In a survey I conducted late last year on e-learning in the association sector, 61.1 percent out of 488 respondents indicated that their organization is currently using e-learning. An additional 26.2% indicated they plan to start using e-learning within the coming 6 to 12 months. So, nearly 90% of these organizations intend to be offering some form of e-learning within the next 12 months. And this is a large enough group to suggest (albeit cautiously) a similar conclusion about the sector as a whole – at least among associations that offer education to their members.
But here’s an interesting twist. In a short follow-up survey I ran with organizations currently offering e-learning, only 31% of the respondents said their organization has a formal, documented strategy in place for e-learning.
Now, writing things down is not the be all and end all of strategy. I am betting pretty much every reader of this blog can think of a strategic plan or two that they know to be gathering dust on a shelf right now. Still, I’ll take a leap here and say that the fact that associations are not going through the process of formalizing and documenting an e-learning strategy – something they do for so many other things – suggest that it simply has not assumed a strategic place in the portfolio of association services to their members.
Why is that?
Ten years ago, there was quite a bit of buzz about the prospect for e-learning in the sector. After all, we’re talking about a group of organizations that serve a broadly dispersed member base filled with people who look to the organizations for educational opportunities, and in many cases are required to earn a certain amount of educational credit annually. If you were an executive of a commercial company with a mission to sell educational products, you would be salivating.
Of course, one of the issues is that many such people were salivating. A lot of bad deals got done. Quite a few organizations got burned.
On top of that, the perennial lament began – and is still heard: Associations don’t know how to market e-learning effectively. And I’m inclined to think it’s true – most of the ones I have encountered over the past decade don’t.
Not that all is doom and gloom. There are many organizations that have done a great job with e-learning. They are providing first-rate learning experiences to their members and making it easier for them to manage their professional development. They have diversified their portfolio of educational products and reduced risk – something I am sure they are very grateful for right now! And they are making money.
But my sense – based on my own experience as well as extensive interviewing for the Association E-learning 2009: State of the Sector report – is that these organizations are more the exception than the rule. E-learning has yet to arrive in the sector in any strategic sense.
So how does the future look?
Common sense would suggest tremendous opportunity, but also significant danger.
The economy is bound to drive e-learning onto the strategic radar of leaders who have otherwise given it only passing thought. Most will (unwisely) defer investment until the economy improves, but they will nonetheless be more aware of the potential than they have been before. Economy aside, the growth of green thinking, the growing array of cheap and easy e-learning technologies, and the coming of age of a generation that is comfortable doing pretty much everything online will generate more demand and tear down remaining barriers.
Common sense suggests that there is simply no way the market for e-learning will not continue to grow significantly over time.
But here’s the danger for associations: Entrepreneurs know that.
If your organization serves a market where there is any sort of demand for education and you don’t already have competition, you will. And it will be online. Advances in technology and the rise of the social Web have made it so easy to create and disseminate educational products that pretty much anyone who has a decent amount of knowledge and some ambition can get out there and start offering e-learning. That means people you’ve never heard of or thought of before. And in many instance, it means your own members and chapters.
So what’s to be done?
In the first place, if you aren’t at least experimenting with e-learning already, follow the advice of a recent Acronym post and Do Something! (I would add to that, Just Do it – But Strategically) That’s the short term. But as you think about the longer term, think about the ways in which your organization can generate both perceived and real value.
Your brand as a leader in your particular niche will be more important than ever. Your ability to be a “digital curator” and be a primary source of learning and knowledge content in your field will give you an edge. And your ability to offer things like continuing education credit, credits towards a certification, or certificates that actually have some worth to them will also help set you apart from much of the competition.
Above all, start viewing e-learning as s strategic part of your mission and your business and begin treating it like the substantial, long-term asset it could become.
I’ll close with a quote from one of the vendors I interviewed recently who I think articulated some of the above sentiments very well:
If I were a forward thinking association executive I would think about what this means to the organization, not in dollars and cents immediately, but in terms of … member retention, providing services to members that they are going to value, especially with what is happening in the economy. Association memberships and spending are going to be looked at much more critically and as an association executive I want to keep those members and I want to keep them engaged and I think there are many opportunities to keep them engaged through e-learning. And e-learning might take many different forms, it might be providing services to them to help them maintain their certification, it might include some of the things that incorporate social media to get members talking to one another and helping one another. That’s the approach that I would take..
Hedgehog & Fox
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