Thursday, September 5, 2013

Finding Radical Value in Core Competencies

Somebody please, tell me where the ghosts are gone,
Someone hear me out
Something to be my guide
Somebody please
Hear me where the screaming shouts
...I'll be fine, I'll be fine, I'll be fine.  Sea of Bees, Broke

(I got to see Julie (Sea of Bees) perform at TEDxSacramento and she just blew me away. This is a really pretty but haunting song.  I thought of it today because sometimes I think we forget that associations are going to be fine.  Yes, we feel lost and yes,we need to change but at the end of the day, we have to have some confidence that we know what we are doing and concentrate on doing what we do best - just better.  The ghosts of the past are gone but that doesn't mean that we don't have a future.

That was the impetus behind this recent article I wrote for the Midwest Society of Association Executives that was published in their August 2013 issue.)

If you read the news and study trends, you may already be aware that there is a great deal of change underway in the K-12 and post-secondary system in the United States.  Rising college tuition costs, shrinking numbers of seats, and new technology based delivery systems are combining to create a perfect storm in the adult education world.  With specialization in industries and professions moving at an ever-increasing rate, college students often arrive on the scene with skills that are already out of date.   However, the coming disruptions in the educational system couldn’t come at a better time for associations.  Association staff and volunteers who fully grasp these tectonic shifts in education, will be able to position themselves to create radical value in new opportunity areas that simply didn’t exist ten years ago.

In the association community we routinely engage in vigorous debates about perceived member value.  It may seem fashionable, but it isn’t new.  If you look back in historical records, we have been wrestling with this topic from our inception.  However, we also need to look at the actual data.  I frequently get the opportunity to review data sets from association surveys and time and again “professional development” and “networking” rank at or near the top of perceived value.  It’s not exciting to hear members repeatedly tell us the value they get from the association is steeped in services we consider “traditional.” Even worse, it’s unsettling to hear the programs they are most interested in are the ones they aren’t completely satisfied with. 

However, all is not lost.  In fact, I am more optimistic than ever that associations are in a great position to provide lasting value to members and stakeholders in all industries and professions.  We are entering an exciting new chapter in professional development.  If it is true that a) the education system is undergoing a major disruption, b) we already have solid core competencies around education and certification, and c) an audience that wants and needs it, then what is stopping us from refreshing and renewing our offerings for adult learners both here in the United States and around the world?

The only thing stopping us is ourselves.  Really, it is more exciting to hear about “new” programs we can build to create value, than to hear about tearing down our current programs and rebuilding them from the ground up.  Regardless, the major innovations associations are seeking may not always be in completely new territory, but in having the courage and fortitude to effectively meet the challenges we have been presented with in our areas of core competency that have compelling possibilities in these new markets that are presenting themselves.   Core competencies are “traditional,” but can still be incredibly innovative if we carefully rethink and refresh them for a new audience.

Here are some practical ideas on areas professional development managers should begin exploring if they haven’t already.

Reframe Audiences – Associations who want to be players in professional development and capitalize on these new opportunities need to reframe the potential audience.  For example, we have had “student” members for years, but what about fast-track programs specifically designed to get recent high school graduates or the long-term unemployed up to speed in the industry or profession without traversing traditional educational pathways?

Reframe Delivery – Massive open online courses or “MOOCs” are effectively disrupting the landscape.  Beyond webinars and other virtual mechanisms, the technology supporting MOOCs are leading instructors to radically re-evaluate how content is chunked absent a “time” requirement.   New technologies are becoming more and more affordable for associations.  Some examples are and Blue Sky Broadcast.

Reframe Pricing – The way content is developed and distributed on the internet is STILL not being effectively dealt with in our pricing models.  Figure out the highest quality you can deliver at the lowest possible price point.  Sticking with the same pricing models does not make sense in a world where anyone can take a physics course from MIT for FREE.

Reframe Instruction – Aggressively implementing train the trainer programs for your volunteer instructors is crucial.  Volunteer instructors have a tremendous amount of industry and profession specific knowledge, but they don’t always know how to facilitate learning environments.  Invest in training for them and you will be paid back many times over.

Reframe Certification – One of the criticisms of MOOCs is people aren’t sure yet what counts for credit and where.  Traditional institutions are beginning to accept completion certificates for actual credit on a case by case basis.  Associations who offer certification programs need to look at the MOOC landscape and determine whether your certification programs will accept certificates of completion in lieu of traditional college credit.  If you haven’t started a certification program – NOW is the time to do it.  More and more students are interested in gaining evidence that they are qualified to work in a specific industry or profession without having the official BA, or MA.

Reframe Content – Look at next generation content and make sure you are still providing the nuts and bolts your industry or profession needs, but concentrate on “what’s next.”  If traditional colleges can’t keep up with specialization because of long lead times, curriculum development red tape, etc., then make sure your programs are always on the cutting edge of what happens in the real world.  Don’t let the new for-profit schools steal your advantage.  They often offer lower quality at higher price points and less employability to boot.

All the best to you as you enter this exciting new world of content delivery.  By looking at “old” programs in a completely “new” way you can have the best of both worlds and, at the end of the day, create the kind of lasting value your members and stakeholders desperately need.


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