aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

What State are You In?

Posted by Ellen on December 4, 2009


It’s generally not wise to benchmark alearning against corporations — the business models for our training and education programs are vastly different, after all — but keeping an eye on what corporations are doing can serve as an excellent guide for benchmarking in and of itself. The 2009 ASTD State of the Industry Report is one way to do that.

First, some key findings:
 — Despite a rough 2008, corporate investments in training remained stable
 — Outsourcing continued to decline
 — Spending per employee declined about 4%
 — Workloads for learning professionals increased as staff sizes slightly decreased
 — Despite staff reductions, output from learning departments has actually increased
 — Numbers of employees accessing training dropped slightly
 — Average cost per learning hour decreased about 7% 

Corporate training departments are doing more with less, and for less money. They’re also reaching fewer employees (perhaps because those employees have less time to access training due to their increased responsibilities). 

Is this true for associations as well? How do we know? Where can we benchmark?

Okay, gripes about the unavailability of data specific to our segment aside, we can still benchmark within our own associations:

 — Start with the basics: How many learning hours does your association offer each year? How many staff members are devoted to designing, developing, and overseeing those educational offerings? How many total hours are dedicated to developing these educational offerings? (If you rely heavily on volunteers, it would be eye-opening to detail these numbers for their roles as well.)

Once you have this data, answer the question: How many hours, on average, are devoted to developing each program? 

To answer that question, you’ll need to know:

— Your total investment in outsourcing and how it changed from 2008?

 — How much, on average, did it cost your association to develop an hour of training? (Include all expenses for outsourcing services, LMS use, content development, etc.) Was it higher or lower than in 2008?  

— What was your association’s average cost per learning hour? How was it different than the previous year(s)?

 — Was your learning budget impacted in 2009? By how many dollars? What was the percentage change from 2008?

 — How many members accessed your educational offerings in 2008? Was that higher or lower than in 2007? How many were new members? For trade associations, how many individuals within your institutional membership accessed your learning?

 — How much did your association members spend on your association’s educational programs? What was the change from the previous year?

The pen might be mightier than the sword, but if your budget — or your job, or those who report directly to you — are on the chopping block, numbers like these can be your best defense.

Create a profile of your association’s learning environment, from a numbers point of view.

Analyze those numbers.

Look for connections. Consider the factors behind them.

It takes time, but isn’t it worth it if you can find out whether new members are:

 — accessing your programs
 — how many are accessing them
 — accessing the same programs from year-to-year
 — spending more or less money on educational programming from year to year

Armed with this information, you can defend certain programs and related resources against budget cuts, or you can advocate to your committees, volunteer content leaders or others for any changes or even the elimination of a particular program.

It’s not enough to track how many people registered for a given program and — based solely on smile sheets — whether they believe they gained something from attending.

If you don’t know who’s attending, what they’re spending, and whether there are fluctuations in what that program is costing you over time, you have no basis for projecting a future trend for your curriculum or your resources.

Learn to talk the language of those who sign your budget requests, that language called “data”: Data with dollars and cents. Data with numbers showing impact and reach. Data with percentages of increased workload resulting in diminished return.

It’s really hard to argue with data.

2 Responses to “What State are You In?”

  1. Amin Marts said

    It is tough to argue with facts and figures provided they’re measuring the right variable or set of. As learning enthusiasts it’s easy to become enamored with knowing who consumed what, how long did it take them, how large was the audience, were objectives met, etc. At a base line however, the only metric that matters is, how did the learning activity increase revenue. This requires a new set of expertise in not only engagement level measuring but also in learning activity creation. Much like marketing, learning activities need to be delivered in both inbound and outbound modes to be most effective.

  2. Ellen said

    Amin — Thanks for your comment! I completely agree that — in the long run — how learning affected productivity or earnings or other outcomes is the most important measure of all. However, in the association world, we can’t always track back to that in any meaningful way, and the measures our leaders are interested in are very different. Our bottom line, if you will, is different because our mission is very different.

    Thanks for getting me thinking along these lines — if you read the e-Learning Guild’s Learning Solutions magazine, you’ll see that I write to help for-profit e-elearning providers understand the association world. You’ve just given me another avenue along these lines to consider.

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