Take an Integrated Approach to Education with a Learning Strategy

You would never let a contractor remodel your kitchen without a blueprint, or drive to a new destination without using Waze or Google Maps. Like all of us, you understand the importance of having a plan or roadmap for important activities. But many people don’t bring this same mindset to work. Surprisingly, 57 percent of associations don’t have a documented learning strategy, according to the Association Learning + Technology 2017 report from Tagoras.

Why your association needs a learning strategy

When you have a learning strategy that’s aligned with your association’s strategic plan, you’re more likely to get the support and resources you need for your educational programs. It’s clear for all to see that your work supports the goals deemed most important by your association’s leadership.

A learning strategy gives you solid ground to stand on. Decisions about content and delivery methods are guided by the strategy, not driven by every “great idea” of committee and board members.

You understand your target audience segments and their needs, thanks to the research you did prior to developing your learning strategy. You also can identify the skills most in demand by industry employers.

A learning strategy helps you prioritize resources, including the limited time and budget you have to develop and market education. As a result, a learning strategy helps your association generate more revenue from your programs.

A learning strategy supports collaboration, not competition

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? The association’s conference staff designs the educational program without input from any others on staff—and no one protests because the conference is a huge profit center. Meanwhile, another department develops its own content for the magazine, website, blog, newsletters, and podcast—and the rest of the staff learns about that content when the members do.

Your professional development department designs, develops, and delivers online learning programs, webinars, and maybe even certificate programs. Like the other departments, your team works in isolation. 

You’re all going after the same members and customers. You’re developing content on the same topics. You’re unaware of each other’s plans and priorities. You’re all spending time and money on market research that stays in silos. 

Many associations realize they need a learning strategy because they’re tired of seeing educational content developed, marketed, and delivered in silos. A learning strategy gives your association the opportunity to take an integrated approach to education. 

learning strategy meeting

Who's involved in developing a learning strategy?

Other departments may already have their own strategies, that’s fine. We’re talking about an overarching learning strategy here. One strategy flows to another, starting at the top with your association’s strategic plan. Your association’s learning strategy supports the strategic plan. The conference, website, and online learning strategies support the learning strategy. 

Invite key stakeholders: a representative from any department that produces educational content. You should also invite staff who market that content—that’s the only way to break down walls and better leverage resources.
Anyone who develops, markets, and delivers educational content of any form should know what their counterparts are doing. You shouldn’t be competing with each other, but rather complementing each other. 

But, you wonder, how are you going to get these people to the table? An executive sponsor will make that happen. An executive sponsor is someone who has bought into your idea because they see the value it will bring to the association. The sponsor will ensure the support of senior management and department heads. 

Before developing a strategy, do your homework 

You’ll find lots of advice on the web about developing strategy. Make sure discussions cover your association’s strengths, opportunities, challenges, and ways to overcome those challenges.

You’ll need market research and a needs assessment. Interview audience segments, both members and non-members, to find out what they need to learn now and in the near future. Talk with employers too so you can identify workforce skills gaps

Where’s your industry/profession going? What will members and employers need in the future? Asking members what they need is not enough. They may not know about changes in their profession or industry, or new technology they should be using. For example, think about association professionals. Many of them can’t imagine working without the help of inbound marketing, but others don’t even understand what it is.

Do a competitive analysis. Figure out your association’s differentiator

The Tagoras report found that only 15 percent of associations use the data they collect in their LMS to make decisions about educational products and services. What questions can your LMS data answer for you? 

learning strategy - using data to make decisions

What’s in a learning strategy?

Developing a learning strategy may sound overwhelming, but don’t give up on the idea. The strategy provides a basic framework for making decisions and knowing how to use limited resources. 

Most likely, your association’s strategic plan includes goals related to education—start there. 

•    How can education support your association’s strategic goals?
•    Is the strategic plan tackling challenges that require members to develop new skills and knowledge?
•    Does the plan mention new member or customer segments to pursue?
•    Is member engagement a priority? How can education support that?
•    Is your department expected to bring in more revenue this year?

The strategic plan combined with what you learned about target audience and employer needs will drive the development of your goals and strategies.

A key piece of the learning strategy is a content outline. This outline prioritizes the subject domains, topics, and subtopics that will be covered by your educational content and programs. It might be tempting to limit the outline to the domains established by your certification programs. But if these domains are only updated every four to five years, you’ll fall behind the times and not provide the training needed by today’s workforce.

Once the content outline is established, you can decide on delivery methods based on your target audiences’ preferences. The learning strategy must address resources—staffing and budget—to achieve your goals. And, of course, it must describe how you will measure success.

A learning strategy in action

Share the learning strategy with all stakeholders, both staff and members. Get everyone’s agreement that the strategy will guide program and content decisions. 

Use the strategy to identify gaps in your educational programming. For example, let’s say your strategy prioritizes training in a particular skill in response to market demands. However, you only have one webinar and two conference sessions scheduled on that topic. You may need to add an online program and a micro-credential that demonstrates mastery of that skill.

Refer to the strategy when you get program requests from committee members, board directors, officers, or senior staff. Does the program idea align with the strategy and content outline?

Your content outline also serves as a source for categories and tags on your association’s website, blog, and LMS. The knowledge management geeks on staff will love that.

Be ready to respond to new regulations and rapidly adopted technology—as long as you stay aligned with your organization’s overall strategy. What are you learning about your audiences from LMS, website, registration, and email data? What economic, societal, or technological changes have made an impact on your profession and industry? 

A learning strategy is a living document. Periodically review it with your education and content colleagues to make sure it’s still in alignment with your association’s goals and with market conditions. Your association’s learning strategy helps departments work together to more efficiently and effectively deliver value to members and others in your professional community.

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