This blog posting could have easily been called “Why does the member from Finland always fall asleep during our Board calls?” (And, yes, I speak from experience.) Snoring Board members aside, the topic is a very serious one for any association that is already international in scope or plans to be. When an association branches out beyond U.S. membership, its takes on particular responsibility to accommodate its global participants.
Below are a few ways associations can do their part:
- Call time rotation – In the example cited above, the reason why the Finnish board member fell asleep during our calls is because we routinely held them at 10 pm Helsinki time. Worse, our representative from Korea rarely even attended the calls because they started at 4 am in Seoul. This association wasn’t trying to be exclusionary – it was simply adhering to call times established when all board members were based in the U.S. Once the issue was identified, the group ultimately decided to conduct every third meeting at a time that was more convenient for participation from both Finland and Korea. I’ve seen other associations permanently rotate the start time of calls across different regions, either regularly or on a quarterly basis. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue, the key is for associations to avoid discouraging participation from any geography because of regularly inconvenient meeting times. After all, you opened up your organization to international members to make it stronger, not to keep certain segments members out of the discussion because of scheduling restrictions.
- Write simply – Many global trade associations, especially those based in the U.S., tend to use English as the primary language. While many people in the global business community speak some English – at least as a second language -- their fluency level varies greatly. International associations need to keep this in mind when communicating with their members. Written communications should be concise and should tend toward simple word usage. Colloquialisms should be avoided, as should references to U.S.-based popular culture. And unless an association has large blocs of members who speak a certain language, serious thought should be given before translation projects are undertaken. Not only are they expensive and time consuming, but if done poorly they can serve to further mislead or confuse the very participants such efforts were intended to help.
- Speak slowly – Leaders and staff of an association need to remember their global audience whenever they speak. It’s hard enough to follow what someone is saying in a language that is secondary to your own; it can be nearly impossible when someone speaks that language very quickly. Just as in written communications, speakers should opt for simpler word choices and avoid cultural jargon or other regional references. They should also speak more slowly (roughly ¾ speed) than they would in normal conversation. It takes a little practice to get used to this approach, but trust me, your non-native speakers (and listeners) will appreciate your efforts.
- Be specific in times and dates – When your association has members dispersed across the globe, it requires you to become very specific about times and dates. For instance, the old days of “we’ll be meeting next Tuesday” becomes utterly confusing as soon as your group takes on members from Asia (where Tuesday might actually be Wednesday). While modern calendar applications have helped solve this matter to a degree, it’s still a thorny issue in written communications. For starters, always reference the time, date and time zone of the meeting or event. Beware, though, of time zone references – they can be tricky. Where possible, avoid references to UCT (or, worse, GMT) because it automatically forces peoples to perform a time zone conversion, a process that invariably goes wrong for some members of the group (especially during daylights savings time). I also recommend shying away from references to time zones themselves, such Mountain, Pacific, of Eastern European (or, worse, their associated acronyms such as MST, PDT, or EEST ). Instead, try to associate dates and times with their relevance to large cities; for example: the meeting will start at 3 pm New York time on 25 December 2012. While a participant in Tokyo may have no idea what time zone New York is in, he or she is more likely to know how many hours ahead or behind a major city is to their own city. London, San Francisco, Paris, Tokyo and Seoul are other common “target” cities to use as examples. Finally, wherever possible do the time translation for your members. If setting up a call with members from Germany, Finland and Japan, advise them what time that call will begin in each of their home cities. Not only will they appreciate the extra effort, but it will increase the odds that everyone will arrive to the call at the appointed time.
Again, opening up your association to international participation is a great step – and often a pivotal one at that. Just make sure your association’s operations don’t accidentally discourage participation by non-U.S. members.