Barriers and Enablers to the Adoption of the ISO 20121 Standard for
Event Sustainability Management
Sue Tinnish, PhD
Glion School of Hospitality Management
Standards exist everywhere in the world around us. Standards play a critical role in industry,
commerce, technology and the world at large. With the anticipated approval of ISO 20121
Events Sustainability Management System, the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and
Events) industry will have a sector-specific management system to identify critical sustainability
issues like venue selection, operating procedures, supply chain management, procurement,
communications, and transportation for all types of events. All actors (suppliers, planners, trade
associations) have an opportunity to play a role in the adoption and use of the standards.
This paper identifies the enablers and barriers to adopting ISO 20121. Eight main enablers are
identified and ten main barriers are identified. The barriers and enablers are drawn from the
ethnographic experience of the author in the development of ISO 2012. The paper also captures
qualitative information gleaned through interviews with industry participants involved in the
development of ISO 20121. In addition, extant research the literature including Actor-Network
Theory, innovation, diffusion of innovation (Rogers 2003) and standardization development in
other industries (i.e., software development, information technology, and communications), and
systems thinking informed the development of the enablers and barriers as well as the underlying
Further, implications are drawn at the meso-level, macro-level and micro-level of analysis for
supporting adoption through social networks, institutions, training and education, and behavior
of actors. These implications may be of interest to practitioners and scholars.
This research paper, based on a case study, seeks to identify the barriers and enablers to the
adoption of the ISO 20121 standard in the meetings, incentives, convention and exhibition
(MICE) industry. Standards exist everywhere in the world around us. In the MICE industry,
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 2
planners use a standard for determining seating distances, airlines use standards for issuing
boarding passes, and every supplier and planner who sends an email uses a QWERTY1 keyboard
on their computer. Standards play a critical role in industry, commerce, technology and the world
at large. David and Greenstein (1990, p. 4 as cited in Fomin, Keil & Lyytinen, 2003, p.30) define
a standard as “a set of technical specifications adhered to by a set of producers, either tacitly or
as a result of a formal agreement.” Inherent in this definition is the awareness that often
standards will deal with technical details.
ISO 20121 is a standard for creating an Events Sustainability Management System. Jones and
Fullerton-Smith note that ISO 20121 “provide[s] a framework to implement a system to manage
an event’s sustainable development issues. Rather than being a checklist, ISO 20121 requires a
systematic approach to addressing sustainable development issues in relation to event planning.
It can be applied to an event organizer, a single event or a venue” (Jones & Fullerton-Smith,
n.d.). ISO 20121 takes a management systems approach requiring identification of key
sustainability issues like venue selection, operating procedures, supply chain management,
procurement, communications, transport, and others. The final vote on ISO 20121 occurred on
May 30, 2012. ISO has developed other management systems dealing with quality (ISO 9000)
and environmental management (ISO14000).
Setting standards for a complex issue like sustainability is not the same as setting standards for
internet protocols, railway gauge, computer components, or cellular phone parts. Establishing a
management system is also distinctly different than establishing technical product specifications.
Unique characteristics about the standards and unique characteristics about this industry created
a need to better understand how ISO 20121 will be adopted. The present literature, both peer
reviewed and practitioner oriented, lacks a definitive approach for embedding and using an event
sustainability management system into the MICE industry. Theories pertaining to management
1The current standard layout of a keyboard is called QWERTY. This standard persists despite studies showing that
keyboarding could be accomplished faster with a different layout of the keys. The QWERTY layout was designed to
ensure that they physical typewriter keys would not jam each other when struck by a finger stroke. Dvorak designed
an alternative standard which was much more efficient; despite acceptance by the American National Standards
Institute as an alternative design, vested interests prevent diffusion of this standard (Rogers, 2003, p. 8-9).
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 3
systems exist (i.e., ISO 14001); however, structural, attitudinal, awareness and behavioral issues
are unique to sustainability and, likewise, that uniqueness extends to the event industry.
Implementation will be critical to the success of ISO 20121. Thus, the research seeks to identify
the barriers and enablers to adoption. The research seeks to offer practical recommendations to
actors involved in each countries’ Mirror Committee or National Standards Board (NSB).
Implications are offered concerning how ISO 20121 can be positioned in the overall industry,
which would, ultimately, lead to progress for sustainability.
Based upon an ethnographic approach where I was embedded in the process, interviews with
other participants and extant theory and literature, this paper identifies the barriers and enablers
to adoption. I utilized an iterative approach of traveling between the pertinent literature, data and
theory to develop the list of barriers and enablers. My interactive-adaptive methodology is
bounded by a case study, an appropriate method of inquiry given the investigation of a
contemporary phenomenon within a real-life context where all boundaries between the
phenomenon and contact are not clearly evident (Yin, 2003. p.13). Designing my research
around one case study affords a relatively holistic understanding of the ISO development process
through detailed contextual analysis of a limited number of events or conditions and
their relationship to one another (Yin, 2003).
Data was collected from multiple sources. Resources on qualitative research (Corbin and Strauss,
2008; Yin, 2003, p.36) suggest that a triangulation approach helps to ensure the reliability of the
findings. The data consisted of field notes; personal observations; emails; personal interviews,
which were recorded; and additional documentation (press releases, social media postings, and
publically available information). The interviews and supporting documents were transcribed
and converted to text documents and coded within Atlas.ti. Axial coding was used to analyze
themes and patterns. The analysis and coding were performed in accordance with Corbin and
Strauss (2008). I worked to insure validity and reliability of results by relying on various validity
procedures (Creswell, 2007, p. 207-209) including (1) prolonged engagement in the field,
(2)triangulation of data, (3) peer debriefing, (4) disconfirming evidence through negative case
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 4
analysis, (5) acknowledging researcher bias, (6) member checking, (7) thick, rich description,
and (8) external audits.
In summary, the field observations provide a detailed, rich source of data setting a
comprehensive landscape of the standardization effort. The email correspondence covering more
than a year of correspondence and 137 different actors supplies a vivid (albeit suffering from
occasional spelling errors and cursory exchanges) view of the daily interactions of participants.
The interviews allowed me to dig deeper ferreting out insights from the participants. Other
documents (press releases, articles) provided yet another perspective on the process.
The literature review is a critical part of this research’s methodological strategy. The role of the
literature review is to inform the analysis of barriers and enablers. The literature review is
comprised of a review of two types of literature. The focused background information relates to
sustainability, events, standards, and environmental management systems. The second body
of literature conveys scholarly information on Actor-Network Theory and innovation diffusion.
This research seeks to weave disparate ideas into a coherent, multi-threaded analysis that
considers the adoption process as a social and community-dependent activity. The research is
framed by the Actor Network Theory (ANT). The theoretical perspectives of ANT view
innovation as a social process of change that is embedded in everyday practice. An innovation,
like a standard addressing event sustainability, is part of a structure consisting of a network of
actors which dynamically promote or resist change; react and adapt; and shape the innovation.
Part 1: Background
The background literature covers an extensive breadth of areas including: (1) events and event
management, (2) standards, (3) standards organizations, (4) International Organization of
Standardization, (5) historical development of environmental standards, (6) Environmental
Management Systems, (7) sustainability, (8) sustainability and events, (9) standards and events,
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 5
(10) events and sustainability policy instruments, and (11) ISO 20121.These areas are all basic to
the understanding of the research.
Events and Event Management
The planning, staging and holding of events is a billion dollar industry. Getz defines events as
transitory in nature, infrequent in occurrence and limited in time (1991). A planned event has one
or more purposes over its limited duration. Each event is unique in its conception, management,
setting and participants. Events may be recurring or held one-off. Events can be events as
elaborate as The Olympic Games and World Cup Soccer or be as basic as summer county fairs.
Entertainment festivals such as California’s Coachella and the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
in Manchester, Tennessee also fit the definition of an event. Events can also be cultural festivals
held around world, like the cherry blossom viewings in Japan, Chinese New Year and The
Diwali Festival of Lights in India. These events also unite people through a shared experience
and reinforcement of cultural pride and social identification. Events highlight and deliver
regional culture by functioning as a showcase to the world. Events enhance a region’s cultural
tourism and urban tourism. Despite the variety of events, they are typically, by their nature, high
profile and transient, with both positive and negative social, economic and environmental
Event management is a discipline which adopts a project management approach to organizing
events. Event management concentrates on conceiving, planning, organizing, directing and
producing the event. Event management includes components like marketing, registration,
procurement, venue or destination selection, food and beverage planning, exhibit management,
and planning for audio visual needs, transportation, educational and marketing materials. Each
event maintains a unique footprint depending on the characteristics of the event, the location, and
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Standards have existed since the beginning of recorded history. Standards often reflect humans’
desire to harmonize activities with important changes in the environment. Various civilizations
created standards including efforts to record time using calendars or the introduction of weights
and measurements. Standards ensure desirable characteristics of products and services such as
quality, environmental friendliness, safety, reliability, efficiency and interchangeability. Others
standards are created in response to the needs of an increasingly complex society. The use of
standards in products as far ranging as railroad gauge to financial transactions allowed commerce
to flourish (ANSI). Standards represent an alternative coordinating mechanisms to market
competition or government regulation.
An agreed upon definition of a standard does not exist in the literature. The existing definitions
range from the very general, for example “standards are pieces of general advice offered to large
number of potential adopters” (Brunsson & Jacobsson, 2000), to the very specific, such as the
ISO definition, “An ISO standard is a documented agreement containing technical specifications
or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of
characteristics to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose”
(ISO). Standards can be either voluntary or mandatory and emerge either through market
mechanisms or through agreements within standards bodies (Bunduchi et al., 2004).
Many standards have been introduced as a result of globalization and trade. Non-mandatory
standards, like ISO 14001 and ISO 9000 are often a pre-condition for international trade. Kerr,
Cosbey and Yachnin (1998, p. 8) quote Scott Vaughan, Counselor for the WTO Committee on
Trade and Environment, “Ten to twelve percent of all Technical Barriers to Trade notifications
(in the WTO) deal with environmental issues. This gives a strong signal as to where the market is
going. If a business is to remain competitive, it will need to comply with these more rigorous
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Standards organizations exist on many levels; standards organizations may be local, national
known as National Standards Board (NSBs), regional or even international organizations.
Collectively they develop, coordinate, promulgate, revise, amend, reissue, interpret, and maintain
standards that address the interests of a wide base of stakeholders outside the standard-
developing organization. Organizations involved in standards development are known as
standard-developing organizations (SDOs) and standard-setting organizations (SSOs).
Standard-setting organizations are often industry consortia which develop voluntary standards.
SSOs are voluntary institutions that focus on industry compatibility seek to establish industry-
wide design and process standards.
The term standard-developing organization refers to thousands of industry- or sector-based
standards organizations which develop and publish industry specific standards. In the United
States, industry relies on standards developed by hundreds of national and international SDOs.
These SDOs are independent organizations that identify market needs and react accordingly,
working directly with technical experts from around the globe to develop appropriate standards.
Large economies like the United States and Japan feature several hundred SDOs, many of which
are coordinated by the central National Standards Board (NSBs) of each country (ANSI and
JISC, respectively). SDOs are involved in a variety of activities, including collaborative R&D,
compatibility testing, and product certification. SDOs work to create a consensus around
particular technologies that can serve as a focal point for industry coordination or lead to a
bandwagon process among adopters (Rysman & Simcoe, 2006).
Table 1. Example of Standards Development Organizations SDOs/SSOs
Audio Engineering Society (AES)
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
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The SDO involved in this research study is the International Organization for Standardization or
the Organization Internationale de Normalisation. ISO was founded in 1946. ISO’s members are
“private sector national bodies” (Mattli and Büthe, 2003, p. 4) such as the American National
Standards Institute (ANSI), the British Standards Institution (BSI), and the Deutsche Institut fur
Normung (DIN). As a nongovernmental actor, ISO facilitates international commerce by
developing international standards and codes through its technical committees comprised of
representatives from businesses, governments, and other stakeholders (Rada, 2000, p.20). The
technical committees are comprised of “experts,” ISO’s designation for a participant in the
standardization process. To approve a new standard, ISO requires a two-thirds majority
approval in the technical committee and a three-fourths majority among ISO voting members.
ISO reviews and, if necessary, revises each standard at least every five years (ISO).
Until the 1980s, ISO focused primarily on product design and engineering specifications. In the
mid-1980s, its focus expanded to include the entire production cycles, as well as international
management systems of ensuring quality and consideration to environmental, health, safety, and
other factors through ISO 9000 and 14001 series of standards (Medinger, 1997, p. 52).
Historical Development of Environmental Standards
From the foundation of an environmental standards structure, ISO developed its 14000 series.
Hoffman (2001) notes industrial activity went from resisting environmental measures in the
1960s to actively managing them in the 1990s. During the 1980s, environmental policymaking
began to embrace voluntary measures to address issues of environmentally conscious behaviors
(pollution prevention) and sustainability. Voluntary and non-regulatory initiatives (VNRIs) are
characterized by “a commitment not required by legislation, agreed to by one or more
organizations and applied in a consistent manner to influence or benchmark behavior” (Kerr, et
al., 1998, p. xv). Types of VNRIs available as environmental measures include: (1) standards,
(2) codes of practice, (3) environmental labeling, and (4) negotiated agreements.
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Environmental Management Systems
An environmental management system (EMS) may be a standard, a regulation or some type of
voluntary framework. Environmental management systems are viewed as a new way to control
environmental impact. An EMS is a management tool which can help an organization increase
its awareness of, and its control over, environmental impacts (ISO 14000 Store). As a
management system, it is designed to be flexible enough to be applicable to any size of company
and to any industry sector (International Institute for Sustainable Development). In contrast to
traditional “command and control” measures, EMSs are “concerned with establishing ‘how to’
achieve a goal, not ‘what’ the goal should be” (International Institute of Sustainable
Many times, EMS programs are developed in response to industry-specific needs and are
introduced to provide common sets of guidelines to industry members. Examples of industrial
environmental standards include the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association’s Responsible Care
Program in North America (International Council of Chemical Associations2 (ICCA) and
Forestry Stewardship (Forest Stewardship Council3 (FSC). Under a voluntary framework,
industries no longer view environmental management as a cost of doing business but recognize
that proactive measure can reduce the regulatory burden, lower impacts and the environment and
yield economic benefits in the long run. Other common EMSs are ISO 14001 and Eco-
Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS).
Sustainability is often defined based on the definition of sustainable development put forth by the
World Commission on Economic Development (WCED) in its report, Our Common Future.
According to the WCED, sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own
2The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) represents chemical manufacturers and producers all
over the world.
3The Forest Stewardship Council was formed in 1993 to change the dialogue about and the practice of sustainable
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needs” (WCED, 1987). The commission further asserted that sustainable development required
the simultaneous adoption of environmental, economic, and equity principles. This assertion
challenged the deep-rooted assumption that environmental integrity and social equity were at
odds with economic prosperity. Currently, the definition is commonly referred to as the
“Brundtland Commission” definition.
Bansal (2005) further highlights the concepts of environmental, social equity, and economic
principles. For sustainable development, organizations must apply all three principles to their
products, policies, and practices. Sustainable events consider environmental issues like waste,
energy use, and water usage; social issues like Fair Trade, destruction of an area through new,
under-utilized infrastructure, interruption of normal business, creating an environment where
residents leave en mass, antagonization of the community and new security/crime threats; the
economic issues are wealth distribution among the community and inflated prices during the
Sustainability and Events
Events have largely been ignored by those involved in sustainability. Pockets of the event
industry focus on the environmental aspects of events with some interest in the more holistic
perspective of sustainability. In this more holistic context, attention is given to environmental,
sociocultural and economic aspects of sustainability. The information currently available to
guide planners interested in event sustainability are checklists and guides, textbooks featuring
case studies, and the burgeoning efforts to create standards in the industry. And yet the industry
is a major source of waste, energy use and water use. Events like festivals or major sporting
events put strains on a destination’s infrastructure and capacity. The Olympics permanently
change the social, environmental and economic landscape of a destination and leave a lasting
reminder of the event (Waitt, 2003).
In framing the concept of sustainable events, Smith-Christensen (2009, p. 23) warns about
thinking about the term sustainable as “a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 11
indefinitely” as it suggests events can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely. That is
counter-intuitive to the concept of an event being transitory in nature. Rather he proposes the
following two definitions: Sustainable events: Events managed as an autonomous, cyclic
process through the interaction between event management, host community and event goers,
providing human resources, infrastructure and funds (Smith-Christensen, 2009, p. 24).
Alternatively, he defines responsible events as events sensitive to the economic, sociocultural
and environmental needs, within the local host communities, and organizers in such a way as to
optimize the net holistic (positive) output (Smith-Christensen, 2009, p. 25).
Standards and Events
It is against this backdrop that interested parties in the MICE industry expressed a desire to
create a management system to guide the decision-making of an organization to produce more
sustainable events. The existing standard related to event sustainability management is a
standard developed by the British Standards Institute known as BS 8901. BS 8901 was
developed in 2005 specifically for the events industry with the purpose of guiding the industry to
operate in a more sustainable manner. The standard defines the requirements for a sustainability
event management system to ensure an enduring and balanced approach to economic activity,
environmental responsibility and social progress relating to events. In that regard, BS 8901
shares many of the common management principles of other management system standards such
as ISO 9001 (Quality Management), ISO 14001 (Environmental Management) and BS OHSAS
18001 (Health and Safety Management) including the Plan-Do-Check-Act approach.
Events and Sustainability Policy Instruments
A variety of policy instruments are available worldwide related to sustainability. The summary
include in Table 2 focuses on all types of VNRI’s including (1) standards, (2) codes of practice,
(3) environmental labeling and (4) negotiated agreements. While Table 2 is by no means an
exhaustive list, it illustrates some of the policy instruments which directly impact the planning of
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Table 2. Examples of Environmental and Sustainable Voluntary Guidance Tools
Australia 1. Global Eco Labeling
2. Good Environmental Choice
United Kingdom 1. BS 9801:2009 (Specification for a)
Sustainability Management System for
2. Green Tourism
3. Industry Green (IG) by Julie’s Bicycle:
2007(JB) – Voluntary Measurement Tool
4. London Olympics Sustainability Plan
Nordic 1. Good Environmental Choice (Sweden)
2. Swan Eco-label
3. Swedish Standards Institute (SIS), Luger,
Live Nation – developing a new
environmental manual for festivals
Europe 1. EU Eco-label
2. European Eco-Management and Auditing
3. Green Hospitality Programme/Green
Hospitality Eco Label or Award (Ireland)
4. The Green Key
North America 1. American Tree Farm System (ATFS)
2. APEX/ASTM Environmental Sustainable
Events standards (under development)
3. BNQ 9700 – 253 Sustainable Development –
Responsible Event Management
4. Council for Responsible Sport
5. EcoLogo Program
6. Fain Trade Certified
7. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
8. Gold Standard
9. Green Key (Canada)
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10. Green Seal (US)
11. Green-e Program
12. Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
13. The Flower Label Program (FLP)
14. The Programme for the Endorsement of
Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC)
15. The Sierra Eco Label
16. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative® Program
17. USDA Certified Organic
Other 1. DEFRA Sustainable Events Guide
2. Eco Labeling – A Greener Festival Awards:
3. Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G3
Reporting Framework Events Sector
4. Hanover Principles
5. India's Ecomark Scheme
6. ISO 14001:2004 Environmental Management
7. ISO 26000: 2010 Guidance on Social
8. Japan's Eco Mark
9. Key to Costa Rica
10. SEXI: The sustainable Exhibition Industry
11. Singapore's Green Label Scheme
12. Sustainable Sport and Event Toolkit
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13. The Sustainable Music Festival – A Strategic
14. UK Sport
15. UN Global Compact
In 2009, interest was expressed in leveraging the work completed by the British Standards
Institute (BSI) on an existing standard BS8901 and developing it into an ISO standard. Mirror
committees or Technical Advisory Groups were formed by interested countries and the
development process was started according to ISO guidelines through a series of face-to-face
meetings and associated commenting periods. ISO 20121 has passed through the following
stages: Working Draft (WD), Committee Draft (CD), Draft International Standard (DIS), and
Final Draft International Standard (FDIS). The vote on the FDIS was cast on May 30, 2012 and
official results are not available as of this date.
Summary of Background Information
The background information sets the stage of an industry where standards played a major role in
technical automation and internet transactions, but beyond which standardization and standards
are used very sparingly in the MICE industry – particularly in event management. The creation,
planning and execution of events is portrayed as a creative process where the specific individual
engaged in the planning process (event planner, planner or organizer) is perceived as directly
affecting the event’s outcome because of the planner’s creativity, ideas, and past experience. The
ante for basic knowledge for planners is about to be increased as they focus on environmental
issues (waste, diversion rates, air quality, water conservation) and sociocultural issues (Fair
Trade, sustainable wages, and legacy issues) and consider economic issues beyond profit.
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Part 2: Extant Literature
The extant literature covers seven different areas: (1) Actor-Network Theory, (2) development
arena, (3) standardization, (4) innovation and diffusion of innovation, and (5) whole systems.
I begin with a review of theories that impact my research and then move to the topical areas.
Actor-Network Theory (ANT) informs a variety of areas in social sciences (information
technology, information systems, technology, organizational analysis, geography, sociology, and
feminist studies). Associated with scholars like Latour, Callon and Law, ANT explores how
relations between objects, people, and concepts are formed, rather than why relationships are
formed. ANT emerged from the fields of science and technology research and sought to explain
how scientific theories spread, became embedded and then later became acculturated. The actors
in ANT can be human and non-human thus creating the concept of heterogeneity, where diverse
actors all interact within the network (McBride, 2003). Differences in interactions of human and
non-human actors are not emphasized.
The ANT literature is relevant to my research for four reasons. First, the foundational focus on
“how” not “why” offers a similar foundation to my approach of identifying barriers and enablers.
Second, I see corollaries between explanations of how technology is diffused and accepted and
my own research interests. Third, ANT conceptualizes social interactions in terms of networks.
Meanings are defined by the actors themselves. Contextual creation of meaning may provide an
important foundational linkage. Fourth, numerous researchers approach the standardization effort
from an ANT framework setting a precedence and rich literature backdrop. For example,
McBride (2003) examines how mobile communication technologies are adopted within different
countries. ANT supports a social construction paradigm; therefore,
The concept of a development arena fits well with ANT. Jørgensen and Sørensen (1999, p. 410)
define a development arena as:
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A cognitive space that holds together the settings and relations that comprise
the context for product or process development that includes: a number of
elements such as actors, artifacts, and standards that populate the arena; a
variety of locations for action, knowledge and visions that define the changes
of this space; and a set of translations that has shaped and played out the
stabilization and destabilization of relations and artifacts.
Other scholars define this development space in various ways. Yoo, Lyytinen and Yang (2005, p.
330) calls it the innovation and diffusion system; Millerand and Baker (2010, p. 138) refer to it as
the webs of users and developers. The idea of a development arena conveys five ideas I have not
seen combined together in the literature (Jørgensen & Sørensen, 1999, p. 411- 412):
1. Recognizes political, social and technical performances
2. Contains the static elements of locations, knowledge and artifacts
3. Frames a space for continuous action
4. Addresses conflicting interests and contention about the space
5. Depends on the participation and enthusiasm of both actors and audience
This broad view of the development arena makes it possible to simultaneously conceive of the
ISO development process in a way to serve the development team (actors), the planner and
supplier community (users), the various stakeholder groups and to evolve in a way that responds
to the changing needs of the stakeholders and the moving target of sustainable event
As standardization is the main focus of this research, this literature review covers a variety of
articles about standardization. Standardization has been explored in industrial sectors like
information technology, communications, engineering and E-commerce infrastructure. Topics of
study range the gamut from patent technology to creating a balance between competition and
cooperation. Often studies in the information technology and software sector overlapped with my
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 17
interest in diffusion of innovation, so much of my research was in this area. For example, Yoo, et
al. (2005) examined the role of standards and innovation in diffusion of broadband mobile
telephone services in Korea using Actor Network Theory. Their findings suggest standards play
two distinct roles in innovation and diffusion on services like broadband mobile services. First,
standards enable different actors to align their interests so they build networks that allow them to
shape the world in which they will compete. Second, standards play a role in shaping networks
by mediating the pathways of actions and thoughts (Yoo et al., 2005, p.345).
Fichman and Kemerer studied software innovation documenting the evidence of an assimilation
gap in the diffusion of innovation. Although addressing software innovation, the concept has
relevance to the ISO standard. Their article notes the cumulative acquisition (purchase) may not
match the cumulate deployment (use) of an innovation across a population of potential adopters
(Fichman & Kemerer, 1999, p. 5). They refer to this time delay as the assimilation gap. ISO
20121 may share some interesting characteristics with software in this regard. Fichman and
Kemerer (1999, p. 3) note the work of Attwell who documents that high knowledge barriers
generally slow diffusion which tends to have an especially negative effect on deployment
compared with acquisition A second potential reason for the assimilation gap is created when
some innovations are marketed in a way that causes organizations to acquire the innovation
under one set of expectations only to discover the reality is much less favorable (Rosenberg,
1976 as cited in Fichman & Kemmerer, 1999, p. 3-4). Fichman and Kemerer (1999, p. 7) also
document the survivor function where, in their analysis, the earlier technology continues to
survive despite the acquisition of new technology. A final concept they address is the increasing
returns to adoptions. “Some technologies become much more valuable to a given adopter to the
extent that others also adopt. Such technologies are subjected to increasing returns of adoption”
(Fichman & Kemerer, 1999, p. 9). Increasing returns arise from the additional contribution that
adopters create by (1) positive network externalities among adopters, (2) learning-by-using
among adopters, (3) economies of scale in production and learning-by-doing among producers,
(4) general industry knowledge about the innovation and (5) a more rapidly maturing technology
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The idea of integrating an environmental program within a government was studied by Lafferty
and Ruud (2006, p. 457) to explain the adoption of green standards in Norway. In this article,
they examine Horizontal Environmental Policy Integration (HEPI) and Vertical Environmental
Policy Integration (VEPI) as two factors that govern policy acceptance within Norway. They
point out when different sectors within the Norwegian government pursue alternative
environmental objectives (poor HEPI), it undermines overall success. Integration may serve to be
equally important in an industry sector and not restricted to government agendas.
In the arena of information technology, the definition of who is the “user” can be critical.
Millerand and Baker (2010) explore the multi-faceted roles of users; they argue the user concept
is underdeveloped in theory. While the role of the user is less multi-dimensional in the events
sector, the reality of the ISO 20121 standards development is some of the developers will
become users; some will be planners who use the standard, others will be suppliers who use the
standard. All developers, however, are likely to have vested interests in the implementation of
Diffusion of Innovation
Diffusion theory posits that many qualities exist in actors causing them to accept (or not) a new
idea or a new product. In addition, many qualities of innovations emerge that can make actors
accept them enthusiastically or not. Rogers’ name is closely associated with this topic. Rogers
(2003, p. 5) defined diffusion as “the process in which an innovation is communicated through
certain channels over time among the members of a social system. It is a special type of
communication, in that messages are concerned with new ideas.” In his book, Diffusion of
Innovations, he seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread
through cultures. Rogers’ diffusion model contains four elements: the innovation,
communication channels, time, and a social system. Rogers defines five intrinsic characteristics
of innovations that influence an actor’s decision to adopt or reject an innovation: (1) relative
advantage: how improved an innovation is over the previous generation; (2) compatibility: the
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 19
level of compatibility required to assimilate an innovation into an individual’s life; (3)
complexity or simplicity: if the innovation is too difficult to use an individual will not likely
adopt it; (4) trialability: how easily an innovation may be experimented with as it is being
adopted; if a user has a hard difficulty using and trying an innovation this individual will be less
likely to adopt it; and (5) observability: the extent that an innovation is visible to others. A more
visible innovation will drive communication among the individual’s peers and personal networks
and will in turn create more positive or negative reactions. Thus, the relative speed with which
actors in a social system adopt an innovation depends on these factors; adopters of an innovation
do not adopt the innovation independently, but instead influence each others' adoption decisions
(Rogers, 2003, p. 15-17).
Examining past research on diffusion of innovation shows a specific slant where innovations are
characterized as unproblematic, complete and uncontested (Yoo, Lyytinen, & Yang, 2005, p.
328; Tenkasi & Mohrman, 1998, p. 122-135). Models such as Rogers (2003, p. 170) portray
innovation diffusion as a linear sequence. Viewing standards work in a more complex world with
partisan interest and alternative choices casts a new light on diffusion of innovation.
Other attempts to capture the dynamic of innovation diffusion are based on quantitative models.
For example, Kanniainen, Mäkinen, Piché and Chakrabarti (2011) explore diffusion rates in
technology and engineering. They build on the Bass Model4 (BM) which describes a cumulative-
adoptions curve. As a stochastic model, the Bass Model examines behavior which is non-
deterministic; stochastic models predict future states based on a process' predictable actions and
by a random element. Kanniainen et al.’s effort extends the conventional Bass model
stochastically by specifying the error process of sales as log-normal and mean-reverting. The
model shows analytically and numerically that forecasts derived using sales data can
substantially alter conventional Bass forecasts.
4The Bass Model was formulated by marketing professor Frank Bass to estimate the rate of adoption for a new
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 20
Michailidis, Partalidou, Nastis, Papadaki-Klavdianou and Charatsari (2011) raise the issue of
diffusion based on supply versus demand when they study internet diffusion rates in rural
Greece. One of their conclusions is increasing Internet penetration in rural areas can be based on
increasing demand. They (2011) conclude, “It seems internet availability will not be a problem in
the future, since attempts are being made and figures show that the urban–rural divide and lack
of infrastructure are dealt by national initiatives. The question raised, however, is why
penetration rates remain low despite all infrastructural development in rural Greece. The answer
can be only found when elaborating into demand side issues, as examined in this research.” They
point to forums and blogs for farmers, for example, which emerged in many countries and were
run by farmers or other organizations related to agriculture. In Greece, a farmer could
communicate with other farmers or administrative bodies using Facebook, Twitter, and through
the websites of newspapers, TV channels, agricultural suppliers, etc. The challenge for policy
makers in this case would be not merely disseminating such forums but rather to create the desire
and need (the demand) for the non-users to finally use services provided through the Internet.
Creating demand is an interesting concept for ISO 20121. The two concepts of searching for
progressive audiences and local support may be quite relevant for adoption of ISO 201212; both
concepts are embodied in this quote (Michailidis et al., 2011).:
If farmers realize the added value of the Internet and social networking models to
their everyday life, then there is a greater chance that they will be involved. In any
case, such policies must always place a great importance in finding the most
progressive audience, which means work in the field with existing networks in
local communities, as well as finding and using facilitators at a local level.
As discussed earlier, Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is often applied to innovation. Miettinen
draws upon the ANT and cultural-historical activity theory (AT) to study technical innovation.
Miettinen (2000, p. 182) studies attempts to produce wood from Trichoderma, a cellulose-
degrading enzyme. He demonstrates three limitations of an innovative activity using this
empirical case study: (1) the principle of generalized symmetry (how to decide what is
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 21
important and essential; (2) silent actors; and (3) role of human cognition, intentionality and
learning). Some of these concepts may be relevant to the study of innovation in ISO 20121.
Innovation is addressed in a neo-classical and (co-)evolutionary way by Rennings (1998). He
notes typically innovation is “neutral concerning the content of change and open in all directions.
In contrast, putting emphasis on innovation toward sustainable development is motivated by
concern and content of progress.” Sustainable progress is not marked solely as technological
progress. Using an economic perspective he notes regulatory regimes driven by technical
standards (either in a command-and-control system or in a regime of voluntary agreements in
which standards are negotiation between government and industry) are not cost-efficient and the
incentives for progress in emission reduction vanish after the standards are met. He notes the
limits of pure market forces to create change; concluding that neo-classical models are well-
chosen for “analyzing marginal or incremental changes, induced by different kinds of incentives.
[But] they are of limited value for the analysis of more radical changes of technology systems
including the organizational and societal context.” For that he turns to evolutionary approaches
which are more interested in the analysis of transition and learning process than in equilibrium
states. Rennings (1998) concludes:
Neoclassical methods are most elaborated to analyze the efficiency of incentive
systems which seems to be essential for stimulation innovation...Evolutionary
approaches are more appropriate for analyzing long-term, radical technological
change including path-dependencies, technological irreversibility, transition
process, discontinuous and unpredictable events.
Much research on innovation is done within the context of politics. Mintrom explores how ideas
for innovation gain prominence on government agendas. By examining the issue of school
choice, Mintrom outlines strategies for “policy entrepreneurs,” people who seek to initiate
dynamic policy change, by developing strategies for presenting their ideas to others. Some
concepts he offers in his work on “selling or brokering” their ideas, networking, shaping the
terms of the debate and building coalitions are relevant to my research (Mintrom, 1997).
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 22
As I explored regulation linked to innovation, I also explored the diffusion of innovation
literature with regard to regulations. Oster and Quigley (1977) investigate the homebuilding
industry in the United States. They identify four peculiarities of the homebuilding industry which
may contribute to the industry’s relatively low rate of technical progress. Three of their points
are salient to this research. First, they note the small scale of firms in the construction may also
reduce incentives for private research and development. Second, the merits of a particular
innovation may be hard to evaluate because the use of the innovation depends upon a complex
interaction with other parts. Third, the fragmentation of the market not only exists in the number
of firms operating but also in the “bewildering variations in local regulations” (Oster & Quigley,
1977, p. 362-363). This system complexity combined with the industry fragmentation may make
it especially difficult for suppliers to judge the potential of an innovation.
Whole Systems Approach
Laszlo (2003) suggests sustainability requires a whole-systems approach. One cannot be
sustainable in one part of the system and not sustainable in another. This results in a cohesive
definition of social, economic and environmental performance. Sustainability must be measured
by a set of benchmarks that includes customers, employees, business partners, communities,
shareholders, and the environment. Consumers, employees, and investors are demanding
business conduct that takes into account an organization’s activities for all of its stakeholders
Whole systems thinking is especially appropriate to a discussion of event sustainability and
management of sustainable events because of the in situ nature of events, the nature of
sustainability, the heterogeneous stakeholders, and the complexity of supply chain management
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 23
From research on ISO 1400 and ISO 9000, many scholars identified various barriers and
enablers for those standards. The nature of a management system, whether assessing quality or
environmental management, involves similar challenges in adoption and implementation. Survey
data (Darnall, 2003; Heras-Saizarbitoria, Landin & Molina-Azorin, 2011) and case study
categories (Yoo et al., 2005; Dasgupta, Hettige & Wheeler, 2000) provided valuable input. I
looked beyond management system standards and technology standards into areas like
construction standards (Quigley & Oster, 1977) or mandated standards (Lafferty & Ruud, 2006)
to fully inform my results.
A secondary source for identifying enablers and barriers were the actors themselves. I relied
primarily on interviews but participant observations were ingrained into my thought process.
Millerand and Baker (2010) discovered in their standards setting process, some of the standards
developers are also users of the standard. This was also true in the ISO 20121 process as the
developers were not solely standards experts but were also planners who intend to use the
standard and planners who have already used the BS 8901 standard. These multi-faceted roles of
these actors increase my confidence that the barriers and enablers identified through interviews
are grounded in reality.
This section reports on the barriers and enablers that might impact adoption of ISO 20121.
Barriers and enablers can often be the flip side of the same coin. Both sources (literature and
data) were inextricably useful to inform the identification of the list. If an enable or barrier was
found in both the data and the literature, it is listed in the literature section.
Enablers to Use of ISO 20121
This section will analyze a total of nine enablers identified in the data and the literature. Some
enablers were combined into one enabler because of their interrelatedness creating eight main
enablers. The complete list of enablers includes:
1. Economic business case exists to justify sustainability
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 24
2. Customer mandates
3. Legitimization through associations
4. Symbolic value of standard
5. Standard linked to identity
6. Idea movement to build support
7. Spill-over effect
8. Marquee events/companies to serve as endorsers
9. Use of a standard begets further use
Enablers Identified through Data
The data indicated two main enablers to the standards. These enablers are economic justification
and customer mandates.
Economics still pervades the decision making and thinking about sustainability. Two
interviewees spoke about creating an economic business case to justify sustainability. One
interview exchange went as follows:
Q: Why do organizations adopt a sustainability strategy? What do you think
A: Money, money, and, number three, money. Really. Now having said that [it] is
the senior management's conception of what money means to them.
In an effort to educate the US TAG about a management system, I arranged for a guest
speaker to join us and speak about her experience. From the meeting minutes, I wrote the
Even a company like [deleted text] which held sustainability as a core value
learned something from the process [of implementing BS 8901]. The company
had improvements in its focus on sustainability, articulation of objectives and
measurement of sustainability.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 25
A second enabler identified by the data is customer mandates. One participant relates this story
about how a supplier fell in line when they perceived the importance of the sustainability issue to
…At the start of this process when someone who is quite high up and well
recognized as an UK industry leader event sector came up to me at an industry
event. He said, ‘This standard won’t go anywhere you know. Sustainability is not
important. No one cares about it.’…Then I was invited to present at London 2012
to tell them an update on the standard. And it was all the London 2012 team, all
10 or so of them in the room this guy, and this supplier who said it won’t work.
And the London 2012 person had picked up the phone to him and invited him to
this presentation. So he was feeling very special about being in this room as a
potential supplier. And like ten minutes into the presentation on the standard on
sustainability, he put up his hand and said, ‘We are totally behind this. We really
believe in it. We will be going for it.’”
Another interviewee pointed out the power of customers’ demands:
For example, this is another route, I think, multinational companies that have like
a rule or whatever within the company that they must meet the standard. And
then, that may flow down. So, you know, for example, in India, it’s probably not
really going to take hold very much. However, if Saab is launching a new brand
of cars across India in a road show of events, and Saab, internationally, is
requiring all of their events to be produced in line with ISO 2201, then that’s a
way that that could be instigated into India. So I think that is a possible route.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 26
Enablers Identified through the Literature
The literature indicated seven enablers to the standards. These enablers are:
1. Legitimization through associations
2. Symbolic value of standard
3. Standard linked to identity
4. Idea movement to build support
5. Spill-over effect
6. Marquee events serving as role models
7. Use of a standard begets further use
The idea of symbolic value and tying identities together are combined into the enabler of
“perceived value of standard.” This combination resulted in a total of six main enablers which
are discussed below.
Legitimization through Associations
Mattli and Büthe (2003, p. 13) reference Loya and Boli’s concept of a complex web of mutual
legitimation through individual firms, associations and national standards bodies. Fortunately,
the ISO names lends legitimacy and major trade associations like Meeting Professionals
International, the Convention Industry Council, Green Meeting Industry Council, Professional
Convention Management Association, PLSA (a trade association for organizations supplying
technologies and services to the event, entertainment and installation industries), and Athletes
for a Better World can lend legitimacy.
Value of Standard
The users must also perceive symbolic value in the standard. In the context of considering
environmental management (EM), Levy (1997, p. 135) addresses the importance of consumer
marketing and advertising. He discerns the need to create the symbolism of green as a “valuable
commodity in itself, with which products (and services) can then be wrapped and packaged.” A
symbolic commodity in the marketplace needs to be constructed as such by the actors. Likewise
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 27
focusing on sustainability within a management system requires constituting new symbolic value
for the practice and the use of the ISO standard.
Brunsson and Jacobsson (2000, p. 131) state, “When able to act and choose, actor’s [users]
propensity to follow a particular standard will depend on their identity – that is, who they are –
and on their situation.” Thus, if planners and suppliers tie their identity with the use of ISO
20121, then other actors will also want to be affiliated with the standard.
Related to the perceived value of ISO 2012, is the idea of champions or thought leaders who
will, by their own adoption, build the perceived value of the standard (Nickerson & Muehlen,
2006). Humans have evolved to instinctively copy and mimic the behavior of others – especially
those they admire. This behavior is an adaptive strategy that allows humans to minimize the cost
of individual trial and error (Griskevicius, Cantú, & van Vugt, 2012, p. 121).
Idea Movement to Build Support
Nickerson and Muehlen’s (2006) concept of idea movement suggest that ISO 20121 adoption
should have a contagion quality that allows support to build. They point out that initially
institutions legitimate standards ideas. They show that information flows between institutions
and also that individuals convey that information between organizations thus constituting idea
movement. The ISO development effort is being conducted among a miniscule number of people
across a small number of countries in a fragmented and decentralized industry. Thus, idea
movement will be critical to allow support to build.
Events by the nature include a variety of people. This increases the challenges of managing
stakeholder engagement and it also increases the opportunity for the spill-over effect. The
standard will attract actors interested in sustainable events. However, it may also favorably
influence many other stakeholders from suppliers, to exhibitors to participants. Brunsson and
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 28
Jacobsson (2000, p. 121) demonstrate how the standard can manifest a spill-over effect, “It is
expected that standards will be followed by the people with an interest in doing so. Standards
developers want people to conclude that the standard is good for them. But it adds to the
attractiveness of standards if they can be shown to have good effects on others as well.”
Marquee Events/Companies to Serve as Endorsers
Marquee events that realize substantiated sustainability achievements can signal that
using the standard is achievable and valuable. This idea of events as an actor is in
keeping with Nickerson and Muehlen’s (2006, p. 14) idea of ongoing champions. One
Well, one thing I believe, well, it will drive the initial wave is some notable
endorsement from the corporate and from, notable from different types, different
types of events. We've been talking about the business aspect of it. We've been
talking about the exposition. Like, for example, is the CES every year in Las
Vegas, Consumer Electronic Show, if one of those . . . large event, they start, you
know, adopting them, that will enable followers.
Use of a Standard Begets Further Use
The empirical work of Jabour (2010) indicated companies who had instituted one standard were
more likely to institute another standard. Based on these results, if actors within the MICE
industry face standards choices, this will support potential adoption of ISO 20121 or any other
Barriers to Use of ISO 20121
This section will analyze a total of eighteen barriers identified in the data and the literature. The
complete list of barriers includes:
1. Industry fad
2. Complexity of standard
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 29
3. Difficulty persuading target audience
5. Scale of events
6. Experienced planners must learn new capabilities
7. Education extends beyond event management
8. Traditional economic models
9. Difficulty evaluating merits
10. Choice of criteria to determine effectiveness is subjective
11. Greenwashing may occur
13. Industry structure
14. Experienced professional must learn new capabilities
15. Education extends beyond event management
16. Legacy interests
17. Local capabilities challenge implementation
18. Training and education of temporary staff
Barriers Identified through Data
From the coding and analytic work, seven main barriers exist related to adoption: (1) industry
fads; (2) complexity; (3) difficulty persuading the target audience; (4) fear; (5) scale of events;
(6) experienced planners must learn new capabilities and (7) education extends beyond event
management. The last two barriers were combined: “Experienced planners must learn new
capabilities” and “Education extends beyond event management” into one larger barrier entitled
“Training and education are challenging.” Five main barriers are thus identified through the data.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 30
The first barrier is industry fads. The event industry, like other industries is prone to the “flavor
of the day” syndrome. In the past, industry publications saturated the industry’s collective ear
with news about one “hot topic.” I am concerned that sustainability will have its day but then
lose favor to some newer flavor. ISO 20121 has the potential to become a hot topic like ROI or
The second barrier is complexity. All actors spoke about complexity of the standard in one form
or another. One interview involved in the process stated:
The complexity. I was involved in kind of dissecting it and going to the
meetings and contributing my input on it during the meetings and I am
still think[ing].. I look at my events, and I think, ‘Oh yeah, that is a little
too much for me to take on. I have to concentrate on putting on the event.’
And I would consider myself to be more knowledgeable than the average
person. That to me is where it breaks down.
The third barrier is the challenge of persuasion. Persuasion is contextual and one approach may
not be foolproof. In an industry with a low awareness of the value of standards and a low
awareness of ISO standards, the brand value of “ISO” or any standard may be diminished. One
interviewee noted when initially presented with the BS 8901 standard, the planners did not
There was backlash [against BS 8901], an initial backlash. I think it was how it
was presented to them.
Another interviewee stated:
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 31
I think the word standard is an obstacle. I had an e-mail from somebody today
who’s the supplier to the exhibition industry on a large scale, internationally, and
he used the word standardization. How is standardization going to impact our
industry? The way he looked at it was that there was going to be like a norm to
which he had to adhere, and that’s not the case.
The fourth barrier is fear. In this interview the interviewee uses a metaphor about a key and a
door. The “key” is the standard and the “door” is the path toward a more sustainable event.
You've got to share the key, number one, to many people or invite them, and
you've got to give the key away and show them how to use the key.
If you show them the key, a new door, and people will hesitate and say, why do
you want me to get into, the door?...The concept of going through a new door or
opening up a new window to the people who don't know the other side of the door,
they will want to try to peek into it first, and they try to understand before they go
in. Because, oftentimes, the concept of going through a door is that [you] may not
. . . not like it and maybe the door going to close behind you.
Scale of Event
A fifth barrier is the event’s scale. This obstacle denotes the ability or inability to use the
standard for all types and sizes of events. One interviewee commented:
It just seems like a really complicated process to take on if you are a just a small
event. I saw from previous meeting that this issue came up several times and it
was…It was discounted and I think it is a very valid point.
Malmborg & Mark-Herbert (2010) investigated the use of ISO 14001 in small and medium-sized
enterprises (SMEs), and especially those in the developing parts of the world. Smaller events,
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 32
like smaller enterprises outnumber the large events. Yet it may be difficult to engage the planners
with those smaller events.
Training and Education
The sixth barrier is the perception that training and education is challenging. Training needs are
extensive and broad. Training must occur around the standard, around the subject matter and also
around implementation. As this interviewee points out having the “recipe” or the standard does
not ensure that you can “cook.”
People need to be trained, not only in implementing the standard, but in content,
subject matter, in order to be able to do it. Just because you’ve got process just
because you’ve got a recipe, someone doesn’t even know what flour is or how to
heat something up doesn’t mean that they’re going to be able to do it. They need
to be shown what the ingredients are and how to put them together.
Planners and suppliers will need to adopt a new set of knowledge, organizational routines
and processes to implement ISO 20121. This information is not currently in their domain
of knowledge. Many who first implement the standard will not possess sufficient skills to
negotiate with suppliers. One interview in describing the recycling of aluminum cans
So there’s two levels of performance. One is that you did the steps as prescribed
by the flowchart. You know, you went through your management review, and you
set your objectives, and wrote a policy. The other is how well you actually did
those things. Did you have [a] staff employee who understands that, for example,
you can arrange for special transportation for certain items to be recycled?
This interviewee epitomized the challenges as:
We’re talking teaching old dogs new tricks.
This story, rich in detail underscores three key points. First, professionally experienced planners
(old dogs) will need to learn new information (new tricks). Second, seeking to create a more
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 33
sustainable event is applying knowledge to specific problems. Finally, new knowledge – by
experienced and less-experienced planners – is necessary.
An interviewee underscored the importance of education:
So I think my point is, education is so important. You’ve got a standard, that’s
all fine, but it’s only a framework. You still have to get that detailed
knowledge into the person that’s enacting this 8901 or ISO.
Barriers Identified through the Literature
From the literature review, ten additional barriers were identified:
1. Traditional economic models
2. Difficulty evaluating merits
3. Choice of criteria to determine effectiveness is subjective
4. Greenwashing may occur
6. Structural nature of industry
7. Legacy interests
8. Perceptions of vested interests
9. Local capabilities challenge implementation
10. Training and education of temporary staff
These ten barriers were combined into five main barriers related to adoption:
1. Traditional economic models prevail
2. System complexity
3. Stakeholder engagement is complex
4. Transitory nature of events
5. Data collection challenges
Traditional Economic Models Prevail
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 34
Traditional measures of financial performance divert attention away from what organizations
require to be sustainable. This is the first barrier identified in the research. Relying on such
traditional principles prevents organizations from responding to the demands for change and
from meeting economic, social and environmental performance (Worley & Lawler, 2010).
Despite the prominence of sustainability in the press, sustainability may only represent a veneer
under which organizations still remain focused on financial performance as their main driver.
The second barrier, system complexity, represents a bundled barrier representing three individual
1. Difficulty evaluating merits
2. Choice of criteria to determine effectiveness is subjective
3. Greenwashing may occur
System complexity may discourage planners and suppliers. Sustainability displays great
complexity. The merits of ISO 20121 may be difficult for planners and suppliers to assess as its
use is dependent upon the complex interaction of the attendees, the destination, the venue and
other suppliers. This very dynamic was displayed in the construction industry where “The merits
of a particular idea or potential innovation in housing may be especially hard to evaluate because
the performance of any particular innovation in materials, design, or construction method
deepens upon a complex interaction with other parts of the structure (Quigley & Oster, 1977, p.
Criteria selection is critical in ISO 20121. A reoccurring thought of many actors was a concern
about the creditability and usefulness of the output of the standard. People voiced the questions,
“Will the final product – the event – be sustainable event? Will the standard be perceived as
useful at creating a sustainable event?” This sentiment is captured in the following excerpts from
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 35
My final comment here is where is there any demonstrable connection with the
environment? I think my largest objection to this product is the use of the term
"sustainable", and the (inaccurate) inference that this is what you have to do to
But what [Name - deleted text] noted is very, very important. He spoke about the
danger of having the wrong kind of thing accredited as an international standard,
and the implications of that.
This issue of credibility is addressed in the literature about other normative standards (Ahmad et
al., 2009, p. 18, Kerr et al., 1998). Kerr et al. (1998, p. 28) elaborate, “ISO requires continuous
improvement but does not specify particular environmental performance. In the eyes of many
environmentalists and regulators, the lack of externally imposed performance standards, besides
compliance with domestic laws, limits the creditability of ISO 14001.”
The requirement of ISO 20121 to set scope and goals as part of the management system does not
negate that greenwashing is a possibility. Actors saw added complexity because of the potential
to greenwash through inappropriate goal setting. For example, users can decide upon the scope
of the standard. The scope is a decision negotiated internally in adopting the standard and if not
done correctly, the planner and organization could be greenwashed into thinking that they
created some value in their activity. The suggestion is event planners can be greenwashed into
thinking they are doing all they can simply because of a lack of knowledge. Levy (1997) noted
how “values” influence results around sustainability.
Stakeholder Engagement is Challenging
Stakeholder engagement is challenging for a myriad of reasons. Stakeholder engagement is a
bundle of individual attributes:
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 36
1. Structural nature of industry
2. Legacy interests
3. Perceptions of vested interests
Structural issues in the MICE industry – horizontal and vertical integration – will challenge
adoption (Lafferty & Ruud, 2006, p. 457). While some large corporate interests exist within the
events sector (i.e., hotels), by far, most of the organizations represented on the planning side
represent small enterprises which lack horizontal or vertical integration. The supplier networks
represent some large institutional interests (i.e., Aramark). Other large corporate interests may
have a niche interest in events (i.e., FedEx/Kinkos has an events division, some companies focus
on supplying to trade shows and expositions). Even the hotel industry is comprised of corporate-
owned properties, franchise properties and properties flagged under a certain brand but owned by
an outside interest, and properties managed through management companies. The net impact is
an industry lacking major players across vertical or horizontal integration.
It is important to recognize the impact of legacy interests. No matter how desirable the standard
is, undoubtedly, there will be stakeholders who protect existing interests. I experienced this
firsthand in the development of the ASTM standards. In the process of achieving consensus on
environmentally sustainable events, companies with manufacturing interests in carpeting, PVC
plastics, chemical, etc. all raised their hands when it came time to voice opinions and vote. The
ultimate standards product was shaped by their legacy interests. While ISO 20121 does not face
such development challenges, it would be naïve to ignore the influence of other stakeholders.
Quigley and Oster (1977, p. 366) discussed this challenge in the construction industry:
The development of a new product or process in construction, even if it
unambiguously reduces costs without affecting quality, will not invariable be
welcomed by all interested parties...The response by organized labor, presumable
interested in local jobs rather than profits, may be less than enthusiastic if the
innovation reduces labor input requires, reduces required skill levels or replaces
local labor with other labor.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 37
Perceptions of economic gain or power struggles may undermine acceptance of the standard.
Levy (1997) warns about existing power structures affecting environmental standards. In his
case, in his article written in the early 90s, he warns about the concentration of power resting
with large capitalistic corporations. While the world has evolved since 1997, the presence of
hegemony or perceived vested interests should not be completely dismissed.
Transitory Nature of Events
The transitory nature of events, an inherent characteristic of many events, is also a barrier. This
barrier consists of two sub-barriers:
1. Local capabilities challenge implementation
2. Training and education of temporary staff
A part of system complexity and a challenge in stakeholder management, an ongoing challenge
is that events are dependent upon local capabilities; this is an inherent attribute about events. In
the construction industry, Quigley and Oster noted “The bewildering variation in local
regulations may very well mean that potentially profitable innovations are also illegal in many
geographic areas. This reduces both the scale at which an innovation can be marketed and its
profitability, and may further discourage R&D investment” (Quigley & Oster, 1977, p. 363).
Local infrastructure is an issue as planners will confront a dazzling array of differences in
capabilities around recycling, composting and other sustainable practices. For example, in the
United States, plastics recycling capabilities vary widely by jurisdiction. Many plastic containers
display a resin identification code on the bottom to indicate what type of plastic the container is
made from. This code does not mean the container is made from recycled plastic, nor does it
mean the plastic is recyclable. It only indicates the type of plastic resin used, to help in the
sorting of items to be recycled. Various jurisdictions accept a range of plastics with different
resin codes. Each event will interact with its larger system to define what is possible.
Many events are transitory in nature which mandates flexible staffing structures. Ashford notes,
“especially during the live events the team may suddenly swell and training of systems in place
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 38
cannot realistically be undertaken as these personnel are only part-time volunteers. Often these
volunteers have been crewing or working closely with several different festivals over many years
…but simply put organizing and managing staff in these numbers for such short instances in time
(four days to several weeks) is challenging” (Ashford, 2011).
Data Collection Challenges
Once goals and metrics are specified, data collection challenges human resource management. In
order to capture data through an event management system, event planners must gain
organizational support for time and resources. Ashdown who studied the applicability of ISO
20121 for music festivals notes, “However, the practicalities of incorporating such an extensive
new system into music festivals are lost due to the unusual human resources situation. Music
festivals operate with a relatively small core team during the year, which expands dramatically
over the live event with volunteers, and often there is neither the manpower nor the budget to
implement and maintain an ISO management system. In this sense ISO 20121 is not very well
suited to the sustainable production of music festivals regardless of the festival size” (Ashdown,
2010, p. iv).
Humans resist change. Changing can be challenging. An innovation like ISO 20121 requires a
rethinking of current practices. As such it represents an innovation. Adoption of such an
innovation can be affected by various enabler and barriers with these “forces” coming into play
at different times in different situations.
The identification of barriers and enables allows one to distinguish between macro-level, meso-
level and micro-level influences. Macro-level influences focus on the institution and systemic
change initiatives. Innovation typically involves broad change and might encompass a wide
range of technologies and practices. Meso-level analysis focuses on social institutions, patterns
of social behavior, and aggregated behavior of actors. Micro-level theories, on the other hand,
focus on the individual adopters and a specific innovation or product rather than on large-scale
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 39
By considering these influences, the MICE industry has the opportunity to proactively respond to
ensure successful adoption of ISO 20121. Table 3 ties the barrier/enabler as macro-, meso-, or
micro-level influence. This table indicates that any adoption strategy must work on multiple
Table 3. Enablers and Barriers Linked
Enabler/Barrier Influence Level
1. Economic business case exists to justify Macro-level
2. Customer mandates Meso-level
3. Legitimization through associations Macro-level
4. Symbolic value of standard Meso-level
5. Standard linked to identity Micro-level
6. Idea movement to build support Meso-level
7. Spill-over effect Meso-level
8. Marquee events/companies to serve as endorsers Meso-level
9. Use of a standard begets further use Meso-level
10. Industry fad Macro-level
11. Complexity of standard Meso-level
12. Difficulty persuading target audience Meso-level
13. Fear Micro-level
14. Scale of events Meso-level
15. Experienced planners must learn new capabilities Micro-level
16. Education extends beyond event management Micro-level
17. Traditional economic models Macro-level
18. Difficulty evaluating merits Meso-level
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 40
19. Choice of criteria to determine effectiveness is Meso-level
20. Greenwashing may occur Meso-level
21. Credibility/usefulness Meso-level
22. Industry structure Meso-level
23. Experienced professionals must learn new Micro-level
24. Education extends beyond event management Micro-level
25. Legacy interests Micro-level
26. Local capabilities challenge implementation Micro-level
27. Training and education of temporary staff Micro-level
Having assembled this list of barriers and enablers, I created larger constructs to view them more
systematically. The enablers and barriers fall under larger constructs as indicated in Table 4.
Some overlap exists between a specific enabler/barrier and the larger construct. For example, it
was challenging to classify “Education extends beyond event management” as part of Systems thinking
or part of “Lack of skills and knowledge.” Ultimately, I classified it as “system thinking” because the
barrier represents a broader view of skills and competencies. To some extent the need for education on
issues of supply chain management could be covered under the barrier of “Experienced planners must
learn new capabilities.”
Table 4. Perceived Enablers and Barriers as Larger Constructs
All Perceived Enablers
Larger Construct Enabler
Sustainability as a norm 1. Economic business case exists to justify
2. Idea movement to build support
3. Symbolic value of standard
4. Legitimization through associations
5. Customer mandates
6. Use of a standard begets additional use
Strong modeling 7. Standard linked to identity
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 41
8. Spill-over effect
9. Marquee events serve as endorsers
All Perceived Barriers
Larger Construct Barrier
Systems Thinking 1. Complexity of standard
3. Local capabilities challenge implementation
4. Education extends beyond event management
Change Management 5. Industry fad
6. Difficulty persuading target audience
8. Perceptions of vested interested
9. Industry Structure
10. Legacy interests
Lack of skills and 11. Experienced planners must learn new capabilities
knowledge 12. Training and education of temporary staff
Contextual Value 13. Scale of events
14. Difficulty evaluating merits
15. Greenwashing may occur
16. Choice of criteria to determine effectiveness is
Perceived Benefits 17. Traditional economic business models
18. Data collection is time consuming and expensive
Finally, I theorized about three contextual influences affecting adoption. These three factors are
whole-systems thinking, heterogeneous actors, and values. These contextual factors influence
and interrelate with the process similar to the precipitating, sensitizing factors introduced by
Langley and Traux (1999). These contextual factors interrelate to each barrier and enabler as
shown below in Table 5.
Table 5. Contextual Fectors
Contextual Factors Tied to Barrier/Enables
Whole-Systems Thinking Systems Thinking
Heterogeneous Actors Strong modeling
Lack of skills and knowledge
Values Sustainability as a norm
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 42
These contextual factors can influence the process either negatively or positively depending on
how they manifest themselves. For example, an organization with a strong culture and strong
values oriented toward sustainability is more likely to adopt sustainability as a norm. An
organization with values supporting change will be able to undertake the implementation of ISO
20121 in an easier fashion than a different organization without those same values.
Professionals must adopt whole systems thinking when adapting ISO 20121. In doing so, they
will view the event as a dynamic and complex piece situated within a larger environment.
Planners must sort through a myriad of complex issues to arrive at the decision to adopt ISO
2012. They will assess whether the event they are considering is appropriate, what are the
switching costs, what resources are necessary, and within the context of all these decisions what
are the incentives (tangible and intangible) to use the standard. The tangible incentives may
include expected savings. The intangible benefits may include peer support and reputation value.
Likewise, suppliers who will use ISO 20121 must also assess the “payback” for their investment.
As the planning industry is highly fragmented (many small firms), it may be especially hard for
suppliers to judge the potential of an innovation (Quigley & Oster, 1977, p. 362). Suppliers must
also judge whether they feel their customer base will request or demand products and services
supportive of sustainability. Suppliers must also ascertain how they will receive and filter
demand. Whole-systems thinkers perceive boundaries as semi-permeable allowing knowledge
and resources to flow easily. Given the complexity of sustainability and the fluidity of supporting
products and services, users of ISO 20121 must not seek static solutions.
These barriers and enablers, larger constructs and contextual factors taken together suggest that
adoption will be furthered by institutional changes, changes in norms and individual changes.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 43
From the research and results, several important implications can be drawn to benefit the
industry, relevant associations, volunteer leadership and businesses. I will describe eleven
implications in this section. These implications are:
1. Build sustainability as a norm
2. Legitimize ISO 20121
3. Provide tools to identify cost savings
4. Portray ISO 20121 as approachable
5. Seek volunteers with appropriate skill set
6. Provide education
7. Woo suppliers
8. Promote transparency and easy access
9. Invite discussion, discourse and debate
10. Leverage social media
11. Determine where demand can function as a driver
Build sustainability as a norm
McBride identifies that cultural effects are also of significant importance, “Culture will influence
resistance to technology, while in other cultures, the spread of mobile usage may be promoted by
a senses of community of community ownership of the technology” (McBride, 2003).
Sustainability must become embedded into the industry and into the culture of individual
companies in order to ensure adoption of ISO 20121.Sustainable event planning will need to
become embedded in the industry. Tying a users’ professional identity to the standard may help
accomplish the first wave of adoption. However, sustained adoption will require commonplace
use of the standard just as common as people desiring to earn their Certified Meeting
Professional designation. This is an exemplar of a non-human actor in the system structuralized
into a norm.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 44
Suppliers and planners must become adept at using their power base to create organization
change. Building an organizational culture of sustainability requires an understanding of the
needs and wants of the organization’s stakeholders. Creating this awareness requires
identification of and interaction with these stakeholders. To attempt to create a sustainability
culture in a vacuum will likely not succeed. Such awareness must also be maintained over time
in order to increase the likelihood of an enduring culture. However, because of the broad array of
stakeholders, the organization should allocate sufficient resources, including time, to the process
of creating this awareness.
Legitimize ISO 20121
Realizing legitimacy through the industry organizations and outside originations will enhance the
adoption of IOS 20121. industry associations will serve as a foundation for legitimization and
endorsement (Brunsson & Jacobsson, 2000, p.42). Meeting Professionals International’s delivery
of the Sustainable Event Management Tool (SEMT) supports BS 8901 and the APEX/ASTM
standards and will offer further legitimacy and endorsement to ISO 20121 if it amends the tool to
utilize the standard upon release (Meeting Professionals International). Mirror committees
should leverage Cat A Liaisons and other association relationships to help create legitimacy.
External to the MICE industry, the ISO organization is perceived by many stakeholders to be an
institution serving as a source of legitimacy and carrying weight (Brunsson & Jacobsson, 2000,
p, 55; Nickerson & Muehlen, 2006). This especially true outside of suppliers; it may be true for
specific planners. It will also be true for functional areas outside of event planning. Nickerson
and Muehlen (2006, p. 6) observe “standards bodies establish and maintain their own legitimacy,
which is recognized by a respectful audience steeped in the technical culture of the Internet.”
One of the interviewees stated:
The ISO standard offers us legitimacy outside of our industry. Others will
recognize immediately the value of an ISO standard.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 45
Provide tools to identify cost savings
Many organizations may not pursue a sustainability agenda unless it generates costs savings or is
cost neutral. One interviewee discussed financial viability by stating:
So what is a sustainable business, or why companies pursue the so-called business of
sustainability strategy? Money, financial viability. They drive the decision.
Another interviewee stated:
For us as a business, talking about cost savings that has been the biggest drive.
The second biggest drive has been reputation. Visitors to events are expecting it.
The 2012 Olympics coming to London is changing many of the ways we work.
Portray ISO 20121 as approachable
Reduce complexity and simplify to engage users in enactment. Complexity was an issue many
interviewees stated as a concern. A management system is both complex and flexible in its
implementation. It displays complexity because it is a holistic, system effort. It is also complex
because it requires deep-level thinking about the scope, goals and management approaches. It is
complex because implementation mandates change management procedures. However, the
philosophy around a management system is simple. Furthermore, the language of standards can
be off-putting. The vocabulary and structure of a standard is specialized. Efforts to simplify the
idea of standards, the idea of adoption, and the reading and use of the standard will enhance
Seek volunteers with appropriate skill set
active participation of actors is important to guide the ongoing discussion and create value for
the standard. The role of the actors will be multi-faceted – as standards developers, potential
users and promoters of the standards. One of the interviewees saw their role as an ambassador
but then amended it to faith promoter.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 46
Q: What do you envision your role will be related to gaining industry acceptance
of the standards?
A: Ambassador. I don't want to be ambassador. No. I see my role of being the, a
faith promoter as opposed to devil's advocate. I believe in it….I'm not going to
preach. Nobody likes to preach or listen to a preacher talking to you, you know,
unless you feel that you have a sin. So I see my role being a faith promoter.
Policy entrepreneurs are actors who seek to initiate dynamic policy change through problem
identification, networking in policy circles shaping the terms of policy debates and building
coalitions (Mintrom, 1997, p. 739). Mintrom’s focus is on the understudied area of how ideas for
innovation gain prominence on government agendas. While he focuses on the nature of the
policy-making process, his ideas contain relevance for standard developers who upon completion
of the standard must turn their attention to developing strategies for presenting ISO 20121 to
others. He defines policy innovation as “a policy that is new to the state adopting it” (Mintrom,
1997, p. 741). The idea of the Mirror Committees turning into champions or entrepreneurs of a
new policy is very appropriate to the next stage of our roles.
Ongoing, fresh talent will prove important in the adoption. In an effort marked by volunteer
involvement, it is unrealistic to expect the same people will continue to expend time and energy
toward the adoption of ISO 20121. One of the interviewees who is active in his/her country
Well at the moment, I will carry on chairing until it comes to pass it along to
Another interviewee mentioned the importance of rotating people in for a new perspective. This
But I think in reality any chair of an ISO should not have every chaired an ISO
before. Otherwise, it’s just the same people doing things over and over again.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 47
Thus, sustainability in this context suggests replenishing volunteer talent and ongoing champions
with new people who may have an entirely different skill set than those people involved in the
standards development process.
Education should be made available to every level of planner and supplier. No assumption
should be made that more experienced planners will have more knowledge about implementing
ISO 20121. The area of education offered several specific sub-themes.
Educate about Sustainability
While sustainability is gaining a mainstream presence, many people are uncertain of what
sustainability actually means. Sustainability is commonly associated only with environmental
efforts (“greening”) when, in fact, it encompasses a larger set of issues. Those within the
organization who are implementing ISO 20121 should be mindful that others will not possess the
same knowledge. Without broad understanding of sustainability shared through education and
communication, the organization may face significant resistance as it attempts to create
sustainable events. One of the interviewees stated:
It was a huge task to generate interest. People did not understand the topic and
then it was difficult to engage them.
Education to Reduce Perceived Complexity
As complexity was surfaced from many sources, education must focus on reduce the perceived
complexity. These materials are not geared toward helping the users implement the standard, but
instead are positioned to allow them to see how easily the standard can be implemented. These
tools will engage them in sensemaking so they can realistically assess their switching costs,
assess the appropriateness of their event and allow them to identify incentives or savings to
participate. Sensemaking involves the ongoing rationalization of what people are doing. Explicit
efforts at sensemaking tend to occur when the current state of the world is perceived to be
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 48
different from the expected state of the world, or when there is no obvious way to engage the
world (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005). Education must also create the aura of support from
the supplier community. One of the interviewees argued for clear and simple education and
Small booklets lifted from the standard that states step one, step two, step three.
Education to Build a Business Case
Educational materials to support adoption will include: (a) organizational/ event/supplier benefit
statements, (b) integration of sustainable planning into existing processes and (c) identification
Education on Metrics and Data Collection
Education must also focus on metrics. ISO 20121 does not directly address data collection; the
nature of a management system directs planners to establish goals and collect data, yet is not
specific about what is required. This is a double-edge sword for building absorptive capacity.
From one perspective the organization can self-determine the “correct” metric and methodology.
On the other hand, the standard lacks guidance about what are appropriate measures.
Measurement seems like a simple subject, on the surface at least; indeed, all measurements can
be reduced to just two components: number and unit. Yet, what goals are appropriate? What Key
Performance Indicators (KPIs) are relevant? Sustainability reflects aspects of equafinality; many
paths might lead to a more sustainable event. Measurement paradigms while prescriptive are
beneficial to the building absorptive capacity. These measurement paradigms provide direction
and baseline information to create certain standards for performance measurement specified in
the management system. For example, when California State University in Chico implemented
BS 8901, “the students used MeetGreen checklists…The students used these checklist to
communicate with each stakeholder in order to identity their level of sustainability, to determine
if they met the requirements for sustainable practices related to waste, energy, community
involvement, economic impact and carbon emissions related to accommodations, venue, food
and beverage, transportation, marketing and communication, exhibition, the destination and on-
site office procedures” (Oviedo, 2009). They did this because “implementation does not
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 49
guarantee a 100% sustainable event, the checklists establish baselines and framework to work
toward a higher level of sustainability in the future, as BS 8901 standard requires a Plan, Do, Act
and Check management cycle for continue improvement” (Oviedo, 2009). Ashdown recognizes
this missing ingredient in ISO 20121. She writes, “There seems to be a great opportunity being
missed here to incorporate and list all the supporting and supplementary systems currently in
place which would compliment ISO 20121 but which cannot strictly be recommended by ISO”
(Ashdown, 2010, p. iv). Oracle’s Sustainable Meetings Report for 2009 referenced a lesson
learned relating to collecting appropriate, consistent data:
There is no accepted template for collecting key indicators that measure event
sustainability. This makes it challenging to know what data to collect in order to
benchmark practices. Team members have taken significant steps forward to
move away from measuring performance only in percentages, to identifying raw
data indicators for comparison over time and different events. The Virtual Green
Team will need to continue to refine and improve data collection, but not become
overwhelmed in collecting less meaningful indicators (MeetGreen, 2009).
Education on Ancillary Topics is Required
Issues like supply chain management, sustainable procurement, environmental science, and
material handling are new issues applicable for planners implementing an event management
system. Delmas, Volker and Kuss (2011) advocate that the ability to acquire and transform
knowledge is particularly relevant to processes and products related to the environment, which
spans multiple fields of expertise and are typically found outside of the firm’s boundaries.
Further, they typify this knowledge as complex, tacit, new to the firm and leading to profound
changes in business processes.
Education should include Face-to-Face Engagement with Interactive Learning
One interviewee spoke about the power of face-to-face education. This interviewee opined that
interactive education was more powerful than written documentation. This excerpt was about the
use of ISO guidance versus educational workshops:
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 50
I think it is more powerful to get a group of suppliers together and meet face-
to-face. You could explain it to them that is probably better than a general
guidance book. I don’t believe people will read it.
These results suggest new and interactive learning must take place. This dynamic activity of
problem solving and learning is generally conceptualized as absorptive capacity (Cohen &
Levinthal, 1990; Zahara & George, 2002). Cohen and Levinthal (1990, p. 128) argue the ability
of a firm to recognize the value of new, external information, assimilate it, and apply it to
commercial ends is critical to its innovative capabilities. They label this capability a firm's
absorptive capacity (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990).
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 51
Education for Suppliers Is Necessary
Education must include the supplier community. Supplier support is essential to adoption.
Planning firms are primarily small to mid-size firms. The structure of the industry is extremely
fragmented which prevents wide-scale use and penetration of the standard. In comparison,
suppliers are more concentrated in larger firms – especially in the United States. Hotels are
controlled by a few major corporations. Additional concentration occurs in the United States
with companies like Freeman which is vertically integrated in pre-event services (brand sensory
exploration, content development creative development, exhibit fabrication, exhibit program
management experiential design, graphics design, measurement planning technologies,
sponsorship programs, staging design, translation services, transportation) and on-site event
services (AV solutions, creative development, electrical services, exhibit fabrication, exhibit
program management, exhibit rental furnishings, carpet, décor, graphics, production install and
dismantle material handling, mobile services, rigging, social media activation staging storage and
maintenance, translation services and transportation) (Freeman). Another large supplier,
ARAMARK, provides professional services including food services, facilities management, and
uniform and career apparel to health care institutions, universities and school districts, stadiums
and arenas, and businesses around the world. They are horizontally integrated across
Education Outside of Event Planning Functions
Quicker adoption will occur if the MIC industry educates and build supports in other
organizational silos (procurement, CFOs, CMOs). The desire to create a more sustainable event
may cross over functional areas including marketing, website management, and procurement.
For many organizations, events are both an important revenue generator and high profile. Thus
the interest in sustainability may arise from a different organizational area. Levy (1999)
references the implementation of environmental knowledge may entail changes in organizational
structures and processes, such as the appointment of senior managers with responsibility for
environmental issues, the institution of annual environmental audits, and the inclusion of
environmental performance data in personnel review processes. These changes in organizational
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 52
structures/processes could entail marketing the standard to people not directly responsible for
meetings and events but carrying different organizational titles.
Moutchnik identifies other stakeholders influencing implementation of EMSs including the
Council of European Municipalities and Regions, Euorcities, the Healthy Cities Network of the
World Health Organization, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, the
United Towns Organization (UTO) and the Expert Group on the Urban Environment of the
European Commission. A total of 650 local and regional authorities from 32 countries across
Europe have committed themselves to local sustainability by signing the Aalborg Charter. The
charter includes the following language:
The city or town is both the largest unit capable of initially addressing the many
urban architectural, social, economic, political, natural resources and
environmental imbalances damaging our modern world and the smallest scale at
which problems can be meaningfully resolved in an integrated, holistic and
sustainable fashion. (European Commission)
Non-event planners may initiate organizational interest in ISO 20121.
A focus should be placed on wooing major suppliers. Large suppliers with a predisposition
towards sustainability should be courted to help create positive pressure and also feed market
awareness. The concentration of suppliers in larger firms represents an opportunity to create
unique forums or educational sessions where suppliers can lead the way toward usage of ISO
20121. For example, as Wal-Mart is working to reduce its waste from its stores, the company
understands that realizing its goal will depend on working with its suppliers. In order to eliminate
all waste by reducing, recycling or reusing everything in its 4,100 American stores by 2025,
Wal-Mart partnered with is suppliers. The company hosts an annual Sustainable Packaging Expo
and invites all of the consumer packaged goods companies supplying their stores. Attendance
and participation has grown each year, and on April 13-14, 2010, two-hundred exhibitors were
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 53
expected to demonstrate packaging materials. Additionally, 2,000 supplier representatives,
buyers and exhibitors attended the Expo to learn about the latest packaging solutions and
uncovered ways to reduce their packaging while continuing to meet the end-customers’ needs.
Wal-mart, by adopting a systems approach, recognizes it cannot solve its problems without
considering its supplier base. It would be a missed opportunity for the MICE industry to neglect
the supplier base. Levy (1999) classifies a weakness of environmental management systems as
“its focus is the individual corporation rather than the complex organization-ecosystem
In addition, suppliers may discover increasing returns to adoptions. This occurs when a type of
innovation or technology becomes much more valuable to a given adopter when others also
adopt them. The presence of increasing returns may arise from economies of scale in production
and learning-by-doing among producers. Further, the suppliers can increase their own returns
through general industry knowledge about the innovation (Fichman & Kemerer, 1999, p. 9).
By adopting the standard, suppliers have the opportunity to redefine their roles allow themselves
to move from a vendor status to trusted advisor. Millerand and Baker (2010) suggests a
redefinition of the division of labor by adding a new conceptualization. While their
conceptualization was formed around a web of developers and a web of users, the same concept
could apply to the supply/planner community. Their networks “sparked discussions and
negotiations regarding resources and responsibility allocation as well as regarding their
organizational position and professional recognition.”
Promote Transparency and Equal Access
Perceptions of economic gain or power struggles may undermine acceptance of the standard.
Levy (1997) warns about existing power structures affecting environmental standards. In this
article written in the 90s, the concentration of power rested with large capitalistic corporations.
The presence of hegemony or perceived vested interests should be avoided.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 54
Invite Discussion, Discourse and Debate
Champions, thought leaders, developers and other actors will be responsible for a level of idea
movement (Nickerson & Muehlen, 2006). Industry opinion leaders should be encouraged to
disseminate information about ISO 20121. Some members of the industry can function as
champions who provide information and advice about innovations to other individuals in the
system. Rogers (2003, p. 27) defines opinion leadership as “the degree to which an individual is
able to influence other individual’s attitudes or overt behavior informally in a desired way with
To the extent misunderstandings about the purpose and use of a management system will crop up
and constructive debate will occur about the value of the standard, a critical task is to shape the
terms of the debate (Mintrom, 1997) helping people understand the value of ISO 2012 and
defining and positioning the standard. Mintrom frames the idea of shaping the debate by
portraying policy entrepreneurs as “fac[ing] choices about which issues to push and how to push
them thus helping shape the terms of the debate” (Mintrom, 1997, p. 740). Debate and criticism
is desirable. Ideas also travel between institutions via criticism. In one standards development
process, critics monitored the committee’s output and registered their opinions in public online
discussion groups (Nickerson & Muehlen, 2006, p. 8). Finally, successful adoption will require
idea movement to spread the empirical results. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) might
assist planners. GRI offers a reporting framework for companies wishing to compile a
sustainability report; GRI was developed by Ceres, a non-profit organization working with the
UNEP (Stenzel, 2010).
Leverage social media
The MICE industry has embraced social media as a vehicle to stay in contact and find like-
minded communities. Building off the current social media group, social media can prove to be a
low-cost, effective mechanism (Michailidis et al., 2011). Should such communities flourish,
they could serve as a source for vetting the use of the standard. Like other rules, standards are
intended only for certain kinds of users and situations. In order to judge whether a standard is
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 55
relevant actors must know and be able to classify themselves and their own situation. Social
media may serve as a perfect conduit to building communities of practice. Social media may
allow users to design solutions for their specific needs through these same communities.
Determine Where Demand Can Function as a Driver/Who Can Drive Demand
It will be difficult to “predict” definitively which organizations are likely to embrace the standard
due to the myriad of influences on the motivation to use. The actors involved are truly
heterogeneous. Planners vary in responsibility (corporate planners, association planners,
independent planners, government planners, event planners, etc.). The in situ nature of events
adds further to the heterogeneity. Finally, given the transitory nature events, they are set in
constantly varying spaces. The sites will change and also the character of those sites from fields
for outdoor festivals, to large convention facilities, to historic mansions, to museums and to
hotels. The network contains many dissimilar elements. Given this broad array of stakeholders, it
is worth considering where stakeholder demand might exist and/or what external factors
converge and create pressure on an organization to adopt a more sustainable stance towards
The development of IOS 20121, while time consuming, represents only the tip of the iceberg for
the opportunity and work ahead of the MICE industry on its path to create more sustainable
events. Use of a management system creates further opportunities to demonstrate that meeting
and event planning is a profession. However, in such a large and fragmented industry, vast space
exists for companies, associations, and consultants to help support the adoption and use of ISO
Further, these implications may have wider applicability. It seems quite reasonable to consider
these ideas for the adoption of the APEX/ASTM standards. In addition, these implications may
have application to other industry efforts.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 56
This research effort, while careful and considered, has limitations. First, the research conducted
was primarily exploratory and descriptive, and was purposefully limited to one case study. As
the research was limited to one case study, I demonstrated great caution when attempting to
generalize the findings. It is important to note that none of my results may be inferred as a
causal relationship. I was not able to rely heavily on the underlying logic of replication which
allows a series of cases to be treated individually and then collectively viewed as a whole to
retain only common relationships found across the cases (Tenkasi & Hay, 2004, p. 194).
Second, my research may be limited further in applicability and generalizability because of a
fleeting interest in sustainability. Current trends indicate consumers show an overall increase in
their interest towards the topic of sustainability. Current trends indicate a strong interest in
sustainable meetings by event planners. However, whether such interest will be sustained
remains to be seen.
Third, interest in sustainability in the event sector may be hampered by other exogenous events.
For example, the rising price of oil will dramatically impact travel and the event industry’s
appetite and ability to move large numbers of people through the airspace. This, in turn, may
affect the overall health of the industry. Political unrest in the Middle East affected the oil supply
and oil prices. Even prior to these very recent events, Rubin (2010) predicted that world-wide oil
prices would increase.
Not only does political unrest in the Middle East affect oil prices, but travel, tourism and events
are always subjected to external forces. The politic unrest in countries, like Egypt, affected
tourism. During the spring of 2011, government data estimated tourism losses in Egypt at around
$70 million, or a quarter of the country’s tourism income, as travelers planned to skirt the Middle
East (McGinley, 2011).
Fourth, the concept of sustainability and its application to management systems is fluid.
Supporting products/services and management interest with regard to event sustainability, along
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 57
with other factors will change in the foreseeable future. The life cycle of the BS8901, the British
Standard upon which ISO 20121 is based, was two years. Given the robust and evolving nature
of sustainability, the evolving landscape of senior management interest, supply chain support,
consumer interest and sustainable product availability, my findings may apply to a certain point
in time and may not be relevant even five years from now.
Fifth, cultural biases may be evident in this study. The actors involved in developing ISO 20121
are international. My involvement was limited to three face-to-face meetings which limited the
amount of time available to develop trust between the actors from various countries. Countries
approached the standards process with preconceived ideas and whether I fully captured the
nuances of their meaning during interviews is suspect because of cultural differences. My email
data, while extensive, is primarily restricted to communication within the United States
Technical Advisory Group (TAG) and within the standards bodies and ISO PC TAG leadership.
The ability to generalize my findings across cultures may be severely limited because of a lack of
“contextual collaborative” knowledge creation (Tenkasi & Mohrman, 1999).
Finally, it is important to acknowledge biases that I, as the author, might hold in any qualitative
study. Djuraskovic and Arthur (2010, p. 1583) reflect on their own research, “The researcher has
a direct experience of the phenomenon of interest, which may subjectively influence the study
and interpretation of the findings.” The conceptual and theoretical biases that I brought into this
research involved leading the United States team with our individual agenda; a pre-conceived
notion of how much “weight” the United States had in the process; sustainability concepts; and
what the standard should accomplish for the industry. In addition, during this entire process, I
was spearheading the effort to develop prescriptive, metrics-based environmental standards for
the Convention Industry Council using the ASTM standardization process. I had a vested interest
in seeing that these two standards inter-related and work well together.
I must also acknowledge exclude areas and areas for future research. The research neglected
several important aspects from ANT and the development arena including resource allocation,
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 58
analysis of non-human actors, and the impact of location on the process and construction of
symbols. These shortcomings only serve to underscore Nickerson and Muehlen’s (2006, p. 15)
point that “Standard making is fertile ground for the study of complex social processes because it
traces such a visible set of interactions between individuals, the ideas they generate, the
legitimation of these ideas, and the habitualization of ideas into institutions.” Challenges to
implementing ISO 1400 were identified through interviews with managers in Ahmad’s et al.
research. Many of the results were ignored in my research and not listed as barriers or enablers
(2009, p. 32-34). Some of their findings which were excluded include their recognition that chief
executives and middle management shared a poor understanding of sustainability, sustainability
was poorly understood or not understood at all by organization, sustainability was not integrated
in the organizational policy, mission or vision and product, production and environmental policy
were running in isolation of corporate environmental agenda. I chose to discount these issues by
including them in the contextual factors of the model (heterogeneous actors and values). The
process I was most interested in was micro-analysis of an individual user’s intentions to
implement. Given the profile of events within many organizations as a non-core activity, I felt I
could capture these elements through the contextual factors or an event planner could operate
under the radar screen within the organization. The literature review, in particular, the work of
Moutchnik included a thorough analysis of the role of national governmental bodies and the
military sector in serving as entities which can serve as agents in the politicization of EMS
standards. I excluded the role of these parties. Asymmetrical access to ISO PC 250 was not
addressed. The literature review (Bunduchi et al., 2004), interviews and personal observation
confirms some relevant actors were not involved in the development. This occurs at the PC level
and also on the mirror committees. My review of the list of participating countries indicates only
seven out of twenty-one countries sent a representative to any of the four meetings.
The experience required I filter out some information and focus on others. This is both a bias and
an opportunity for future research. Several key phenomena are not reported in this research but
remain large question marks in my mind. Some of those include: (1) establishing an effective
leadership-followership model in an international, volunteer-driven community (Kelley, 1998),
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 59
(2) addressing sustainability through systems thinking which involves multiple levels of action
and interaction between individuals, organizations, political organizations, and cultural views
(Starick & Rands, 1995), (3) using the lens of organizational change, (4) identifying likely users,
(5) exploring the tension between measurement and management, and (6) building and
empirically testing a model around adoption.
My experience, as well as my analysis of the literature previously presented and discussed,
suggests qualitative research techniques, including action research, case studies, and in-depth
interviews are well suited for sustainability research. Many areas still remain unexplored within
my data and within the field.
In this qualitative study, I identified enablers and barriers to the adoption of ISO 20121. This
research may have practical use in the industry for firms, associations and volunteers involved
with the effort. I used the ANT framework to inform my findings. The prime value of ANT is
found as it sensitized me to the fact that diffusion of the standard is not merely selling the
technical benefits but a social exercise in understanding the social dynamics between users and
the standard and the entire social environment (McBride, 2003).
The identification of these enablers and barriers suggests that adopters will:
Possess a strong orientation toward sustainability or work for organization which holds
that as an organizational value.
Work from a secure power base allowing them to expand the scope of their job or the
event allowing them to secure resources, education and support to implement an event
sustainability management system and implement a sustainable event.
Possess a sense of the whole-system allowing them to work with heterogeneous actors.
Have skills and competencies that allow them to work with a management system.
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 60
Similar to implementation of EMSs, the opportunity for events to serve as a change agent is
large. Moutchnik (n.d.) identifies the pivotal role events can play:
The Olympic Games, the Goodwill Games, international exhibitions and fairs,
sport championships , and other large international events, require nowadays
sound environment management not only from the management of the
locations of events…but also from the municipalities of the cities and towns
where these events take place. Cities municipalities or regional authorities
may wish to decorate their EMSs with international accepted ISO 14001-
certicates in order to send a clear message to tourist, investors, and citizens
that the city or region has a strong commitment to environmental
The MICE industry has the opportunity to make our planet a more sustainable
Barriers and Enablers to Adopting ISO 20121 Page 61
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