Leading the Association Learning Revolution: An Interview With Jeff Cobb of Tagoras

Associations are grappling with new ways to engage their membership and offer MORE VALUE. Jeff Cobb, author of Leading the Learning Revolution and co-founder of Tagoras, talks with me about how online learning is a tremendous area of opportunity that taps into a vast pool of VALUE.

Don’t miss this interview!

Video Transcription:

Bryan: Hello, everybody. This is Bryan Kelly, from Association Mavens, where you get direct access to some of the foremost thinkers and teachers in the association industry. My guest today is Jeff Cobb. Jeff is author of a fantastic book you need to read called, ‘Leading the Learning Revolution’. He’s also the founder of Tagoras, a research and consulting firm on continuing education. Welcome to Association Mavens, Jeff.

Jeff: Thanks so much for having me, Bryan.

Bryan: Jeff, I’m really eager to talk to you because this topic of learning revolution, so to speak, is at the intersection of a lot of things that, personally, I’m really interested in. The combination of life-long learning is something that’s very important to me, obviously as evidenced by this show, and wanting to learn as much as I can about the association industry. Also, this idea of using the internet as a powerful tool and leveraging that as a platform to reach as many people as you can, and the obviously, how this is so important and what the impact is on associations for this topic. Are you ready to dive in?

Jeff: It’s my favorite thing to talk about.

Bryan: All right. I wanted to start really digging into some questions that I had coming out of the presentation you gave at ASAE’s Great Ideas 2013 Conference. The session that you gave there was titled ‘Next Generation Learning: How to Thrive in a Modern Life-Long Learning Education Market’. One of the things that you talked about in that presentation, to set it up and provide a framework for what this is all about and why this is important; is you talked about some key trends that are really driving a shift in the market to life-long learning. Can you talk about what some of those trends are, maybe from a high-level perspective, and give us a little blurb on each of those trends?

Jeff: Sure. I’ll highlight 3 of them. I think I talk about 5 in the book, but they all flow together. The biggest one, I think on a certain level, is obvious to people at this point. Yet at the same time, we just really probably haven’t fully come to grips with it. That’s just everything that’s happened in technology over the past, really even 5 years. Five years ago, YouTube was in its infancy, Facebook was in its infancy, even Google was only 5-years-old or so at that point. At this point, those are established parts of our lives and we rely on them as ways to go out and find content and consume content. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, they are a vital part of our life-long learning. We’ve had just a huge convergence and new capabilities in the area of technology.

At the same time, work has changed dramatically. The stat that I used in that presentation was that the average baby boomer between the ages of 18 and 42 switched jobs, I think it was, 11.3 times. That number has only gone up. Of course it’s not just jobs these days, people are switching careers. There’s a staggering statistic right now that fully, 1/3 of the US economy, something like 42 million people or so, are freelancers now which means they’re out there on their own. They don’t have a corporate training department. They’re looking for whatever resources they can get to help them with their life-long learning. A lot of that is going to be do-it-yourself, but they’re also going to be looking to various forms of continuing education. One of those, obviously, being trade and professional associations.

Then the third area is just how education has changed. I think most people have seen, if you read really pretty much any newspaper at this point, you’ve seen things about the massive open online courses. Harvard’s jumping in, Stanford’s jumping in; everybody’s getting in this massive game. You’ve probably heard about the Khan Academy and the whole idea of flipped learning: Having video online and then being able to take that into the classroom and have deeper learning experiences. Then you get things like at . . . Deloitte recently came out with a study that said the shelf life of a college degree now is about 5 years. Most people are spending $¼ million dollars to go to college and you’ve got a 5 year shelf life on that. All of that, for me, just amounted to this incredible convergence: Technology changing, work changing, education changing. It creates this just tremendous demand for life-long learning. I think wherever there’s a tremendous demand wherever there’s a tremendous shift, there’s a huge opportunity for leadership.

Bryan: Yeah. It’s pretty fascinating that that convergence of all those different areas are creating this massive opportunity for associations to be able to capitalize on really providing something of value. I know a lot of discussions that I’ve had with folks on Association Mavens, as well as just in the industry as a whole, is that we’re looking for, how can we create better value? How can we create something for our members that’s really going to . . . especially this new younger generation of members that’s coming up; how can we attract them? This is something that really is essential and something that every association really should consider. That’s what associations are there for, but there’s a whole new game it sounds like, as to how you go about doing this and how you deliver that.

Jeff: Absolutely. Expectations are obviously changing as more and more kids coming up, going through, even elementary school much less higher education online; they’re expecting online to be a part of what they do. They have different ideas about what it means to learn. It’s not just confined to the younger generations, the older generations are starting to see, “I can go to Khan Academy that has Stanford behind it and get some great education there.” Those expectations are definitely shifting. It means that anybody who’s in that market for life-long education who’s traditionally been a provider, really needs to be rethinking how they’re providing education, both online and off.

Bryan: You’ve touched upon this a little bit, but I want to see if we can dig in a little bit deeper to why does this learning revolution matter? What’s the significance? More specifically, why does this matter to associations?

Jeff: I think anytime you see a shift like this, it’s obviously going to threaten, in some ways, the existing structures that we’ve depended on. It’s also going to create tremendous opportunities at the same time. I think right now, we’re really at a point of an inflexion. We’re already seeing a lot of first-mover activity happening; we saw the big brands come into that whole new arena. We’re seeing organizations like the Gate’s Foundation invest in Khan Academy through grants to really get behind that whole form of flipped education and how that might change things. I think if you’re a traditional educational provider in the market for life-long learning; I described that market as the other 50 years, because most of us, we exit elementary and higher education sometime between the ages 22 and maybe 26. If you’re getting an advanced degree, there’s that whole other 50 years out there. I think if you’ve traditionally been in there and just doing the standard seminars, conferences, the standard-deliver presentations, suddenly you’re finding these big brands are getting interested in this. The Harvards and the Stanfords, yes, they’re focused on higher education, but they’re also very much focused on the professional development market.

Then you’ve got a lot of upstart entrepreneurs. A lot of the best ideas I’ve seen out there are coming from some of these smaller entrepreneurs. It really matters if you’re in this market because you’ve probably already seen competition rise, whether that’s direct competition or whether it’s indirectly just for the attention of your learners, you’ve got your membership model already under some pressure. If you can’t turn around and figure out, “How do we really deliver value in this new market?” you’re probably going to see yourself slip some. We work with a lot of associations that are seeing that start to happen and have to start rethinking how do they go to market with what they have to offer.

Bryan: It’s amazing to see what’s out there. I know for example, there’s a guy out there who has a website that’s all about providing information about the combination of marketing and psychology. He’s an entrepreneur, he’s got a good track record behind him, and he’s sharing some highly, highly valuable information that he offers for free.

Jeff: Derrick Helper.

Bryan: Yeah, Derrick Helper. It’s phenomenal. I see that and I get so excited. The thing that immediately comes to my mind is why is the American Marketing Association not on top of this?

Jeff: Exactly. I say the same thing in the book around Social Media Examiner and Mike Stelzner; what he’s done with that organization. People, if they’re familiar with it at all, they think of it as a blog or maybe a podcast. Mike is a fantastic podcaster. If you want to learn how to podcast, listen to him. The whole business model there is driven, initially, by virtual conferences. They’re providing a wealth of free information, and then they’re actually selling virtual conferences. It’s fairly big-ticket items. Now they’ve transferred that into the face-to-face conference world. Gary’s doing something similar. You can name all these entrepreneurial people who you don’t think of as traditionally life-long education or continuing education providers. They may not really think of themselves that way, but that’s what they’re doing. They’re providing that education.

Bryan: At the end of the day, it’s all about the value. I find myself with a lot of these resources. I’ve got my notepad, and I’m going crazy with notes because the information is so relevant. It’s not necessarily rooted in tradition. It’s more like, this is stuff that’s really happening right now on the internet with marketing whatever the topic is. I can’t find that anywhere else and it’s a shame. I think that, again to underscore this for the context of our discussion, this is a tremendous opportunity for associations to be able to really step in and offer something that is competitive in that space. If you think about it, American Marketing Association, how deep are the resources of knowledge that they have in that membership and the leadership of that organization? There’s no reason why.

Jeff: I think that’s part of what’s going to have to change, I think really, for associations to take advantage in the opportunity. In that particular presentation at ASAE’s Great Ideas, I laid out 3 principles that I see organizations needing to embrace. One is simply being more entrepreneurial, and we cited some entrepreneurial individuals. Looking at those examples and seeing how they’re incredible using the internet to understand and assess they’re market. They how to use tools, like search, they know how to use tools Google AdWords to test their market, they know how to use community to build up a following. Not just to build up a following, but to really understand the people who are following them and tap into their needs and then respond to it; being entrepreneurial.

Then to your point, some place like the American Marketing Association or any association really having this deep bench of talent, I think associations are really going to have to get into the talent game, in a way. How do we cultivate our bench? How do we form really high-quality relationships with our subject matter experts so that we are able to leverage those relationships and what’s unique about us as an organization? Help them become the best possible presenters they can be. Help them participate in business models that are interesting to them. Just really cultivating competency and cultivating that bench as a second principle.

I think the third one, I have found this happen natively with a lot of entrepreneurial figures who are out there right now, I think probably because they are small business owners and they want stuff that works and they’re going to make sure that what they do works for you; I think that whole question of impact. We have to be creating educational experiences that aren’t just . . . right now if you’re in the education world; you know all this instructional learning design stuff. You know about the Kirkpatrick Model. Everything is evaluated according to the Kirkpatrick Model. Most associations, most continuing education groups in general, tend to get to Level 1 of Kirkpatrick which is basically, did you like it? Which doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about education experience. There are 3 other levels of Kirkpatrick that really get into, did you learn something, did it change your behavior, did it really actually have an impact on the business? I think associations are going to have to get much more serious about, are we having impact here? Learners are going demand it as they have more and more of these experiences. Employers who are often funding a lot of this stuff, are going to demand it. That’s already a big thing in the corporate world, the whole return on investment thing. How do we make more of that happen?

Bryan: It’s actually really cool because when you think about it, there’s this intersection of all of these different things coming together, like you said; instructional design, really understanding how people learn, and quite frankly, how they learn best in a certain type of situation. If we’re talking online as a delivery mechanism or platform, there’s ways that we can create and structure our content that makes it easy for that learner to digest. You’ve also got presentation skills, you’ve got the entrepreneurial aspect that you talked about; being able to think creatively and nimbly. There’s all these things coming together at play within this concept or this notion of being a leader in the learning revolution. The more and more I think about this, the more excited I get about the possibilities and the opportunities that are out there.

That leads me into my next question. I did want to ask you: Within the association space, are there any associations that you’ve seen that have least . . . are they doing awesome in this? Are they trying things? Are they maybe dipping their toe in the water to really take charge of going after this opportunity to create an online learning or 21st century learning model? Is there anything that you can share that you’ve seen or experienced?

Jeff: Yeah, I’ll give a couple ends of the spectrum. I like to start with the simple end because I don’t want people to think this is going to require investing hundreds of thousands of dollars or it’s just really, really complicated. A lot of this stuff is really quite simple if you’re just paying attention. Just a really simple example and this is just in the world of webinars: Everybody’s been doing webinars forever. Ned Gamble, who’s at the Florida Institute of CPAs, they’ve been running some webinars. They’re trying to gear up and get better at that and figure out what’s really going to resonate with their audience. One of the things they also do, and a lot of associations do this, is they run LISTSERVs. Ned, as the education director, is paying attention to what’s going on in those LISTSERVs. It sounds really simple, but he’s actually monitoring those conversations and seeing what comes up and what’s resonating. One example I give in the book, and Ned’s actually gone on and done this 2 or 3 times after the book, where he was listening in and he saw that there was a conversation about comfort letters which is a big thing if you’re a CPA. It has to do with whether a company is solvent, is financially stable, and how do you write these letters to convey that? He saw this conversation bubble up around that. Suddenly, there were 20 or 30 people who were engaged in this conversation and the light bulb went off. Because he had been listening to what his audience was doing, within 2 weeks, he had lost a webinar on that. Again, webinars, everybody’s doing them. He had record numbers on that webinar because he had just been paying attention, had been responsive, and had been entrepreneurial and said, “Let’s just get out there with this. Let’s not debate it and get a committee and everything else. Let’s just put this out there.” That’s a really simple example. That’s a behavior that organizations need to adopt.

You go to the other end of the spectrum where you really are trying to design some learning experiences that are a little bit different. The folks at the American Chemical Society, I mentioned them in the book as well, had started an initiative called Sign Mind, which I think it’s great. It’s a smart cohort-based learning initiative. What happens is folks come in and they take an initial assessment. Anybody can do this; they don’t have to participate in a Sign Mind Initiative. They take this assessment and it tells them where their learning gaps are. That’s a pretty traditional thing that hasn’t really been established as well as it should in the continuing education space. Then based on that assessment, they may place into these cohorts along with a group of other people over a period of, I believe its 6 weeks with them; they’re going to go through a learning experience where there is an expert facilitator. They’re going to have some live webinars, they’re going to have some discussion board, they’re going to have some on-demand content that’s based on their assessments. They’re going to be part of this group that moves through together. They even do a lab online. The people in the group will watch the person in the lab and will direct the person in the lab to get them to do the right thing, so [inaudible: 17:17] actual hands-on practice online. Then they eventually graduate into a broader learning community. This is still a pretty nascent effort on American Chemical Society’s part. It’s hard to tell what the long-term success is going to be, but it’s gotten off to a really good start. That’s an example of the type of thinking that I think needs to be going on right now.

Bryan: Excellent. Basically if you’re an association executive and you’re interested in this area, you need to get an HD cam, screen recording software, webinar software, and a copy of Jeff’s book. Jeff, thanks so much for doing this interview; some really, really interesting information. I’m eager to see how things continue to unfold and watch some associations come to be leaders in their respective industries for providing valuable education to their membership. Thanks again for joining us.

Jeff: Thanks for the chance to talk about it. I really appreciate it, Bryan.

Bryan: You bet. Be sure to sign up today in the upper right-hand corner of this website to be updated via email when new interviews are posted. Also, follow @BryanKelly on Twitter to stay on top of all things Association Mavens-related. Lastly, please submit your recommendations for which Association Maven you’d love to see interviewed next. Thanks again for watching. I look forward to bringing you more great interviews. We’ll see you next time. Bye-bye.

Looking to keep up with all the trends in the association space? Subscribe now...

Get the latest Association Maven's podcasts delivered directly to your inbox.

1 Comment (click here to leave a comment)

Leave a Reply