A recurring conversation in organizations that engage internationally is “What does it mean to be an international or global organization?” These terms are often used interchangeably in the international community,  further ‘muddying the waters’.  A recent (inconclusive) discussion on a listserv I subscribe to around this question had me again thinking about a topic I have come back to many times over the past years with organizations I have worked with.

I will start with a summary of some of the “definitions” and criteria that are sometimes used:

International – often refers to engaging with a few different areas of the world but not worldwide.  Although the organization may conduct activities in other countries, it retains a major focus in its home country.  For example, an international organization could be one that operates a few or several programs outside the country or region where the organization is headquartered.

If moving along an internationalization ‘spectrum’, an organization might more actively customize and deliver products and services to its members or constituent groups, and have a greater international representation in its governing bodies (more than just token), as it moves along the spectrum.

Global – often describes a more holistic or “boundary-less” worldview, and involves operating in many different regions.  This view  takes a more holistic, interdependent, and interconnected approach.  For example, a global organization might have multiple presences throughout the world where  programs, chapters, or field offices operate simultaneously in several countries and regions around the world and are governed by a multinational board.

Although these may be useful as very rough guidelines, internal discussions regarding what these terms mean to the organization and their operations are an important discussion for organizations to have, and the time needed for these discussions should not be underestimated.  To change mindsets, cultures and operations takes a vesting of all key stakeholders. It can often take years for this to happen, but for those organizations I have worked with through this process, they have found it to be well worth the time invested in the internal discussion. Here is an example of how the OCLC (World’s Libraries Connected) worked through where they wanted to be as an organization ‘internationally’ using a book and international engagement spectrum I put together.

It is also important to recognize that not all organizations that want to engage internationally, need to operate or ‘become’ international.  There are many ways to interact with global issues, multinational organizations and counterpart organizations in other countries without dramatically changing your own organization’s operations. Some ideas can be found here in this article “Is it Time for you to Go International? Although this article was written in the 1990’s many of the ideas still hold true.  Couple the ‘basics’ with the tools that social media now provides (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, Quora, etc..) and the organization’s engagement with the world around it can become all that much easier and full of productive interactions.