I’ve argued in various places that there is no question of association “relevance.” The critical role that associations play in serving the ever-growing need for learning in the “other fifty years” virtually assures relevance. On the other hand, relevance can be squandered if products and services association provide are not creating any demonstrable impact. Given the wide range of choices now available to learners – many of them free – revenue and retention will increasingly be tied to value delivered.
Impact doesn’t just happen, though: you have to invest in it in. Here are the five key areas in which I believe all organizations in the learning business should be monitoring – and making – progress:
We’ve just launched a second round of our Professional and Industry Speaker Survey in collaboration with Velvet Chainsaw. One finding from the last round is that the associations who participated said that, on average, only about 12 percent of their staff is dedicated to education. That seems a bit out of whack considering how prominently education features in the average association mission statement. We also found that well under half have VP titles or above for their top education position – this in spite of top tech and membership staff often holding these titles.
More anecdotally, I have done informal polls of association education staff on a number of occasions to ask how much professional development they engage in themselves. “Very little,” is what the responses amount to.
Over the longer term, organizational leaders need to commit to expanding and elevating education staff. In the short-term, assess your organization’s investment in professional development and adjust as needed. Relatively inexpensive memberships (yes, memberships!) in organizations like ASTD and the eLearning Guild can provide a wealth of resources.
And if paying for memberships is beyond your budget (or even if it is not) forming an internal “book club” to regularly discuss important books and articles can yield great returns. Some I suggest are The Adult Learner (Malcolm Knowles), Informal Learning (Jay Cross), Telling Ain’t Training (Harold Stolovitch), Brain Rules (John Medina), and Leading the Learning Revolution (yours truly – yes, self serving, but I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t think there was value in the topics I cover).
In the last round of our Association Learning + Technology report, in which 375 organization participated, well under half (39.7 percent) of the responding organizations said they use professional instructional design resources – whether staff of contract – for developing online education. Only 22.9 percent reported that they have a formal process for product development, and 23.9 percent indicated a formal process for pricing. Not surprisingly, only 15 percent describe their e-learning efforts as “very successful.”
In many organizations, long-established processes simply run on auto-pilot at this point, even though the needs and expectations they serve have drifted dramatically. In others, key processes were never really established in the first place.
As a starting point for investment in this area, pick a process and devote some time to working through it and documenting it. Make this a team effort when possible. In areas like product development and pricing, this often means a cross-functional team – it will involve people from marketing, technology, and other areas as well as education. (As far as developing learning products goes, you may want to have a look at Michael Allen’s Leaving ADDIE for SAM.)
Keep in mind that the point is not to produce a document. The point is to engage everyone in a focused discussion that makes your current processes much more explicit, highlights strengths and weaknesses, and potentially sparks innovative ideas for improvement.
Among participants in The Speaker Report survey, just over half said they provide training for their speakers to help them improve their presentations – as opposed to just providing logistical and technical support, for example. Again and again, when I interview lifelong learners for clients (something I do on a weekly basis), a high quality speaker is cited as the primary characteristic of a high quality educational experiences. But, while most speakers know their subject matter very well, many have never received any training in how to effectively engage with and teach adult learners.
One place to begin on this one is to create some basic documentation – e.g., tip sheets – covering essential principles of adult learning, guidance on how to create valid learning objectives, effective use of media in presentations, and – as relevant – how to craft good assessment questions.
Over the longer term, I think most organizations will need to put much more effort into cultivating their “talent pool” and developing a culture of excellence when it comes to recruiting and using speakers and trainers, particularly volunteers. This, by the way, is an excellent area in which to engage younger members. The ability to present well and teach your chosen subject matter to others is a highly valuable career skill. Associations can play a key role in helping younger members build this skill by providing guidance, mentoring, and opportunities for practice. At the same time, organizations that do this will be building their “bench” for the future.
Malcolm Knowles, one of the pioneers of adult lifelong learning (and the concept of androgogy), wrote many years ago that “It’s a tragic fact that most of us know only how to be taught; we haven’t learned how to learn.” There is an abundance of evidence suggesting that students emerging from our primary and higher education systems are not as prepared as we might like to be critical thinkers and effective, self-directed lifelong learners. Add to that the bewildering array of tools – from search to social media to MOOCs to mobile everything – that learners now have at their disposal, and its clear that the lifelong learning landscape is more complex than ever.
Associations have an opportunity to help their members brush up on basic learning skills like note-taking and goal-setting while also helping them effectively leverage new tools to enhance their lifelong learning efforts. Indeed, I’d argue this is not just an opportunity but a responsibility given the role associations play in the other fifty years and the tax-exempt status most enjoy.
There are myriad ways to support learners and help them navigate the new learning landscape. Consider including tip sheets with your conference and seminar materials that provide refreshers on areas like effective note-taking and memory skills. Add brief tips to your marketing communications that highlight how tools like blogs, social networks, and other new media can be used to support lifelong learning. Consider creating a series of simple videos to highlight learning strategies, possibly even featuring members.
Whatever you do, take Malcolm Knowles’ words to heart, and don’t assume that your learners are fully prepared to navigate the new learning landscape. (For additional thoughts on this area, see 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner.)
Given the nature of the event, I addressed this one first at the Association Growth Conference, but in most cases I would put it last. (And that despite the fact that a good chunk of our business here at Tagoras involves helping organizations select appropriate technologies.)
In many – perhaps most – cases, it make sense for organizations to invest in a learning management system or similar platform that can facilitate the delivery and tracking of learning. Tracking, in particular, is a key part of actually demonstrating that you have had an impact. My view is that, over time, more and more learners and organizations are going to demand proof of impact before investing significantly in continuing education and professional development experiences
I think it is equally, if not more important, though, for associations to take advantage of and embrace the possibilities technology offers for experimentation and market assessment. Technology should not just be an outcome of innovation, it should be a driver. Celisa touches on this idea in her recent post on market testing and I’ve written in various places about the “beta mentality” as well as about how technology can be used as a listening tool.
So, don’t think of investing in technology as just investing “infrastructure.” Think of technology as an enabler of a different culture for your organization and actively carve out time for experimenting with new tools as well as using them for engaging with and observing your market.
Those are the areas I see where even some modest increases in investment of time, money, or a combination of the two, could yield big returns. How about you? What are you seeing as the most important areas of investment for your education business? Please comment and share.