5 concepts for associations we’ve learned in professional education.

That’s after 15 years of success and even the mistakes which made them possible.


In professional education, like in any field, there’s a preponderance of misconceptions which affect our daily practices and implementations. And the risky part is when they start cementing into practices.

Here are five key concepts to consider when developing education programs for your association. They typically go against common perceptions (the misleading ones) we face in professional education. These come from our learnings in this field, and are based on mistakes we’d like to help you and your association avoid.

Focus on content quality over special effects wizardry.
From what we’ve seen, organizations large and small face the same challenges. Those commonly include pressure to constantly release content to demanding audiences; align with board member expectations on quality; and keep up with competitors—some with deeper, for-profit budgets. This drives many to think they must blow away the audience with special effects George Lucas would envy.

Most likely, though, your budget will be drained in no time, and it won’t necessarily bring you the engagement you seek. Adult learners are pragmatic. They seek content they need—not yet necessarily in amazing formats. Focus on simplified formats (such as Khan Academy) which can be easily produced with your existing resources and either on-hand or nearby talent. Content relevance wins over graphics and visual details. Get buy-in with quick wins to build momentum. Larger investments will come in time; with captive audiences and ones you can survey about needs for which they will pay larger amounts.

Avoid mandated paths and Draconian rules.
Just as adult learners are pragmatic and understanding in most cases, they are also impatient to seemingly needless rules or obstacles which prevent self-directed learning. A common example is the requirement of prerequisites before content is released to the participant, as in, you must complete “A” before getting course “B.” These put an unneeded burden on the learner and prevent them from their choice of navigation. Another is the complex rules to maintain certification requirements; programs which make it difficult to understand how to earn and/or maintain credits.

We always tell clients “think Chipotle.” Chipotle has realized tremendous success in the way they’ve simplified menus, ingredients and ordering by way of easy choices. Chipotle’s highly-efficient line-up process is an industry leader, and they’re now trying to further improve.

Offer chunks and nuggets, not volumes of content.
When you assemble content, think of the sitting times allotted to professionals throughout their day. Most have parts of a day they can devote to learning, which comes in slots of 15 minutes or less. While there are dedicated times, after hours and on weekends, adult learners are like overall consumers in their online behavior, and you should consider data companies like Google have captured about consumer preferences. Most consumers (read learners) go on with their day by way of a multi-screen experience, whereby they may start a search or view on a mobile device and then carry it through to other devices, even a desktop at some point.

The key is there’s no single device target. We must allow for content options which facilitate the multi-screen experience. This doesn’t mean expensive content development. It’s about variable formats, ones friendly to key platforms and devices. They can be easily solved with simple video, PDFs, a quick audio clip or podcast recording, responsive HTML templates, and even basic SCORM/xAPI modules.

Avoid common stereotypes of generational preferences.
One of the great innovations of the past 10 years has been the usability of portable devices. Apple, Google and Samsung have simplified the experience of highly-powerful devices which consumers—irrespective of age—have adopted at a rapid pace. So much so, we cannot and should not make assumptions on who uses what devices.

A good way to determine this is to survey the analytics your association website already generates. This data, although anonymous, can be extrapolated against your membership. We’re seeing mobile traffic and device usage in the range of 25% to 40% of overall traffic, which means in most organizations this accounts for multiple generations of users.

So, avoid stereotypes. No matter their age, newer internet consumers are savvy. Dive deeper using real data to find out preferences. Design for options and learner preferences and not for generational stereotypes.

Align with experts, not self-labeled gurus.
In many learning implementations, we find third-party consultants involved may not have the real hands-on experience of designing, strategizing and/or implementing learning programs and course development. This seems endemic to the association space, and we find it troubling to have such inexperienced consultants lead decisions on professional education.

Look to align with groups which have had a track record of leading education programming analysis, design and development. Groups like Tagoras, Artisan Learning, BlueStreak Learning, DelCor and Nardone Consulting have in-house experts who are experienced about various aspects of the professional education marketplace and can assist you in the process. A key item to validate from your vendor is their experience and bench strength in working to develop education technologies.

Key takeaways.
So, these were five key concepts to counter popular misconceptions. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it gives you a start on building professional education programs for success.

As professional educators, we compete with consumer attention and eyeballs which are constantly delighted by the likes of Facebook and Google. Don’t lose hope, though; we can still exist. The authors of a Harvard Business Review book “The Power of Little Ideas: A Low-Risk, High-Reward Approach to Innovation” have some good advice.

They position an iterative, tweak-not-disrupt model which feels comfortable for associations. We leave you with a concept the authors call the Third Way: “There is another way that is proven and uniquely different. The controlled development of complementary innovations around a central product, an approach we call the Third Way, can deliver explosive growth without the high cost and risk of radical disruption.”

Our ideas are not disruptive, and purposefully so. We believe adjustments and iterations are highly-effective ways to bring innovation to the learning programs of your association.

About The Author

Tamer Ali
Tamer Ali

Tamer, SVP of Education at YourMembership, has been working in education technologies for more than 12 years. He believes many of the world's problems can be solved through better education, and that technology can help deliver this promise more effectively (and faster).

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