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February 29, 2012

Shaking Up Online Education

In the past few years, associations and their members have been slowly but surely embracing online education. (ASAE will be publishing some new research on that shortly on its economy page.) So I took notice this week when the Chronicle of Higher Education published its list of 12 Tech Innovators, many of whom are trying to change how learning happens online. Among them:

  • Jim Groom, a fierce booster of web-based learning that invites peer collaboration
  • Candace Thille, whose Online Learning Initiative supports hybrid learning through team-built online modules, supporting classroom education while saving costs.
  • Salman Khan, a promoter of self-guided video education
  • Burck Smith, whose company, StraighterLine, partners with other companies to produce introductory online courses.

All different ideas, but a common theme emerges: Education is moving (perhaps rapidly) from a one-size-fits-all, lecture-based model to one that's more fluid and responsive to student input. Interviewees like Khan aren't saying that the classroom as we know it is dead, but the classroom lecture may be. Khan says his model has "made universities--and I can cite examples of this--say, Why should we be giving 300-person lectures anymore?"

Why indeed? Many association leaders might ask themselves the same question when it comes to their conferences or the education programs they support for certifications. (It's OK; you don't have to say that the first answer that popped in your head was a ka-ching! sound.) On the one hand, the authority of a lecturer, especially an in-person one, is valuable when it comes to presenting highly technical information. On the other, the flexibility of online courses can bring in more potential members, and perhaps even be a revenue driver. (Though according to Figure 17 of a white paper ASAE published last year on the economy, online education revenue hasn't matched execs' hopes for it.)

At first glance, Groom's DS106 project looks too chaotic to apply in an association context, but Thille's module-based Open Learning Initiative looks to be a smart, cleanly organized project. I know plenty of associations have been experimenting in this space, so what's working for you? What isn't?

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February 23, 2012

Quick clicks: So hot right now edition

Just about everywhere you look lately, social media platform Pinterest and NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin keep popping up, and that includes this week's batch of association blogosphere links:

Pinterest. The buzz on Pinterest continues, with some more takes on it from the association angle:

Management. I'm a sucker for a sports metaphor, so I very much enjoyed Jay S. Daughtry's "4 Organizational Lessons from Jeremy Lin."

Trends. Shelly Alcorn, CAE, shares TrendHunter.com's Top 20 Trends in 2012 Forecast and explains how five of the trends will apply for associations.

Mission and vision. Maddie Grant, CAE, recaps the recent efforts of the Public Relations Society of America to redefine "public relations." It has involved the greater PR community in the process, but it's been a bumpy road. It's an interesting study in strategic planning if your association is in a similarly evolving industry.

Community management. Maggie McGary asks "So You Think You Want to be a Community Manager?" Then you better enjoy customer service, she writes.

Communication. Jeffrey Cufaude explains how, for some of your members, their involvement with your association reaches beyond the professional, to a personal level, and your communication with them should reflect that.

Volunteer management. Steve Drake answers the question "What do you do when association volunteers want to manage rather than lead?"

Meetings. Jeff Hurt shares a few different perspectives from which to view your annual meeting and how each can change how you plan and develop the event.

Growth. Andrea Pellegrino offers five characteristics of associations are growing and thriving.

E-Commerce. Chris Bonney points to a sharing feature on Amazon.com's purchase confirmation page and urges associations to emulate it.

Member recruitment. Erik Schonher shares a brief case study of one association whose best source for new members is now LinkedIn.

Board management. Eric Lanke, CAE, asks "Whose Job Is It to Be the Facilitator?" specifically in reference to an association board of directors. Is it the CEO or the board chair? He says it's the board chair; do you agree?

Stuff people say. Last, a bit of humor. Riding the wave of "Stuff [Insert Type or Group of People Here] Say" lists and videos that have proliferated on the web in recent weeks, a few nonprofit professionals have applied the meme to their work:

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February 17, 2012

Brainstorming, Good and Bad

It's official: There's a New York-based conspiracy to keep organization staff from working together to generate ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned an essay in the New York Times by Susan Cain casting doubt on fashionable bullpen-style collaborative office spaces. A few weeks later, the New Yorker has weighed in with an article that also seems to encourage everybody to scamper back to their desks and delete their Outlook meeting notices. In "Groupthink," Jonah Lehrer throws cold water on the notion that brainstorming sessions are useful ways to generate great ideas. He quotes one psychologist's summary of where the research currently stands: "[B]rainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas."

Lehrer's article has absorbed plenty of brickbats online, but I don't think he's said anything especially outrageous, really. His point is that while brainstorming sessions in themselves are moderately useful, idea generation works best when healthy criticism of idea is also part of the mix. Alex Osborn, the advertising executive who promoted brainstorming in the 40s, saw it as a two-part process---criticism-free ideation, followed by some process of critique or culling. But in Lehrer's reckoning, organizations tend to forget about the second part, lapsing into everybody-gets-a-trophy mode. Leaders now congratulate themselves for having the process in the first place, even if that means a smart idea for building revenue is now on equal footing with an idea to buy posters with adorable kittens and the words "Let's do a purr-fect job!" and staple-gun them to every employee's cube.

"Organizations are great at killing ideas," wrote blogger Kent Anderson, laying out his own concerns with the piece. "The first step is to create an enforced safe zone in which ideas can flourish. Implicit in the process is that later these ideas will be critiqued and winnowed down." Implicit, Lehrer might say---but not actually practiced. "It is the human friction that makes the sparks," is the line with which he concludes his article. What's missing from this back-and-forth, though, is a discussion of how that criticism---that friction---is best delivered.

So, then: Do you see criticism diminishing or even absent from your brainstorming sessions? If not, what are the ways you deliver criticism that promote the best ideas but still keep those ideas flowing?

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February 16, 2012

What do associations do better than anyone else?

Here's a question to melt your brain: if your association had to decide which one product or service it was best at providing and from then on produce that one item alone and nothing else, what would it be?

This came to mind after reading Jeff Cobb's post this week titled "What if you were the Dyson of your market?" He writes:

I have in mind that obvious and yet amazing claim for a vacuum cleaner manufacturer to make:

Our vacuums have strong suction and they don't lose it.

[…] imagine if you could validly say "People who participate in our learning experiences gain high quality, actionable knowledge; they retain it; and, they use it. We guarantee it."

I often find myself envious of companies that design and manufacture one type of item, like Dyson does with vacuum cleaners (or perhaps "turbine devices" to account for their fans, hand dryers, and washing machines, too). It's that kind of singular focus that makes it a lot less complicated for a company to strive toward being the best in the world at what it does.

Leah Busque's recent post at Fast Company's Co.Exist blog on comparative advantage ("If You Want It Done Right, Don't Do It Yourself") drives this point home:

There is tremendous power in focusing on the things you are most skilled at, while relying on others to do the rest. … It's necessary (and a real skill) to acknowledge where your time is best spent and make conscious decisions to focus on those areas.

The variety of endeavors most associations pursue, however, is broad: meetings, education, knowledge sharing, advocacy, standards, fundraising, research, group buying, and so on and so on. (I'm reminded yet again of C. David Gammel, CAE's postulate about an association being "a conglomerate of small businesses.")

I commented on Jeff's post to say that I worry that this lack of focus in associations might prevent them from achieving a Dyson-level of quality—the level of "we're the best in the world and we guarantee it"—in any particular product or service. Of course, any given association could, theoretically, pick one of its offerings, eschew the rest, and pursue it at the highest level. And the particular offering chosen would likely be different at every association, depending on each one's unique circumstances and skill sets.

But is there one comparative advantage for associations overall? For the association model? What is it that associations are better at than anyone else? I'll admit I struggled with this for a while, but I think the answer is rather straightforward: associations are the best at being large groups of people with common interests and goals. Their comparative advantage lies in having a critical mass. Power in numbers is what lends credibility to all the products and services associations create.

A lot of people would call this "membership," so it's understandable that we all get whipped into a froth when we debate the future of the membership model. If membership is the fundamental advantage that associations carry, and they lost it, they might cease to exist. I think this viewpoint is half right. "Membership" often denotes payment to enter, and I don't think that's always necessary. "Community" seems like the better label to me. As long as an association can foster a community, whether the community members pay to be a part of it or not, it will have opportunities to remain sustainable.

But you can't sell membership in and of itself. People don't join a community just to be a part of it. They join for all the benefits that its power in numbers enables. And so maybe the question at the start of this post is irrelevant. Perhaps we're comparing apples to oranges. What do you think? What is that associations can guarantee they're the best in the world at? Or can they at all?

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February 9, 2012

Quick clicks: PR trouble edition

Public relations. I don't think anyone envies the position that Susan G. Komen for the Cure found itself in last week, but, setting politics aside, from an association-management perspective it was a fascinating study in modern-day public relations, which plenty of people wrote about:

Social media. KiKi L'Italien writes a great primer on Pinterest, the latest hot social media tool, for association executives.

Environmental scanning. Jeff Cobb writes that association board members are too often completely uninformed about the competition.

Leadership development. Rosetta Thurman says that, in regard to leadership development in nonprofits, the language we use is all wrong.

Game thinking. Deirdre Reid, CAE, writes that game thinking could be an "epic win" for associations.

Content strategy. Becky Rasmussen shares 5 W's and an H on making 2012 the year of better association content strategy.

Development. Cindy Butts, CAE, shares a brilliant idea for fundraising photo ops: a reusable oversized check.

Volunteers. Jeffrey Cufaude shares 10 tips for engaging your volunteer community.

Revenue. Joshua Paul offers some ideas on how associations can drive revenue with their online community platforms.

Metrics. Tom Morrison suggests a simple metric for measuring an association's performance—"return on management"—and gives a detailed explanation of how it works.

Technology. Holly Ross applies lessons from the book Humanize to technology because, as she writes, "technology is 90% psychology."

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February 8, 2012

Cracking the Role of Luck in Business Success

It's not often that you run into a business topic that hasn't already been micro-examined, so when leadership guru Jim Collins and his Great by Choice coauthor Morten Hansen decided to tackle the blurry subject of whether luck—both good and bad—is key to long-term organizational success, I paid extra attention.

Their dilemma was how to study it, Collins told me during an interview, much of which appears in three articles in this month's Associations Now and on the ASAE website:

Great by Choice is the final lap in a 10-year marathon study of what makes companies great. In this fourth and last book in the "Great" series, the focus is on achieving excellence amidst a chaotic global environment. Would luck play a greater role during such turbulence, and could it be leveraged effectively?

In response, Collins and Morten pioneered a methodology that defines "luck events" to evaluate whether the "great" companies in its matched-pair study had better, worse, or the same luck as its counterparts. They explored a luck event by asking whether luck was rare or common, whether any evidence existed that the most successful organizations were luckier, and whether they did anything differently about luck.

The duo discovered that good and bad luck abounds, and that of the 230 identified luck events in their studied companies, the great companies were not luckier comparably and that the timing or size of the luck event did not quantitatively affect their success levels much of the time.

What the duo decided was that a "return on luck"—the ability of an organization to leverage good luck opportunities or ride out bad luck events—was a differentiator in the long run. "What the 10xers [great organizations] do is ask, 'Is this a piece of luck that should cause us to disrupt our plans, and, if so, what should we do to get a high return on that luck?'" Collins said. "It doesn't matter if it's good luck or bad luck. The same question applies. We found that our 10xers were really good at recognizing a luck event, and when it came, they executed supremely well to get a high return on that luck event."

They also found that "Good luck cannot cause a great organization. … However, … if you get bad enough luck, it can end the quest," said Collins, noting that a small organization could go under if it, say, runs out of cash or loses its primary leader because of some bad luck.

I'm betting that we all can think of times when we muttered about having bad luck (grant denied) or celebrated a sprig of good luck (an unexpected check) but did not necessarily look at this luck as an opportunity of much long-term value. Maybe Collins' research will turn our thinking in a different direction if we become more proficient at identifying substantive luck events and pausing to ponder these twists more strategically.

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February 7, 2012

A Day for Happy Accidents

Yesterday Jeffrey Cufaude's Twitter feed pointed me to an article from last summer about an interesting experiment at NPR: For just one day, it unshackled its technology staff from its day-to-day responsibilities and allowed them to spend that time working on ideas they were passionate about but couldn't quite find the time for. The "Serendipity Day" was apparently a success, according to the report from Nieman Journalism Lab: 30 employees generated 25 "usable" ideas. Not a bad haul for a day's worth of brainstorming.

Serendipity Day is a variation on Google's famous "20 percent time," in which employees use a fifth of their work week to tinker with side projects that might eventually become full-fledged products. It's hard to poke too many holes in the 20-percent-time concept—clearly it works for Google—but I can see a "Serendipity Day" concept being a better fit for association staffs, for a number of reasons:

  • Not all departments are created equal, ideation-wise. I've heard people propose 20-percent-time ideas for associations, but I've been skeptical about how well that can work across various association departments. Is every one equally in need of regular rethinking and innovation?
  • Hey, who's getting their must-dos done with 100 percent time? For some, the opportunity for free-thinking is liberating; for others, it can be just another task, and tasks that are done dutifully don't usually radiate brilliance. Making such efforts relatively rare gives it a sense of importance but doesn't make it feel onerous.
  • It's a member-engagement opportunity. Letting members and volunteers know that the association is working on a daylong ideation process might encourage them to focus on their own ideas. Put it on the listservers; put out a call on your Twitter and Facebook pages.
  • It's not a retreat. One-day getaways for staff can force them into a particular kind of collaboration and are often better for big-picture strategizing than for brainstorming new products and services or coming up with a way to better address a routine member issue. Serendipity days might be a little more small-ball, but that doesn't mean they lack value.

Thoughts? If you're actually putting a 20-percent-time idea into action, I'd love to hear about how you make it work, especially if you have a small staff. But aside from that, how do you give staff the time to generate the ideas that can improve the organization?

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February 3, 2012

What does it take to be an innovator?

The following is a guest post from J. Clarke Price, CAE, president and CEO of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

One of the most enjoyable assignments I've had in my involvement in ASAE was working on the Innovation Task Force. Figuring out the answer to "How do we cultivate a spirit of innovation in associations?" was simultaneously challenging and frustrating.

The challenging dimension was that it was fun to engage association executives in conversations around that question. I've heard lots of perspectives on the question, I've heard lots of examples of how associations have empowered staff to innovate, and I've heard how staff and volunteers are routinely challenging the status quo and creating innovative programs and solutions in some associations. It's energizing to hear the enthusiasm that some have for being innovators and creating a culture that promotes innovation.

At the same time, talking about innovation has also been nothing short of frustrating. Many of the CEOs I've spoken with seem paralyzed at the prospect of getting their arms around becoming innovative. While virtually everyone seems to recognize the importance of becoming innovative, they just can't figure out how to do it. Too many seem to be focused on innovation as the next big, grandiose new thing they can develop. They're not recognizing that innovation can also occur incrementally.

Everyone understands the concept of "process improvement" in their organizations, but they don't relate that to being innovative. I liken process improvement to "baby steps." By fostering an environment and culture that promotes baby steps, we begin to get people comfortable with the notion of change, and that can lead to comfort with significant change that can lead to major innovations. It's easy to get people thinking about and acting on simple process improvements, and that's far easier than saying "think big" with a hope that you'll see something innovative develop.

I've been in several conversations recently that have reinforced my belief that too many association CEOs are afraid to tackle the innovation challenge because of reasons like "it's too big to get my arms around" or "it will be expensive," or they rationalize that "I innovate all the time." I'd challenge everyone to think about the issue not as an undertaking that's too big to embrace but rather as something where small steps and a culture change can lead to big things.

Regardless of whether one's approach to innovation is through small steps or big steps, what's most important is that we embrace the notion of innovation as something that can lead to organizational excitement and great new things.

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