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Archive for May, 2011

Why Conference Education Sucks

Posted by Ellen on May 21, 2011

Okay, maybe it doesn’t totally suck, but that word always gets attention, and it’s close enough to the truth to be a legit title for this post.

You need to know that I served my association faithfully as its education director and organized my share of sessions for our national conference. So why would I say what I was doing sucked?

I wouldn’t. Like many association education leaders, I did the best with what we had: volunteers with limited time and experience as organizers and facilitators, a budget so narrow we could only fit through it sideways, and a timeline squeezed with other responsibilities and demands.

All of this, and — in the end — we were thrilled if we returned dollars to the association (in corporate terms, “make a profit”) and content when we broke even.

With such a constrained budget, it was very hard to provide events that engaged learners — providing active learning environments rather than subjecting our members to an endless stream of PowerPoint presentations.

So why did we struggle against those odds? Why not just chuck the whole educational component and give attendees the networking opportunities, some motivational speakers, and a great expo/trade show experience?

Simple. As a trade association, the main reason our members got approval to attend our annual conference in the first place was for the education they’d gain from it.

Here’s the simple truth about conferences, and the reason they (can) suck:

  • Members attend because they want to network. Networking leads to increased career mobility. Networking means they can connect with people they can mentor or be mentored by — the ultimate in professional development, let’s face it. Members also want to attend so they can lead sessions, which enhances their professional profile and their resume. And yes, they want insight into industry trends, polish some rough skill areas, and learn something new.
  • Vendors attend because they want exposure. Exposure in their trade show booth increases the potential for sales. Exposure as a sponsor elevates their image in the industry (which increases the potential for sales). They have good reason to want to donate dollars, especially if they can secure a spot (or two or three) as a content leader in an educational session (or two or three) along the way.
  • Associations provide conferences because they want to be seen as THE organization that provides important connections among members and valuable professional development opportunities. Plus they want to make some money. For many organizations, the annual conference is the event that brings in the most revenue for the organization, revenue that nurtures other programs and services.

All that sounds well and good, right? Seems that this provides motivation to keep offering them, for our members to attend, and for vendors to participate on a few levels… So what’s the problem?

One Example

Connie, the conference attendee, is a mid-career professional. She’s been a member of your association for twenty years now. She’s loved her job, but it’s getting too predictable for her and she’s ready to make a change. She’s scanned the job listings on your Web site and knows that she can make some key connections at your annual conference, which she last attended five years ago (she started feeling she wasn’t getting anything new from attending, and devoted her professional development budget to other things).

She goes to Barry her boss with her request for funding to attend this year. She’s asking for about $2700 to attend the five-day conference. The cost includes her airfare, hotel, conference registration, and per diem for meals and incidentals.

Barry looks at her request. It doesn’t seem to have anything padded — the airfare, hotel, and even the conference fee sound reasonable to him. But that’s a lot of money to spend on one employee for one event. Not to mention the fact that she will be out of the office for an entire week.

Barry wants to know what he’s going to get for his $2700. “What’s the advantage to attending — especially this year?” he asks.

Of course, Connie can’t say, “I want to do some networking so I can find another job.”

As she’s thinking of something that will deliver an ROI that satisfies him, he says, “Why don’t you show me the brochure for the conference so I can get a better idea of what it’s all about?”

When she hands over that brochure, he sees a few things:

  • a keynote speaker he feels pretty neutral about
  • a list of educational sessions that seem to cover topics Connie should already be experienced in
  • general sessions that are just that — general
  • and a list of trade show vendors for products and services they aren’t shopping for

Fortunately, Connie has studied the brochure a bit and when Barry looks up at her, she says, “There are a few sessions on XYZ trends that could impact us. Getting that insight could save us the cost of my attendance.”

“Great!” Barry says. “I’ll be interested to hear what you find out from those sessions when you get back.” He signs the approval for her expense request.

So, Connie gets to go to the conference, but she’s also attending sessions she might not have picked on her own, and by they time the conference rolls around, it’s possible (even likely) that those sessions will have been so transformed by their presenters that they won’t even resemble the descriptions her boss read.

Can You Spot the Problem?

Go ahead and protest that I’ve exaggerated Connie’s situation to make my point, but I’ve heard this story — and lived it myself — more times than I can count.

Here’s what’s happening:

We include educational sessions because that’s what motivates bosses to approve the expenditure.

We let our members lead those educational sessions because peer-to-peer is the type of training most of our members want.

We let our vendors lead educational sessions because they’ve donated enough money to “earn” a place at the front of a room. (Come on, be honest. You’re doing this, too, right?!?)

We set up as many rooms as we can in half-rounds because we know our members want to connect to each other, and this set-up helps conversation.

We set up other rooms in theater style because we’re pretty certain the topic will attract so many people it’s the best way to fit them all in.

Here’s what’s NOT happening:

Learning. Quality learning. Tranformative learning.

Our members might have bountiful expertise to share, but they aren’t necessarily trainers. And we’re too overworked or meek (use the word “hesitant” if you want, but you’re still being meek) to prepare them adequately for that role.

Even when we coach our vendors to keep the session educational rather than sales-oriented, it’s hard for them to resist. At the mildest end of the spectrum, they use their own products/services as examples. And in the worst cases, they offer an infomercial rather than an educational experience. It’s not because they’re crass or have other devious motives, it’s because they’re under pressure to prove their attendance is worthwhile. Someone signs their approval to participate, too — and that person usually wants to see some ROI related to sales or leads or bigger pipeline as a result.

We set up our rooms for crowd control or to meet other needs (like networking) rather than to serve the purpose of education.

The conference environment is a challenge for the best of education leaders. The fact is, whatever learning occurs in those sessions is purely accidental.

But we can’t toss out the educational sessions because that’s what motivates the person signing the checks for those important registration fees, right? And we can’t cut our vendor members off at the knees either, right?

So What’s the Solution?

We need a conference overhaul.

Yep, that’s been suggested before. Well, we can’t do without too many ideas, can we? So here’s one more that will make all kinds of other differences:

Shorten the conference. It’s that simple.

Think it can’t be done? How about this:

First morning: Brunch with opportunities to immediately meet others (tables organized by topics of interest, regions, or other categories that make sense to your organization). This is value-add for those who arrived the night before, but won’t be missed by those who prefer to arrive in the morning to save a night’s hotel stay.
First afternoon: “Open” the event with a keynote speaker followed by a few concurrent workshops and facilitated sessions.

Second day morning: Trade show.
Second day afternoon: Concurrent workshops and facilitated sessions.

Third day morning: Concurrent workshops and facilitated sessions.
Third day afternoon: Closing session, early. This allows people to hop flights late in the afternoon or early evening and save yet another hotel night.

What that’s you say? Can’t fit in all the sessions you need? Well… you know how I like to do the math on these things.

You can if you nix the idea that sessions have to be 40 or 50 or even 90 minutes long and organize 35 minute sessions with ten minutes inbetween.

Yes, 35 minute sessions with 10 minute breaks.

Don’t freak out. Don’t say “But…”

Here’s the real deal: 35 minutes will force everyone to be focused — your session leaders and your learners must make the most of those 35 minutes. And the fact of the matter is that most people won’t absorb more than one or two key takeaways per session anyway. Focus, focus, focus. Make it relevant. Make it real. Make it fast.

And you know what else will happen with shorter sessions? People who just have to make that cell call or sidebar meeting will opt out of an entire session rather than start it then leave, or pop in late and hover in the doorway. This means the people who actually show up can commit to fully participating.

Plus you can offer as many concurrent sessions as you want.

Yes, it can work. And the remedy won’t just treat symptoms — it will go a long way toward curing the illness causing those symptoms.


For those of you who’d like to see this madcap plan plotted out:

*First Day*

9:00 am – Noon: Brunch, with networking organized by table, or break-out rooms by topic, region, or other category.
12:30 – 2:00 pm: Opening session with keynote speaker
2:15 – 2:50 pm: First educational session
3 – 3:35 pm: Second session
3:45 – 4:20 pm: Third session

*Second Day*

9:00 am – 12:30 pm: Trade show
12:30 – 1:30 pm: Lunch
1:30 – 1:35 pm: First educational session
1:45 – 2:20 pm: Second sesson
2:30 – 3:05 pm: Third session
3:15 – 3:50 pm: Fourth session

*Third Day*

9:00 – 9:35 am: First educational session
9:45 – 10:20 am: Second session
10:35 – 11:10 am: Third session
11:20 – 11:55 am: Fourth session
Noon – 1:00 pm: Lunch
1:00 – 2:30 pm: Closing speaker/session

You’ve fit 11 educational slots (times the number of concurrent streams you’ll be offering) into the schedule, allowed 3.5 hours for the trade show, and provided for an opening and closing general session.

You’ve provided a schedule that shouldn’t deprive anyone of sleep who wants it, thereby building in ample downtime for reflection, discussion, self-directed research, networking, and other activities.

At most, your members would have four nights in the hotel or they could stay just two nights without missing any content.

Oh… your conference includes thousands and this won’t work for a crowd that size? You’re probably right.

If that’s the case, then you’re more interested in numbers than education anyway, aren’t you? Just admit it, cry “uncle,” and stop trying to make sure your members will actually learn something. Because you’ve just seen why that’s a wrestling match you’re not likely to win.

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Surveys, Conferences, Learning in General | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

DBs for LMSes

Posted by Ellen on May 17, 2011

Of course, your first step in any comparison of LMS/LCMS products is to get a copy of Tagoras’ 2011 Association Learning Management Systems Report (see “Tagoras on Target” post for more info, or go directly to, but if you want some comparison information for other systems, here are a couple more resources to check out.

PAY ATTENTION TO THIS FINE PRINT: Unlike the Tagoras report, these are corporate-focused, so the systems aren’t generally aligned with what we need. Why check them out? Maybe they have something unique that you need. Or maybe you just want to be able to convince the powers that be that you’ve done your due diligence, and other systems out there just don’t fit your needs or price.

I’ve already mentioned Craig Weiss’s fabulous work on his online database of LMSes (haven’t seen it yet? Go here… and don’t forget to subscribe to his very helpful blog).

And if you haven’t discovered the valuable resources provided by Brandon Hall Research, you need to check out their KnowledgeBase: “an online, database-driven repository of information about learning management systems.” You can register for a three-month access ($995) or a one-year access ($1595). It covers 130 systems. That could be overwhelming to analyze each yourself — not to mention compare and contrast the various options.

So here’s the real value in what BH is offering: it includes

  • an LMS Comparison Tool so you can see how similar systems actually differ
  • an LMS Selection Tool containing 31 filters so you can narrow the broad options to those that include the features you seek
  • profiles of the  LMS companies so you can find out their size, length of time in the business, client lists, and generally assess for yourself their “fit” with your organization and get an idea of their long-term viability and stability

Think it’s pricey? Well, think of it as an investment. Think of it as part of your risk mitigation plan.

You know what we say about computers: garbage in, garbage out. You input bad data, and you’re going to get lousy results. The same is true in your hunt for the best LMS. Without the best information in hand, you won’t make the best decision.

Check out the details or subscribe to the database here.

Want an overview of the KnowledgeBase? Register for BH’s FREE Webinar scheduled for Thursday, May 19, 1-2 p.m. EST. Details on this event and registration can be found here. 

Posted in aLearning Strategies, eLearning Resources, Financing eLearning, LMS, Social Learning | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tagoras On Target With LMS Resource

Posted by Ellen on May 14, 2011

Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele at Tagoras, Inc., have updated their Association Learning Management Systems Report — and although it couldn’t have been easy (all that data!), we are the beneficiaries of their dedication and effort.

With profiles of 15 companies that provide learning management systems (LMSes) to the association vector, this report covers everything from company background to product specifics (features, cost, implementation timeframe, and much more).

It is THE place you need to start if you’re thinking about incorporating an LMS into your learning environment. And, according to their data (from a separate report, “Association Learning + Technology: State of the Sector”), nearly 78% of responding associations said they use elearning; of these, just over 67% are already using an LMS or are planning to incorporate one within the year.

Few topics cause as much confusion and concern as getting an LMS/LCMS. Despite the broad range of topics the aLearning Blog covers, the LMS posts are by far the most re-read and searched of all.

It’s easy to see why: implementing an LMS can be one of the more expensive investments an association makes, and its visibility is pretty high. Unlike a association management system (AMS) or an accounting system which operate behind the closed curtain of the association’s central office, an LMS works upfront with your members — they see it and use it. If there are problems with your AMS, your members might never know about it. But when they need to access the LMS to complete a time-sensitive  piece of training to get their certification renewed in order to get that much-wanted promotion or raise, and that system crashes on them — well, you get the picture.

Start with what you must have in a system: not just the features and cost, but consider whether you have the personnel to manage it internally or have the vendor host it, for example. Once you have a good idea of what you’re looking for, invest in a copy of this report.

At over 560 pages, it’s a hefty resource, but you won’t have to wade through it page-by-page. The report includes various comparison tables so you can see which products match your needs and focus on those profiles to get more detail.

As Cobb and Steele note in their introductory remarks,

“[D]o not expect this report to identify the perfect system. There is no perfect system. Any of the systems in this report may be a great fit for your organization, depending on your specific needs, but there are always going to be gaps. The key is to make sure the gaps are ones that do not interfere with your most fundamental objectives. Our hope is that this report will help make the tradeoffs clearer and, in the end, leave you feeling that you have made the most informed choice possible.”

If you’ve read aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning, then you know I’m an advocate of data. Of being able to drop heavy chunks of information on someone’s desk to support an expensive decision. This report can do that, too.

Worried about the cost of the report? Okay, I challenge you to find and investigate companies that might have the LMS you need, then compare them (based on the information YOU gathered) in order to narrow your list of places you’ll send an RFP.

Estimate the hours that it will take you to compile all the information that’s in this report. Now multiply that by the hourly equivalent of what you’re paid…

Oh, and don’t forget to calculate the risk of ignoring the other stuff that will have to be pushed aside so you can devote your valuable time to doing what’s already here, in this report, ready for you.

No question that the cost of the report is worth every penny (and a lot more!).

Don’t waste another second (time is money, even in the non-profit world!!). Find out more about the report and how to get your copy here.

Posted in eLearning Resources, Financing eLearning, Justifying aLearning, LMS | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Put Your Members in Jeopardy!

Posted by Ellen on May 12, 2011

The game, of course. Okay, not the real televised version, but one of the variations available for learning.

It’s a great way to create interaction and excitement, especially in group settings, so if you’re looking for ways to up the ante with your face-to-face (FTF) educational sessions, this is an option you should consider.

The simplest and least expensive way to incorporate the game show into a FTF session is to find a pre-built PowerPoint template online and add your own answers and questions. In this case, I used a template designed by Theresa M. Dyson of Virginia Beach City Public Schools and Tidewater Community College based on the Jeopardy game show (you can find similar templates here and other game templates here).

For our use, I added one of the design templates to enhance the visual background:

Then I added the categories:

This template has embedded links, so clicking on any of the numbers…

…leads you to a screen where you can add your own question and answer:

In the Slide Show View, only the question appears at first:

When the answer is given, the moderator advances the slide, and the correct answer shows on the screen:

You’ll need a manual notetaker to keep score, as this program doesn’t have an embedded score-tracking mechanism, but then — it’s free, right?!?

To get back to the question screen, just click the “Home” button on the lower left:

Don’t forget the Daily Double!

And, because it’s built in PowerPoint, you can add images or embed video or audio clips! Make sure you test, test, test them ahead of time, and remember that the more extras you embed the longer it can take the file to open (all of this depends on your PC or Mac speed, of course).

Mike Dickinson, in an article for Learning Solutions e-magazine (“Case Study: How a 3-Year Project Led Us to Scenario-Based Course Design,” July 26, 2010), describes the alternative they used:

I found a wonderful program called Game Show Presenter by Tom Bodine (no connection to Articulate Presenter). Game Show Presenter can be purchased to run in a group setting and/or online. In order to run the game show we needed not only the program, but also a set of recommended buzzers, a laptop computer, and speakers.

I haven’t tried this particular program, so it might include automatic scoring.

With careful thought to how the questions and answer format can be exploited, you can incorporate some (albeit limited) scenarios for deeper thinking:

This is just one of many games that can be leveraged not only for online learning, but FTF sessions as well.

Take a look at Thiagi’s site for more possibilities, and let your imagination guide you!

PS: Yes, this Robert’s Rules of Order Game is now available on the aLearning Fundamentals site! Just go to for the full list of Robert’s Rules tutorials, Motions Job Aid, and this game — which, by the way, is available as a PowerPoint download file or compiled so you can access it directly from aLearning via the Web. It’s free — no registration is required. aLearning is grateful to iSpring for providing the use of their Presenter program which is used to compile our PowerPoint slides for access on the Web.

Posted in aLearning Trends, eLearning Resources, Learning in General, Webinars | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Learn or Die

Posted by Ellen on May 10, 2011

… as an organization, that is (though some brain experts are also telling us that continuing to engage and challenge our brains is essential to staying mentally healthy as we age).

Somehow I missed this report, which dates back to 2008, but it’s no less valid now (maybe even moreso) than it was then, so it’s worth a post.

“In Search of Learning Agility: Assessing Progress from 1957 to 2008” by Timothy R. Clark, PhD, and Conrad A. Gottredson, PhD, both of TRCLARK LLC, sponsored by ASTD, Chief Learning Officer, and The eLearning Guild, says it more plainly than I ever could:

“Unless an organization can learn at or above the speed of change in its environment, it faces the grave risk of irrelevance and failure.”

Given that change swirls faster than the strongest tornado and — if you’re not ready — leaves devastation in its wake, you really need to pay attention.

“We know that, Ellen,” you’re thinking. “So what?”

Here’s the so what:

“Unbounded and un-prioritized learning can actually make things worse. In any organization, learning imperatives are never created equal. Each organization has to prioritize its learning needs based on its strategic objectives. The point is that too few organizations learn fast enough or well enough.”

Let’s break this down:

  • How many of your programs are — at most — loosely linked, but generally fall into the “unbounded” category? How often do you pull together a session or program because someone said it’s “important for the members to know this stuff”? Do you have a unified curriculum, or a hodge-podge of sessions, programs, events and other offerings that have accumulated over the years?
  • Are your programs prioritized? Do you know which ones are the *most critical* for your members’ knowledge base and skills? Can you quickly answer the question: If you could only offer one thing that would benefit your members’ educationally, what would that one thing be? Why?
  • Do you have a learning strategy? Does it comprehensively direct your department’s decision-making for face-to-face (FTF), online, and hybrid learning offerings? Does it show a clear relationship to your association’s organizational strategy?
  • How quickly can you respond to a situation that immediately requires your members be trained? How quickly can you do that WELL? Throwing together a Webinar on new industry regulations is one thing. Doing it so it is *effective* in helping your members incorporate those new regulations into their processes and policies is another.

When you get right down to it, individuals actively using social media options for answering questions, solving problems, obtaining background information and insight as it’s needed, and otherwise participating in “just in time” training are practicing agile learning.

Your members get it. They’re actively engaging on all sorts of levels in many ways to continue to feed their need for the latest facts and most up-to-date skills.

You need to be able to deliver at their speed (or faster) through the modes they’re accustomed to using.

Aren’t Core Competencies Enough?

Clark and Gottredson make an important distinction, given associations’ reliance on competency models.

“Competence refers to an organization’s ability to meet the challenges of today… An organization may be highly competent today, but competence today is not necessarily a good predictor of future competence — learning agility is.”

So what is this “learning agility” an organization needs?

“Learning agility refers to an organization’s ability to respond to adaptive change — be it an opportunity, threat, or crisis — through the aquisition and application of knowledge and skills. High agility organizations are able to learn quickly and apply effectively the collective knowledge and skills of their members… At an organizational level, agility is the ability to grow, change, or innovate at or above the speed of one’s own market.”

Here’s the bottom line:

  • You can be competent, but unprepared.
  • You can be competent, but unable to adapt.
  • You can be competent, but unspectacular.
  • You can be competent, but unable to innovate or create.
  • You can be competent, and still fail.

Time to rethink competency. Time to be agile. Time to transform the culture of your association into one that celebrates learning agility — for you, your staff, your volunteer leadership, your members, and your constituencies.

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Trends, eLearning Resources, Learning in General | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »