Current Affairs

Imagining the Post-COVID19 International Association

26th March 2020

Martin Sirk argues that the successful post-Covid19 association will be one that is extremely agile and flexible, and one that will take roads less travelled.

A commonly-held belief is that it’s almost impossible to imagine life on the far side of a major, existential crisis when you’re deep in the middle of one. Actually, the problem is even more profound: the events of the last few weeks and months should have taught us that accurate predictions about the future are for suckers or charlatans. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it in his book “The Black Swan”: “I find it scandalous that in spite of the empirical record we continue to project into the future as if we were good at it, using tools and methods that exclude rare events.”

With that in mind here is some food for thought rather than prophesies: some observations and possible futures for international associations, aware that we are going to have to invent or build these futures ourselves, rather than accepting what’s likely to be on offer by the currently very unkind Fates.

There has never been a more vital time for the services and societal value that associations provide, at precisely the moment when our traditional business models are falling apart. But by focusing rigorously on “what we are there for” at the societal level and recalibrating our priorities based on the most urgent challenges, rather than trying to resurrect how we did things before Covid-19, we have a unique opportunity to make a powerful positive impact on the world. 

Radical thinking

But it’s going to require some radical thinking. Do you share an overarching mission with other associations (in your region or other parts of the world) that you previously considered rivals? Now is the time to ditch egos and narrow-mindedness, to cut ties with old traditional habits, and seriously explore mergers and deep new partnerships. Some associations’ financial reserves will be in much better shape than those of others – this is not the time for the “haves” to pull up the drawbridge, but to reach out to “have nots” who share your values and objectives, and see what you can achieve together: if they collapse, your mission will be harmed as their community is dissipated. If this crisis should have taught us one thing, it is that we’re in this together, far more than we ever imagined!

Now is not the time for conservatism! It’s not going to be possible to succeed by strengthening the safety scores on your risk management charts. The successful post-Covid19 association will be one that is extremely agile and flexible, and institutionally geared up to swiftly take advantage of new opportunities, rather than plotting a linear “safe” path towards a known objective. This is because in the aftermath of any systemic shock to the economy, unanticipated new industries, weird business models, and radically different mindsets are born, with cool new technologies and entirely new fields in the knowledge economy likely to emerge from the rubble. 

Martin Sirk is the owner of the strategic consultancy, Sirk Serendipity, and was previously CEO of ICCA, the International Congress and Convention Association. His clients include Global Association Hubs Partnership (Brussels, Dubai, Singapore & Washington DC), the International Society for the Study of Pain, the content curation tech start-up, Kubify, IMEX, SITE and UFI.

Previously we literally couldn’t imagine such a massive, profound change to our environment; now we know almost anything is possible. Recently, for example, more than 40,000 (!) German hackers spent a week creating over 1,700 tech solutions, tools and models to help defeat the Coronavirus. Super-motivated, solutions-ASAP-focused organisations, both permanent and temporary, are going to win big over those that are perceived to be bureaucratic, institutional, or even “prestigious”. If your association can’t deliver (not just promise) something of tangible societal value, move over for someone who can! It’s going to be a very fast-moving environment, for certain, and that’s going to be very difficult to navigate when we’re all struggling to re-align our perception of risk and danger.

Very soon there will be almost unlimited, worldwide, urgent demand for new solutions to thousands of urgent challenges across the entire range of association interests. By harnessing our communities’ deep reservoirs of emotional engagement, our dynamic networks of skills, knowledge and expertise, and our ability to communicate across barriers and between cultures, associations can collectively become the most important creator of these solutions. But only if we become “solution engines” rather than “membership machines”.

So throw away your five-year plan, partner with any organisation or company that shares your Mission and strategic objectives, re-invent from the ground up your traditional meetings and trade shows, and redefine the boundaries of your community, knowing that after the vital Coronavirus lock-downs a new “normal” will definitely emerge, and faster than we can currently imagine.

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