IWA’s future is here, now

Connect Plus offers bountiful digital opportunities © shutterstock.com / Sergey Nivens

Following the launch of IWA’s new Connect Plus membership platform, Kala Vairavamoorthy looks at its potential to transform participation in the Association and influence action on water.

January 17 was an auspicious day for IWA. It marked the culmination of extensive work across the Secretariat with the launch of our new membership platform, Connect Plus. Designed to transform the digital experience for members, this intuitive online platform features powerful networking tools and exclusive access to our world-class – constantly expanding – global water archive.

The new platform delivers a host of features. Members can join communities and interest groups, share posts to the network or within their communities, get the latest global water news, register for events and webinars, and access our exclusive library – our Treasure Chest. The agile Connect Plus platform is a means to build a presence within the sector and connect with our member network of some 10,000 water professionals in more than 130 countries.

The question now is: how does this powerful tool, in your hands, represent the future of our organisation?

It’s all about engagement

With Connect Plus launched, we have arrived at the threshold of a new era in the way members can engage with our organisation. As Executive Director of a membership organisation, engagement is constantly at the forefront of my thoughts. It is something that I strive to secure.

Engagement works in two directions. There is engagement from the perspective of the Association, in which we work to support and cultivate an engaged membership. Then there is engagement from the perspective of members. What is the value and benefit of joining and participating in IWA? This could be the many opportunities for a member to network and extend their professional constituency, building up an audience for their work and, in turn, seeing their work have greater impact. From this point of view, Connect Plus becomes a tool to help members maximise the impact of their professional activities – it helps them influence the world around us.

This member-focused dimension of engagement feeds back to the Association view. It presents questions such as how can we recognise the influencers in our network, and how can we best leverage such insights for the greater good of the Association? But the starting point here is the participation of members. This is the lifeblood of our organisation, and here Connect Plus fits in with – and extends – our established opportunities for member engagement. This comes in many forms and traditionally has included anything from attending or speaking at events or publishing papers right through to joining committees or serving in senior roles.

Beyond the barriers

The important point about Connect Plus is that it shifts our frame of reference. Engagement rests on three dynamics – physical, cognitive and emotional connections. Connect Plus reduces the barriers to these: physically, by removing the barriers of location; cognitively, by opening up access to our Treasure Chest of knowledge; and emotionally, by enabling members to connect, share experience, and unite in their drive to rise to the challenge of the global water crisis.

The physical shift is a vital foundation here, and many of you will know my passion for removing the barriers to engagement. Some of the biggest barriers relate to the physical participation of members at events and meetings, and the bias that arises because of these barriers. There is great innovation coming from the Global South and we want to empower people to make their voices heard whatever their location or economic background. Connect Plus facilitates this. The digital nature of the network allows for new voices to emerge in the global market of ideas, unbound by distance and individual ability to travel to forums. By design, the Connect Plus-powered network allows for truer representation of the aspirations and ideas of professionals from across the globe, therein enabling them to have a role in shaping the trajectory of the Association on various key topics in water and sanitation.

We see, for example, that the Association offers much and derives huge benefit from the participation of world-leading academics. Traditionally, academics have been among the best placed to travel and participate in events, but this is not the case for everyone. If we are to rise to the challenge of the global water crisis, we need to engage the greatest talent and enable the participation of people right across the globe. From this perspective, we see that digitalisation can be transformational, offering a way to break through barriers to engagement – complementing what we already have.

People power

Our task then is to fuel engagement across these three dynamics and Connect Plus is set to empower our Association through, for example, new networking tools. In particular, community pages have been provided for Governing Members and Specialist Groups. These pages allow these groups to engage more comprehensively with their members. Governing Members can now have far greater understanding and connection with members in their respective countries – opening the way for a channelling of our network’s expertise and influence into national-level agendas. Likewise, Specialist Groups – the powerhouses of our organisation – can become more dynamic through greater and wider participation.

Alongside this the Treasure Chest provides – for the first time – a comprehensive means for capturing grey literature (information produced outside of traditional publishing and distribution channels, and which is often not well represented in indexing databases) of different kinds, from text through to PowerPoint presentations through to video, much of it from our events. When the platform went live it featured 641 videos, 110 webinars, 1436 magazine articles and 4131 conference papers, accessible exclusively to our members at the touch of a button. Some organisations might struggle to gather such content. IWA benefits from a fantastic and prolific network, with the prospect of a constant flow of material that can now be fed seamlessly into the Treasure Chest.

With these components in place, the opportunities for engagement and the widening of participation carry with them a further dimension for transformation: a shift in the possibilities for having influence. The world of digital and social media influencers is already very much with us. The launch of Connect Plus provides an ideal opportunity to think about how we facilitate influence – both within and beyond the Association. Our traditional structure, comprising a web of committees and groups and positions of varying status, already has its own channels for influence. We can now begin to consider what the new terrain could look like.

Digitalisation expands this opportunity, enabling everyone to have a voice. No longer are people stymied by their location or fiscal restraints. Digital empowerment means individuals can take on more roles and responsibilities, engage more and become influencers. And these opportunities for connecting help build reputations and collaborative relationships.

In this respect, Connect Plus has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Now members can tell their stories through video, make connections with other like-minded members, pool knowledge, and increase their profile. We actively promote this by, for example, profiling featured members, alongside which members have the opportunity to add to the Connect Plus platform by contributing to our Treasure Chest.

Making content available is just a start. The accessing of it by members and then the forum-based activity of commenting, discussion and rating that takes place around it all adds another layer of insight. This applies to the general content hosted in the Treasure Chest, and it applies in particular to the ‘featured articles’ displayed in Connect Plus, and the reading lists of our influencers. These become ignition points for discussion on key topics of interest to our sector. And through all of this, the access and discussion grows our network’s collective intelligence, because we all know that no individual has all the answers. Here, Connect Plus offers a vehicle to expand in a way that was not possible in the past.

This input – the sharing of information and insight – will fuel the growth of our collective intelligence. This collective knowledge will become a powerful tool, and access to it will be a benefit in its own right.

Furthermore, we see on the horizon the opportunity to supercharge this growth in collective intelligence. The initial focus of the Treasure Chest has been on its power to capture grey literature to complement the formalised publication of the hugely successful journals and books programme delivered by IWA Publishing. Here too there has been a revolution, with the move to Open Access. With Connect Plus in place, we now have the prospect of connecting these two streams of information, offering users a seamless means for navigating what will be the largest repository of water information in the world, empowered by a sophisticated search engine, which will grow organically, fluidly.

The question then is one of how to develop Connect Plus and to nurture and prime use of it as a driver of influence and a home for water influencers. Here, AI can be used to help to shape members’ experience of Connect Plus. So, when you visit the platform, you would receive information based on your interests, including suggested reading from the Treasure Chest, featured articles that can help you to connect with professionals with similar interests, and profiles of experts within your fields of knowledge. This makes for a fantastic resource for experts at every point in their career.

That said, this crucial participation of members needs to be nurtured and sustained. It cannot be a passive process – there are just too many demands on the time and attention of members to expect progress without active support. We need to track and evaluate use of the platform to be sure it provides users with what they want. And there are questions, including how we might best connect our influencers and influential views with the wider world. It is clear that the capacity to influence change is vitally important, and Connect Plus can be the door to the wider world, where our members can drive positive change through informed and evidence-based insights.

A stepping stone to digital influence

I have written before about IWA’s mission to evolve in ways that facilitate geographical diversity and empower members through Open Access to knowledge. With this motivation embedded in our cultural dynamic, digital technologies have been a game changer, allowing us to pursue the practical steps needed to turn this motivation into action. And so, the launch of Connect Plus has taken IWA’s principles from philosophy to reality. Now, wherever in the world members are located, they have the tools at hand to expand their careers, cultivate knowledge, share experience, connect with peers, and participate in events.

With networking and knowledge at its heart, Connect Plus opens up a new world of possibilities and opportunities to each and every one of you. In doing so, it enables our organisation to more fully harness the power of our network. Connect Plus provides a means to bring us closer together, enabling us to work better as a community.

Connect Plus may seem at face value a digital update, an evolution in how we communicate. But it has the potential to ignite revolutionary change that draws on the strengths of our members and empowers them to transform the water sector through collaboration, insight, enthusiasm, and determination.

IWA will increasingly be an organisation powered by Connect Plus. We are only just beginning to tap into that source. It is already clear that this power will be derived from data and use of tools – especially AI – to harness the power of that data. It will provide a window into the concerns and interests of our network. This comprehensive understanding will be turned back to members directly, in terms of the delivery of tailored services.

Indirectly, we will, at the Association level, be equipped to scan the horizon, picking out the engaging voices and the rising stars, so that we can better harness the energies and insights of our network to shape the world around us and truly secure progress towards a water-wise world. The future will be a seamless platform of information exchange. Connect Plus gives us all a voice, flexibility, resources, and the opportunity to fly.

We are only at the beginning of what we can achieve. Our world-leading repository of information will continue to swell, and our network’s interactions and exchanges will convert that to ever-more powerful collective intelligence. That is why I can be confident in the statement that, with the arrival of Connect Plus, the future of IWA is here – now.

Kala Vairavamoorthy is CEO of the International Water Association