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Strategy as Process, Not Product: The Learning Value Chain

by Ellen Behrens

December 7, 2009


by Ellen Behrens

December 7, 2009

Strategies must come before tactics, but this principle often gets lost in practice when designers simply cut to the chase and adopt their favorite default. Here’s how to lay the strategic foundation you need for success in e-Learning!

 “Mark,” a colleague at another trade association, called me awhile back saying he had a question about sending out his Request For Proposals (RFP).

“All I really need to know is where to send it,” he said. “I mean, how do you find the vendors to send the RFP to?”

“It depends on the type of project you’re doing,” I replied.

“Well,” he said, “we want to do an online program on a new regulation our members need to know about.”

“Okay,” I said. “Will it be part of a certification program?”

“Maybe,” he said. “We haven’t come to complete agreement on that yet.”

“What type of e-Learning are you planning to develop – a Webinar or an asynchronous course?” I asked.

He paused. “Well, we’re thinking Webinar …. What’s the other option you mentioned?”

The Alice in Wonderland quandry

Mark’s situation isn’t uncommon: his association had some goals for their online learning program and a possible first topic, but where this content fit into a broader curriculum – one that could require an investment in an LMS or LCMS – was hazy at best. He wasn’t clear about the full range of available online learning modes, opting automatically for the one that was most familiar.

Venturing into the unknown territory of e-Learning one step at a time is wise, but without a strategy Mark was just putting one foot ahead of the other – he could have been leading his association down the wrong trail. And you know the old saying – if you don’t know where you’re going, you could end up anywhere.

As much as many of us would like to believe we’re “not like Mark,” the fact is that we are. We get the go-ahead to initiate some aspect of our e-Learning agenda, and – say no more! – we’re all over it, ready to take action, get the vendor on board, and make it happen.

But acting tactically before you act strategically drops you squarely in Mark’s shoes. Writing and issuing an RFP is a tactic. And tactics only work if they emerge from a clearly defined strategy.

Sound like a waste of time? We’ve all been there:

  • Enduring committee meetings that spend so much time tweaking certain words that by the time the meeting closes any semblance of “strategy” has been erased entirely.
  • Fashioning a carefully designed plan, only to see it ignored by those it was most meant to help.
  • Discovering that, when you need it the most, the strategy doesn’t provide the options or versatility required for fast-changing circumstances.

If “Mark” had been working from a strategy, he would have known the type or types of online learning his association intended to develop and how this particular project fit into the over all plan. And, depending on the detail of his plan, he might have known the size of his budget, his timeline, and other important details that would have guided him to the type of vendor he would eventually seek, and what he would need from that vendor.

Subversive strategies

The strategy is the foundation – the groundwork – from which everything else emerges. If you lay a poor foundation, or none at all, don’t expect the building to stand. Even if you can’t get your committee or leadership to buy into creating an education or e-Learning strategy, take the time to develop one anyway. Call it “subversive strategy” if you will. If it helps no one else, it will help you, and that’s all that matters, especially if you’ll be the one to take on RFPs in the future.

Those of us in associations saw the late 2008 economy fall apart right before our eyes. Soaring fuel prices and increased airfares meant originally budgeted travel expenses were no longer affordable; some organizations began denying travel requests for professional development events across the board. Registrations for association-sponsored face-to-face events dropped about 20% across the board. We cancelled programs, losing important revenue, and were suddenly faced with the dictate to find something – anything – that would fill the void. The smart education leaders had a strategy they were following, and the economic crisis – at worst – meant flipping a few priorities while their goals never changed. Maybe their education committee knew about the strategy, maybe not. But those who had one were able to get buy-in from the board of directors for their next steps much more quickly than those who did not.

Strategic plans often fail because they are documents written in a vacuum, rather than the result of a rigorous process of exploration and discovery. You might think that bringing your education committee together; inviting representatives from marketing, membership, or other function areas to hear their voices; and working through a long weekend will result in a viable plan, but that’s not necessarily so. In such a meeting, for better or worse, the most influential and loudest voices will carry the day. Instead of leaving your strategic meeting to chance, you should turn to the association’s resources to inform your education strategy rather than drive it. Set the stage with facts and data. Though they can be argued, they temper the loudest voices. And, along the way, you gain credibility as the education expert upon whose judgment they’ll rely in the future.

Process, not product

It’s easy to focus on a product, maybe because our references to the strategy often include words like “plan” and “document.” You can say, “This is a working document,” but it still feels like something concrete and unchangeable. Because – in associations – editing can be a complex task involving a special project team, so we prefer to avoid making changes if we can. This leads to a stagnant strategy.

The alternative is to focus on unearthing information and data from which you can forge a flexible yet viable strategy. What follows are some key areas to explore, though your process is likely to vary, depending on the education function and its structure within your association.

Admit what you don’t know

Enter the process with a willingness to follow its lead, leaving your preconceived ideas about what might be “best” behind. Believe it or not, you could be wrong. You might think you know your members and what they’ll respond to online – after all, you have a lot of information about them, and you’ve been delivering face-to-face programs successfully for years. E-Learning is different than face-to-face, and it requires a different way of thinking. Members you would expect to embrace online learning might not; those you thought would resist could be your greatest advocates.

Just because e-Learning is new to your association, don’t assume it will be new to your members, too. Sometimes we forget our members have lives much wider than involvement in our association: they could be accessing e-Learning from work or home – even through another association or organization. Hard to admit, isn’t it? Only through careful investigation will you find out the extent of their familiarity with e-Learning. You might be surprised to discover they’re as familiar with online learning as you are, maybe more so. In any case, you need to find out if they’ve taken any online learning offerings and if so, what types. Ask how they are accessing online learning – via laptops or mobile devices? High-speed wireless? Cable? Corporate intranet? You should profile each segment of your membership because it’s possible they will have different experiences with e-Learning. Such a profile will help you determine the type, frequency, and level of interactivity of e-Learning you should produce. And all of these factors will influence the priorities you eventually will place on your e-Learning opportunities.

This process of investigation should also uncover any obstacles to success. For example, if members are accessing free Webinars from competitors, you’ll need to carefully consider whether to charge a fee for yours.

Building the foundation

Without support for your initiatives, even the most carefully crafted strategy will fail. Finding the links between your association’s mission, vision, and core values will help you build the case for e-Learning in your association, or provide the basis for continued support and maintenance of current offerings. For example, if your association’s strategy for the next five years includes growing membership without increasing dues beyond current levels, decide how e-Learning can support that goal.

Though we don’t often think about who ultimately makes critical decisions in our education programs, we should. It might seem simple to say, “Oh, well, the education committee has always decided what programs we’ll offer,” but any expensive and highly visible program is likely to be treated differently. This has certainly been the case for e-Learning projects at many associations. Documenting now who will “own” the decision-making process for your e-Learning projects could save you a fair amount of grief later. Seeing a project’s momentum shudder to a complete stop because no one wants to make a hard call will cost you lost time, money, and precious sleep.


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I have just come back from a client site and faced an almost similar situation. I am thankful that we did decide to focus on strategy first so that the online training initiative could be sustained and not begin and end with the roll out of one program.

Learner analysis and informal chats with them did reveal that many of them knew and had taken e-learning courses either at home or through a different organization. One of my key contacts was one such person and gave me valuable inputs.
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