DIM or Damned? The Pitfalls of Internationalisation.
Michael Feenan, Executive Director, Mensa International confronted Institute of Association Management members with the challenges facing an international association at November’s CEO Forum hosted by CIPAs Lee Davies.
Membership bodies of nearly every stripe find themselves wrestling with the idea of internationalisation at some point in their development, but what are the pitfalls?
Whether to guard your primacy in a particular market, the need to defend your own turf, or the simple desire for more members and increased turnover. Or just because everybody else is doing it. There are numerous reasons for considering global expansion.
There may be more noble motives. Such as the setting and maintaining of international standards in trade or ethical practices. Whatever the reason, eventually most membership bodies have to think about their international presence, or at least their oversea members. But it’s not without risk.
Some of the more obvious downsides hinge on on the market place you are entering. Therefore, you have a fundamental decision to make about whether or not to set up in an overseas territory, and what method to employ. Whether to do this through an alliance with another, possibly local, partner or go for outright world domination, is always a dilemma. Cultural differences, like ‘toxicity’ associated with a Britain’s colonial past, might also present difficulties. A local partner may solve this in the short run. But may give problems further down the track if that partner tries to assert its local dominance or hive off the business.
Whatever route you take or structure you decide upon will be partly determined by your objectives. Organisations representing groups like doctors, scientists, or engineers may see it in their interests to seek to regularise international standards. Thus ensuring qualifications, experience, and ongoing training comply with British expectations, and facilitating international professional practice. The implied objective may be the promulgation of British qualifications in overseas territories.
From my own experience I would cite the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (GemA), which, as the world’s oldest school of gemmology, has had success in promoting UK gemmological education and qualifications around the world. But which came up against stiff competition from the Gemology Institute of America until a compromise was reached through mutual recognition of each-others’ qualifications. Sometimes this is an uneasy truce which always risks being undermined by one or other lowering their entry standards and scooping the international student pool. In general though, a level of equilibrium is maintain by the creative tension that exists between the two organisations, which leads in turn to innovation.
Others may simply wish to establish an international and interchangeable set of shared characteristics. Take, for instance, the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, whose objective is partly to promote all aspects of botanical systematics and its significance to the understanding and value of biodiversity. Or the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) whose ‘Blue Books’ are definitive sets of grading standards and nomenclature for diamonds, coloured gemstones, pearls, precious metals, and gemmological laboratories. Here the purpose is to facilitate international trade whilst protecting consumers who rely on quality standards, but both organisations fall broadly under the definition of ‘archivists’ to some extent.
Once your international objectives are defined, the choice of structure may be between a franchise, where you must impose rigid standards and maintain constant vigilance. A federation, where you come together with others for the sake of community interest. Or a hybrid, possibly managed by a local partner, where the level of autonomy permitted will always in the balance.
Whichever is chosen, you will always be subject to macro level challenges that are beyond your control. These can encompass all manner of happenings on the world stage, from the resurgence of nationalism as seen in the Russia / Crimea scenario, through to the changes in Chinese law that have affected NGOs. Not to mention the micro challenges of linguistics, or the conceptual differences in, for instance, what constitutes a binding contract?
Good governance is of course the key to continued success. But, keeping in mind the military maxim, ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’, you must be prepared to adapt to circumstances. However, notwithstanding the questions that surround access to services, value for money, and false representation, you may lean toward the tried and tested strategy of ‘DIMs’. That’s Direct International Members to you!
©2018 M J Hoare
Over twenty years experience managing and leading trade associations. I am a member and past president of the Institute of Association Management (IofAM); and former editor of Association News.