Mend the Gap: The Opportunity for Associations in “the Other 50 Years”

BY Jeff Cobb

[Posted Sept. 24, 2012] I’ve argued in various places that the average adult is not particularly well-prepared to engage in the level of effective lifelong learning required by the learning economy in which we now live and work.

We enter “the other 50 years” – those that follow the first 22 years, in which most of us receive some level of formal education – not necessarily knowing well how to “learn, relearn and unlearn” as futurist Alvin Toffler put it. Arguably, this has always been true, but the speed and scale of change in our hyper-connected world has made it an issue that is more important than ever to address.

As Bill Eggers, John Hagel and Owen Sanderson – all sharp people – argue in a recent HBR Blog Network article titled Mind the (Skills) Gap, address it we must if we expect to thrive in the coming decades. As they put it:

Today, individuals must constantly hone and enhance their skills to remain relevant in the workforce. As a society, we must figure out how to rapidly re-skill vast number of people on an ongoing basis to both remain relevant globally and to avoid long periods of high unemployment. Adapting to this cycle of obsolescence is perhaps America’s biggest challenge in staying competitive.

Eggers, Hagel, and Sanderson suggest a number of solutions, and name some of the innovators I’ve mention before on this blog or Mission to Learn: Khan Academy, CodeAcademy, School of Everything, and others. I noticed, however, that one part of the solution they do not mention is trade and professional associations.

Shame on them, to a certain extent, that they do not highlight institutions that have always been a critical part of supporting “the other 50 years.” Clearly, when it comes to refreshing, retooling, and acquiring entirely new skills, associations are an invaluable – and generally undervalued – part of our education system.

But shame, also, on associations. As far as I can tell, we do not yet seem to be offering much of a voice in the public conversation about the growing skill (and knowledge) gap and the critical need for effective lifelong learning.

Yes, the work of meetings and professional development programs marches on – admirably so – but where is the bigger vision? Where are the leaders articulating the challenge and seizing the opportunity? We’re rambling on about “relevance” when there is arguably nothing that has ever made us more relevant – assuming we choose to act accordingly.

I am, of course, just a sample of one, but I do pay a lot of attention to this sort of thing. I suppose the HBR article hit a nerve that was already exposed. So, what do you think? If you feel you have evidence that I am off base on this, please share it – I welcome it. If you sense a similar lack of vision, share that as well – along with what you think needs to happen.


P.S. – See also Jack McGrath’s Can Associations Bridge the Skills Gap for Their Members and Celisa’s post Are the next 50 years getting longer?

  1. Deirdre Reid says:

    I’ve thought the same, Jeff. Stealing a quote from Fast Company’s editor (Safian?) — the most important skill is the ability to learn new skills. He says that’s one of the characteristics of Generation Flux — not an age, but a mindset.

    MOOCs like Coursera, edX, and Udacity are having great success with their free online learning platforms — I’m taking a modern poetry class now along with 30,000 others and it’s been an excellent experience. Associations could offer the same experience (not necessarily free) plus more — a permanent learning community and credits toward certification.

    If associations want to encourage their members to pursue lifelong learning, they will have to market it as a smart and satisfying professional and personal lifestyle choice. Not everyone is willing to invest time in learning unless they have to, for example, to maintain licensing. It would easy enough to show the impact it makes on members’ lives. I’d love to see that kind of marketing campaign.

    1. Jeff Cobb says:

      Deirdre -Thanks for commenting + I’m thrilled to hear you are participating in a MOOC. I wrote a while back that I thought associations needed to take a look at this approach (http://www.tagoras.com/2010/09/27/mooc/), though as far as I know, none have. (If any readers here know otherwise, please share!) I think “showing the impact,” as you say is key for how associations need to be thinking about learning – both at the high, visionary level and at the tactical, nut and bolts level of their conferences, seminars, online programs, and other educational offerings. In general, it just seems like the conversation needs to be kicked up several notches. – Jeff

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