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  • Writer's pictureMartin Sirk

In praise of 'Association Intelligence'

Updated: Jun 24

This article by Martin Sirk, International Advisor to our Partners at Global Association Hubs Partnership, explores the pitfalls of chasing the latest business trends and highlights the untapped potential of Association Intelligence. It highlights how Associations can leverage their unique attributes to build long-term success and offer genuine value in a world obsessed with cutting-edge technologies.

It’s one of the great ironies of our time is that to be “cutting-edge” in business is usually a recipe for conformity. Even though new differentiators swiftly become new norms, many Associations expend an enormous amount of time and effort on keeping up with the latest trends, attempting to replicate what they observe in the for-profit world. Artificial Intelligence (and particularly ChatGPT) is only the latest example, a topic which is currently absorbing a huge amount of the available intellectual bandwidth amongst association boards and management, and which is certain to similarly dominate future resource allocation and project priority decisions. AI is of course going to offer efficiency savings, increase competitive pressures, change staff working practices, and upend risk models, amongst other disruptions to normal service. Get ready for a crowd of consultants offering every imaginable AI service, from “prompt optimising” to CRM-rebuilding to comprehensive AI outsourcing. But this isn’t going to provide any competitive advantage, it is simply the new-normal environment that every business and Association worldwide will be required to navigate just to stay afloat. In the early years of the internet, "Funky Business” guru Kjell Nordstrom stated that having an excellent website was equivalent to a working toilet in your office: both were “necessary but insufficient for success”. The same will apply to AI competence in the very near future! The danger is that in focusing so intently on the “new” " Associations will ignore the AI they’ve always possessed: Association Intelligence! It’s within this very different category of AI that Associations have the greatest opportunities to build long-term success and to design genuinely unique value propositions. There are three main components of this type of AI: Authentication, Safe Platforms, and Tacit Knowledge.

Not tied to national agendas and free from the institutional self-interest of universities, international Associations are in a unique position to act as objective authenticators, curators and certifiers of skills, intellectual abilities, and aggregated knowledge in their specialised fields. In an era where disinformation and deep fakes will be ubiquitous, sources of authenticity will be desperately needed by society. Some Associations already aspire to these roles, but every Association should include this topic regularly in their strategic deliberations. In our ever-more polarised world, it’s clear there has never been a greater need for safe platforms, where respectful debate and disagreement can take place, built on a foundation of factual information with objective referees. This should in fact be one of the headline functions of Association meetings, but it is almost never overtly stated, and purposeful meeting design with this goal in mind is even less common. This issue actually goes beyond meetings: year-round platforms are just as important, and are readily accessible for association communities, but require just as much design-thinking and attention as re-imagined meetings. Tacit knowledge is perhaps the least well-understood and acknowledged asset that all Associations possess: the collective knowledge, know-how, and experiences of their members, the intellectual muscle memory that isn’t written down or amenable to easy storage and manipulation. Exchanges of tacit knowledge are one of the primary drivers of engagement between members, the glue that holds Associations together. Tapping this deep well of intrinsic value isn’t at all easy, but the first step is acknowledging its existence. There is some good news: an Association Intelligence strategy doesn’t require any massive capital investment or digital overhaul; it is powered by the multi-layered circles of trust that all Associations should already possess at scale. But it does require a new way of thinking that prioritises longstanding, undervalued, intrinsic attributes over shiny, new, exciting infatuations!

Martin Sirk is International Advisor to Global Association Hubs – Brussels, Dubai, Singapore & Washington DC – destinations with the most association-friendly ecosystems in their regions, partnering with ESAE on webinars and articles to stimulate high-level debate on the future evolution of international associations.


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