Is your association a learning organization? A learning organization is one "that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself". According to this definition, this type of organization is more responsive to external pressures, has a faster pace of change within the organization, and is better able to innovate and remain competitive. A learning organization becomes more like a community that members can feel a commitment to. Do any of these themes sound familiar to your association? Though the label of 'learning organization' is more usually applied to corporate organizations, the concept is becoming more relevant to associations, especially in light of several recently published whitepapers that highlight the need for changes in the provision of continuing professional education and the levels of technology usage by association members.
Two recently recently published articles in Associations Now magazine reference the report "Tech Success for Associations" and challenge associations to:
- think strategically about how they use technology to serve their members,
- learn quickly how to adapt their use of technology to better support members' expectations.
The second article points out that association members are much more "tech savvy" than association executives may think. The articles outlines that "association members expect technology to support and enhance all aspects of their member experience", while "just 9 percent of associations rank their IT maturity as innovative and 29 percent describe it as highly effective". This pressure from members for more technology could be a real challenge for associations, and the first article describes how association leaders need to understand members’ technology needs, and decide how to integrate technology into the association’s overall strategy.
There has already been much discussion about the whitepaper, “The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm”, which has generated significant conversation about how associations need to lead change with education programs to help bridge the growing gap between academic training and employers needs in a rapidly changing society. This whitepaper makes several recommendations to help associations review their strategy and ready themselves to become a leading voice in changing the way we provide continuing education, professional development, and certification to professional learners. Also highlighted in this whitepaper is the need for associations “to keep up with the rapidly evolving expectations of a more sophisticated educational consumer”, by being willing to invest in technologies, such as learning management systems, that will support a variety of different delivery models for education programs and may help them to increase participation and engagement in education and certification programs.
The key recurring theme in these whitepapers and the ensuing discussions is that associations need to adapt and change their strategies, especially concerning the use of technology, to become more competitive and innovative in the face of changing external pressures. Also a key theme is the need to include members and executives from multiple departments in association management in discussions about how to achieve this, welcoming knowledge sharing and engagement from the entire association in this process. In other words... associations need to implement a culture of learning throughout the association's community of staff and members in order to become learning organizations - to ensure the future success of their organization.
Is your Association a Learning Organization
So, how can associations adopt a learning culture and strategic plan that will enable them to become learning organizations?
Watkins and Marsick (as referenced in Watkins and O'Neill (2013)), two of the leading researchers in organizational learning, emphasized several actions as essential building blocks required to create a learning organization. These include (but are not limited to) the need to:
- "create continuous learning opportunities",
- "encourage collaboration and team learning",
- "establish systems to capture and share learning", and
- "provide strategic leadership for learning".
A very interesting research paper titled "Professional Associations as Learning Systems: Learning + Strategy + Action = Strategic Learning" outlines the process that one international professional association undertook to "integrate the principles of a learning organization into its core business initiatives through the strategic planning process." This association adapted the The Dimensions of the Learning Organization questionnaire, which was developed by Watkins and Marsick to help analyze the characteristics and qualities of a learning organization. The association changed the phrasing of certain questions to make the questionnaire more applicable to a non-profit membership organization.
Following the process, the association learned that "By embedding learning within the strategic actions of the organization, a dynamic framework for planning provides the means for continuous and productive learning. These strategic learning practices become the foundation for being able to manage and transform in a complex and competitive world".
Other associations may not have the resources to engage in such a formal process, but can reference the online questionnaire and research paper to help create a series of questions for association leaders that will guide a review of learning across the organization and provide the data needed to guide strategic planning. Here are examples of some statements from the questionnaire which may be useful:
- In my organization, people openly discuss mistakes in order to learn from them.
- In my organization, teams/groups revise their thinking as a result of group discussions or information collected.
- My organization invites people to contribute to the organization's vision.
- The number of program completions by our members is greater than last year.
- The success rate of the [association's] services/programs for members is greater than last year
The level of agreement with these statements will help associations to determine what characteristics of their organizational culture and strategic plans may need to change in order to become more adaptable to change, more innovative and more of a learning organization.
Why is technology important in learning organizations?
Why is there a need for associations to adapt their strategic planning to incorporate more technology?
Returning to the building blocks of a learning organization, the appropriate technologies can help set a good foundation for a learning organization. Though other systems may also help to create these building blocks, in particular an association learning management system can help to:
- "create continuous learning opportunities" - With the anytime, anywhere access provided by a cloud LMS with responsive design for mobile devices, learners have the opportunity to access learning at any time, not just at the annual conference. Add to this a well-curated catalog of engaging content and assessments that challenge learners, continuous learning opportunities are provided through the LMS for continuing education and/or certification.
- "encourage collaboration and team learning" - An LMS can be used to support social and collaborative team learning in a number of ways. Collaborative learning can be supported by an LMS through the use of discussion forums, online learning communities, and by incorporating an element of reflective learning into courses or assessments.
Putting the appropriate systems in place to help collect and analyze information from both staff and members which will help to inform the strategic planning process is crucial and will enable the association to make informed strategy decisions, based on data and input from staff and members. Systems can be processes such as regular team reviews following completion of a project, survey questionnaires for staff or members, or appropriate software solutions which will collect and report relevant usage data. Using the examples above from the questionnaire, the number of program completions and the success rate of the associations programs could be measured with data from the association learning management system. A wealth of data is collected by software systems such as learning management systems, which can be accessed and shared easily through standard or custom reports. This data can include completion information for courses, training histories, certification records, measures of engagement in online communities or discussion forums, purchase information, feedback from members in post-learning surveys, etc. All of this data can be used to help guide organizational learning and inform part of the strategic planning process for association leaders to better serve their members and be more competitive in the changing world of continuing professional education.