According to Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, we have gone from a “connected to a hyper-connected world” — meaning that information is instantaneous and ubiquitous. As a result, competition for the kinds of services and products that associations offer is coming from all parts of the world, ranging from other societies to for-profit companies that are in many cases better resourced to provide the necessary services. In addition, the rise in use of various social-media channels makes it easy for communities to form that completely bypass the traditional non-profit society that used to be the central conduit to information flow. The realities of the current global environment coupled with the disruptive nature of a digital age have compelled many associations to look beyond their borders for growth opportunities. While the digital age has increased competition, it has forced organizations to be innovative and stay on top of their game in order to be relevant. At the same time, it can be argued that it has created easier access to global markets. Relevance is of increasing importance to all societies as they face competition from for-profit companies that are increasingly taking advantage of lucrative opportunities to provide continuing education credits. That growing trend is making many associations re-think their business models and value propositions.
There are various types of association models when it comes to growing beyond your own borders but most have been based on geography instead of subject matter — that is to say they can be state, country, continent, or globally oriented. This is somewhat logical given that most associations are governed by laws in their specific regions and tend to lobby or affect change within their geographic boundaries. However, it seems counterintuitive for certain associations to be restricted by geography. For example, a medical society devoted to cardiovascular diseases is not restricted by artificial geographic boundaries. Thus, logically, it would make sense to have the most talented researchers and scientists involved in solving issues related to cardiovascular diseases and to bring the necessary resources required, including financial assistance, to bear on this medical specialty. This has nothing to do with geography. That being said, many associations still operate in the same fashion as when they were created many decades earlier. These types of associations willbe forced to change or eventually lose relevance, if that has not already happened.
Many societies were founded as global entities. They have always had members based around the world and held meetings on almost every continent. However, this paper is focused on organizations that were created with a domestic orientation and through organic growth combined with environmental changes are finding success on a global basis. The information in this chapter is based on research that was conducted among Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) members that have evolved from North American–centric organizations to successful global associations. It provides an overview of various approaches taken by these organizations without attribution to any single organization.
Why Go Global
Organizations have been looking for growth opportunities beyond their borders for decades. Beyond the business rationale for growth, among the reasons why they have gone global includes: ease of doing business; access to labour; return on investment; risk management; political stability; infrastructure; members demanding increased services; loss of relevance if not in key markets important to existing members; banking regulations and access. Certainly the above list of reasons why associations expand beyond their existing border is not exhaustive. However, those associations that do make the leap tend to have greater access to intellectual capital and other resources that allows them to be better prepared to the ever-changing needs of their domestic members, while building new competencies. It’s important to understand that associations that have been truly successful at going beyond their own borders have not necessarily seen immediate success. Instead, this process has been one of trial and error and carefully studying those that have been pioneers in global growth — which can take years. It’s important to realize that this is not a short-term endeavour. The organization’s leadership must be properly prepared for the process and expectations must be properly managed when they make the decision to go beyond their borders. These steps can reduce anxiety regarding short-term results and costly mistakes.
The first step in the process is realizing that one size does not fit all and most regions of the world require their own customized strategies. At the same time, it is important to recognize that taking your first step outside of your border does not require immediate changes to your governing structures and bylaws. In my research, most organizations tested various approaches what I call “small bets.” This can be anything from encouraging international membership to selling educational products and services outside of their geographic markets to collaborating with a foreign entity that is suitably aligned. That is to say, they tested various approaches and strategies and evaluated outcomes before they made major resource commitments or looked at changes to their organizational structures. In North America, the chapter model has been quite successful for many associations, but this model requires significant infrastructure investment and a highly committed core of volunteers with skills that vary from governance to education and programming to give a chapter a chance at success. North American organizations that have tried to impose this structure in other parts of the world have realized marginal short-term success, but ultimately did not realize the level of success they achieved domestically. In other parts of the world, volunteering for an association is not necessarily a cultural norm and thus can severely impact the chapter model that requires volunteers to dedicate significant personal time to chapter development. Successful organizations have long realized this and have employed various hybrid approaches to growth.
One of the hybrid approaches that I found quite common in my research is the “customer/membership” model. This
model does not require everyone to become a member but is a combination of customers and members. The members
have certain benefits that are exclusive to them and the customers buy products and services on an a la carte basis
at a premium, without a purchase of year-round membership. This model can be very effective in certain areas of the world
as it does not require significant capital investment and can allow an organization to make a rapid entry into the market.
Entry is usually accomplished by staging face-to-face events in the region as well as virtual events. This usually results in
the formation of virtual communities and can build a sense of loyalty between the association and these new customers
Another approach to test a specific market has been to co-locate a meeting in a region with a similar meeting that is taking place simultaneously in the region or with a similar society from that region. This allows the foreign organization to gain exposure of its products, services, brand, and thought leadership to a wider audience without making any future commitments. This approach has many attractive elements, as you can share costs and other resources which can limit an organization’s initial exposure. Of course, it also means that you also share in the revenues as well. Many organizations have taken this approach a step further by providing joint memberships in each other’s organizations and offering special discounts to each other’s programs. Clearly, proper brand alignment is critical in this approach or it can result in negative longer-term consequences.
Another approach has been the formation of strategic partnerships with other societies and for- profit companies.
This gives an association the opportunity to showcase its products and services to audiences that may not be on its
radar. It also provides a useful benefit to the strategic partner by allowing that organization to leverage the association’s products and services. In this case, an association does not receive any financial reward but has been able to extend its brand while testing new markets at a nominal cost. In all of the above approaches, the common element has been collaboration with other societies and for-profit companies but as critical is the partnership with companies that assist these organizations in their delivery channels and strategy development. The development of virtual communities and digital extensions requires not only financial investment but an emerging skill set and technological capability. Many associations that follow a traditional operational model do not readily have these resources internally and thus seek partners in strategy development and execution.
Factors in Successful Execution
In conclusion, going beyond one’s existing borders is risky and can be a very costly mistake if the right approach is not taken. It is critically important to realize that one size does not fit all. In order to be successful in an increasingly flat world, organizations that have achieved success have embraced a combination of all the various approaches. This requires a careful understanding of the business and professional development cultures in different parts of the world and that the approach that is most likely to be successful is taken. Organizations also need to understand their own core competencies and where partnerships will help to strengthen their own products or services. It is equally as important to recognize that you do not need to enter all markets — the focus should be on markets that have the potential for future gains. Successful organizations have also tested many approaches simultaneously, analyzed the results, and focused their efforts on the ones that have resulted in better outcomes. While successful organizations do not need to change their structures to test markets outside their borders, they realize thatn the long term, a global organizational structure with global leadership is vital to future growth. Successful organizations have also realized that being global or going beyond existing borders is no longer “nice to do”; rather, it is a necessity for survival. Members of organizations that are not global will soon find other sources for their professional development, rendering those organizations irrelevant.
In an age of instant communication and information overload, societies can and should be more relevant than ever — impartially assisting consumers in separating fact from fiction. However, societies need to be much less complacent, as their main source of competition is no longer other societies but for- profit companies that are much more efficient at providing the necessary products and services. Successful organizations have not only been able to approach the market with a customized strategy based on different regions of the world, they have also realized that they must be nimble and proactive with regard to emerging trends. They are also able to deliver their products and services in multiple mediums including face-to-face, digital, print, and to increasingly engage customers in virtual communities and social-media channels. They are where their constituents are, and ready to meet their needs — across boundaries and platforms.