I posted this a few places back in the spring – it’s from the Tagoras Leading Learning Spring Summit – but it occurred to me recently that it really should be posted here as as well. A brief overview of why trade and professional associations can and should dominate the market for lifelong learning. (Many, I find, take it for granted that they do, but that is not the foregone conclusion that it used to be.)
I recently spoke with Michael Hess at the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute about how his organization is using social media. Michael mentioned that they were introducing a series of videos on YouTube to support the PACK EXPO, their big annual event. I think they are doing a very nice job of it and creating an example that other organizations may want to emulate. (Businesses, too, can benefit from studying this approach as a possible tool for customer and prospect education.) The videos are short, entertaining, and highly useful – and, off course, they are also highly shareable.
The first video – What’s New for Exhibitors – riffs off of the popular Commoncraft “Plain English” series. It’s very good, but I particularly like the a video PMMI has put together about how vendors at the conference might make use of Twitter and Facebook. I have embedded it below, but click through if you don’t see it. Enjoy – Jeff
A couple of days ago I made my first conscious decision not to attend a conference. I’m not going to say which conference, as my point here is not to bash anyone. But I do think the context and the reasons for my decisions are relevant to readers here on Hedgehog & Fox.
First of all, this was not a budget decision. I have the money on hand to attend if I choose to plunk down the $1200 or so it would cost me to do so (registration plus travel). No, this was a value decision. I looked at the agenda for the conference, considered who I would be able to network with if I went, and decided $1200 was out of line with the value I was likely to receive.
You see, as far as the content for the conference goes, I have any number of other – and in my estimation – better options available online. In many cases, these are free; in others, they are priced in a way that I feel matches their value. I keep a folder in my Google Reader with what I feel are the best blogs related to the topic of the conference; I am subscribed to a handful of podcasts that deliver great content; and there are Web casts I attend periodically or listen to recordings of that also contribute to my learning. I have even paid on a number of occasions to download eBooks or join membership sites on this particular topic.
As far as networking goes, the majority of the people I am likely to network with at this conference are people I am already connected to online using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other networks. I read their blogs; I e-mail with them. I know what they are up to and can reach out to them at any time. Of course, there is always the wildcard – the new person I might meet in the hallway who could transform my business for the next year or more. But that is at least as likely to happen online. Why spend $1200 and leave my family for two days to try make it happen at a conference?
I see at least two lessons here.
The first is that organizations worried about a drop in conference attendance because of the current economic climate need to look deeper. Cuts in travel budgets will, of course, lead to declines in attendance at face-to-face events, but anyone who expects attendance to come bouncing happily back once the economy improves may be sorely disappointed. There are simply a lot of other high value options out there now, and the forces that I have identified as driving e-learning growth will have the opposite effect on face-to-face conferences – particularly those that don’t start blending in opportunities for creating value online.
The second is that there is a big opportunity out there right now for those who move first and fast with high quality educational content in niche areas. This is a time when markets are made and leaders emerge.
So, I’m staying home. And my bet is that I will be the wiser and the richer for it.
Hedgehog & Fox
P.S. – There were some great comments on this one, but unfortunately they were lost as a result of a massive server crash at Bluehost (my former host).
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Just a brief post to note that Association E-learning: State of the Sector has been officially released. We (Celisa Steele and I) have been working on this since October. As far as we know, it is the most comprehensive piece of research out there right now on the state of e-learning in the association sector. If you are with you an association planning to launch and or grow an e-learning initiative, the report is packed with info that it would take a great deal of time, effort, and expense to gather independently. The same is true if you are a technology or service provider in the sector (or want to be).
If you are interested in the association online education report, then you might also be interested in the Tagoras report on learning management systems (LMS) for associations and our report on association virtual conferences.
In working on the Association E-learning 2009: State of the Sector report, one of the resources I turned to was the excellent Association Social Technologies report issued by Principled Innovation in January. If you aren’t already familiar with this report, here’s the quick rundown.
The report team, which included Principled Innovation founder Jeff De Cagna along with Ben Martin and SocialFishes Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant – arguably the “A-Team” when it comes to association social media – collected detailed data from more than 280 associations about their use of social technologies. They also interviewed a number of associations to create a set of “mini” case studies to include in the report. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they infuse the entire report with their well-educated perspectives on the current state and potential role of social media in the sector.
Really, if you are with an association that is thinking about starting or growing your social media initiatives, this is a must have.
Aside from finding it very valuable at a general level, the report has also been particularly useful to me as I assess how the whole concept of Learning 2.0 – that is, e-learning blended with social technologies – is fairing in the association world. I asked the nearly 500 organizations that responded to the 2008 Association Sector E-learning Survey a number of questions about how they are using e-learning specifically for their online education programs. For the most part, they aren’t. The technology that fairs the best is discussion boards – old school, admittedly, but still social. Among organizations currently offering e-learning, 32.7percent report using discussion boards.
Here’s how the responses for three key technologies – social networks, blogs, and wikis – stack up against usage numbers for these three technologies at a broader level, as revealed in the Principled Innovation report:
|Usage of social networks, blogs, and wikis||Sector-wide
|Social networking sites||31.0%||25.0%|
While I am not surprised that social networks and blogs seems to have more traction than wikis, it is interesting to me that wikis are apparently being used so little – both broadly across the sector as well as in e-learning. They are so simple to use and can be such a great tool for collaborating among dispersed staff members, volunteers, and members. In the world of e-learning, they can be a great tool for complementing a course with easily updatable resources or even for team-sourcing or crowdsourcing the course in the first place. I’ll be interested to see how these numbers change over time.
The Association Social Technologies report is full of more data on usage of social media in the sector as well as case studies and insights. I’ve found it to be a good resource in my e-learning research, and I’d encourage you to consider getting a copy today.
Hedgehog & Fox
P.S. – Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jtcobb
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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