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Online Learning for Trade Associations

Is This Post Relevant to You? Of Course It Is!

Posted by Ellen on March 7, 2010

TMA Resources is in the midst of conducting a series of three Webinars on a topic they’re calling “Beyond Relevance.” Their associated blog includes posts from panelists and presenters on the topic — all advocating that the notion of relevancy be laid to rest in favor of innovation.

Huh? Relevancy is now passe? I can’t be reading that correctly!

Years ago, in the midst of my master’s degree program, I argued (to deaf ears, it seemed, even

then) that the novels taught in literature must be selected and discussed on the basis of their

relevancy to the students. Don’t start with Poe. Start with King and move back to Poe. Start with what the students know and connect to. Then walk them back along the branches and down the trunk to the roots of what they already love.

I taught grammar the same way. A college composition student was struggling with parallel sentences. I found out he was a math student. “A parallel sentence is the same thing as a mathematical formula — both sides of the equal sign have to be the same,” I told him. “Think of the word ‘and’ or ‘or’ in the sentence as the equal sign. Then make the verbs on either side of it match in their form. If the verb should end in ‘-ing’ then they all should end that way.” His face lit up — he got it. He didn’t need all the fancy-shmancy grammar lingo and explanation, he just needed a practical way to remember how to make those sentences. Finding what was relevant to him and using that helped him begin to understand rules of grammar that had always mystified him.

Obviously, if we’re choosing sides here, I’m a “relevancy” supporter.

Jamie Notter, however, in “Relevance Holds Us Back,” asserts that relevance is not only “inherently retrospective,” but “…is cheap and easy… Relevance simply used to have more value than it does today.”

I disagree. Something is relevant to me or it isn’t, in the here and now. Saying something is relevant is saying it matters to me. It’s important. It relates to me in some way. I’m connected to it.

No doubt the words “relevance” and “relevancy” are overused and likely to show up on one of those annual lists of “Words we hope to never see again” because of it, but I refuse to give them up.

With all due respect to Jamie and the others posting here, I’m battling the cynic in me that wants to be snarky and say that this is a great lingo-gimmick that some smart folks have latched onto to just to make their Webinar series stand out. Okay, to make it “relevant.” (!) (Okay, so the snarky cynic won.)

Unfortunately, many consultants and service organizations must continue to find new ways to reshuffle a well-worn deck so their ideas sound new and unique and hip.

In this case, they’ve chosen “relevance.”

Let’s not be so hasty about tossing out the need for relevancy. Assume it no longer provides value (as Jamie suggests) and rid yourself of it at your own risk.

Here’s how I know: now that I’m personally footing the bill for my professional memberships, trade magazine subscriptions, Webinar and conference registration fees, travel costs, etc…. (and I consult on a 100% pro bono basis, at least for now)… I have to be very judicious about where I choose to place my dollars.

Relevancy drives the level of value for me as I make those decisions: what will I get from this membership or that subscription? What might I learn from this Webinar or gain from that conference? How does it relate to ME?

Yes, it boils down to that: what’s in it for me? For my members? Clients? Fellow staff members? How relevant is it to what we need, right now?

But read between the lines and you’ll see that what these bloggers are saying isn’t really much different than my point here. Maddie Grant, in her post, “Merely Staying Relevant = an Innovation Killer” says that we need to be more than relevant.

On that we agree.

I couldn’t stop when I recognized that math was more relevant to the comp student than English grammar. I had to be innovative and figure out how to make it work for him.

Maddie confesses that “This may be partly semantics, but staying relevant, as a goal, means to me that we’re not striving to innovate.”

Here we diverge.

Who says relevancy and innovation are mutually exclusive? It seems to me you need one to have the other; otherwise, what value does innovation have without relevancy?

If you need a real answer to that question, check out the Landfill Prize for lists of inventions that have little purpose or relevancy.

Relevancy or innovation? It’s a false choice. We can — and should — have both.

8 Responses to “Is This Post Relevant to You? Of Course It Is!”

  1. I straight-up LOVE this post. Although I do think that if associations have to question whether they’re still relevant, they’re probably not. But I think it’s entirely possible for relevancy and innovation to coexist. I’m really not sure what’s wrong with being “relevant” to your members, as long as you strive for innovation at the same time. If you’re not relevant, you’re irrelevant, and I’m betting no one wants that. From what I’ve read, this is all just semantics. Regardless, I believe both innovation and relevancy have their places in associations.

    P.S. I love the way you taught parallel sentences to that math student. Absolutely brilliant.

  2. Ellen said

    Shannon — It’s probably semantics, but if the pen IS mightier than the sword, then it’s crucial that we discuss how we’re choosing the language we use, don’t you think?

    Oh, and about the teaching style I had (don’t get me started on setting up a mock courtroom trial to introduce writing argumentative essays, or reading children’s books to my college students to make other points…): I once considered a PhD in education but a professor I was working with at the time, whose specialty was gifted and talented students, said, “Don’t even think about it. A degree in education will destroy your natural ability for it.” Advice I’m glad I took.

    Looking forward to seeing the Small Staff eNewsletter, Shannon!

  3. maddie said

    Awesome post! So glad you joined the conversation! I’ve come to realize that educators see innovation as very much a part of relevance, so of course it makes sense that you can’t have one without the other. I think the point we’re making on the other side of that fence, when we say “relevance is not enough”, is that there’s more to life than ticking that box, especially in this digital age where people can find more relevant stuff for free on the web, and don’t need to pay associations for it. We fear that associations who merely strive to stay relevant are doomed from the beginning. It’s really the “should we serve or should we lead?” question, and I think, personally, that the collective power of an association should be in leading, in looking ahead at the state of the particular industry, at providing educational and professional development content that pushes its members to be better than they are today. That pushes for mastery and purpose, as Dan Pink would say – that does NOT just provide what’s relevant today. What do you think?

    • Ellen said

      Maddie — Thanks for your comment! I agree that we should be in a leading position — that we should, as you say, push members to be better than they are today. And to do that, “being relevant” becomes a measure of status quo rather than innovation. As educators, the trick is to push past the status quo while keeping the WIIFM intact (What’s In It For Me — a primary learning motivator, which is usually about relevance).

  4. Mike Robey said

    I agree with Ellen. Relevance and innovation are not mutually exclusive. And I think Maddie summed up the real question, “do we serve or lead our members?”. Of course, serving and leading aren’t mutually exclusive either. To me, they build on top of another. We have to be relevant otherwise our members will leave. If we innovate we’ll keep the members we have and attract new ones.

    So how to we create a culture of innovation within our associations? And how do we get buy-in from our CEO’s to champion this new culture?

    To me a good starting point is developing a succinct strategy. I know associations have been developing strategies for years, but have they really been more than vague aspirations? And have they truly been followed and measured, and gone through mid-course corrections? Developing a strategy is hard work and requires an equal amount of left and right brain coordination. Having a succinct strategy is certainly one way to turn the CEO into a champion for innovation.

    • Ellen said

      Mike — Thanks for adding to the conversation! If I get started on the subject of strategic planning in associations, who knows where I’ll end up?

      It seems we’re pretty wrapped up in a culture of either-or: even the federal government gets attacked when it tackles more than one issue. I can’t help thinking that if our government can’t do more than one thing at a time and do it right then we’re in a world of hurt.

      We have to be careful of false choices and suggesting that inherently complex things can be distilled into a one-word “solution” or “approach.” Associations are not simple, single-cell creatures, after all.

      Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t champion innovation. It just shouldn’t be the only thing we focus on.

  5. Tom Morrison said

    I am in total agreement that relevance and innovation are not mutually exclusive. You can’t have one without the other. I’ve seen organizations be highly innovative with products and services that mean nothing to their members. I’ve seen organizations who are very relevant to their members suffer because of lack of innovation. In order to achieve and maximize your value to your members, you must have an optimal balance of both.

    I weighed in on this discussion via twitter a couple of weeks ago and having sat with hundreds of CEO’s and other association leaders in my career, there is a transition happening in non-profits that penetrated the for-profit world starting in the mid-80s. Throughout the 60s – 80s, mom and pop retail outlets of all types made money in spite of their background because they had no “real” competition and there were more than enough customers. Enter the retail discount giants who were highly educated vice presidents of marketing, finance and operations. This fierce competition has dominated the marketplace and driven many small non-innovative businesses out of many industries. The smart and innovative small businesses have remained.

    Non-profits are now faced with the same dynamic. Very smart and innovative for-profit companies are starting trade shows, conference, online communities, online training, etc. Many non-profit executives do not know how to respond because their are great at governance, but have never been called upon to be a business savvy entrepreneurs who are gifted at market penetration, streamlining operations, product development, sales strategies and financial management to maximize member surplus.

    Although governance is very important, the association of the future who is driving member value needs to make the transition from a group who runs a great board meeting, puts on great conference and lobbies well to one who connects its members online, drives product development to enhance member engagement and leads their people into the future with hope.

    Members want associations to stop talking about things that don’t matter and start doing things that have direct impact on their day to day lives! An association should be more than a membership, it should be a lifestyle.

    • Ellen said

      Tom — Thank you for adding your insights! I have absolutely experienced the influx of for-profit companies. Some have come in firing from both barrels, nailing the target, leaving the association that had exclusively controlled that area of the firing range frozen in their tracks.

      So circling back around to Mike’s comment — call it what you want, strategy is key. Having a game plan.

      It’s more than just needing innovation — it’s about a lot of things. Because a lot is coming at associations, from all directions.

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