5 Practices to Emulate from MSAE’s Third Thought Online Learning Initiative

BY Jeff Cobb

MSAE Third Thought

“Your first thoughts are about taking care of your family and your job. Your second thoughts are about strategy and moving things ahead while taking care of others. Your third thought should be about you….and improving yourself.”

I had the pleasure of keynoting at the Michigan Society of Association Executives’ 2015 OrgPro conference recently and along the way I was fortunate to learn about the organization’s efforts with online learning. Given that we’re aiming to offer more examples and case studies on the Tagoras site, it was a timely connection to make. While I have not yet had the opportunity to explore MSAE’s online platform, I can already highlight a range of things the organization is getting right – and that your organization may want to emulate. Here are five for starters:

It’s fueled by vision

You can tell when you first access MSAE’s Third Thought™ online learning initiative that it not simply a reactive response to “we’ve got to get into online learning somehow.” Language throughout the site reflects that the content, tools, and experiences Third Thought offers have been thoughtfully put together to address MSAE”s view that in “a dynamic world, associations need leaders with heightened expertise, understanding and awareness.”

Crucially, you can hear commitment to this view from MSAE President Cheryl Ronk and other organizational leaders when they talk about learning in general and Third Thought specifically. This may sound like a “soft” point, but I have found over many years of consulting with organizations that a lack of vision and leadership commitment is often the underlying reason why so many educational businesses – online or off – flounder.

It’s got a name and a brand

There is a lot of power in how things are named. We’ve made the point before, for example, that if you want to charge appropriately for your Webinars, one of the most important steps you can take is to stop calling them Webinars.  By giving a product or initiative a name that is non-generic you can then start the process of imbuing that name with meaning and value over time. MSAE is doing that with Third Thought, and clearly has an eye toward developing it as a brand.

This is a point not to be missed: associations typically already have a brand in the sector they serve. It’s a tremendous asset in standing out against competition – including general competition for learners’ attention. Every organization should have an intentional, structured approach to brand building these days, and it is increasingly valuable to extend this effort to specific products and lines of business. It’s one of the key approaches organizations have to standing out against the MOOCs, market makers, and long list of other options learners now have.

It’s not just about courses

Courses will probably always be an important part of the learning landscape, but clearly we are at a point where many other types of content and experiences are recognized as equally, if not more important. MSAE acknowledges this upfront in noting that “access to model documents (why create the wheel?), instructional videos, informative articles, self-assessments, and on-demand learning to save you time and make your job easier.”

Self-assessment, by the way, is an important part of the initiative. Again, MSAE isn’t just throwing some courses up and hoping they stick. The assessment provides learners with a way to get in the “drivers seat”and figure out which learning experiences are going to be most helpful. This approach is going to be an increasingly important part of actually delivering value with educational offerings and – as a result – keeping learners coming back.

It’s a platform – and a journey

Speaking of value – one of the tools I highlighted during my talk was the Value Ramp™ we have developed here at Tagoras as a simple tool to help organizations model out the value of their learning portfolios and product lines. A key idea underlying the value ramp is that organizations should think through how to connect with learners in multiple way, and at multiple value-price levels over time.

Developing – and describing – Third Thought not simply as a collection of courses, but as a platform, is one important step in this direction. Another is that MSAE clearly sees Third Thought as a “journey,” one that leads to increasing levels of knowledge and mastery. This perspective ties back to my initial point about vision: without vision and leadership, providing a platform, much less a meaningful journey, is an uphill battle at best.

It’s Third Thought – definitely not “afterthought”

Finally, as each of the points above suggest, Third Thought is clearly a strategic priority for MSAE. A small piece of additional evidence for this point was the fact that MSAE had placed a post card on every table in the general session at which I spoke highlighting its new online courses. That’s a simple thing to do, but many organizations don’t take advantage of opportunities like this to promote their online offerings at their major meetings. Many, I find, are afraid that online opportunities may pull people away from traditional place-based events, and as a result, online offerings don’t get the promotion they need to succeed.

In addition to being willing to promote its online offerings actively, MSAE has dedicated someone to overseeing them and is taking basic steps like providing a simple PDF-based tutorial to make sure learners know how to access and use Third Thought.

It’s still relatively early days for Third Thought™ as an initiative and a lot of solid execution will have to happen for it to succeed in the long term. Even so, MSAE is clearly laying the ground work for success in way that other organizations would to well to emulate.

What about your organization? What are you up to with your education business that we could showcase here at Tagoras? Comment or e-mail us and let us know.


P.S. – And if you are a leader (director level or above) looking to take you education business to new levels, be sure to join us for the Leading Learning Symposium this fall!

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