When it comes to identifying an effective strategy for your learning business, the strategy itself needs to be simple but the process for getting there can be very challenging. Because this is an area where learning businesses often struggle, it’s important to have a framework in place to help guide the process and keep you on track.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa and Jeff discuss the importance of having a learning business strategy and the three core elements it should be built around—a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and a set of coherent actions.
Listen to the Show
Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Celisa and Jeff discuss three core elements of learning business strategy. It’s also noted that they will be delivering a session on the topic at the upcoming annual Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD) virtual conference.
[00:48] – Thank you to Blue Sky eLearn, sponsor of the Leading Learning podcast for the first quarter of 2018. Blue Sky is the maker of the Path learning management system, an award-winning, cloud-based learning solution that empowers your organization to maximize its message. Blue Sky also provides a range of virtual event and instructional services to help you maximize your content and create deeper engagement with your audience. To find out more about Blue Sky eLearn and everything it offers, visit http://www.blueskyelearn.com.
[01:21] – Highlighted Resources of the Week – (both are referenced in this discussion of strategy):
- Learning Business Maturity Model™– a free resource designed specifically to help learning businesses of any size reach their full maturity.
- Association Learning + Technology report – based on a survey of a broad range of trade and professional associations, it provides the most comprehensive insights currently available on the use of technology to enhance and enable education in the association sector.
[01:48] – A key reason that we are discussing this is that we know there is something of a strategy problem among organizations in the business of lifelong learning: many of them simply do not have a strategy. As we have discussed in our earlier episode on Blue Ocean Strategy, we recently released the 5th edition of our Association Learning + Technology report and this time around we asked a new question about strategy. We have asked for years about strategy for the use of technology to enhance and enable learning and that has been lacking and relatively flat over the years – averaging not much more than 20%. (23% in 2017). In the most recent survey for the report we also asked about general learning strategy – “Does your organization have a formal, documented strategy for its learning and education business? (175 responses)” The percentage was better for that – 37.7 percent – but still quite low given the importance of this function. That data is for associations, but we know from experience that it applies in other learning businesses and the broader issue, which we will get to, of bad strategy.
[04:09] – We think strategy is important enough that we made it one of the five domains in our Learning Business Maturity Model™ —a free resource we have created that provides a framework for assessing the maturity of your learning and education business across five domains and determining where to focus your efforts going forward. In the model we identify five domains on which organizations need to focus in order to build a mature, high performing learning business. We pose key questions about each of these domains, and the questions for strategy are:
- How clearly articulated is the strategy?
- Has it been communicated and embraced broadly throughout the organization?
- Are clear metrics established and tracked, and does the organization adjust strategy based on the data captured?
[05:15] – It’s worth emphasizing why all of this is so important. There are various ways to define strategy, but the key outcome of any well-formulated strategy is that it provides you with a framework for making decisions. Creating a strategy is always an exercise in narrowing your choices and focusing in on the activities that will most contribute to progress. Once the strategy is in place, it becomes a point of reference for all of the other choices you inevitably have to make in running your learning business. Whether you are making decisions about technology, or hiring, or which products to develop, or which marketing campaigns to run, you should always be asking, Does this action actually support our strategy? If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t do it. Without that kind of decision framework in place, it is almost certain that an organization will waste time and resources, and ultimately, will not achieve its goals. The word “framework” is really important and it points to how we prefer to define strategy – namely that we think of a good strategy as consisting of three components: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and a set of coherent actions. These are terms that come from Richard Rumelt, who is a business professor at UCLA and one of the most clear and cogent thinkers in the area of strategy that we have encountered. We had the pleasure of reading Rumelt’s book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters after we had already been doing strategy work for many years, and he just captured so well what we felt had been core to our own approach—we really liked the terms that he uses so we borrowed them for the purposes of this episode.
[07:25] – Celisa and Jeff define each component to strategy at a high level:
- A diagnosis involves gathering critical information about your current situation, identifying the key challenges represented by the situation, and identifying the most compelling opportunities that would result from tackling one or more of the key challenges.
- Your guiding policy is your general approach to overcoming the challenges you have identified and making significant progress toward realizing that. Put another way, a guiding policy describes the trajectory, the general path, for how to achieve what we characterized as the desired future state. A critical part of a good policy is that it reflects some sort of advantage or strength that your organization has that will appeal to your audience and is not going to be easy for others to copy.
- Coherent actions are the set of major, coordinated steps you will take to support the guiding policy. They don’t describe every action you will take – so we are not talking about getting down into tactics – but they do indicate your major initial actions, and they indicate the general categories of action that will be important going forward.
[09:14] – Jeff and Celisa talk through an example to make all of these components more concrete. The example is described as a national organization in a service-oriented industry and offers a credential with a continuing education requirement, but the credential itself is not required for employment in the field. Some of the key parts of the diagnosis are:
- A lot of disruption, mostly because of technology – replacing jobs – and a rise in outsourcing and off shoring of the traditional jobs in the industry – whole new employer and employee segment. Persistent wage stagnation among the traditional base and a perception that the field is in decline.
- Declining annual conference attendance; some receptivity to e-learning, but overall revenue levels modest; revenue related to credentialing products relatively flat.
- As noted, the credential was not required – and there were most likely awareness and value perception issues both among employers and potential candidates for the credentials.
- The credential may not be properly structured to meet learner needs – not everyone needs a full credential and those who do may not want to earn it all at once.
- Threat of declining membership levels – at least among the traditional base – but potential for international growth because of offshoring.
- Organization supported by a chapter network, but the coordination around education was minimal.
[13:15] – The core challenges related to this were:
- Declining value perception – of being identified as a “professional” in this field – through membership, through credentialing – and, by extension, the education that supports the credential.
- Access to education for a very widely distributed and economically challenged workforce (even if value could be increased, this would still be an issue).
It’s worth noting that, in this case, it was relatively easy to see that value perception was a major issue – not just for education in the profession, but or the profession as a whole. Even so, the organization had not really made the connection between the larger value perception issue and educational sales. This is where using tools like interviews and well-designed survey questions can be very valuable. It’s often easy to see superficial challenges, but you want to get at the challenge that, if addressed, will have the most impact on the future success of the business.
[16:00] – In the example, declining value perception and access were key challenges. The core strategic question then is: What’s the most effective, impactful approach to addressing these challenges? This is where you determine what the guiding policy will be—this needs to be very focused and easy to make decisions around. The two elements identified to address the two challenges were to:
- Align with large employer needs and value perception with the understanding that effectively addressing these needs will benefit members by raising the perceived value of the education and credentialing initiatives.
- Minimize the amount of travel required for all forms of education.
[18:11] – The coherent actions the organization needed to focus in on for high impact were:
- An employer value initiative – Take immediate steps (e.g., through phone interviews, surveys) to understand more clearly how education and credentialing could better meet employer needs. What are the target outcomes (e.g., increased productivity), and how can they be measured in a way that will reflect the clear value of offerings? The answers to these questions should drive future product development and marketing.
- Introduction of a virtual conference– Introduce an annual virtual conference as a way to provide much greater access to educational opportunities both domestically and internationally. Transition from current face-to-face annual meeting to a more focused leadership summit. Use chapters as the primary source/distribution point for face-to-face education going forward and concentrate national organization efforts on the virtual conference and Webinars, using the highest rated chapter educational programming as a content source for both.
- Have better coordination of education with chapters – As part of governance restructuring, better define the role that chapters can play as distribution and marketing channels for education as well as content sources (see above).
[21:22] – Strategy is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Hopefully the example helped to really make sense of those core components of strategy: what a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent actions look like.
If you want to go deeper on the topic of strategy, we welcome you to join us at Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD) where we will deliver a session on it and also be available in forums to answer questions and offer collaborative coaching.
[23:58] – Wrap Up
If you are getting value from the Leading Learning podcast, be sure to subscribe by RSS or on iTunes. We’d also appreciate if you give us a rating on iTunes by going to http://www.leadinglearning.com/itunes.
We’d also be grateful if you would take a minute to visit our sponsor for this quarter, Blue Sky eLearn. In addition to finding out about their services, you will also find a variety of great resources that they offer for free.
Also, consider telling others about the podcast. Go to http://www.leadinglearning.com/share to share information about the podcast via Twitter, or send out a message on another channel of your choosing with a link to http://www.leadinglearning.com/podcast.
[26:13] – Sign off