Just-in-time, DIY Learning in Professional Membership Associations


To join or not to join, that is the question facing many entrepreneurs considering membership in a professional association.

This choice became a front-burner issue for me recently as I renewed membership in two professional groups.  My interest was further fanned by online research that we did recently at the Studio on women’s organizations.  We studied how the groups go beyond-the-hype of most E-learning initiatives and seat-time in webinars to support and encourage their members to learn from each other online.  These interactions might happen around member blog posts, tweet chats and discussions, action-research projects, and in other learning bubbles such as communities of practice.   The member-driven learning satisfies a current need or interest they explore in online and offline group settings.

Question:  Before I get ahead of myself, what top-of-mind benefits do professional membership associations offer to potential members?

Short answer: Many, and wide-ranging, with professional development or learning as a prominent draw among recruiting promises.

A quick scan of potential membership benefits includes:

  • Professional development  opportunities that may be delivered in international, national, and statewide conferences and symposia; face-to-face and online courses, workshops and seminars/webinars; publications; information archives and websites
  • Professional certification opportunities
  • Discounts and member rates on everything from professional liability to health insurance to annual conference registrations to career/job placement services
  • Access to advocacy updates, monthly journals and newsletters, magazines and more in-depth reports, and scientific research
  • Networking with colleagues at annual conferences and other events; via the directory, online discussion groups, in-house projects, and volunteer opportunities
  • Access to certain tools and resources that members may use to strengthen or enhance their practice
  • Educational or research grants for members
  • Published and internet job listings
  • Mentoring, apprenticeships, and internships
  • Badges or seals to display members’ affiliations in members’ surroundings
  • And indirect gains such as advocacy for professionalizing practice and keeping employment in the chosen field as well-remunerated as possible

These benefits are considerable and compelling.  Joining a professional membership group could be a great way to gain benefits especially if the association brand conveys instant legitimacy & opens doors in the workplace for members, too.

But IF supported, relevant learning is the primary goal, are the learning options in membership associations quick and nimble enough to satisfy adults seeking just-in-time, DIY learning?

My answer would be a conclusive “yes, maybe, sometimes, depends, or not at all.”  Users determine their own needs and satisfaction levels.  Happiness quotients change with circumstances.  I believe the following to be true:

1. Social learning—Most people learn best when they talk with others as they encounter new ideas that add to or challenge their understanding.  Prospective members should look at how an association supports its members to learn from each other face-to-face, in blended settings for both face-to-face and off-site participants, as well as before and after those events.  Where can members gather after events to ask questions or share impressions?  How are they supported to deepen conversations started in one-time events?  Does the organization sponsor ongoing learning labs and idea incubators to help members test their emerging egg_incubatorperspectives and truths with others after they return home to their sometimes isolated and grounded—some might say quicksand—realities?

2. Netflix influence on learning expectations—Smart phones have become our #1 tool to learn something in the moment.  It’s why “google” has become a verb and phones are within reach at way too many dinner tables!   When we want to know something, we wish to know it now, not tomorrow or next week when it might be addressed on someone else’s agenda.  And the ease with which we can download and watch a whole season of House of Cards or Doc Martin only fuels our desire for speed and responsiveness elsewhere in our lives, including our learning.

Eli Dourado at the ümlaut blog and Samantha Whitehorne at Associations.now compare  binge viewing and binge learning and where online learning should go to “embrace online education’s unique strength—enabling students to let go and learn.” For instance, are there learning resources such as videos and podcasts accessible 24/7 in your membership group? Is video watching enhanced with live and or asynchronous discussion on related topics for  members?  Does the organization have a learning concierge as envisioned by Jane Hart or live help desk to expedite member learning?

3.  Member-driven learning—(Inter)active learning requires more than anonymous, passive seat-time in workshops and seminars. Does the organization provide visible scaffolding to help members learn from experts and peers?  Is peeragogy (see Beth Kanter’s exploration of this term here) evident as members identify what they wish to learn and rally resources under the auspices of the organization to make courses, projects, and other learning-by-doing happen?  How is member practice used to drive conference agenda setting and peer learning?

4. Learning is the work—Professional membership associations balance their offerings to address here-and-now needs as well as prepare members for future challenges in the workplace or community.  Membership associations need help in governing from members, too.  Points to consider might include:  Does the membership group provide opportunities for members to develop skills in governing and leading others to innovate better methods? Working at a distance requires people to use communication and collaboration technologies they might not normally use in their workplace.  How does the association equip volunteers to do the work of the group AND become proficient with tools and processes as they go?  What skills can members learn in long-distance volunteer roles within the association that transfer well into the workplace? How does the group use its diversity of membership to inform its policies and learning opportunities for all members?

* * * * *

My thinking continues to evolve . . . and there is much more to be said about learning—in the informal to formal  spectrum of possibilities.  This post is long enough though. I would like to know more about what you look for in deciding to join an organization.  What factors compel you to join a professional group?   How do you ensure your learning ROI and satisfaction?

Credit for Balancing Act photo to blogTO

Credit for egg incubator photo to High Lonesome Ranch.com

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