Amplifying the “A” Factor

BY Jeff Cobb

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Recently a colleague who works for a learning platform company wrote to me with a question about how the role of associations in the market for lifelong learning is perceived. Specifically, he asked,

Why do you think associations aren’t mentioned as often in the broader conversation about lifelong learning/continuing education/re-skilling workforce/college-to-job gap/knowledge economy?

And he went on to note that,

I’ve been following a decent chunk of the conventional narrative around these issues for 6+ years now, and it continues to perplex me why associations aren’t mentioned in the same breath as universities, corporate training departments, commercial training companies, and other newcomers (MOOCs/bootcamps/etc.). I understand there’s always a bias towards the new and flashy, especially with the tech press, but I wasn’t sure if there was something obvious I was missing on why I don’t see associations mentioned more often.

This piece from Forbes is just a recent example that got me thinking about this more this morning. Sure, it’s an interview with Coursera’s CEO and focuses on their efforts and perspective, but there are a number of places where associations could easily be mentioned as a critical participant in this overall space.

Are you seeing this the same way I am, or are there big areas that I’m missing?

These are perceptive questions and observations about an important issue for associations and their leaders. And, yes, I definitely see the situation the same way. In fact, I first noted it back in 2012 in this post and I really haven’t seen a lot change since. It continues to be the case that the association voice is largely missing in ongoing public conversations about adult educating and training. Like here, for example, or here, or here, or here, or here.

Why is that?

After all, associations have been struggling with the issue of “relevance” for a number of years now. Wouldn’t it make sense to embrace an issue that is clearly relevant in our emerging global learning economy, spotlight the vital role that associations already play, and offer a vision for how they may play an even greater role going forward?

To be fair, there are some efforts in this direction. On its Power of A Web site, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) does provide some data and examples related to the role of associations in workforce training and development.

And, Shelly Alcorn and Elizabeth Weaver Engel are to be commended for highlighting how associations can help bridge the education-to-employment gap in their 2017 white paper The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm.
(Be sure to catch this Leading Learning interview with Shelly and Elizabeth.)

Still, shouldn’t we be hearing a lot more from association leaders on this issue?

You would think so, but I find scant evidence that this is actually happening. In fact, I’ve been so puzzled by the lack of an association voice in the “lifelong learning/continuing education/re-skilling workforce/college-to-job gap/knowledge economy” discussion that I decided to ask several association CEOs about it. I won’t name names, but I went to people who I know are actively engaged in the sector; people who care about how associations are perceived; people who are regularly in touch with other association leaders.

It turns out that they are as puzzled as I am.

As one put it, “If you can find an answer, please let me know.”

Another speculated that resources are the issue. Association leaders put so much into the day-to-day needs of their organizations that finding time to play a broader thought leadership role is simply more than most can handle. That may be a valid explanation, but I’d urge association leaders not to accept it as an excuse.

Really, this is a big opportunity. Learning, in all its forms, is arguably the fuel of our global economy at this point and association are playing a critical role that needs to be recognized and fully appreciated.

It’s time to raise the megaphone and start sharing the message about the good work that is being done, about the tremendous level of social and economic value that is being created. For starters, that means building much stronger relationships with the media around this issue, pursuing research that demonstrates the role the sector plays and the impact it is having, and making sure members truly understand the value of learning delivered by their associations (as, for example, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association is doing).

Perhaps more than anything, it means association leaders embracing this as an issue. It’s time to amplify the “A” factor.


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