Make Your Learning Programs Better Match Member Needs

Your members have high expectations for the education your association delivers. Meanwhile, your learning programs also have to support your organizational strategy. One learning expert says a disciplined focus on member needs will serve both goals.

One challenge that association members face now is making time for education. With changing schedules and shifting professional demands, members have a lot on their plate. How can associations ensure that their education offerings match their members’ current needs?

Jeff Cobb, cofounder of educational consultancy Tagoras, says that one plus side of the pandemic is that people are more comfortable with remote learning than they were a year ago. But it comes with a rub, he says: “The expectations have gone way up.”

Because webinars have become so common, the element of novelty is gone. “The traditional webinar presentation style just no longer cuts it for most people—there’s just a saturation of that at this point,” he says. “So, people are looking for something different out of the experience.”

This has led some associations to encourage presenters to try new things to juice up engagement. But tactics focusing on excitement can only go so far, Cobb says. The larger solution involves rethinking the education model to meet both member needs and the organization’s.

Know the Audience

The key to building effective education programs is understanding your audience, Cobb says. That means drawing on what you know about your specific members, as well as understanding how adults learn.

Cobb cautions that this doesn’t necessarily mean catering to people’s “learning styles.” The idea that people have different learning styles has been heavily researched in recent years and found to effectively be a myth. Still, it’s a myth that’s widely believed.

“That doesn’t cancel out the fact that people perceive themselves as wanting to learn in different ways,” Cobb says. “That’s going to drive their decision to purchase.”

Other factors, such as convenience and lack of time, may make learners more interested in different forms of education. Offering a mix of learning formats, including bite-sized options and asynchronous programs, can increase the value of membership, he says.

He notes that curated, facilitated peer discussions, such as roundtables and “mastermind groups,” are generally underused in the association world, adding that learning doesn’t have to be formal to be valuable.

“If you talk to your average executive, for example, you know they’re usually going to tell you they learned most from talking to their peers about what they’re doing in their organization,” Cobb says. “So, can you bring that together in a structured way that helps people get access to it.”

Align the Business

Of course, associations have to align their educational programming with overall organizational strategy. Tagoras researched this issue last year with a study on the growing virtual events market.

Cobb recommends that organizations “bake in” data collection or surveying so they have a way to track what’s working and what isn’t. “With any kind of event that you’re planning—face to face, online, whether it’s overtly described as educational or not—it has to actually deliver value that in some way or another can be measured,” he says.

Direct collaboration with employers can provide insight into how the education you provide is working in the field. “You’re really getting a much deeper, more accurate assessment of what employers need and how your learning offerings align with that need,” Cobb says.

“Associations are often like the perfect bridge between that academic preparation and what actually has to happen on the job,” he says. “And if associations can be that bridge in a measurable way, the amount of value that represents in our current world is just enormous.”

(vladwel/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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