Capacity and Leadership: How Does Your Organization Stack Up?

BY Celisa Steele

Leadership, Capacity

Capacity and leadership are two of the five domains around which we built the Learning Business Maturity Model.

In our experience, capacity—the human resources and technology that can be put against devising and executing a strategy—is an area critical to the success of a learning and education business. In our experience too, capacity is an area where what’s available often isn’t sufficient to the tasks at hand. Too many associations say too often that they’re strapped for money and staff to devote to key tasks—they don’t have the capacity to address current needs, much less to support innovation and growth.

Leadership is essential for prioritizing and building capacity as well as for the overall success of a learning and education business. And, again, it can be an area of weakness for many organizations—the leaders are overworked or feel compelled to give their time and attention to other aspects of the organization, leaving the learning business to run itself (often without sufficient capacity), which—spoiler alert—doesn’t usually end well.

Here, drawing on information from our Association Learning + Technology 2017 report, I want to look at three data points that tie to the capacity and leadership domains—the size of educational staff at associations, the use of professional instructional designers, and the prevalence of chief learning officers—as well as the implications and opportunities for buried in the numbers.

What’s Your Overall-Staff-to-Education-Staff Ratio?

Overall Staff and Education StaffIn the online survey of membership organizations that is the backbone of Association Learning + Technology 2017, responses came from a broad range of organizations—from those with no paid staff to those with 6,700 paid staff.

Respondents’ organizations average 489.9 paid staff overall, with 9.2 paid staff who spend more than half their time working in education or professional development. The medians are more modest: 24 paid staff with 3 spending more than half their time on education or professional development.

Among respondents, the ratio of overall staff members to those spending the majority of their time on education runs the gamut from 0 on the low end—meaning the organization has paid staff but none of them spends more than half of the their time on education—to 7 out of every 10 paid staff spending the majority of their time on education on the high end. The average was 2 education staff for every 10 paid staff, and the median was just 1 education staffer for every 10 paid staff.

Potential Implications and Opportunities

Where along this spectrum does your organization fall? What’s your ratio of paid staff to education staff?

If education and professional development are a significant source of revenue for your organization and/or a significant part of your organization’s raison d’être (and one or both is true for most associations), how you compare might be part of a case you can make for more human resources, whether in-house or contract-based, for your learning and education business.

Who Designs Your Learning?

Among the survey respondents currently using technology for learning, 59.2 percent said their organizations uses professional instructional designers (IDs). That figure is a notch up from but in the same range as reported in the two previous versions of Association Learning + Technology (52.9 percent in 2016 and 52.0 in 2014).

Use of Instructional Designers

The uptick is nice to see—but we’d love to see that number rise more.

Good instructional design is arguably the linchpin in making sure learning actually happens via the products and services you develop and deliver. The effectiveness and impact of learning offerings is especially important in today’s hyper-competitive market. If your education is professionally designed to produce results (and especially if you collect data about impact, changes in behavior, etc.), that’s going to help with marketing by helping you stand out from competition. And it’s going to help you deliver on your mission—after all, your mission probably isn’t to sell X enrollments or Y conference registrations. Your mission is probably about positively impacting the field or industry you serve.

Association Learning + Technology shows that having a strategy for the learning and education business in place correlates to a higher use of professional instructional designers—79.4 percent of organizations with a strategy for their education business use professional instructional designers compared to 46.7 percent of those without such a strategy. And organizations that rate their use of technology for learning as very successful are more likely to use professional instructional designers (76.7 percent versus the 59.2 percent across all respondents using technology for learning). Also, organizations with a chief learning officer (CLO) or a similar position are more likely to make use of professional instruction designers than those without a CLO (72.2 percent compared to 56.2 percent).

What all that says to me is that professional instructional design is part of strategic, successful, intentionally led learning business.

Potential Implications and Opportunities

Does your team have a good understanding of adult learning principles and instructional design? If yes, does your team have the resources (budget, time, etc.) to maintain that knowledge and keep up with new discoveries and findings (e.g., in neuroscience)?

If no, how can you make that happen—will you look for training or other resources to increase the current team’s knowledge and skills, or will you look to hire, whether an in-house position or a contractor?

Who Leads Your Learning Business?

The survey behind Association Learning + Technology 2017 asked all respondents whether anyone at their organization holds the title of chief learning officer or a similar C-level title that references learning, education, or knowledge.

A full third (33.3 percent) of respondents said yes.


That’s a solid showing—but it leaves ample room for more top-level education staff at organizations where learning and education factor heavily into the mission and vision and into the budget.

Organizations with a CLO or similar position are more likely to have a strategy for their learning and education business than organizations without someone in that role (56.9 percent versus 28.4 percent). That correlation makes sense to me—strong leadership manifesting itself in both the person of the CLO and in the clarity of a documented strategy.

One reason there may not be more CLOs is that many associations are small—remember the median paid staff size among respondents is just 24. And the median number of staff who spend at least half their time working on education and professional development is only 3. In smaller organizations a CLO may not be viable—or else she may have to be very hands-on as she may not have a large team to which she can delegate.

Potential Implications and Opportunities

Does your organization’s size support the possibility of a full C-suite? If yes, is a CLO part of that suite?

If not, who at the very top level of your organization own the vision for the learning and education business? It may be the CEO or executive director herself, especially in small organizations, but it’s critical that someone owns the vision and strategy, holds others accountable, and generally instills a culture of learning throughout your organization and its audience.

Ready for Reflection, Not Prêt-à-Porter

This is not a one-size-fits-all argument—I’m not suggesting education teams need to be bigger or the use of instructional designers needs to be higher or that a CLO needs to be in place all associations. What I mean to suggest is that having sufficient capacity, including sufficient quantity and skill sets among human resources, is essential to the success of a learning business, as is strong leadership. Considering these data points may give you some ideas for how you can make sure you are appropriately resourced and led.

The right capacity and the right leadership will put you well down the path to being a mature learning business that can not only respond to market need but to truly lead learning in your field or industry.


P.S. All the data and findings from Association Learning + Technology 2017, which broadly assesses the use of technology to enable and enhance learning in the association market, is available for free at https://www.tagoras.com/catalog/association-learning-technology.

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