How to Spot Emerging Educational Needs Your Competitors Are Overlooking

Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager made famous by the movie Moneyball, paid attention to data that other baseball teams were ignoring.

Warren Buffet made his fortune by investing in undervalued companies overlooked by Wall Street.

Jerry Seinfeld created a hit TV show based on the absurdities of everyday life that no one talked about. 

They all became successful by noticing and paying attention to things their competitors didn’t. In his new book, The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday, Rob Walker explains how you can do that too. He says:

“Anybody interested in thinking creatively seeks (needs) to notice what has been overlooked or ignored by others, to get beyond distractions and attend to the world… pick up on the subtle clues and details that sail past everyone else.”

His book comes along as many of us are experimenting with digital detox and mindfulness in an attempt to shift attention from our screens to the world around us. But, phones aren’t the only problem. The busier we get, the more efficient we get with our time, maximizing our productivity and packing our schedules full. This exhausting cycle leaves us no time to think, no time to discover new opportunities, and no time to spot emerging educational needs of our members and marketplace.

What would happen if you followed Walker’s advice to build your attention muscle? What could your association do differently if you and your colleagues learned how to shift from everyday thinking and notice what other people and organizations aren’t seeing?

Gain market share by spotting emerging educational needs missed by others

Online education has become a crowded marketplace. Because accelerating change has created the need for new skills, there’s no lack of market demand for professional development. Associations once had an advantage in the certification and lifelong learning business, but new well-funded competitors see opportunities in your market. 

Colleges and universities, and online platforms like LinkedIn, Coursera, EdX, and Udemy, are aggressively going after the companies and individuals who need training. These online platforms are financially secure thanks to venture capital. They can afford to experiment with new content and delivery formats.

Even if your association’s slate of programs is popular now, you need to keep up with and ahead of market needs by:

•    Listening to what people are really saying.
•    Paying attention to behavior and discovering what’s most important to your members and marketplace.
•    Seeing patterns, trends, and opportunities that other organizations overlook.

If you build your attention muscle, you will find market gaps and emerging educational needs. But, if you wait too long to act, someone else will capture your market. Become indispensable to professionals in your industry by noticing what they need now and will need in the future—see what other organizations don’t see.

spot emerging educational needs

9 ways to exercise your attention muscle

Walker’s book provides 131 ways to become better at noticing what others overlook, many of which you can try out at work. We’re focusing on nine ways you and your colleagues can practice exercising your attention muscle and spotting emerging educational needs. 

#1: Mystery shopping (or spying)

Instead of mystery shopping your own association, find out what your competitors are doing. Ok, maybe this is more like spying. What’s working for them and what isn’t? What’s the customer and learner experience like? 

A Harvard Business Review article describes how a financial hedge fund manager gives his staff $500 each to open bank accounts across the city and report back on their experience. “When you ask lots of smart people to train their collective eyes on a part of the financial marketplace, they notice things that others miss.”

#2: What would Jeff Bezos do?

Answer questions about your programs, industry, and members from the perspective of an innovative business mind or brand, like Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Or, adopt the mindset of an innovator in your industry. What type of educational program would they pay their employees to attend? How would they design this program if they were offering it in-house or offering it for sale? 

#3: Outsider point of view

Seeing things with a “beginners mind” helps you get out of your own echo chamber. Invite non-members, young professionals, or people in your target audience who aren’t familiar with your programs to help you explore challenges, needs, and opportunities. 

You could start by having them mystery shop your educational programs. Find out what their user and learner experience was like—and what they would prefer. You may learn about issues of exclusivity, price sensitivity, scheduling, or irrelevance. Brainstorm together about what would help them achieve goals, design their future, and progress in their career. 

#4: Questioning and listening

Don’t assume you know what someone thinks and feels. If you want to get to the truth, if you want to peel away the layers to get down to someone’s real emotions, motivations, and constraints, you must keep asking “Why.” Ask questions and listen to responses with empathy.

#5: What do you wish…

People tell you what they think you want to hear—the practical response. Give them permission to dream big and come up with wild ideas. Nothing is off limits. Amidst the impractical, you may start to see a path you want to explore. 

Keep a channel open on your website for this type of feedback. In your newsletters, periodically ask members and non-members to provide a wish list for where they’d like you to go in the future. What’s not practical today may be practical in a few short years.

spot emerging educational needs

#6: Exercising your idea muscle

A successful warm-up for brainstorming is asking everyone to come up with lots of bad ideas first. This exercise loosens people up and gets them out of their self-aware judgement mode. 

Venture capitalist and podcaster James Altucher practices this by writing down ten (or more) ideas every morning. By coming up with any ideas, even lousy or embarrassing ones, your brain gets used to ideation. Eventually, you’re bound to come up with a few good ideas. Become an Idea Machine, by Claudia Azula Altucher, provides prompts for daily idea exercises.

#7: A day in the life

Become an anthropologist of sorts by observing members in their natural habitat. An article at Associations Now describes how several associations spend a day (or more) in the life of their members.

#8: Outlier perspective

Talk to industry outliers, you know the ones, the contrarians, rebels, and critics who intimidate (or annoy) your board and senior staff. Or the ones who awestruck them, the respected influencers and provoking thought leaders in your industry.

Have a frank conversation with them about your industry and association. 

•    What vulnerabilities do they see? 
•    What opportunities missed?
•    How is the industry and/or your association not ready for the future?
•    What should they do to prepare for the future?
•    What do people need to know that they don’t know?

You may end up causing them to change their perspective about your association. If they see you taking a risk and trying to become more relevant, they may even become a fan.

#9: Imaginary TED conference

Gather a group of innovative thinkers—members and non-members—and ask them: 

•    What topics would you see at an imaginary TED conference for your industry?
•    Who would the speakers be? Who’s experimenting with a new practice or strategy?
•    Who’s working on out-there stuff?

Who says this has to be an imaginary conference? Use what you learn to plan a virtual and/or in-person TED-like summit, or series of webcasts. 

Taking what you notice back to the office

Exciting new ideas still require some due diligence. You can’t throw money and time at just any idea, but, after assessing its viability, you can experiment in small ways with a webinar or mini-course. Gauge its potential by marketing it widely and making it a low-investment learning opportunity. 

Watch out for looming culture clashes. It’s natural for people to fear and avoid change and possible failure. The “not on my watch” mentality can be hard to overcome. Keep leaders’ focus on the good of the industry, not their egos. This resistance to change is another reason why small steps are best when proposing something “wild.”

Share the risk, if necessary. Partner with another organization or industry influencer. If you see someone going in a direction you admire, consider giving them a platform in return for a revenue share.

Break from the pack and break from the past. When you spend time paying attention to signs and wonders, you’ll start noticing what others are missing. You’ll create a more exciting and rewarding future for your association and your members.

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