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Online Learning for Trade Associations

Posts Tagged ‘business planning’

Waiting Lists are Overrated

Posted by Ellen on June 30, 2011

Last post I said making members wait for a year to get into a much-desired educational session doesn’t make sense and risks chasing them into the arms of the competition. But some organizations cling to the notion that waiting lists are a good thing.

“Look at all the interest we have in this program,” the executive director coos. “That’s guaranteed revenue for the next year or two for this one! Why can’t we have a waiting list for everything we do?”

Ikes! It’s NOT guaranteed revenue. The more someone is forced to wait for something — especially if they need it now — the more likely they’ll look to other sources to fill that need.

Besides, unless that precious program generates a bunch of money, its waiting list is probably doing the organization a disservice as well.

Think about it.

Here’s an Example

Let’s say you have a three-day face-to-face program that includes a primary content leader (much respected and a very effective facilitator who’s in great demand) and several supporting experts — panelists, guests, and session leaders. This program has been going on in your organization for many years, although some of the segments have changed with the times.

It gets rave reviews. It’s become a “must” for newbies in your industry. So even though you only offer the program once each year, and you’ve steadily increased the maximum number of participants from 20 to 40 to accommodate the demand, you’re still running a waiting list of 80.

That means anyone signing up TODAY won’t be able to get into the session for at about two years. (40 get in during 2012; 40 get in during 2013; assuming a couple of cancellations, someone signing up today could actually get into the session in 2013).

So what if you offered that program twice a year? You’d gain some efficiency in scale — you could use the same marketing materials, perhaps get some discounts for AV and F&B, particularly if you use the same venue.

Looking at the Numbers

But what do the financials really look like? Sharpen your pencil or fire up your calculator. Here’s the way the numbers unfold.

Let’s say your program costs $30,000 if you do it once each year. That means for 40 participants you need to charge $750 to break even. So you charge $799 to buffer things a bit and hopefully make a bit of revenue. (You tried $825 once but somehow getting into the “8” figure turned people off — you lost your waiting list and got nervous, so you’re now content to make $49/pp).

$49/pp = a whopping $1960 in bottom line revenue. Assuming nothing goes wrong and your estimated costs don’t balloon.

If you offer a second session, your savings might amount to about 20% — $6000. So between the two programs, you’ll have $54,000 in total expenses ($30,000 + $24,000). With 80 participants, you only need $675/pp to break even. So if you still charge $799, you’re now putting $9920 in the bank ($124 x 80).

Not a bad piece of change! Of course, this assumes you’ll have a 20% economy of scale benefit…

So why not just offer the program twice a year? Why not three times a year — move through that waiting list even faster? After all, you’ll get even greater economy of scale, increasing your revenue even more, right?!?

Sounds like a no-brainer. But there are very real reasons why we only offer such a program once each year, regardless of the downfalls of a waiting list:

  • There’s only so much room on the calendar. Especially if our members work in industries that are cyclical, we often have certain times of the year when they just aren’t available to attend face-to-face sessions.


  • Our expert facilitators and content leaders only have so much time to devote to our programs. They might not be available at other times, and changing the session leaders and contributors will change the dynamic of the program — which could affect its quality, perhaps falling short of members’ expectations (the purpose of offering the session more than once gets defeated if people resist those new offerings).


  • The time it takes to organize additional offerings increases staff workload. Time isn’t just money, time is energy. Our staffers are overtasked as it is — adding additional sessions will add more to their workload. Yes, there are economies of scale with their labor, but it’s nevertheless critical that we consider what the impact on their overall responsibilities will be to add these offerings.

All of this isn’t to say that we need to just live with the reality of waiting lists.

Oh, contraire!

It is to say that we need to consider whether it’s time to offer an online equivalent of the popular face-to-face (FTF) program. Why online?

  • You’ll not only be able to meet the immediate needs and desires of those on the waiting list, but an unknown number of other members who’ve either dropped off the list because they got tired of waiting or never signed up because the timing of the sessions didn’t fit their schedule (remember what we said about that in the previous post?!).


  • You’ll leverage the best aspects of the FTF program by finding the balance of providing asynchronous and synchronous online sessions.


  • You’ll create a program once that will require much less expense and maintenance over time — true economies of scale!


  • You’ll provide your FTF content leaders with an opportunity to further showcase their expertise — something they’re not likely to shy away from.


  • You’ll eliminate the “wait till next year or the year after or the year after that” frustration your members are currently experiencing. Young professionals, more than ever, live in an “immediate” mindset: they’ve grown up in a world of fast food, high speed internet, international TV via satellite, and 24/7 access to all of it. If they aren’t already asking why they have to wait a year, they soon will be.

Even if you’re already onboard with the idea of leveraging the Web to deliver online versions of your most popular educational programs, you need to do it correctly.

Offering a series of Webinars that imitate what happens in the FTF sessions won’t cut it. You must design an online experience that incorporates the best of the FTF program and deliver that content in a combination of formats that will do so effectively.

To do otherwise is foolish and fraught with financial peril.

So how do you do this?!? Tune in next time for some pointers…

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

How Willing Are You To Cut Your Losses?

Posted by Ellen on May 5, 2011

It’s one thing to recognize how important it is to just cut your losses and walk away when something isn’t producing the results you expected or the development/integration of a new system is taking more time and more money than you can afford. “We’re so far into it now,” you say, “that we have to make it work.”

Or really?

Here’s a small example. Years ago, my husband bought me an expensive pen that was guaranteed to last a lifetime — not just the housing, but it would never run out of ink. How is that possible?!? But it was beautiful and I liked how it wrote when I tried it out in the store, and — fan of pens that I am — decided to add it to my collection of Watermark, Cross, Sensa, and other pens.

Before long I realized that it was painful to use for long writing stints, so instead of using it for taking notes in long meetings (in those days before laptops went with us) I tucked it away.

Since then I’ve taken that pen out and used it now and then, but every time I do I have to bleed off a big blob of gunky ink that accumulates at the tip. Ugh!

But to get our money’s worth out of it, I go through this messy ritual every few weeks.

Until today. I opened the pen cap to make a quick note and before I could blink my hands were covered in ink. It didn’t exactly explode, but that gunky mess had somehow gotten onto one finger then metastasized like cancer all over me.

On my way to the sink to wash my hands, I dropped that beautiful, expensive pen into the trash.

It was time to cut my losses.

What about your programs? Are you offering anything that’s not lived up to its promise? Anything that’s more of a pain to deliver than the benefits it’s providing?

Is it time for you to cut your losses?

Oh… and that guarantee that the pen wouldn’t run out of ink? They were right. In all the time I had that pen, it never ran out of ink.

Posted in aLearning Strategies, Justifying aLearning, Learning in General, Online Learning in General | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Is the LMS Dead?

Posted by Ellen on April 20, 2011

Every now and then the blogosphere buzzes about whether the LMS (Learning Management System) is still the best way to manage training.

Some say yes, we still need a way to track learners’ progress, especially for compliance training or grades tracking (for those in higher education).

Others say the LMS is quickly being supplanted by the proliferation of PLEs (personal learning environments — where individuals construct their own mashup of Web sites, blogs, social network contacts, e-books and magazines, asynchronous courses, and other resources) which support informal learning.

Though I missed the November Webinar (being on the road can do that, as you all know), NetDimensions released a white paper summarizing what they consider the highlights of the session. (You can access a summary or view the archived session here. )

NetDimensions’ CEO Jay Shaw moderated a panel consisting of the following industry leaders:

  • Charles Jennings, Managing Director, Duntroon Associates
  • Craig Weiss, Analyst and Blogger at E-Learning 24/7
  • David Wilson, Managing Director and Founder of Elearnity
  • Richard Natel, CEO of Brandon Hall Research

Several key factors surfaced; remember, these are from the corporate perspective.  We’ll get to what this means for membership associations a bit later in this post.

  • Does the LMS, “in its present state… indeed help us manage learning or is it just a course vending machine”?
  • “The social learning versus LMS debate merely reflects the tension between the ‘course curriculum’ model and the ‘social learning’ model.”
  • Most LMS customers “seem dissatisfied and jump from one LMS to another.”
  • Despite dissatisfaction, the demand for LMSes is up.
  • “…[T]he majority of people do not access an LMS in their workplace,” so an objection to including social media within an LMS because it violates social media governance policy isn’t valid.
  • The increasing mobility of workers (35% of workers worldwide, by 2013, says IDC) “increases the need for organizations to have an LMS” which can manage “learning content through thumb drives, smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.”
  • “LMSes must shift from the ‘push’ mentality (traditionally advertising, marketing, etc.) to the ‘pull’mentality (people want to pull in information and what they need themselves, i.e., from the internet or some knowledge source…).”
  • “Another necessary shift is to move away from the traditional learning function (i.e., catalogue-centric, content-centric view) and shift towards viewing learning as being embedded within a work context… a key requisite of performance support.”
  •  “An LMS should be able to support the ‘5-ables’: it’s got to be linkable, searchable, taggable, editable, and feedable.”
  • “Today, increasingly, the LMS is being used as an information portal which pulls information from different sources (RSS newsfeeds, embedded videos) for a richer, more stimulating learning experience.”
  • Rather than focusing on staff, employees, and HR systems, LMSes now need to focus on “external partners and customer performance.” LMSes are currently “ugly and user-unfriendly,” and this has to change.
  • LMSes need to be leveraged for use in talent management for improved succession planning. The opportunities afforded by SaaS apps already exist with online storage (Google Docs, for example).

What Will the New LMS Be?

  • “…[A] widget which can be plugged into other interfaces, deployed on a memory stick, on an iPhone, etc. [where it can become] a ‘wallpaper’ or background map that measures what needs to be measured, where measurement will add value.”
  • “It will no longer be just the ‘shop window’ or interface for learning but should act as a ‘transactor’ pf learning, facilitating exchanges between different sources.”
  • Small, midsized, and large company configurations will evolve to meet the individual needs of organizations of various sizes.
  • It will be “much more social [and enable] collaboration between people and systems,” so it will look more like a social network system than current LMSes.
  • New configurations will mean finding subject matter experts will be easier.
  • “The LMS will become a dashboard that can report on measured results of learning initiatives.”

Whew! What are we to make of all this for associations and nonprofits?


The good news is that LMS vendors are working to integrate the three key components most of us want:

  • A way to provide access to learning across our state, nation, and world that’s right-sized for our organization.
  • A way to measure that learning, for certification or maybe just to keep watch on what’s effective elearning and what isn’t so we can pull that offering and do something else.
  • A way to connect our members (and maybe non-members) as learners within the context of elearning and across the social learning spectrum.

On this last point: It’s one thing to have learners from a session swap e-mail addresses or create an e-mail list or online forum so everyone can continue learning from each other. It’s another thing to open that out even further to include everyone who takes that course every time it’s offered or has an interest in the topic.

Right now we can do that if we can effectively move the dialoge from the session (wether it’s online or face-to-face) to an online forum space. But there’s the attrition issue, plus it takes additional effort to set the forum up, get the word out, etc etc….

Ah… pardon me while I daydream about what the world will be someday…

Okay, I’m back… Here are some other things we can look forward to, based on these experts’ predictions:

  • Talent management systems could provide us with the opportunity to identify potential leaders for our organizations from our membership base. Maybe your organization has a method in place, but the trade associations I’m familiar with struggle to find the best content leaders, committee members, and board of directors. Wouldn’t it be great to have a system that helped us to identify our best candidates because we know which learning events they’ve participated in, their certification level(s), and other information that our membership database system doesn’t include?!?
  • A movement toward “customer performance” and “external partners” as learner groups is exactly what we’ve needed all along.  Our members ARE our customers; our “external partners” are all of those potential members, vendors, sponsors, and others who are outside our core membership focus but whom we want to involve. A system built to provide us with these membership variables would make it easier to offer targeted learning to the appropriate groups.
  • Integrating social learning with formal, asynchronous sessions and/or Webinars means we could leverage the value of “networking” through learning in an online environment in ways that are still awkward at best with current offerings. We won’t replace face-to-face networking, but if we can create an environment for relationships to bud and flourish, what’s not to love?!?
  • Our members (and non-members) won’t be accessing our LMS via their workplace, so LMSes that incorporate social learning opportunities won’t encounter the same governance hurdles as corporate systems. Hooray for that!
  • Associations and non-profits are much more successful “pulling” learners than corporations have been. Our members are already accustomed to coming to us to fill for their learning needs — so an increased “pull” strategy within LMSes will strengthen our capacity even more.
  • Though a good number of our members access our learning offerings from their workplace, some (many? has anyone done a study on this?) are likely unable to do so, perhaps due to bandwidth or policy issues that prevent them. Our members, therefore, have been “on the move” ever since they became members: they are remote learners, and are becoming more mobile all the time. Anything that LMS vendors do to make their systems more accessible from more points of access, the better for us.

Even though all of the LMS morphing can be confusing and intimidating, this dynamic means better possibilities for finding the right fit for us among the LMS and its companion systems — Learning Creation Management Systems (LCMSes) and Course Management Systems (CMSes) [See the aLearning Fundamentals Tutorial, “eLearing Alphabet Soup” for more detail on the various systems and their distinctions].

The LMS hasn’t passed into the realm of obsolete yet. It isn’t even on its deathbed. But we might agree that it’s being prepped for major surgery — and if the operation is a success, it will come out of it healthier for all of us.

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Trends, eLearning Resources, LMS | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

What Our Vendors Can Teach Us

Posted by Ellen on April 15, 2011

Awhile back, aLearning conducted a brief survey to get some insight into the biggest challenges association learning vendors face in our segment. Turns out, there’s a lot learning leaders in the nonprofit sector can discover from what they had to say.

Who Participated?

Most responding organizations provide consulting services (nearly 90%) and more than half (56%) provide learning management/learning content management systems (LMS/LCMS) as their primary product/service (P/S). None of the organizations provide Web Conferencing systems as their primary P/S, although one company reported it as a secondary P/S. One organization reported their primary P/S as an association management system.

The majority of companies are very small, with ten or fewer employees (73%) while another 20% employ 20-100.

A majority (67%) reported that half or more of their annual revenue is generated from professional/trade associations, societies, and/or other institutions, while another 13% reported at least half of their revenue comes from non-profit charities and/or philanthropic organizations.

So how do these vendors see their association clients? Do their perceptions match your reality?

A quarter of the respondents said they believe their clients expect more for what they’re spending.

You’d agree with that, I’m sure. Don’t we all want the maximum value for our investments?

But do we really know what we’re asking for when we seek solutions to our learning challenges? According to the vendors responding, not usually. Here’s how the question was asked, and how vendors responded:

One respondent added a comment that said, in part, that clients have some idea of what’s needed, but “do not feel their needs are well defined or feel comfortable that they understand all the options.” Perhaps because of this, most respondents also said they anticipate that the biggest purchase next year in the learning segment will be for consulting services — contracting for help in defining those needs and making the next step.

While associations are looking for guidance when it comes to elearning and the technologies around it, there’s also a shift in how face-to-face sessions are being led, according to at least one respondent: “Their attendees and customers are driving the change and younger generations are not putting up with half-hearted, poor education quality.”

Here’s how another respondent put it: “Whenever I speak about social media, open education, or other new paradigms that involve significantly less control than legacy models, I can pretty much rest assured that the first questions I get will relate to risk, liability, and the (supposed) value of intellectual property. I don’t want to devalue these questions, but for the most part, these are isssues that can be addressed by a combination of common sense, good policies, and the insurance that an organization should be carrying anyway. The bottom line is that organizations are going to have to be willing to stick their necks out a bit if they want to move forward in ways that truly provide value to their members.”

What Advice Do Vendors Have?

Maybe one of the most valuable findings from this survey is discovering how we can work better with those providing learning services and products. Just as there are many things you wish vendors understood better about your job and its challenges, there are things they wish we understood better or would do differently.

Seeing our world through their eyes might be enlightening. Here are a few comments and suggestions:

  • Believing we can control face-to-face events is “illusory,” so easing up on that need to control would mean our educational events could be “much more appealing and relevant to association members.”
  • Sometimes we just don’t understand what our vendors’ specialties are, and that means we all fail to maximize working together. One provider noted that this can be the due to a weak understanding of elearning in general, resulting in confusion about which vendors provide products such as an LMS and which provide custom content development or other aspects of elearning. Such confusion can make for a longer process and risks a disconnect between what an association needs and what it gets — and the awful gap that can unfortunately result, not to mention wasted money.
  • We don’t want to admit that sometimes we have to “spend money to make money.” Recognizing that we need to make investments in P/S that could take some time to earn back is important if we want to move forward, especially when we must invest in expensive outsourcing for elearning development or an LMS.
  • The advantage of getting third-party advice, especially from a “detached source,” is often overlooked, so we end up paying more in lost causes than had we invested in some good guidance up front.
  • How well do we understand the difference between “information” and “education”? Or “training” for that matter? Do we really comprehend what it takes to translate that content so it delivers on its outcomes online?
  • We’re reluctant to recognize that “good education and training can be delivered effectively for a reasonable cost.”
  • Even though the evidence is all around us, we’re slow to accept that the value association membership has traditionally delivered is now available without membership, particularly “with the rise of technologies that enable me to find knowledge resources and make networking connections on my own.”

Perceived Challenges

Learning P/S providers clearly appreciate the challenges alearning leaders face every day, from securing funding to the grindingly slow committee-board approval process that we generally operate within. One respondent commented on the limited time staff members have for any given task. In short, we’re overextended and underfunded.

But some of the other challenges they cited in working with us? Take a peek:

— “funding issues”
— “budget and knowledge”
— “fear of the consequences of changing the design of their events”
— “getting over the Blackboard image — LMS is expensive and only for universities and colleges”
— “meeting learning needs of members/nonmembers”
— “getting them to think realistically”

Another respondent remarked on his perception that “learning initiatives simply are not among the highest priorities” in some organizations, which affects how they are managed… which, of course, affects how vendors fit into the scheme.

So What Can We Take From All of This?

  • The more you know about elearning and how it works, the better partner you can be with your learning vendors. You’ll have clarity about what you need and why you need it, and you’ll be able to formulate your questions in ways they’ll can answer that help you both.
  • As much as you learn about elearning, you should remain open to the suggestions of your vendors. It’s their professional space, after all, and it’s in their best interest to help you achieve your goals.
  • Consider hiring a consultant to help you plan elearning implementation, especially if you have a small staff, lack IT infrastructure, or face other challenges. The investment will be well worth it.
  • Get curious about the possibilities. Accept there are more options than content management systems (such as iCohere or Blackboard), and that you can provide alternatives to Webinars.

Thousands of resources are available to you — so many that it can be overwhelming.

aLearning is a great place to start:

  • If you haven’t accessed the free tutorials, follow the link on the left to see. There’s no registration, no collection of info — come and go as you please. [You might want to start with the “3 Primary Types of eLearning,” then “eLearning Alphabet Soup.”]
  • Add this blog to your RSS feed and use the search function or tags to read more on various topics.
  • If you don’t have a copy of “aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning,” get one. “This is one of the best-executed books I have seen in some time on the topic of learning strategy. In my opinion, every association should have a copy of thisto refer to during creation or revision of the professional development curriculum. It will be particularly useful to associations with small staffs….” So wrote William Brandon, editor of the E-Learning Guild’s Learning Solutions e-magazine. Follow the blue Lulu link to find out more about how to get your copy.


Have your own questions for association-sector learning vendors you’d prefer not to ask face-to-face? Send them to Ellen and she’ll include them in her next vendor-specific survey!

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Surveys, aLearning Trends, Financing eLearning, Justifying aLearning, LMS, Online Learning in General, Social Learning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Valuable Report Stops Short

Posted by Ellen on March 31, 2011

I’m admittedly behind in my reading… this report was issued last March from NTEN, but that doesn’t discount the value of it, nor keep me from pointing out a big chunk of the IT picture it misses.

The “Nonprofit IT Staffing: 2009 IT Staffing & Spending Report” from NTEN in conjunction with the NonProfit Times gives us some great ammo when we’re trying to build a case that our organization needs a strategic plan for its use of technology, that we need more IT staff or better use of the IT personnel we have, or even that training does more than educate our staffers.

First, the helpful stuff. Then I’ll get to what the report DIDN’T give us, but should have.

Key findings of interest:

  • No surprise that larger organizations spend more and are farther ahead as leaders in tech use.
  • But here’s an interesting statement: “Though the median percentage of an organization’s overall budget allocated to IT was 3%, this figure tended to be significantly higher among small and medium organizations that large or very large.” I take this to mean that medium and small nonprofits are investing a larger percentage of their budget, but are still struggling as stragglers.
  • Organizations considered IT leaders are more likely to have a strategic plan for their technology and its use, and more often conduct ROI on their IT projects or programs than non-leaders.
  • “[O]rganizations satisfied with their IT staffing levels were more likely to provide technology training to employees.” Good training = greater satisfaction.
  • In some cases, that training was offered as incentive to highly valued IT employees to retain them during tough times when higher pay wasn’t possible and/or the workload increased because of reductions in staffing. Good training = good incentive to keep appreciated employees.

Here’s another fact that this survey supports: smaller organizations are less likely to participate in surveys such as this one — they continue to be the “hidden element” when it comes to getting a finger on the pulse of the small association/nonprofit sector. In this case, just 15% of the survey respondents work at organizations with annual budgets of less than $500,000 — which is actually the majority of nonprofits.

The report includes lots of valuable information to be sure: IT expenditures, recruiting, and outsourcing among it all.

But here are the things considered within the IT spectrum (whether conducted in-house or outsourced):

  • Social media
  • Help desk
  • Web site hosting, design, content management and maintenance
  • Hardware and software installation and management
  • Database
  • Network administration and support
  • E-mail hosting
  • Telephone services
  • Programming
  • Security and backup

What’s missing?!?

What about that ever-important linkage to elearning? What about learning content management?

Sure, you could explain it away by saying IT isn’t usually in the learning business…

…but you’d be wrong, so don’t even start down that road. Few organizations with elearning programs are doing it without the use of their IT.

eLearning is an essential element in many nonprofit technology portfolios, and omitting it from the mix weakens the value of the study, particularly when the study could have given us a good picture of where elearning fits within the overall IT picture.

  • What’s an IT staffer’s role in helping an organization implement elearning?
  • Are IT staffers involved in the integration of AMS systems and LMSes? To what degree?
  • What percentage of their time and budget is devoted to implementing and managing elearning?
  • Do they have any security or other concerns about how elearning is deployed in their organization?
  • Do they *want* to be more involved in Webinars and other elearning offerings, at least in an advisory capacity?

Someone please tell me there are plans to include elearning in the NEXT NTEN survey….

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Surveys, aLearning Trends, eLearning Resources, LMS, Online Learning in General | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »