“Mark,” a colleague at another trade association, called me awhile back saying he had a question about sending out his Request For Proposals (RFP).

“All I really need to know is where to send it,” he said. “I mean, how do you find the vendors to send the RFP to?”

“It depends on the type of project you’re doing,” I replied.

“Well,” he said, “we want to do an online program on a new regulation our members need to know about.”

“Okay,” I said. “Will it be part of a certification program?”

“Maybe,” he said. “We haven’t come to complete agreement on that yet.”

“What type of e-Learning are you planning to develop – a Webinar or an asynchronous course?” I asked.

He paused. “Well, we’re thinking Webinar …. What’s the other option you mentioned?”

The Alice in Wonderland quandry

Mark’s situation isn’t uncommon: his association had some goals for their online learning program and a possible first topic, but where this content fit into a broader curriculum – one that could require an investment in an LMS or LCMS – was hazy at best. He wasn’t clear about the full range of available online learning modes, opting automatically for the one that was most familiar.

Venturing into the unknown territory of e-Learning one step at a time is wise, but without a strategy Mark was just putting one foot ahead of the other – he could have been leading his association down the wrong trail. And you know the old saying – if you don’t know where you’re going, you could end up anywhere.

As much as many of us would like to believe we’re “not like Mark,” the fact is that we are. We get the go-ahead to initiate some aspect of our e-Learning agenda, and – say no more! – we’re all over it, ready to take action, get the vendor on board, and make it happen.

But acting tactically before you act strategically drops you squarely in Mark’s shoes. Writing and issuing an RFP is a tactic. And tactics only work if they emerge from a clearly defined strategy.

Sound like a waste of time? We’ve all been there:

  • Enduring committee meetings that spend so much time tweaking certain words that by the time the meeting closes any semblance of “strategy” has been erased entirely.
  • Fashioning a carefully designed plan, only to see it ignored by those it was most meant to help.
  • Discovering that, when you need it the most, the strategy doesn’t provide the options or versatility required for fast-changing circumstances.

If “Mark” had been working from a strategy, he would have known the type or types of online learning his association intended to develop and how this particular project fit into the over all plan. And, depending on the detail of his plan, he might have known the size of his budget, his timeline, and other important details that would have guided him to the type of vendor he would eventually seek, and what he would need from that vendor.

Subversive strategies

The strategy is the foundation – the groundwork – from which everything else emerges. If you lay a poor foundation, or none at all, don’t expect the building to stand. Even if you can’t get your committee or leadership to buy into creating an education or e-Learning strategy, take the time to develop one anyway. Call it “subversive strategy” if you will. If it helps no one else, it will help you, and that’s all that matters, especially if you’ll be the one to take on RFPs in the future.

Those of us in associations saw the late 2008 economy fall apart right before our eyes. Soaring fuel prices and increased airfares meant originally budgeted travel expenses were no longer affordable; some organizations began denying travel requests for professional development events across the board. Registrations for association-sponsored face-to-face events dropped about 20% across the board. We cancelled programs, losing important revenue, and were suddenly faced with the dictate to find something – anything – that would fill the void. The smart education leaders had a strategy they were following, and the economic crisis – at worst – meant flipping a few priorities while their goals never changed. Maybe their education committee knew about the strategy, maybe not. But those who had one were able to get buy-in from the board of directors for their next steps much more quickly than those who did not.

Strategic plans often fail because they are documents written in a vacuum, rather than the result of a rigorous process of exploration and discovery. You might think that bringing your education committee together; inviting representatives from marketing, membership, or other function areas to hear their voices; and working through a long weekend will result in a viable plan, but that’s not necessarily so. In such a meeting, for better or worse, the most influential and loudest voices will carry the day. Instead of leaving your strategic meeting to chance, you should turn to the association’s resources to inform your education strategy rather than drive it. Set the stage with facts and data. Though they can be argued, they temper the loudest voices. And, along the way, you gain credibility as the education expert upon whose judgment they’ll rely in the future.

Process, not product

It’s easy to focus on a product, maybe because our references to the strategy often include words like “plan” and “document.” You can say, “This is a working document,” but it still feels like something concrete and unchangeable. Because – in associations – editing can be a complex task involving a special project team, so we prefer to avoid making changes if we can. This leads to a stagnant strategy.

The alternative is to focus on unearthing information and data from which you can forge a flexible yet viable strategy. What follows are some key areas to explore, though your process is likely to vary, depending on the education function and its structure within your association.

Admit what you don’t know

Enter the process with a willingness to follow its lead, leaving your preconceived ideas about what might be “best” behind. Believe it or not, you could be wrong. You might think you know your members and what they’ll respond to online – after all, you have a lot of information about them, and you’ve been delivering face-to-face programs successfully for years. E-Learning is different than face-to-face, and it requires a different way of thinking. Members you would expect to embrace online learning might not; those you thought would resist could be your greatest advocates.

Just because e-Learning is new to your association, don’t assume it will be new to your members, too. Sometimes we forget our members have lives much wider than involvement in our association: they could be accessing e-Learning from work or home – even through another association or organization. Hard to admit, isn’t it? Only through careful investigation will you find out the extent of their familiarity with e-Learning. You might be surprised to discover they’re as familiar with online learning as you are, maybe more so. In any case, you need to find out if they’ve taken any online learning offerings and if so, what types. Ask how they are accessing online learning – via laptops or mobile devices? High-speed wireless? Cable? Corporate intranet? You should profile each segment of your membership because it’s possible they will have different experiences with e-Learning. Such a profile will help you determine the type, frequency, and level of interactivity of e-Learning you should produce. And all of these factors will influence the priorities you eventually will place on your e-Learning opportunities.

This process of investigation should also uncover any obstacles to success. For example, if members are accessing free Webinars from competitors, you’ll need to carefully consider whether to charge a fee for yours.

Building the foundation

Without support for your initiatives, even the most carefully crafted strategy will fail. Finding the links between your association’s mission, vision, and core values will help you build the case for e-Learning in your association, or provide the basis for continued support and maintenance of current offerings. For example, if your association’s strategy for the next five years includes growing membership without increasing dues beyond current levels, decide how e-Learning can support that goal.

Though we don’t often think about who ultimately makes critical decisions in our education programs, we should. It might seem simple to say, “Oh, well, the education committee has always decided what programs we’ll offer,” but any expensive and highly visible program is likely to be treated differently. This has certainly been the case for e-Learning projects at many associations. Documenting now who will “own” the decision-making process for your e-Learning projects could save you a fair amount of grief later. Seeing a project’s momentum shudder to a complete stop because no one wants to make a hard call will cost you lost time, money, and precious sleep.


Learning value chain and content summary

If Mark had known about e-Learning options beyond Webinars, he might have made a different choice for delivering his identified content. The easiest path to e-Learning is to choose what’s most familiar, but – as we all know – easiest isn’t always best.

Taking the time to lay out all the content options, matching them to the most appropriate e-Learning delivery modalities, and prioritizing them in terms of time, cost, and other resources are necessary steps. The resulting picture of the full curriculum, including a map showing how content will be presented via Webinars, asynchronously, and via instructor-led modules, provides a holistic view from which pieces and parts can be added, subtracted, moved, and changed. If your car suddenly quits running, you’d rather change the part that’s gone bad rather than the entire engine, wouldn’t you? It’s the same thing: if your education curriculum suddenly needs to change, you cannot make adaptations on the fly if all you can see are the pieces. A learning value chain shows exactly how the various courses, events, and other educational offerings contribute to each other and the whole.

Opportunities and priorities

A well-structured learning value chain will suggest your opportunities. In particular, it will help you identify content that can be re-purposed online, or to which additional e-Learning can enhance an existing face-to-face program. Prioritized, these opportunities become your initiatives. Your learning value chain can also identify gaps in your curriculum and put member program requests into the broader context. As you construct your learning value chain, consider what your competition is (or isn’t) offering, whether revenue could be generated (and whether it should), and how under-utilized constituencies might contribute, either by providing content or financial support through sponsorships or partnerships.

Assume you won’t have time, money, or personnel to accomplish everything, so prioritizing is imperative. What do you need to accomplish through your association’s e-Learning program? Increased membership? Higher levels of member participation? More members who achieve certification? Earlier licensure renewals?

Given those goals, decide what’s most important to offer online – the project that should be tackled first. Consider which opportunity should be pursued if the first one doesn’t pan out, and which projects could be developed concurrently, making the most of your time and, perhaps, your outsourcing dollar.

Don’t misunderstand this point in the process – you are not determining your tactics. You are not identifying or assigning responsibilities or tasks. You’re simply identifying opportunities for development, and prioritizing them based on need and available resources.

Infrastructure and technology

You also need to think about how equipped you are to offer e-Learning. If your small association relies on a company you pay by the hour, it’s even more important that you know exactly what you plan to do and how you will do it. Otherwise you’ll obliterate your budget just talking with your IT consultant, all before a single e-Learning offering goes live.

Unfortunately, too many association leaders decide they “need a LMS.” They invest thousands of dollars in systems that are inadequately used, or don’t work well with the membership management system already in place. When this goes on without an IT staff person to sort it out, the situation can balloon into large, unanticipated costs that will jeopardize your e-Learning initiative.

Knowing your members helps here. You have very different options if they can readily connect to the Web using high-speed access versus being in remote locations where such access isn’t available.

If your e-Learning offerings will be part of a certification or licensure program, you will make very different infrastructure choices. Decide very specifically if you must track certain information and create reports summarizing that data. Know what you can spend. Remember: everything you want is available – and an eager vendor will be happy to sell it to you – so keeping your list to “needs” instead of “wants” will keep your budget healthy.

Human resources

Too often we think to plan for hardware and software without giving a second thought to the human support required for everything we do – online or not. If you opt for a fabulous but complicated plan, who will answer questions about registrations? Online access? Course content? Who will man the phones? Answer e-mails? Send out marketing and promotional information to members, or press releases and advertising to the media? Who will design and prepare those materials?

Your strategy is driven in large part by the size of your staff, and the skill sets of the staff members and volunteers available to you. Even the best e-Learning plans fall apart when there’s no one to support them. For example, the types of skills your staff and volunteers possess determine whether you should produce your own e-Learning offerings or outsource them. If no volunteer or staff member is able to serve as the moderator for a live Webinar, why produce it in-house rather than hire a company to do it for you?

Assumptions, risks, and success

We all make assumptions. Are you assuming that the association will always give certain support for a particular initiative? That funding will remain constant? Writing out your assumptions can be an eye-opening exercise – one that will help shape your strategy.

What risks are inherent? Could the board decide to slice the requested budget but expect the same result? Could a key vendor go belly-up? Identify everything you believe could put your e-Learning program in jeopardy. Then identify what should be done to avoid or alleviate the fallout from each risk. Whose expectations need to be managed around risks that can’t be avoided nor alleviated? Having a carefully planned risk mitigation plan will go a long way in gaining the trust and confidence of your association leaders and members.

Sometimes just launching a first or second e-Learning event and having people register feels like a triumph, but you need real measures of success so you can plan for future e-Learning programs and justify additional investment in them. While it’s tempting to create criteria that are easily met (“Look at how successful our online learning has been!”), only specific measures will benefit you in the long run. Your success should be based on how well you met the goals of your initiative – as you defined them earlier. Adding specific numbers gives you something to measure: “Success will be achieved if our e-Learning programs increase the overall participation in our education programs by 25%.” Maybe you need to be sure these additional 25% are spread across all chapters. Why not establish your baseline now, so you’ll have something to measure your performance against later?

Pulling it all together

Strategies are just that – strategies. They are game plans for tackling challenges, achieving goals, and providing the background for task lists and action items. While it’s important to document your strategy so you can share it and refer to it, the format should take whatever form best fits your needs. You might find that a few different documents are most useful – a broad education strategy and a sub-strategy that focuses on e-Learning has worked for many organizations.

You might find that you need to include a timeline or a projected budget, areas not covered here because of their complexity. Whatever you decide to cover in your strategy should be based on research, evidence, and analysis. Those are hard to argue, and will make it easier to sell your strategy and any initiatives it covers.

Resist the temptation to put out a call to colleagues for copies of strategic plans to use as a model. There’s great value in collaboration and best practices, but you risk focusing on product, rather than the process, if you rely on someone else’s model.

If Mark’s call had been the result of following a strategic planning process, he would have known whether he was seeking a vendor to produce a Webinar or create an asynchronous course, or if they needed to investigate LMS and LCMS options. Instead, he got a question back for every question he asked, rather than the recommendations and suggestions he was hoping to hear.

In the long run, the time you spend developing a workable strategy will ensure the money you invest in systems or software is well-spent, and that the content and delivery options you have chosen are well-received. Just don’t forget to re-visit your strategy – it’s a process you should continue to tweak, update, and use, not a binder collecting dust on your shelf.