Archive | March, 2012

Conferences and Blended Learning

27 Mar

One of the most interesting results to come out of the early experimentation with online learning systems was that students performed best when the learning environment consists of both face-to-face and online components (e.g. Murray Goldberg’s initial work with the system that would become WebCT). Intuitively, this is because these different components allow students to approach the learning experience in a manner that is consistent with their own needs and learning styles.

What does this have to do with associations and their conferences? Well, one connection is completely obvious: The conferences that an association puts on are often the focus of the professional development activities of their members. That is, to a large extent conferences are learning experiences for attendees.

A lot of effort has been placed on improving the learning outcomes achieved at conferences. Presentations have shifted away from droning talking heads to more interactive experiences. But given the limited timespace in which a conference occurs, it’s essentially impossible to encompass the full range of learning contexts. This isn’t a drawback, it’s an opportunity.

The opportunity is to use the conference as the keystone event of an ongoing learning process that occurs throughout the year. To achieve this, one must follow the precepts of blended learning that I referred to at the start of this post, that is, provide both online and face-to-face interactions that keep professional development moving forward all the time. Here are some more concrete ideas that have proven effective in my experience:

  • Use online tools to help plan for and evaluate your conference. In particular, you can start to identify trends, new technologies, etc. that are of interest to your members, engage with them online about these, and then plan out your conference to focus on those areas that generate the most interest.
  • Use an online community platform to create book clubs that focus on new articles, blog posts, and books that have been referred to at your conference. Online community platforms make it easy to share information (such as blog posts) and provide an opportunity for everyone to get involved with the discussions since the interactions are not constrained to a single time or place.
  • Find members of your association who are passionate about particular topics and organize short lunch or after-work seminars for them to share their knowledge and experience. Passionate professionals are often deterred by the logistics of arranging such meetings, so having the association deal with that aspect will be appreciated all round. Try to find members whose interests relate to topics that were popular at your conference.
  • Set up a mentoring program with both online and face-to-face components. Either your AMS software, or an online community platform can serve to help organize both mentors and mentees, and assist in the matching process. Private online discussion areas can help foster mentor/mentee interactions, or can just help them organize times and places to meet in person.

These are just a few of the possibilities that exist.

Everyone who has ever been to a conference comes away with the feeling that there just wasn’t enough time to really dig into the most interesting material. Discussions get cut short, questions go unasked, activities don’t get the time they deserve. But it doesn’t need to end there. Pull those discussions, questions, and activities into an online environment in which they can thrive beyond the time and space boundaries of your conference. Blending the online and face-to-face experiences of your members will deliver better outcomes, just as blended learning does for students.

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The Conference Compression Factor

20 Mar

There’s a lot of attention these days focused on improving the conference experience. The widespread availability of all types of information on the internet has eliminated the advantage that conferences once had as the prime sources of specialized content. And the rise of social media has created numerous other venues for professional networking. On the whole, I would say that these competitive pressures are healthy. They are forcing associations to devote a lot of effort to improving the outcomes that conferences deliver. Take a look at Jeff Hurt’s blog for a wide variety of ideas on improving conferences.

Sometimes though, the urge to increase value leads to an attempt to increase the quantity of information delivered. I call this the conference compression factor; more sessions, more speakers, shorter time slots, and anything else that can help squeeze things in. Not only is this not helpful, it’s not necessary either. Conferences are typically 2 or 3 days long. That represents less than 1% of your attendees time during a year. What are they doing for the other 99%? Are there no opportunities for learning or networking on an ongoing basis?

Of course there are. In fact, the same technological trends that have put pressure on associations to improve conference experiences can be harnessed by the association to provide educational and social opportunities year round. I think that warrants the same degree of focus and effort that is currently being applied to conferences. This is yet another instance of the “blended socialization” that I’ve raised in other blog posts.

What does this mean in real terms for associations? Many associations have Facebook pages already, or participate regularly on Twitter. But my intuition is that these platforms don’t really have the right set of features to sustain an online community focused on the collaborative development of knowledge and ongoing professional development. Almost all of the public social media platforms are geared towards more ephemeral interactions; what is happening now, what is interesting today. They’re a great way to share news and updates. But have you ever tried to work collaboratively on a document in either system? They’re just not built for it.

Obviously I am biased. I work at a company that develops an online community platform designed specifically for associations. But I really do believe that the traditional strengths of associations mesh perfectly with the capabilities that online communities provide. I see an online community as a powerful way to deliver value to members, potentially even more valuable than an association’s annual conference. So, while I encourage association leaders to continue to strive for the best in their conferences, I encourage you to consider what your members are doing during the rest of the year and how you can strive to make the best of that as well.

Online Community – Who Cares!

15 Mar

Associations care deeply about member engagement. Particularly with the advent of social media, I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that lack of member engagement is the death knoll for an association. But I often meet with associations who have very little interest in developing a rich online community for their members. I find this puzzling because in my experience, both personally and professionally, those types of communities drive a very high level of engagement.

Why this dichotomy? Three possible reasons came to mind relatively quickly:

#1 – Bad Experience. If you’ve every participated in a dead or dying community, you can quickly get the feeling that online communities don’t work. If you happen to harbour any suspicions about whether people really are willing to interact in meaningful ways online, then this sort of experience will definitely confirm them. Or you might have spent some time looking in on a community that did not match your own interests, and come to the conclusion that there just wasn’t anything of value to be gained from participation.

Communities are like music. Pick any particular genre, and you’ll find people who think it’s “crap” and other who just can’t get enough. Some forms are more popular in general, and some music really is so bad that almost no one will listen to it. But just one amazing experience; music that somehow manages to bring joy to your soul, is enough to offset the bad. Communities are like that. Once you have experienced one which “works,” you will always seek out those experiences in the future.

#2 – Lack of Experience. If you’ve never actually participated in an online community, it really can be hard to understand what the fuss is all about. I think it is fairly natural to be a little suspicious that human interaction can be squeezed down an ethernet cable. It can be difficult to imagine the richness of experience that is possible in online environments. And the current social media platforms that most people are familiar with (Facebook, Twitter) have a reputation for supporting interactions that are superficial in nature. You’ve probably heard someone say they don’t use Twitter because they’re not interested in what other people were having for lunch. In an association context, we have a strong desire for our communities to support more meaningful interactions than that.

To quote Jimi Hendrix: “Are you experienced?” If you haven’t had the opportunity to participate in a healthy online community, you really should try it out. My own experience is that communities of like-minded professionals can be incredibly valuable. If you get it right, an online community for your association can be the centerpiece of your organization. It becomes the embodiment of what your association really is: a collection of like-minded individuals who come together for their mutual benefit.

#3 – Too Much Experience. The notion that you have “learned too much” about something doesn’t actually seem to make sense. But it’s possible to have experienced a number of online communities and formed the impression that they’re roughly all the same because there are common elements that are present in almost all online communities. There is a tendency to assume that an online community is just a place where more or less unstructured discussions happen. And it can be hard to envision how that sort of interaction is going to lead to the sort of engagement that you want with and among your members.

While discussion does form the backbone of virtually all online communities, there is a much greater variety of activity that is possible. For example, I have seen online communities that included activities such as: virtual book clubs, Q&A sessions with acknlowledged experts, informal training, mentoring, and collaboration on producing reports, articles, policies, etc. Those sorts of activities strike me at least, as aligning closely with the core mission of most associations.

To wrap up, there are a lot of reasons why an online community might not seem like a particular priority for your association. But I hope I have given you a sense of why it might be worth looking into. As I mentioned above, I think that associations are primarily about “community” by their very nature, and so the potential value that an online community brings can be substantial.

Blended Association

8 Mar

Are you a blended association?

Murray Goldberg and Terry Coatta were participating an #assnchat Twitter chat about “reinventing associations” when Murray had a brain storm. Have you ever seen someone have an Aha! moment? Watch the sixty second clip here.

Kiki L’Italien was posing interesting questions about empowerment, speed of association change and actively reinventing associations on her Twitter chat. Murray and Terry were having a wide ranging discussion while watching the tweets come in. They were talking about association boards, associations being about relationships and how social media means that associations are no longer the sole custodians of relationships . . . when suddenly, it was almost as though a light bulb lit up over Murray’s head. He was struck by the parallel between the concept of blended learning which he is very familiar with, and what was happening with associations, and coined the term blended socialization.

Blended learning is when traditional face to face learning is combined with computer based eLearning. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but the interesting part is that when combined, the achievement of learning objectives is greater than either one done separately. The parallel for associations is that associations should be more effective at achieving their objectives by combining face to face and virtual relationships.

Blended socialization captures the idea that relationships are no longer just face to face and just as face to face and virtual learning bring complementary aspects to education; face to face and virtual relationships within an association can also complement one another. As Terry noted in the Blended Socialization post he wrote after the chat; the recent social media phenomenon has common cause with associations in that they both address the fundamental human desire to meet people, collaborate, and learn from each other. I noted in a previous post that association communications have evolved from meetings, through mail and magazines, to the age of moderation of online conversations, as most associations add social media to their communication mix. Associations should be able to achieve better engagement and better outcomes by adding an online component to member communications and enabling member to member relationships.

Achieving better outcomes, as always, will depend on planning, strategy and execution. Measuring the success of strategies however, will have to change. Now that communication is multi-directional, you can no longer rely on feedback metrics used for uni-directional communication such as readership. We will need some way of measuring success through engagement metrics that recognize many more bi-directional relationships. In future posts I will talk about how sociology and the concept and measurement of social capital can guide us. If you want a preview, have a look at some research on social capital and how it applies to associations in our library here.

Blended Socialization

6 Mar

Murray Goldberg and I were participating in the #assnchat Twitter chat this week, which was all about “reinventing associations.” A lot of the conversation was centered around the impact that social media is having and will continue to have on associations. And while social media itself is a somewhat recent phenomenon, particularly with respect to the level of adoption that we’re seeing now, it springs from a more fundamental human desire to meet people, collaborate, and learn from each other.

The challenges that social media pose for associations are somewhat ironic — after all, associations came into being precisely because of the desires of like-minded individuals to come together, get to know one another, and share information. Of course, prior to the widespread adoption of computer-based communications, this meant that associations became very good at establishing and maintaining relationships primarily through face-to-face interactions. So, they became skilled at putting on conferences, setting up local chapters, bringing in speakers, etc.

Unfortunately, the hype associated with social media has tended to devalue the importance of face-to-face interactions. This situation reminded Murray of the way that technology adoption occurred in education. A very interesting result from the research Murray did into educational technologies is that the best learning outcomes occur with a combination of online and face-to-face learning, which is sometimes referred to as “blended learning.”

So, I think now is the time for associations to become the champions of “blended socialization.” Rather than abandon their strengths in face-to-face interactions, they need to extend and connect them with social media. Just as with learning, I am sure that the outcomes will be far better than what is achieved by social media alone.

I Built a Community and No One Came!

1 Mar

Sometimes you can have the best of intentions, and even the best of tactics, and still not get the outcome you’re hoping for. Online communities can be like that. I’ve been involved in my share of failures, and sometimes there is nothing that you can do about that. If the fundamental ingredients for community are not there, passion and focus, then failure is almost inevitable.

But let’s suppose that you are pretty firmly convinced that those aren’t a problem. What can you do to to help give your community the best chance of success?

#1 Get Help! No, not psychiatric help… Find people who share your passion. Its extraordinarily difficult to be the sole driving force behind a community. The oft-quoted rule of thumb is that 90% of people are lurkers, 9% are willing to comment on something, and 1% are willing to actually create new content. Obviously you can’t survive without that 1%. And in a community that is just getting started you don’t want to leave it to statistics to get that 1% for you. You want to go out and find them, bring them in, and do whatever you can to encourage them to contribute.

#2 Think about your audience. What is the focus of the community?  Why will people be interested in this community? Is it something that will help them do their jobs more effectively? Is it a place to come for specialized information about a hobby or skill? Once you know your audience, figure out how to best publicize yourself to them. If your community is starting small, consider reaching out to new members on an individual basis. Involve existing members in reaching out for new members.

#3 Think about content. Some communities are very content focused — particularly if you are trying to build up a library of specialized information. But even in communities that are more interaction oriented, content can still serve as a springboard for interaction; a controversial blog post that you find out on the internet can help kick off a discussion on your site. So, make a list of sites, blogs, etc. that routinely have interesting new content that is related to your community. Don’t be afraid to create new content yourself. When an idea comes to mind that relates to the community, write it down immediately, or send yourself an email reminder. Finally, consider actually creating a content calendar; a list of content items and when you publish them to the community. This will help ensure that there is regular flow of new information to keep bringing people back.