In today’s world, the relevance of organizations that serve the third sector of education really can’t be overstated. At the same time, relevance can be squandered if the products and services learning businesses 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 we believe all organizations in the learning business should be monitoring – and making – progress.
It’s been a while since we last issued a new edition of The Speaker Report, but one of the findings the last time around was that responding organizations (primarily trade and professional associations) said that, on average, only about 10.5 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, we’ve have done informal polls of learning business 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, learning business leaders need to commit to expanding and elevating education staff – and this will mean learning how to make the business case effectively.
In the short-term, assess your organization’s investment in professional development and adjust as needed. Relatively inexpensive memberships in organizations like ATD and the eLearning Guild can provide a wealth of resources. And, of course, we encourage you to make use of resources here at Leading Learning, particularly the informal learning business curriculum.
Also, 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. A few I recommend are The Adult Learner (Malcolm Knowles), Informal Learning (Jay Cross), Telling Ain’t Training (Harold Stolovitch), Make It Stick (Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel), 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 the Tagoras Association Learning + Technology report, 66 percent of respondents reported that they do not have a formal process for product development (specifically for technology-based learning), and 60 percent indicated no formal process for pricing. Not surprisingly, only 18.5 percent describe their technology-based 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. And then, of course, do capture the process in the most useful way so that it can be referenced and shared (and revised) over time.
Among participants in The Speaker Report survey, 65.3 said they provide training for their speakers to help them improve their presentations – as opposed to just providing logistical and technical support, for example. This marked an upward trend, though one we are still not seeing embraced widely or executed as well as it could be.
Again and again, when I interview lifelong learners for clients (something I do regularly), a high quality presenter is cited as the primary characteristic of a high quality educational experiences. But, while most presenters 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. If you happen to work for an association, this 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 andragogy), 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.
Learning businesses have an opportunity to help their customers 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, for associations, I’d argue this is not just an opportunity but a responsibility given the tax-exempt status most of these organizations 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.)
In my experience, many learning businesses make the mistake of rushing to invest in technology before they have addressed the areas above. This generally leads to a poor return on investment. You need to address these areas and have a well-formulated strategy in place before moving forward with technology.
Once you do, though, investment in technology is critical for learning businesses.
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 learning businesses 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 post on market testing and I’ve written in various places, including Leading the Learning Revolution, about the “beta mentality” – basically treating everything you offer as if it is always the “beta” version, i.e., the version you would normally make available only to a limited number of people for the purpose of getting feedback. Treat your entire audience as your source of ongoing feedback. Make this a part of your culture.
I’ll note, too, that this perspective on technology is foundational to the approach to market assessment we lay out in the Tagoras Market Insight Matrix.
So, don’t think of investing in technology as just investing in “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. I encourage you to use these in combination with the Tagoras Learning Business Maturity Model to help you refine your focus even more and set priorities. Do that, put a plan in place for regular progress and accountability, and you will see your learning business grow and thrive over time.