Industry associations and trade groups are in a unique position to provide cost effective training for their members at scale; unfortunately, few of them do.
Most industry associations provide programming (as in content) for their members. This typically includes emails, newsletters and magazines, webinars, training courses (online and in person), conferences and events, and online communities. While last tends to be community generated content, the rest is typically formally planned by the association itself.
Professional development is consistently a top topic requested by members across industries. There’s always a hot trending topic or two; it’s currently AI, but in the past has included remote work, big data, and other topics that come and go over 2-3-year cycles. While professional development might not take the top spot, it stays consistently near the top across the years.
Unfortunately, most industry associations are dropping the ball. The typical programming includes a webinar or two on a topic like leadership or communication, perhaps a monthly column in the magazine, and maybe a keynote speaker at the industry conference. The problem is that this is all one and done. The belief is that if you tell someone what to do, they’ll do it and be better at it.
Teaching professional skills is like teaching sports. You can’t just explain it and call it a day. It takes practice. Even if there’s a hands-on workshop at a conference, it’s not enough. You wouldn’t send someone to a weeklong sports clinic and declare that athlete done with training for the season. Rather, the coaches have them keep training, applying what they learn, and getting more feedback to fine tune the learning.
The same applies to professional skills; one and done rarely works. Some people will hear a speaker and have something click, but the number who will incorporate the new learning into a regular behavior that is still applied months or even weeks later is exceedingly slim. (There’s little specific formal research on this specific case, so I’ll ask you to draw on your own experience with such programs in the past, or to see studies on memories and learning such as Multiple Exposures Enhance Both Item Memory and Contextual Memory Over Time by Haoyu Chen and Jiongjiong Yang)
The challenge is that only the largest companies in a field have formal learning and development teams. Additionally, all companies, large and small, have trouble creating and formally promoting such programs in the office; getting buy-in and resources from upper management is often challenging. The biggest resource constraint often isn’t money, but the time commitment of employees. Industry associations, however, have three advantages over companies.
First, by sheer number, across the membership they have a significant number of people interested in longer term development. This allows amortization of costs but also the ability to gather like-minded people efficiently. A small organization may have only one or two people interested in a given topic; even at a large organization this function may be small in number compared to the size of the functional association membership.
Second, the association has people whose full-time job is simply membership development and programming, unlike at a company whose HR staff must divide their between hiring, retention, legal issues, corporate values, and a number of other competing tasks that typically get prioritized over learning and development. It allows for more to be done at breadth and depth, instead of the minimal effort to check a box.
Third, employee expectation includes engaging with such programming outside the course of normal business hours, creating less of a conflict with other work priorities. When the training happens during business hours, that's lost time at work. (This third issue is less relevant now as hybrid working has become common for many office workers.) Even so, HR is less likely to offer something say at 7pm while for an industry association who spans many time zones such non-9-5 hours for events are more normal.
Consequently, industry associations are in a unique position to offer extended development programming. Their scale, focus, and flexibility are hard to replicate except at the largest of corporations.
Associations often feel constrained by limited funds for programming. This is where peer learning groups can work, similar to mastermind groups or reading groups, it allows for a low or no cost engagement of many people at scale, and even over extended time periods. In peer learning small groups meet repeatedly over the course of months to discuss and engage on topics. It offers many advantages to one-off training programs like webinars.
As workplace volatility becomes the norm, workers will be seeking more opportunities to both grow and protect their careers. Industry associations have a unique positioning to help fill that gap in a way companies can’t. Now they need to step up and create such learning. If your industry association doesn’t yet offer such programming, ask them to do so (even by simply sending them a link to this article).
Those interested in creating such a program can download a free outline from The Career Toolkit website. This program was developed based on a course at MIT; there is no cost no or at any point in the program, and you don’t need to provide your email or any other information. It is 100% free. I’m also happy to speak with you if you have questions about implementing such a program.
It’s time to stop doing the sufficient training that is the norm. Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s enough. Associations need to be proactive and begin offering better, more engaging activities with a higher ROI for their members.
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