that advantage.

Other organisations, like or recruitment companies, realised that information about rates of pay could be monetised. Unions started to rely on official statistics from the ABS, or our own more anecdotal information derived from Award and EBA rates.

Data and analytics is so important because it allows us to make effective, evidence-based decisions. With unions at a significant power-disadvantage compare to employers, using data, research and analytics can help even the scales.

Effective analysis of our own data also means we can better use our limited resources for organising, member support or servicing, and other key strategic decisions.

Today, the most valuable asset for most unions is your membership database. However, much of that value is locked away without the ability to analyse it. Few unions have dedicated expert analysts, or comprehensive databases that can be easily analysed.

But to truly realise the value of your data for your union, having analytical staff and tools is vital.

For example: A significant challenge facing unions is retention. Data analytics would allow your union to identify key trends, moments or demographics for members to predict churn and then act. (This is one of the innovations already being developed by the Hub.) A similar score could be developed for potential members to predict likelihood to join.

Similarly, data analytics can help you strategically identify the most fruitful workplaces to target for organising. It could help definitively answer questions about how important delegates, or activists, or worksite meetings, or other activities, are to recruitment.

Finally, data and analytics can help integrate growth insights like those developed by the ACTU Insights Team — the five growth segments. Integrating those insights into your member data would allow your union to design communications or member activities and services that are more relevant for specific segments. More relevant comms and services means better recruitment and higher retention.

Developing and then consistently using growth analytics like this gives information to your leaders, organisers, industrial staff and support/admin staff to make more effective decisions.

This last point is also important: the data and analytics must be available to frontline union staff — your organisers, industrial support staff and staff interacting with members from admin and finance. To be useful, the data needs to be presented in an easy to understand, actionable manner — doing this typically requires specific expertise, hence my suggestion that unions need staff who are data analysts, as well as staff who are data engineers.

Organising automation

Almost every union needs to a lot with relatively few resources. And the nature of organising means that it is hard to scale.

However, there are a large number of opportunities to increase organising productivity by using technology automations. Most of these are available using “off-the-shelf” tools that work with the main tools your union staff already use — like Office, Word, Outlook and so on.

These tech improvements can range from automating simple repetitive actions like sending email or SMS follow-ups to members or delegates, to more sophisticated lead-scoring to identify potential delegates.

In fact, a lot of parts of one-on-one online and digital interactions can now be automated. Email or SMS invitations, reminders, prompts, and more.

Conduct a review of how much manual work is done by your organisers or member support staff. Are organisers manually cutting-and-pasting information from Outlook to your membership system? Are they sending SMS reminders for meetings to multiple members from their smart-phone?

These are activities that could be automated — freeing up time for your union organisers or other staff to do more impactful work.

Another example of how your union could save a lot of time, and improve member experience is the process of a member booking an appointment to speak to an industrial officer.

There are off-the-shelf technology tools that allow you to block out specific times in your Outlook calendar to be available for appointments. Admin or reception staff, or even members can then be given a unique link to make a booking without a time-wasting back-and-forth. Many of these tools can then also include automated email and SMS reminders, and customisable templates that inform the member what information they should bring to the appointment. And all of this can then be synced back into your membership system.

This kind of automation is widely used in the private sector, whether for hair appointments, doctors and pathology, real-estate, lawyers and accountants and more. But relatively few unions!

Communicating through multiple channels

Unions should look at new digital or digitally-enabled channels to communicate with existing or prospective members.

Workers generally, but young workers specifically, are changing their media habits and how they receive information. For instance, while Facebook is still the major channel for social media, increasingly Tiktok and Youtube are the primary channels used by under 30s workers. (Read my complete guide to social networks for unions here.)

Similarly, workers increasingly are comfortable communicating with organisations (their bank, shops, other professional services) using multiple channels — Messenger, Whatsapp, email, website-based chat, SMS, phone, face-to-face and more. Increasingly, people prefer digital or remote interactions rather than traditional phone or face-to-face.

Unions need to recognise that we must enable members to talk with us through multiple ways, and especially ways that don’t involve face-to-face interaction. Can your members contact your union via Messenger or SMS? Is this interaction synchronised back to your membership database?

Furthermore, more and more people want the option of self-serving rather than ever directly interacting with an organisation. This means unions need to invest in creating member portals, with the ability for members to update and change their personal details, payment details, and even allow for members to resign their membership.

Member portals are something that can be developed with the Union Innovation Hub, as part of IMIS. Increasingly, member portals will be an essential part of providing a positive, modern and professional experience for members.

Innovation and tech can change the game for union growth, organising and servicing. However, unions must recognise this and take action sooner rather than later.

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