Monday, 30 July 2012

Confessions of an Event Standards Junkie Chapter 1: ISO 20121

Three sustainable event standards have been launched within the last year. If you're confused about how they're different, wondering if they have value to your work or think it all sounds too complicated to bother my guess is you are not alone.

In brief the standards are:
Today, in the still-early stages of roll out, we've heard a lot about how standards are needed. And their potential value. But is the fuss really worth it?

I've recently survived the transition to an ISO 20121 management system for a small event planning company, helping earn certification for MeetGreen's event management processes under this new standard. In the spirit of ISO 20121--which stresses the need for review and evaluation--I thought I would brainstorm what I've learnt in the process to answer for myself: what worked, what didn't and is it worth it? My takeaways thus far:

The timeline is not weeks or months. It's years. The journey that led to ISO 20121 actually started in 2008, when we first considered implementing BS 8901, the precursor to ISO 20121. Initially we didn't log how much time tasks related to the process were taking. Mistake! Part-way through time spent on the system was tracked and now there is a better sense of the resources required to start and administer the system. I'd encourage anyone who starts down this path to log the time it takes from the beginning. And a heads up: the work never really ends for an organisational-scoped system. Even today I spend a few hours a month performing upkeep on the system, in addition to daily use staff make of the processes put in place under it.

Outside support helped but it's better if you do the work yourself. Without a formal background in management system standards, I found I needed help to really understand what was meant by certain clauses in the ISO 20121 standard. Having an outside mentor to talk to helped immensely. However, do not expect an outside party to do the work for you. Even if they indicate they can, consider this: you know your staff, resources, culture, values, goals and company best. If you really want an effective system you need to do it yourself. Outside mentors and consultants can help with guides, resources, templates, gap analyses and auditing, but the heavy lifting is best done by you and your team.

Scope it right. Your ISO system really is what you make it. You dictate what it applies to and the objectives you want. It can apply to one event, certain kinds of events, or certain aspects of services you provide. Or you can choose what MeetGreen did: have it apply to everything.This choice made sense for us, but it may not make sense for everyone. So be really clear what you want to bite off, especially if you're not yet sure about the amount of work involved or if you are uncertain that you have the resources sustain the system itself. It can help to test drive the standard on a single event project first, before deciding to dive in all the way.

The promotional benefits are marginal at best. Don't get me wrong. It's nice to be able to say you're ISO 20121-compliant. But when you have to explain more often than not what ISO 20121 means to prospects it's doubtful they've contacted you because of the standard. Does it help? Maybe a very little bit. Once prospects learn what the standard is they may look at it as a differentiator. But if it's the only perk you're looking for from ISO I wouldn't bank on it.

It has helped enable a virtual office model. Over half of our company workforce is remote. ISO 20121 has helped create project planning tools that improve the ability of these geographically dispersed teams to seamlessly work together. And I should know - I'm one of the few who have experienced the before and after!

The ability to orient and train staff has improved. Is it perfect? Hardly. But it is much better. Online project plans have been standardised and detailed instructions developed. This includes steps to take during all stages of a project, from start up through design, planning, execution and debrief. An online operations manual also provides staff with on-demand templates and training. Where staff find they need additional training a mechanism has been developed to enable that as well.

The ability to cope with staff turnover has improved. As a small company MeetGreen doesn't experience a lot of turnover. In the past, however, loss of a single project manager led to major internal disruptions which could impact client service delivery. With ISO this transitioning process is much smoother, and documentation is vastly improved, enabling new project managers to more seamlessly take over project work when staff move on to other opportunities.

Bureaucracy still sucks. I confess: the thing I don't like about ISO 20121 is it can increase organisational bureaucracy. For example, some staff now have additional review processes. Reviews take time away from other things and are more administrative. It's accepted as a necessary evil and the team tries to adopt a "Goldilocks Principle" with each potential layer of bureaucracy. Meaning, just enough documentation is needed to improve a process and overcome an issue, but not so much that event managers revolt. Ahh just right.

People struggle with setting integrated objectives. This has been the biggest pain-point in my experience. While overall company objectives for sustainability are required under ISO 20121 and are technically not difficult to set, translation of these into projects and tasks can be difficult. This may be less of an issue if your system is only scoped for one event. But if you're trying to adopt ISO 20121 as a company you may want to anticipate that it will take time to integrate company with project objectives and tasks. Plan for multiple employee consultations and be prepared to adjust. Challenges also emerge if client objectives for sustainability vary from your own, and across projects. The lesson? In theory objective and target-setting can and should work very smoothly. In practise it's a very different story.

It can help structure your approach to pro-bono work. We all get them: requests to do a free student project, write an article or donate time for a presentation or webinar. In previous years our approach to this was very ad hoc. Requests were dealt with one at time as they came in and with only loose attention to informal criteria. Today pro-bono hours are prioritised and targeted each year to keep the company's involvement in important, community-driven projects sustainable. The costs and benefits of these are also tracked in consistent ways.

Measurement of the impact of education and outreach can improve. Related to the above, our ISO system has evolved better ways to measure the impact of marketing and communications. From social media to webinars and presentations, our ISO system has helped improve tracking of the legacy the company provides in terms of education and awareness-building. 

Communication with clients and client satisfaction improve. It may be hard to believe but prior to the adoption of BS 8901 we didn't really have a formal process for project owners to ensure work was evaluated. It wasn't that client communication didn't happen, but it was approached differently by each project manager, and there was no formal, consistent type of evaluation post-event.  This is now more formalised, includes discussion of sustainability issues and is tracked as a project objective with clear targets for staff.

..and a note on certification. Compliance with ISO 20121 may or may not be third-party certified. It's your choice. I've found that third-party certification has had value. The surveillance processes put in place by our certifier cost money, but in turn keeps improvements on-track. This has worked because we've cultivated a productive, long-term relationship with a certifier, who in addition to being knowledgeable in the system, understands the event industry as well. It's critically important to choose someone that has both if you opt to certify.

So, has ISO 20121 been worth it? All considered I think so. I can point to numerous examples of how a systematic approach to sustainability has helped us improve management practises. Three things make a strong impression in these first few years of using a sustainable event management system for events:

First, I feel we've benefited in many ways that don't involve 'greening', as the list above I hope illustrates. Sure there have been environmental and social responsibility improvements, and these have also translated into business benefits that stretch beyond 'green'.

Second, the value is more internal, and less external than I expected it to be. It's done because it helps stakeholders within the company do things better and in more consistent, measurable ways. It's also helped teams more effectively engage in their projects and the company, while improving their ability to be more proactive about sustainability and anticipate projects risks and issues in ways I didn't expect.

And third, while the system does ensure sustainability is actively considered, it has not guaranteed that projects produce more environmentally or socially responsible outcomes by default. Sure it enables conditions where this can happen and staff are often successful. But the system alone does not guarantee performance that reduces impacts and ensures risks are eliminated, for example. It's your commitment to honouring the system that ensures it works.

Lastly, a note on client value. My observation is that clients appear happy and according to debrief comments appreciate that staff can take care of their projects using a system that is verified to an external standard. Would they pay more and does it earn additional business? I'm less convinced of this and look forward to learning how to better harness it for business development purposes.

Welcome insights others who are using the standard may have, or if you're considering ISO 20121 for your event company or event!

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