Having a clear strategy is critical to the success of any business, but Tagoras research shows that most learning businesses don’t have one.
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.
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[00:18] – 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 https://www.blueskyelearn.com.
- 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.
The Strategy Gap
[01:48] – A key reason is that we know that 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 use of technology to enhance and enable learning. 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 association, but we know from experience that it applies in other learning businesses…and the broader issue, which we will get to…of bad strategy.
For listeners not familiar with the Maturity Model, it is 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?
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 being 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 Three Components of Strategy
[06:17] – 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 that form the sort of framework we referenced: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and a set of coherent actions.
These are terms – we should be clear up front – 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 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 like the terms he uses, and we certainly recommend his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy.
Now we’ll define each at the high level and then work through an example to help make them more concrete.
There are three components: diagnosis, guiding policy, and coherent action.
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. 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 your organization has that will appeal to your audience and is not going to be easy for others to copy.
Finally, 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.
Making this Concrete: Example
[09:15] – Now let’s talk through an example to make all of that more concrete.
For the sake of privacy, we won’t reference an actual organization, but we will consider a general type of organization we have worked with many times in recent years. We’ll describe this example as a national organization in a service-oriented industry. The organization offers a credential with a continuing education requirement, but the credential itself is not required for employment in the field.
Let’s start with some of the key parts of the diagnosis.
- A lot of disruption, mostly because of technology – replacing jobs – and a rise in outsourcing and offshoring of the traditional jobs in the industry – whole new employer and employee segment. Perception that the field is in decline. Wage stagnation.
- Declining annual conference attendance; receptivity to e-learning, but overall revenue levels modest; revenue related to credentialing products relatively flat.
- As noted, the credential not required – and there are most likely awareness and value perception issues both among employers and potential candidates for the credentials.
- Credentials 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; also, the organization does have chapters, but the coordination around education is minimal.
- 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
- Increasing access to education for a very widely distributed and economically challenged workforce (even if value can be increased, this will 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, for the profession as a whole, but the organization had not really made the connection between the larger value perception issue and educational sales.
We’ve had so many other cases where there was a similar value perception challenge, but it was harder to see – 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.
So, again, 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? What general approach would capitalize on the critical challenges and opportunities and drive a shift from the current situation to the desired future?
- 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
- 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.
- Introduce 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. The two events will ideally be scheduled at opposite times of the year so that they do not distract from each other. Use chapters as the primary source for face-to-face education going forward and concentrating its own efforts on the virtual conference and Webinar – possibly using the highest rated chapter educational programming as a content source for both.
- 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).
[23:25] – Wrap Up
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[26:13] – Sign off