James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the Product Community, a product development learning community designed specifically for associations. Jim has decades of experience working in learning businesses that have embraced innovation in learning communities, gamification, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), cohort-based learning, and competency-based learning.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Jeff Cobb talks with return guest Jim about the connection between higher education and lifelong learning and creating indispensable learning environments. They also discuss the Product Community that Jim founded, the problem it’s trying to solve, tips for sustaining a community over time, and how to foster a culture of innovation.
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[00:00] – Intro
The Path to Chief Learning Officer
[01:53] – Would you tell us about your history as a chief learning officer (CLO) and the other roles you’ve held in learning businesses?
Jim is a trained librarian and started his career in distance learning some 30 years ago, teaching students how to find information and essentially running a research service. He was at George Mason in the mid ’90s, when there was a flurry of innovation around learning communities. He was part of a college within a college, New Century College, which was at the forefront of experiential learning. All faculty were required to teach outside of their domain, which created a deep learning experience not just for the students but the faculty as well.
Jim was the founding chief information officer at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, a truly integrative, unique experience. He shifted much of what he learned there to the world of associations.
He’s been chief learning officer at two associations: the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) and the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST). He had the same charge at both: to develop an inclusive learning strategy to tap into an already healthy community and invest deeply in learning as a vehicle for longitudinal engagement.
[05:20] – CHEST has been heavily invested in simulations.
CHEST has an intensive care unit where they do their simulation training. They were on the cutting edge of simulations and of experiential learning.
CHEST also pushed the envelope with gaming, getting into more high-agency games that could measure meaningful impact and outcomes in physician learning.
Academia Versus Associations on Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning
[07:16] – What’s your perspective on how the academic world approaches continuing education and lifelong learning versus associations? Do they approach it differently?
There are parallels and complements in the two approaches. In Jim’s experience, continuing education is a cash cow for academic institutions because it takes a market-first view. If a learning program is designed properly from the beginning, and it’s not solely an in-person, semester-based, GPA-based offering, academic institutions can actually reach new markets.
Jim sees a connection between associations, higher ed, and the other content that’s available freely or through subscription. There are many different ways professionals can sharpen their saws as they move through their career, and they can dip in and out of the various options.
A phrase Jim is starting to use in the world of associations is to create the 50-year learner journey. Organizations tend to focus on current needs, but we need to create longitudinal engagement. We need to think about not just the needs of a physician when she starts to engage with an association but even earlier, when she chooses med school and moves through that experience.
If you look at how to create an indispensable learning environment, then it isn’t simply a matter of membership. Membership becomes an outcome because it’s so necessary. This view puts the traditional model of associations on the back burner. And this view, this focus on creating an indispensable learning environment doesn’t apply only to associations; it applies to all types of learning businesses.
And then ultimately you start to think of not just what am I going to learn over 50 years but what problems I’m going to solve with whom, and then how am I going to shape the world. Putting learning at the heart of that, not as something solely credential-based.James Young
Check out our related episode “The 60-Year Curriculum with Dr. Chris Dede.”
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The Product Community
[14:18] – What problem was the Product Community created to solve?
The Product Community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations.
So, if you take those four words—product development and learning community—what I basically have been focused on almost my entire career is to really say how can we, from the product development part, think about the learning model, think about a business model, think about ways that we can monetize engagement and then link that up with a pure learning community in which it’s been designed for people over time to work together, work with peers.James Young
The Product Community marries community and product development. It exists to solve a couple of key problems:
- Associations tend to operate withing a traditional, prescribed business model. The assumptions, cultural and otherwise, that drives the services and offerings are often grounded by past thinking and tradition.
- There’s stagnant revenue industry-wide in the world of associations, where revenues are typically driven by joinership. People aren’t joining membership organizations as much as they have in the past.
- The value proposition conversation needs to evolve because associations undersell their value. From the learning perspective, you’re always fighting to get to the table.
Those are problems, but there’s something timeless about associations and their appeal. People love engagement and connection, and associations can tap into that.
The Product Community explores how to understand who our customers are, how to design interesting value propositions for them, and how to start engaging them in new, non-traditional ways.
[17:27] – Over time, associations need to shift from what Jim calls a hamster wheel of single-use, one-off content and programs into learning that drives longitudinal engagement among a community of peers.
My ideal description of a well-humming association is it’s an ecosystem of ideas. And that ecosystem of ideas…has this indispensable draw and this indispensable value, that ultimately it’s something that you want to give your time to, and you want to pay money because you’re going to benefit from it, not just from what you learn but who you meet and what problems you’re going to solve.James Young
Another really important consideration is how to get to higher-order measurement of outcomes and evolving beyond what satisfaction levels to how learners apply what they learn and what kind of impact that leads to.
Check out our related episode “One Word: Impact.”
Without clear direction and sufficient capacity and capability, it’s hard to build and sustain a culture of innovation. The Product Community exists to help associations understand the value they have and how to create pathways that connect learners with that value.
How a Product Development Community Works
[21:02] – What kinds of activities go on in a product development community? What are the mechanics?
The Product Community is a competency-based and cohort-based program. It aims to be interdisciplinary, so it engages people with different lenses on the learning enterprise.
In its purest form as a learning community, coming together to solve problems across boundaries is vital. People will learn in unexpected ways and further the community while enhancing culture simply because people interact and share.
In Product Community, participants learn to create real products. It’s not only theoretical. It’s not the Big-Bang, breakthrough type of innovation. It’s based on what associations do best and leveraging that.
Sustaining a Community Over Time
[24:34] – It’s often hard to keep people engaged in a community over time. If you’ve found that to be a challenge, what tips might you offer for how to sustain a community?
The Product Community offers year-long cohort for people to wrestle with how to create products in a community. These are products that they learn how to get to market.
The Product Community is focused on offering is a repeatable product framework. The framework is something participants can take back to rethink the value that they create through the lens of the product.
This view is member- or customer-based. It’s about the value you produce and how to create a longitudinal vehicle around that value to attract and engage the member or the customer.
Change doesn’t happen in a two-day workshop or in a quarter. The market is responding to the year-long program. To help with sustaining interest, Jim recommends keeping a community small initially.
The Product Community’s ideal customer is a frustrated innovator—someone who wants to see evolution and innovation but is frustrated by tired approaches and stagnant revenue.
Participants build outcomes throughout as they’re on the journey, prototyping, testing, and scaling. It’s a model that borrows from software, but it’s community-based.
Making Innovation Happen
[27:07] – Breakthrough innovation can be tough to find. Learning business may have more work to do around the edges and getting clearer about what the customer or member really needs. What’s your perspective on that? How does innovation happen?
Jim recommends creating a division or department of innovation. Innovation needs to be integrated throughout the lifeblood of the organization and become part of the culture. Innovation should be framed less as finding the new million-dollar idea and more as incremental and evolutionary.
Associations do great work but find that it’s often underutilized or doesn’t have a follow-up. The same holds true for other learning businesses.
Single-use one-offs happen in almost every association in Jim’s experience. For example, the annual conference ends, and it’s over until the next year. There’s a huge opportunity to look at how to continue that conversation.
Innovation is about leveraging what we do well.
Most associations, no matter the size, have tight budgets, capacity limitations, and pressures from the board. So innovation needs to be distributed. Product development is required, and we need to think substantially more creatively about who our customers are, what they want, and how to effectively deliver it.
When I say it’s not high-stakes, some products are going to fail. The trick here is that associations have always been in this world, but they don’t view it through the lens of productization, which I think is a breakthrough here. In some ways, it’s nothing new. It’s just new to the space of associations.James Young
Lifelong Learning Habits
[30:16] – What types of things do you as a learner value? What role do communities play for you as part of your learning journey?
Jim belongs to the Association of Managers of Innovation (AMI), a small, boutique learning community of innovators from all different disciplines where he feels he can be honest and vulnerable.
He reads a lot and always has at least one or two books going. He recommends several podcasts—2Bobs, Ditching Hourly, Clever, and Lenny’s Podcast—that are related to learning and becoming innovative.
[32:50] – Wrap-up
James Young is founder and CLO of the Product Community. If your work focuses on the association world, the Product Community’s Association Design Circle may be of particular interest. You can connect with Jim on Linked.
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