(Last August, I became deeply inspired by work coming from David Cooperrider and Lindsey N. Godwin at Case Western - Positive Organization Development: Innovation-inspired Change in an Economy and Ecology of Strengths. This paper is a MUST READ for anyone interested in innovation in our association community. In it, they use the phrase "words make worlds." We often attempt to think innovatively while not recognizing the common terminology we use can work to block us in. This series of posts will break from my normal format and is dedicated to asking a single question. How can we change our language and think differently about the work we do?)
There is no doubt our country is facing an educational crisis. In “Waiting for Superman,” the most recent work by director Davis Guggenheim, we find that the top 5% of American students rank 23rd out of 29 developed countries. What to do to handle or reverse these trends is a matter of concern to administrators, parents and industry alike. Associations are not immune from this crisis as we represent industries and professions which are going to be directly impacted by coming workforce deficiencies. By 2020, the United States will have 123 million high-skill jobs to fill—and fewer than 50 million Americans qualified to fill them.
Our country has an urgent need and associations have a critical role to play and the capacity to do so. Edupunks are defined as people who approach developing educational frameworks from a “do it yourself” perspective. As the original “edupunk” pioneers, and the guardians of professional certification programs, associations have developed a vast repository of industry and profession specific knowledge. Who better to step in and provide resources to students and young adults in an educational crisis and to focus on workforce preparedness than associations? However, with a few notable exceptions, our integration into the formal educational system has been done on an ad-hoc basis and our contributions to society are not fully recognized or valued by the public at large.
In many cases, we have allowed our edupunk nature to be at once a benefit and an obstacle. We have left most of the transmission of our educational programming to industry practitioners, some of whom are natural teachers and some of whom are simply not skilled in the development and delivery of adult education. We can positively impact this situation with the implementation of aggressive train the trainer programs and working with local college districts to attract trained educators into the association sphere.
Associations have also allowed market forces to influence the way in which they develop and deliver content to their member-citizens. By treating education as a "commodity" instead of a mission we have unwittingly short-changed our constituents. If the first concern when developing an educational program is "marketability" rather than "necessity," you have a situation where the developers are already focused less on needs that must be met in favor of how many seats will sell. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they aren't automatically linked either. It is high time we embrace the notion that associations are not only providing expertise to those who wish to learn but are, in fact, the unsung heroes underpinning the educational system in the United States.
As society becomes more complex, increasing specialization makes it imperative that associations improve their ability to provide for fast acquisition of concepts on the part of practitioners. This includes access to the established body of knowledge as well as innovations in our respective fields. We need to stop simply regurgitating our materials in new formats and building protective walls around our resources. We must embrace life-cycle learning for the betterment of our members and society and focus more on developing "what's next" than protecting what we currently have in our possession. We can't fast-track life-cycle learning by meting out the same old tidbits in webinars and annual conferences. Removing major financial and time-related barriers to access the current body of knowledge, gives any association the opportunity to spend their limited time and resources developing and monetizing programming for “what’s next” in order to spur innovation and progress.
Associations must consider the needs of the whole person in every stage of their career from entry-level to advanced. Beyond technical knowledge, we need to assess and improve skills like communications, creativity, problem-solving, health and wellness. We need to meet people where they are, fill in the gaps, fast-track them to functionality and then push them into new frontiers. Associations should be thinking about creating highly customized learning environments which are much different than "programming to appeal to the most attendees at the conference."
We see a future in which association contributions are recognized and we move beyond simply providing resources to practitioners -- who stumble upon our professional development programs as they become immersed in an industry or profession -- to being an active player in the educational system. Improving and promoting our educational resources will significantly increase the speed at which we can access talent coming out of the high-school and post-secondary systems and fast track professionals to gain the skills they need to survive in an increasingly segregated occupational society. By embracing life-cycle learning, we can mitigate current workforce deficiencies and provide for a well-trained, engaged citizenry.