Nothing is more central to the continued success of associations today than the value of the educational content presented at their conferences and meetings. Unfortunately, however, too many associations still do things like they have for decades. And their failure to adapt to breakthroughs in brain science and learning has meant that non-association entities such as for-profit continuing education providers have stepped into the breach and gained market share.
In order to survive and prosper, experts say, associations must recognize their failures and deliver innovation that has practical, tangible value for members.
“The general way that education has been provided by associations has been pretty static for decades,” says Tracy Petrillo, EdD, CAE, chief learning officer at the Phoenix-based Construction Specifications Institute, whose members include construction specifiers, architects and engineers. “It has been based on a traditional conference model.”
Unfortunately, that time-honored model has been undermined and rendered outmoded in the internet age — and at a time when breakthroughs in brain science are redefining what education means and what it requires. Most associations have been caught flat-footed when it comes to successful adaptation to a changing world.
“There should no longer be the traditional call for speakers or presentations. What there should be is the development of different learning objectives and activities that people do together.”
— Tracy Petrillo, EdD, CAE
“The reason why so many associations struggle is that they say, ‘We have to have a training for this and for that,’ and ‘We have to deliver something in every area that our members say they want,’” says Molly Marsh, CMP, director of education and engagement design at Lexington, Kentucky-based association management company AMR Management Services.
“Or they say, ‘If we focus on one subset of our membership, then the rest of our members are going to feel left out, so we have to offer something for everybody. What they fail to understand is that the need for broad, general education is becoming a thing of the past.”
The kind of outdated mindset that strives to preserve it, Marsh says, is a formula for failure in today’s educational marketplace, because it stretches resources too thin and ignores precise niche opportunities.
The good news, Marsh says, is that associations are starting to realize they must change course. “But making that realization actionable is another kind of challenge.”
One of the biggest challenges her clients face now is “that they realize they have a ‘general’ audience, and they are having a hard time attracting new members or new attendees at their conferences because they do not offer the very specific kinds of educational resources and certifications that people are looking for. And at the same time, there are more and more private companies that are offering those kinds of very individualized resources. The number of for-profit companies that provide very targeted and highly specific educational resources has greatly expanded in the last few years.”
Unlike most associations, which operate based largely on how they have always done things, the growing universe of private education-for-profit competitors are, by definition, more focused on and attuned to innovation rather than habit.
“Because of that, the big trend I see now is that everything is very customized,” Marsh says. “People seeking continuing education expect whatever they find available to be very customized to their needs and interests. What that means for associations is that if you don’t offer exactly what your members are looking for, the exact continuing education credits someone needs to maintain their license or their accreditation in their industry, then they’re going to go somewhere else to find it.”
As a result, says Kismet Saglam, vice president of education services at Kellen Company, a major association management company based in Chicago, competition from non-association entities has accelerated within the association marketplace. Given that challenge, she says that associations must recognize and act on the need to improve their educational offerings in order to remain viable.
“In terms of the actual competition and the form it can take,” Saglam says, “what I’ve seen with some clients, when their own educational activities really started to take off and grow, outside entities that started doing things like poaching our speakers and paying them more than we were and giving them longer-term deals and profit-sharing agreements.”
However, she says, in one of the cases she observed up close, the association under competitive assault managed to survive and prosper by exercising their advantage as a nonprofit organization. By analyzing the average cost per continuing education credit in their industry and then lowering their prices, they were able to undermine the profit motive of the competitor.
Even more important, Saglam says, is the elemental point that if an association truly delivers genuine thought leadership for its industry and embodies that in its educational programs, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for any outside entity to compete successfully.
Nevertheless, Marsh says, she expects the competition from non-association entities to continue to increase and intensify, which means that in order to remain competitive, associations must up their games considerably.
“More and more private companies will realize that these needs exist, and in many cases, are not being met,” Marsh says. “So, that means there is an opportunity to make money, and they will take advantage of that opportunity. And, associations are often not as nimble as for-profit companies when it comes to identifying and taking advantage of opportunities.”
The key factor that too frequently limits the ability of associations to recognize and exploit timely opportunities, Marsh says, is that associations tend to be more collaborative and slower-moving than private enterprises. “When associations consider these things, there are just more people at the table when decisions are being made — and they tend to debate issues like what to offer, why to offer it, who to target and so on. And, when you do those things by committee, they are by definition, more challenging. That means private companies can move more quickly and be more successful.”
Saglam agrees with Marsh’s assessment. The appropriate response to that internal challenge, she says, is to focus discussions on specific learning objectives and decisions based on “a comprehensive needs assessment.” In addition, she says, “you have to look at cycling out old content and developing more specific content that is related to your industry going forward. The most important thing is to focus on providing education that people cannot get elsewhere. That is what creates real value.”
For associations that want to compete and thrive in the current and future educational arenas, the most important key is a laser-like focus, Marsh says. “The associations that are responding most successfully to the challenges they’re facing are the ones that do not try to be ‘everything to everyone.’ They set very clear strategic priorities, and they focus their attention and energy on those priorities. They’re not distracted by the latest shiny thing that pops up in front of them. They say, ‘This is our niche, this is what our members say they need and want, and this is how we’re going to give that to them.’ They use hard data to make those decisions, and they focus on what is going to be most beneficial for their members.”
In order to help clients accomplish that, Marsh preaches that they focus on what she calls concept and strategy. “That means taking everything about your education programs and making that part of your larger organizational strategy. That is especially important to associations whose conferences are taken for granted. Your conferences usually should be treated totally differently from other educational opportunities. Nothing should be taken for granted. Your conferences should be focused on the current and future needs of your attendees and how you can meet those needs. Making those kinds of decisions properly requires a lot of work, and that work needs to be driven by actual data. Then, you have to get all the right players in the organization on board to move forward.
“The other thing I talk about,” Marsh says, “is that innovative strategies for how you educate people are becoming more and more important. How you engage people is the most important consideration. The experience that people have as part of the educational program is very important. A focus on that experience is going to continue to become more and more important, as well.”
It all falls under the hot-topic banner of so-called “experiential meetings,” she says, citing examples such as shorter, more precisely focused TED-style talks and highly interactive sessions, as opposed to the traditional long general sessions and “talk at attendees rather than with them” one-way presentations.
In order for associations to truly deliver a fresh kind of impact at their meetings, the ability for people to engage and interact with content is critical, Petrillo says. “That can start with the way the room is set up, with things like flexible furnishings that are very different from the typical furniture at meetings. Another trend is to minimize the requirements for audio-visual or Power Point presentations. The biggest thing I’ve talked about for a few years now is conferences that are what I call ‘speaker-free.’ What that means is you build content around a facilitator rather than a traditional speaker, and that person focuses on getting attendees engaged and interacting. It means stepping away from the idea that there is just one person in the room who is standing up there and making a Power Point presentation.”
Genuine innovation now requires that the speaker or facilitator “moves away from being the ‘leader’ of the session,” Petrillo says. “There should no longer be the traditional call for speakers or presentations. What there should be is the development of different learning objectives and activities that people do together. You have attendees in the room who want to talk about problems, talk about solutions to those problems, and learn together. That is based on real-life examples from people in the room, not from the traditional speaker or expert at the front of the room.”
Instead of a traditional presentation, she says, sessions should be based on a series of issues or challenges, or broad talking points, that are addressed as a group by attendees.
A further refinement of the concept, Petrillo says, is to at some point, have the attendees break down into smaller sub-groups who discuss among themselves an aspect of the broader topic. Those groups reconvene in a broader discussion that brings all the basic perspectives that have been highlighted in smaller groups.
“That’s how real learning happens — by thinking about and sharing experience and expertise,” Petrillo says. “That’s entirely different from having someone talk ‘at’ people and tell them what they should be doing. It’s attendees talking, from different perspectives, of what they actually are doing in their jobs and what the outcomes are.”
Petrillo does not yet see what she describes as a genuine trend. The reason why not, she says, is that traditional conferences and events remain “very focused on what room we’re in and what time we move around our educational sessions. As we move to competency-based education, we have to let the learners spend as much time learning as they need. And that means more flexible and open-ended scheduling. For example, you could have human resources people in a room for two hours talking about the employee performance review process. You find that half the people in the room want to continue that discussion [as opposed to going off to another session] and get into even more difficult issues as they perceive them. That means you have to be open to that kind of flexible scheduling and be able to accommodate those follow-up sessions. You have to be able to say to people, ‘You can stay right here for as long as you need, and really take a deep dive into your topic.”
Petrillo practiced that approach for more than five years in previous jobs before she joined CSI.
She also knows of other planners and organizations that are implementing it successfully. Among them is the California Society of Association Executives.
In the future, she says, more and more associations will follow and adopt the early examples as a matter of necessity — and survival. As a result, the longstanding “Chinese menu” of scheduled breakout sessions with strict time limits will become a thing of the past.
One challenge: Introverted attendees can be uncomfortable with the “open forum” setting and perceived pressure to participate. “Doing sessions this way requires a different skill set from the traditional model,” Petrillo says. “It takes a facilitator who understands adult learning and personality types and the ways in which you motivate people to participate. It’s completely different from what most meeting planners and attendees are used to. That means facilitators have to be very well-trained. It also means you have to learn to be flexible with the timing and length of sessions to try to determine what is enough time for people to be fully engaged around a particular topic.”
In order to survive, prosper and grow, Petrillo says, association meeting planners “need to start thinking about education based on clear learning objectives and their application back at work. It’s about planning sessions that have takeaways. You want attendees to walk out of your sessions saying, ‘I see how that applies to me, and how I do my job. And now, I’m going to go back to the office and use this information to actually do something.’ That’s what the focus should be. It’s not about, ‘Let’s just bring a speaker into a room and count it as an hour of continuing education credits. It’s not about the amount of time or who the speaker is. It’s about the content and how that content really makes people better at their jobs and more confident of career advancement.”
An important related best practice, Saglam says, is to “listen to your learners, understand their needs, and even if just incrementally at the beginning, start to address those needs. That’s because all of the experts in the association world have been telling us for the last five years that the association market is changing. Whereas, you used to be able to depend on a certain number of members attending your annual conference each year and renewing their memberships at the conference. There are now so many choices out there for where people get their information and knowledge that you have to realize you have to do a better job. If we want to continue to bring people to our meetings, we have to make sure we’re engaging them in the ways they want and need to be engaged. Then, you have to provide ways for people to share their educational experiences beyond the conference. There has to be a lot more thinking about how to build bridges that go beyond your conference and extend knowledge.” AC&F