As a seasoned industry expert in the areas of adult education and leadership, Debra Zabloudil is the recently appointed vice president of learning at the American Society of Association Executives. ASAE is a professional society with more than 44,000 members that educates and develops association professionals at all stages of their careers.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Celisa Steele talks with Debra about her priorities as she steps into the role of leading ASAE’s learning portfolio, her philosophy of learning, and the important work to be done in diversity, equity, and inclusion. They also discuss the power of peer-to-peer learning, the importance of focusing on learning outcomes, and the imperative to keenly understand your audience.
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[00:00] – Intro
Priorities at ASAE
[01:28] – What are your priorities as you’re coming in as vice president of learning of ASAE, and how did you arrive at them?
Debra started with an exhaustive look at what the organization was offering in terms of learning. They’re looking at it from many different lenses such as the audience it was serving, price, and whether it connected to the CAE domains. They’re revisiting assumptions on every existing program and everything is being looked at in a completely different way. First and foremost, they are making sure it will resonate and work for members, and then also for ASAE.
Whether you’re new in a position or you’ve been in one for a long time, it’s important to have the discipline to revisit what you’re offering, who your audiences are, who are you serving well, and who hasn’t been engaged. In many cases, they’ve been redesigning programs and products to better meet the needs of their members.
They have a lot of data in-house, so Debra has been mining that to better understand the profile of the membership, how they’re serving them, and, if not, how they will in the future. They’ve also been talking to councils, committees, groups of CEOs, etc. to find out how ASAE can better serve them moving forward. They have a big portfolio with 16 face-to-face programs and 8 different types of digital programs (about 25 in total), and it should grow dramatically over the next couple of years. Looking ahead, they have a lot of new programs coming forward and they are rethinking those programs for the new audiences they’re serving.
Debra is also looking at their strategic framework and how to support it through learning. This strategic framework includes three very important areas:
- Deeply understanding and serving the CEOs and the entire C-suite of associations.
- Taking an omnichannel approach to deploying the content they believe their members need in new and different ways and not just one channel (avoiding content waste).
- Creating a pathway to leadership, understanding that they have a continuum of association execs that they need to engage at every step in their career.
The Role That Lifelong Learning – and ASAE – Play in Society
[07:54] – What’s your perspective on the role that lifelong learning, professional development, and continuing education play in society, in general? And also the role of organizations like ASAE that provide that education and learning?
I’m a big believer in lifelong learning, and I don’t know that any of us can stay relevant in today’s society without continuing to learn and evolve. I think that ultimately the onus is on everyone to figure out how to do that. And, if it means that you’re not getting that through your organization, I think we have to go out there, and we have to be proactive about seeking those opportunities to learn new things and to think differently and to challenge the old assumptions that we have.Debra Zabloudil
One of the things ASAE learned from COVID is that they can democratize learning more than they ever have. It’s created access for some members and those in underserved communities that didn’t have it before. It’s really important for an association to understand how to reach people in many different ways because otherwise there are people being left behind. If we want our professions to thrive, we have to figure out how to make sure that everyone has the ability to access learning and to be able to grow and evolve.
There are so many ways to consume learning and at every price point, so there’s no excuse not to learn. If we’re not trying to learn, we’re just not going to continue to stay relevant. Associations need to stay relevant so that their members can stay relevant.
[11:21] – It very clearly ties to learning and the mission of associations the way you’re describing it. It’s about serving that profession, industry, or community, and it’s why you exist in the first place.
For most associations, you have to look at learning through a lot of different lenses, one of them being, how to serve the mission, strategic plan, strategic framework, or the key objectives. If you have a great idea and you can tie it to your strategic plan or mission, then you have a much better chance of that succeeding and getting the support/funding.
In many cases, the learning component of an association has a financial responsibility back to the organization. That’s a bigger challenge right now because of COVID since many associations lost their big revenue driver for a couple of years. If programs are underperforming, we have to be able to make those tough decisions because otherwise, we’re wasting their dues dollars.
Because of COVID, we all have permission to do things differently. It’s really important right now to be experimenting, thinking differently, and knowing that you’re not always going to hit the mark—but hopefully, you’re going to have a few really good ideas in there.
[14:24] – At Tagoras, we’re experts in the global business of lifelong learning, and we use our expertise to help clients better understand their markets, connect with new customers, make the right investment decisions, and grow their learning businesses. We achieve these goals through expert market assessment, strategy formulation, and platform selection services. If you are looking for a partner to help your learning business achieve greater reach, revenue, and impact, learn more at tagoras.com/services.
ASAE’s Learning Portfolio
[14:59] – Regarding your portfolio, how do you plan to think about what you offer and why, what you might add, and what you might need to sunset over time?
If you’re seeing a decline in either the quality of the program or in attendance, you have to stop and ask yourself why. In some cases, it’s reinventing those programs, and in others, it’s sunsetting them. It can be difficult to sunset products, even when all the metrics show us that we should.
When it comes to adding, ASAE is looking at ways to make sure the content their members are telling them is relevant to their work is positioned in a way that they can be successful. As they’re rolling out new content, they are being really deliberate about how they’re doing it and the right modality for it.
ASAE is building up its online offerings and library of asynchronous programs so members can find what they need when they need them. They’re thinking about where members are in their journey, how to keep them engaged, and how to provide them with what is important to their career at every step of the way. Also, how they can lead their associations in a robust way into the future where they can make a difference in the world.
[17:49] – Can you talk a little about where ideas for new programs come from?
The best ideas come from their members saying what they need. Not only is Debra new, but so is the CEO and COO. With so much evolving, it’s an opportunity to do things new and look at things from a different standpoint.
They also talk to their councils and committees and sit in on their meetings. They’re doing a lot of collaboration on content and pulling out a content strategy, more than just a series of one-off programs, research projects, articles, etc. They’re looking at a more holistic approach to how ASAE can address some of these needs, but they’re always talking to customers and members and asking what it is they can do better.
[22:34] – Before joining ASAE, you spent a career focused on learning. How would you describe your learning philosophy?
First and foremost, inclusive, and accessible. At ASAE, they have a big philosophy that is living and breathing around DEI and conscious inclusion. Then the democratization of learning.
We have to meet members where they’re at, but I also think we need to lead them where we know they need to be going. And when all we do is ask members what they want, what they want, what they want, we might get a lot of the same answers of what we’re already doing…Sometimes members and those out there in the community don’t know what they want until they see it.Debra Zabloudil
We have to always have our eyes and ears open and really think about what’s happening in the world. Then we have to draw a dotted line relationship—or a solid line relationship in some cases—to some of the things that are going on out in the world that perhaps members are not paying attention to, but we know will impact them sooner rather than later. Debra isn’t suggesting that their members don’t know what’s coming at them, but she thinks it’s the responsibility of an association to ask members what they want with an eye toward the future as to what’s going to impact associations.
Key Ingredients to Effective Learning
[25:08] – At a practical level, what have you seen be the key effective ingredients in learning? What does it take to really help adults learn and learn well?
Engagement is absolutely number one—engagement in the learning, engagement with the subject matter expert, the facilitator, the instructor, and with each other. It’s peer-to-peer learning and peer-to-peer conversation that really help socialize and apply the learning. An essential piece of what is offered to adult learners is giving them a community.
Content is king, but context is queen.Debra Zabloudil
We may have great content, but we have to put it in the context of what it means for the individuals that are working in the profession. Relevancy is so important in learning, and everyone wants to feel understood.
Social Learning in Asynchronous Online
[28:20] – How are you thinking about social/peer-to-peer learning in the context of those asynchronous online options?
There are a lot of different ways it can happen. Within organizations, there can be an asynchronous component, dialogue, key questions, and someone facilitating small groups around the content. They will always have synchronous learning as well but there is no one right answer.
That’s why associations really need to think about how they are deploying the content their members need in a variety of ways that meet the needs of all learners—and in long and short formats. We have to be willing to change our stance on things and to be proven wrong by our community. It doesn’t mean that the stance you took on something was wrong, but things evolve, and you become more knowledgeable. The more knowledgeable we get about learning, the association community, and how we can serve people better, the better we are.
Personal Approach to Lifelong Learning
[32:06] – How do you pursue your own lifelong learning? What are your habits, practices, or sources that you go to for yourself?
Debra frequently reads and looks at case studies. She’s very interested in what’s going on in the macro community and how it relates back to helping associations. Everything you consume gives you a different perspective. It’s important to pay attention to where uncertainty is and if you can’t help people find answers, help them find community. Debra also learns a lot from travel as well as engages in learning experiences outside of the association community to help her think differently.
Advice for Learning Business Leaders
[35:09] – What lessons learned or advice from your own experience leading learning would you have for others who are trying to run a successful, impactful business around lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development?
- It all starts with keenly understanding your audience and the segments of your audience. You need to know who they are, what they need to know about the content at hand, and where they’re at.
- Every association needs to have a position related to revenue (“no margin, no mission”). Get on the same page about learning products that need to produce a bottom line that will support the mission of the organization.
- Have a balanced portfolio and diversify your offerings. Since we now know from COVID that the possibility of being shut down exists, build up digital products and digital assets in addition to face-to-face.
- Focus on learning outcomes. Are we really moving the needle on what our members are learning? Are they learning and then able to put things into practice or are they able to look at something differently? Are they able to think differently than they have before?
And I think we often do a lot of measuring satisfaction and not a lot of measuring learning outcomes. So, I really hope that our whole community will start really looking toward what are the learning outcomes that we’re hoping to have and how are we measuring those. And then how are we reporting that back to our community? I don’t think there’s a better way to say our programs make a difference than having positive learning outcomes.Debra Zabloudil
[40:09] – Wrap-Up
Debra Zabloudil is vice president of learning at ASAE and you can learn more about ASAE’s learning here.
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