We’re Going to Need a Bigger Dictionary

12th November 2021

International Advisor to the Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk makes the case for associations to adopt new language in order to drive a more imaginative reinvention agenda, and to open up deeper conversations with the destinations that host their conferences.

As the protagonists in iconic movie Jaws suddenly grasped the true scale of their quest, the tools at hand (and underfoot!) were revealed to be antiquated, waterlogged and undersized, and only a lucky bullet saved the day!

!e adventures facing associations in the post-pandemic world are not quite so blood-curdling, but the risk is that we’ll try to address future challenges and opportunities using the – inadequate and outdated – language of the past, when what we need is a grammar and vocabulary capable of articulating and debating new concepts, frameworks and ways of thinking.

The Adjacent Possible

Let’s start talking about Serendipity, Exaptation and Co-option – methodologies for exploring and exploiting “the adjacent possible” within and beyond our communities, during events and 24/7/365. !is language will help us bring together intellectual tribes with different yet potentially overlapping circles of know-how and knowledge, with different assumption-environments, with different default ways of thinking about problems: these Venn diagram intersections and inter-reactions can accelerate the speed of change and the discovery of novel solutions from incremental to exponential! Imagine designing a conference or community engagement platform entirely around these concepts, and a whole new universe of possibilities opens up.

Tacit knowledge – that which isn’t formally written down or catalogued, instead embedded in the wealth of experience and skills of our members and partners – is one of the most valuable and under-developed sources of unique value within any association. But what are associations doing to systematically unlock it? How many have even included the phrase on a Board agenda dedicated to knowledge exploitation strategy? If we’re not talking about “tacit”, we can’t do anything to maximise its value.

Let’s introduce concepts such as “nested communities”. As Dianna Steinbach from ISSA, the Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association put it in a recent webinar: “during the pandemic the customers of our members have become our customers”; but why not go further, and recognize that the challenges facing our members’ customers or clients or staff or patients will become each association’s most pressing challenges and hottest conference topics. Some healthcare associations such as World Parkinson’s Coalition have incorporated patients and patient- support groups at the heart of their strategy for many years, and many others are adding this element to their own events and advocacy communication, but this is really the tip of the iceberg. Every member of almost every association is potentially a gateway to a new circle of interested parties and interesting issues, which in turn leads on to other circles that potentially have value for and interest in the unique viewpoints and services of the association that sits at the centre.

Let’s start talking about multilingualism, and start thinking about how multiple languages might transform an association’s potential influence and engagement. Over recent decades we have sleepwalked into the assumption that English will forever rule our member communications and at our events. But everyone is more articulate, technically accurate, and able to display their unique personality when they use their native tongue, and our events have increasingly self-selected for confidence in conversational English, disenfranchising uncounted masses who could benefit from our offerings.

We now have the interpretation and translation tools to allow any association to adopt a true multilingual strategy, whether translating reports and databases, transcribing huge video libraries, or enabling truly global access to content delivered from any corner of an association’s global network. At the moment the Russian chapter’s event content only circulates amongst the Russian-speakers; but why not open it up to everyone? !is isn’t just about making English language content from the annual congress available to Latin America and China! AI-driven live event interpretation tools like Wordly are one great solution, with 16 languages covered and more on the way, cloud-based human interpretation through companies like Kudo and Interprefy is another solution.

Association events and their component parts need new labels: Catalyst; Accelerator; SolutionFest; Problem-space investigation; Hackathon (OK, this one is not quite so new, but has never been widely adopted beyond the programming and engineering tribes).

Associations need to think far more creatively about their own names! Survey a#er survey indicates that most young people don’t particularly want to “join associations”, even if they care passionately about the association’s Mission! And the thousands of new (online for now, face-to- face in future) communities of interest that are being born throughout the pandemic are certainly not calling themselves by this name, even though in truth that is exactly what they are. Once we change what we call ourselves, every other change becomes possible, because words have power, and language shapes minds.

This piece is part of the exclusive partnership between Boardroom and the Global Association Hubs, which comes as an innovative response to the increasing decentralization of international associations as they look to develop their activities globally.

Linguistic labels

Others apart from associations are in the process of reinvention, and are developing new linguistic labels: the Strategic Alliance of National Convention Bureaux of Europe has just released a White Paper: “!e Future Role & Purpose of Convention Bureaux”. !ey described four elemental roles for the reinvented bureau of the future: Strategist, Facilitator, Expert and Communicator (I would add Advocate to this list).

But things get interesting when one starts to name potential subsidiary roles under each heading, which is where the action and interactions with associations will take place. For example, under “Strategist” one could include Anticipator, Imagineer, Idea- copyist, and Creator. Under “Expert” we can imagine Curator, Advisor, Guide and Guru, whilst “Facilitator” could contain Incubator, Enabler, Interpreter and Door-opener. “Communicator” can encompass Brand- building, Citywide Motivator, and Amplifier (of associations’ messages, amongst others). What kind of conversations will associations hold with destination Imagineers? !ink about the opportunities that an Incubator (of a brand-new association or never-before- conceived event) could unlock, once we all speak the same new conceptual language!

All the Global Association Hubs partner cities – Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC – are prominent amongst the destinations that are attempting to become fluent in the new languages of association impact-strategy and destination regenerative-development strategy. We look forward to some extraordinarily interesting conversations as we all expand our vocabularies!

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