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What Corporate Trainers Can Learn from Associations

Posted by Ellen on March 8, 2012

In her reaction to our recent post, “Did You Feel That?” Adrienne Gross said, “One thing that technology can’t really help with though is motivation: ‘I want to do this training.'”

I responded by agreeing that we can lead people to training but we can’t make them learn.

And that got me thinking about a key difference between corporate training and association training. Our problems are 180-degrees in difference.

Corporate trainers struggle to get learners engaged. Often they’re showing up for courses because they’ve been sent, the sessions are mandatory, attendance is required. They aren’t always in the mood. They don’t feel close to the content. Etc. Etc.

Trainers spend a lot of time with “WIIFM” — what’s in it for me. Getting learners to connect with the content. Trying to motivate them to engage in the content, to figure out how they’ll eventually apply what they’re learning.

Yes, we do some of that.

But mostly we’re struggling with getting the trainers — usually our volunteer content leaders — to get out of the way of our members, who generally show up ready and eager to learn.

Quite the opposite of corporate trainees.

Corporate trainees attend sessions that the company pays for. Even when that training requires travel, the employee’s costs are covered, at minimum via a per diem.

Our members, on the other hand, consciously choose to attend our learning events, whether they be online or face-to-face.

Think about that a second.

They’ve paid to be a member.

Now they’re paying a registration fee to attend an event.

Sometimes they even pay to travel to that event.

That’s motivation, don’t you think?

So if we’re sending people out the door frustrated that they didn’t learn anything, that’s our bad. Our very bad. (And the topic of a different post entirely.)

What are we doing right that corporations seem to be getting wrong? Why are our learners showing up so ready to learn while corporate learners are reluctant to show up at all?

What can corporate trainers learn from us?

Probably a lot more than what I’ll describe here, but we’ll consider it a start. In no particular order, we design sessions that:

  • Deliver what people need to know and do so they can make better decisions and perform tasks more efficiently. We don’t assume we know what they need — we find out from them what they need to know, and work from there.
  • Leverage various experience levels, so those newer in the profession learn from those who have more experience and do so in an environment where organizational, reporting hierarchy doesn’t matter. We know our sessions will be filled with individuals from across the professional spectrum, and do our best to make that combination work for the session, rather than against it.
  • Create online and in-person environments where social, informal learning is a natural outflow from the session. We expect attendees to meet others and learn from them in the hallways, during breaks and meals, and often well beyond the session itself.
  • Start with the assumption that people want the latest information, research, strategies, tactics, tools, etc. They want an edge over their competition and know we can give them that edge. Never mind that those competitors are often sitting in the same room!
  • Encourage an atmosphere of open discussion, networking, debate, sharing, and exchange. Our members have discovered over time that often they get the answer to a problem in the least-expected way — usually outside of the formal training situation.
  • Appreciate the value of social interaction. Sharing meals, taking tours, and participating in other activities together isn’t just about “team building.” It’s about relaxing enough in the presence of others that you can feel comfortable sharing your problems, asking necessary questions, and generally letting your hair down.

Corporate trainers out there: yes, you probably think you’re doing these things already. But you’re not. The next time you attend a professional development event offered through an association, pay close attention.

  • What made you want to attend this event? What about your decision can you incorporate into your corporate offerings? Do you need to change a venue? Re-order your agenda?
  • When were you particularly engaged? Why? What was being done that you can steal and use in your own sessions? Do you need to change-up your facilitators? Tools? Training techniques?
  • Where were you when you picked up a particularly helpful bit of information, advice, skill, or other nugget of learning? Do you provide that sort of interaction in the corporate training sessions you design? How can you do that?
  • Did your attention flag at some point? When? Why? Do your corporate training session attendees suffer in a similar way? What do you wish had been done during that session to re-engage you? How could you elevate the engagement in your sessions, based on what you experienced at the PD session?
  • When did you feel most comfortable? Why? What about the session’s environment or facilitation or other aspect made you feel this way? How can you integrate that into your own corporate sessions?

Generally, you can approach this from a lot of directions.

Here’s one more (a bonus suggestion!): if you were to put a pricetag on the corporate sessions you offer, what do you think your employees would be willing to spend on them? Why? Would they be willing to pay membership dues, then a registration fee and travel costs on top of that us to attend?

What can you be doing differently so they would?

Answer this question, and you’ll likely solve much of that  “motivation” problem that Adrienne mentions and that  plagues so much of corporate training these days.

Posted in Conferences, Learning in General | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

How Time Flies…

Posted by Ellen on January 27, 2012

…when you’re having fun, right?!?

And we have been having fun here at the aLearning Blog! Suddenly, it seems, we’re publishing our 250th post and celebrating five years.

Yep, five years. And so much has changed!

When aLearning published its first post back on January 27, 2007:

  • no LMS systems (that we know of at the time) were designed especially to meet the needs of associations and nonprofits
  • few (if any) research endeavors about online learning focused on associations and nonprofits
  • few (if any) organizations bothered to survey association learning leaders to find out what we’re doing in the field and how things were going
  • the number of association-specific blogs could be counted on the fingers of one person’s hands
  • social learning and virtual learning environments were mysterious, hocus-pocus, scary entities

A lot has changed over just five changes of the seasons, hasn’t it?!?

Top 100 aLearning Blog Posts

To celebrate this milestone, we’ve compiled an ebook of our Top 100 aLearning Blog Posts. Just skimming through these selections made us realize how quickly the elearning sands shift, affecting the landscape, even moving the horizon.

At over 200 pages, this compilation brings together in one place the best — and most controversial — writing from the aLearning Blog. We’ve included most comments (the fine print is that we’ve deleted pingpacks, backtracks, and outright sales pitches) and are proud of the attention the aLearning Blog has garnered over the years by elearning and education experts.

To Get Your Copy

We’ve made this e-publication very affordable at just $5. To order, go to and click the “Buy Now” PayPal button. You should be able to read this PDF from any device with a PDF reader (such as Adobe Reader).

Special Offer

If you’ve purchased aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning, we’ll send you a copy of the Top 100 Posts for free. Just send Ellen an e-mail at and attach an electronic copy of your Lulu receipt, and we’ll send you the Top 100 Posts by return e-mail. We appreciate your support and are happy to say “thank you” in this small way.

Thank You!

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Surveys, aLearning Trends, Conferences, eLearning Marketing, eLearning Resources, Financing eLearning, Justifying aLearning, Learning in General, LMS, Measuring Results, Online Learning in General, Social Learning, Webinars | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

What Would Your Members Say?

Posted by Ellen on August 30, 2011

When you spend a lot of time in an RV on the road, visiting different places, staying in various campgrounds, parks, and RV resorts, you realize what your expectations can be, based on the name of a place.

A campground, for example, traditionally includes places for tents, which means a bathroom facility that also includes showers (unless the campground is considered “rustic,” in which case, you can expect no such facilities to be on the grounds). At the other end of the scale, a resort is usually a meticulously landscaped property that often includes a pool, spa, and other amenities — horseback riding, or a clubhouse with activities and game room. We’ve stayed at resorts that only allowed certain types of RVs (yes, it’s permitted by law), and cost more than a room at a bed and breakfast.

This is important background for the point I’m going to make. Stay with me here.

We’ve stayed at a couple of places that were advertised as “resorts” and ended up being — on the high end — family campgrounds with a dilapidated miniature golf course and a campfire ring as the “resort amenities.” At another “resort,” the pool turned out to be above-ground, the horesback riding option cost more than a night’s stay, the “lodge” was being used as a private residence…

We don’t mind rustic as long as the facilities are usable and the power is reliable (faulty power feeds can destroy the electrical circuitry in an RV… an expensive repair), so we considered the experience an adventure and spent our spare time watching frustrated RVers pull in only to leave again. Yesterday we watched a man who’d come with two kids photograph the broken swingset, unsafe picnic tables, and “Out of Order” sign on the ladies bathhouse door. No doubt he’d thought the kids would be entertained with the hiking (we’ve yet to find the trail), volleyball (or a net), cookouts (don’t see a grill anywhere)… Today they’re gone.

So the first message in all of this is:

  • Advertise accurately. Don’t advertise something you’ve stopped doing or plan to do. Promote only the things your members can expect from you on a regular basis.
  • Think about your name. What expectations are you setting for potential members? If call yourself a “resort,” people will expect certain things from you and they’ll leave, dissatisfied, if you don’t. What do your new members expect from you? Are you delivering on your promises?
  • Don’t make excuses. When somebody says, “You call this a resort?!?” don’t say, “Well… eventually we’ll have cookouts… and hiking… and a spa… and an in-ground pool… it takes awhile to get there.” Nobody wants to hear their timing is bad and they’re missing the good stuff. Don’t say, “We just took over and the place was such a wreck it’s going to take awhile to get it into shape.” Nobody wants your whining. They just want what you promised them and they’re understandably upset when you can’t deliver it.
  • Accentuate the positive, as an old lyric goes. If the place is rustic and out of the way, say so. People who like “rustic” will stay and say nice things about the place, instead of leaving frustrated, angry, and feeling they’ve been had.

Which leads me to the next part of this analogy. Out of curiosity, my husband looked up this particular “resort” on the Web to see what others had to say about it, and post our experiences. We weren’t surprised to read a list of complaints by those who’d come expecting one type of experience but left upset. We posted a cautionary but accurate review: yes, the property has its issues, but we like that it’s quiet and off the beaten path; those looking for a “resort” experience ought to look someplace else.

The RV world has many forums and bloggers. RVers are an honest lot, and they like to share their stories. When RVers meet, they swap suggestions about attractions, restaurants, and places to stay. Word of mouth — especially via the Internet — is loud and long.

So — here’s the real question: if there were an online forum for reviewing associations, societies, institutes, councils, and other non-profits, what would former and current members be posting about you?!?

  • Does your membership brochure match what they’ll actually get? Or are you setting expectations you can’t meet?
  • Are your dues and fees fair? Or are you leaving members wishing they’d saved their money for something else?
  • If they could post a comment on a forum about the associations they’ve been members of, what would they say about yours? Would they recommend others join? Or would they warn other people against joining? Why?

All of this could be true about any aspect of your organization: what would they say about volunteering? Membership benefits? Educational experiences?

  • “I spent three hours a day of my own time on Project X for this association and then they completely ignored our group’s findings and recommendations… that’s the last time I do that!!”
  • “For $200 a year I get a magazine. Everything else is geared to attending face-to-face sessions I can’t afford to attend. This is my last year as a member. I can get a magazine for a lot less money.”
  • “They have some of the best educational sessions I’ve ever attended. If you haven’t been to one, go! They’re a little pricey, but you’ll get a lot out of them.”

There might not be an “associations forum” where people post their reviews of their membership experiences the way they do RV campgrounds, parks, and resorts, but they are sharing their experiences.

What are they saying? And what can you do about it?

Posted in aLearning Strategies, Conferences, eLearning Marketing, Learning in General, Measuring Results | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Surfboarding, Yes. Skateboarding, Yes. But Whiteboarding?!?

Posted by Ellen on October 21, 2010

If you’ve listened to or read the transcript of the conversation I had with Jeff Cobb, you heard us discussing whiteboards and my comment that I’ve been surprised not to see more associations using these, especially with the recent emphasis on making face-to-face events more interactive. (You can download a free transcript here, thank to Tagoras!)

Here’s some of the information aLearning discovered as we looked a little closer at their use and at some of the products available.

According to the Wainhouse Research Segment Report, “The Distance Education an e-Learning Landscape, Vol. 3: Interactive Whiteboards, Web Conferencing, and Synchronous Web Tools” (Executive Summary, December 2009):

  • Web conferencing will continue to grow at about 11.5% (compound annual growth rate), from a $678.1 million industry in 2009 to $1.16 billion in 2014. Web conferencing dominates corporate training, though its use in virtual schools and universities is also widespread.
  • Primary whiteboard use is within classroom teaching, with corporate staff development and training the second application in the US. Interactive whiteboards have been adopted to a larger degree in the UK; other countries are also using interactive whiteboarding at a higher rate than in the US in general. Wainhouse expects the interactive whiteboard market to grow overall from $886.5 million in 2009 to $1.98 billion in 2014, at a compound annual growth rate of 17.5%.

With so many current K-12 students actively participating in interactive whiteboard learning, isn’t it time we started investigating what it could add as another tool in our toolbox?

More hardware technology than software for the Web, these products allow “chalkboard” writing with the added advantage of capturing the content of the whiteboard digitally, so (with some systems) you can send it or post it via the Web.

As with so many products like this, pricing is hard to come by online, and it seems as though you have to start with certain pieces and add to them if you’re starting from scratch.

From what we could tell, the “eraser-size” piece that seems to be the key to making it all work is around $1000; other parts/pieces might also need to be added at additional cost. Pieces that seem to be universally required include:

  • LCD projector
  • Whiteboard screen (or surface that allows for annotation)
  • Whiteboard-enabling device, which could be an “eraser-sized” device for mounting to the side of an existing whiteboard or surface
  • Electronic markers or computer pad for making annotations

Some systems also include “clickers” for student responses to onscreen content such as quizzes, puzzles, games, and other interactions.

Here are some interactive whiteboard options to check out (the full Wainhouse report includes profiles and information on whiteboard and Web conferencing companies; reports are available via for $1495):

  • Promethean: start here for a good overview of what an interactive whiteboard can do

Take a look around — and if you’re using one, please let us know! We’d love to hear about your experiences using this technology!

Note to vendors — When you revise your Web content, ask people who don’t know about your product to take a look… you are not as clear about what your products are and what they do as you think. “Your classroom can be more interactive and collaborative with this product” doesn’t tell us a thing. I came to the topic of “interactive whiteboards” with the image of how whiteboards work in Web conferencing systems… and thought that your companies produced something similar — i.e., SW application rather than HW. Your descriptions didn’t help.

Clearly your Web site marketing info is directed to those who are repeat customers or those who are otherwise familiar with your products. If you want to reach into other markets — trade and professional associations, for example — then including a “what this does and how it works and where to start” section on your sites would be very helpful.

Posted in Conferences, Learning in General | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »