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Making Learning Your Strategic Advantage With Lowell Aplebaum

  • 8 Min Read

Associations that are ready to meet the need stand to gain the most.


Associations are finding themselves up against some big headwinds. Membership demographics are shifting. Competition is on the rise. Budgets are under increased scrutiny, and technologies are emerging and evolving faster than ever.  

The role of a leader is to guide the association forward. But what does that path look like? What’s at stake if nothing changes and what do you stand to gain if it does? 

We talked with Lowell Aplebaum, EdD, FASAE, CAE, CPF, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Vista Cova, about some of the challenges CEOs and boards of directors are facing when it comes to learning. We touched on topics such as: 

  • the need for personalized learning experiences 
  • the importance of professional development for staff 
  • where competition is coming from and why it’s growing 
  • how to measure the impact of learning for both the association and its members 

Lowell wraps up by encouraging associations to think outside the box when it comes to learning—finding new, dynamic ways to deliver it in order to serve the needs of the members and the association. 

What are CEOs thinking about? What are they keeping their eyes on? 

The first is that if we’re going to go toward learning as a business model, making a lot of one-hour static webinars and selling them is not something organizations are thriving on anymore. 

Yet the need to learn is as great as ever. How do organizations adapt their learning expertise to up the game so they’re providing a positive experience with meaningful content through different mediums?
Lowell Aplebaum, EdD, FASAE, CAE, CPF CEO, Vista Cova

What’s key is creating dynamic learning experiences that are not just one-offs but are part of a stepped-up content strategy that serves members. It’s a learning journey. How to do that is top of mind for many CEOs and executive directors because delivering on the content, strategy and methodology doesn’t have the same logistical needs as planning a meeting. They’re different skill sets. 

The second is that there are so many more learning opportunities for all of us today. If we wanted to, we could find 50 different things happening at this moment. It’s no longer this clean space of one voice at a time.

What’s going to make the voice of your organization distinct and different? What’s going to make people want to come and learn what you’re offering?
Lowell Aplebaum, EdD, FASAE, CAE, CPF CEO, Vista Cova

There are traditional members who recognize the value that associations bring to their content, but those coming into the workforce were taught in classrooms that were much more experiential and dynamic. If associations don’t handle that transition well, they’re not going to see the next generation embrace what they have to offer as the provider of top-tier learning offerings in their space. 

Looking at the long-term strategy, how are CEOs executing it? 

When you talk to organizations that are touching a minor percentage of the total population they want to reach, what is not often on the table is, “What is the different type of learning approach that’s needed to get to that larger population?” Is it accessibility? Is it the varied pricing? Is it how you demonstrate accomplishment and the impact of learning? Is it modality?  

I think that this is still a time of great change, that the theme of our decade is surfing the wave and that learning is a key place of value. There’s this striving to not only understand what we’ve done well but to also experiment and create. That’s where CEOs will have influence. How much are they charging staff to grow and try new models? How much of it is an iteration that keeps the budget line they’ve always had? 

Where does professional development for an association’s staff come into play? 

There’s this juxtaposition that if you were to ask any supervisor, not just the CEO, “Do you want a staff member who says, ‘I want to grow and get better’ or ‘I want to be exactly who I am today,’” they’re always going to choose the one who wants to grow and learn. But to say, “We want the person who’s an ever-learner, but we’re not going to support their growth and learning,” is a contradiction. 

And there are many ways to support them. There’s financial support. There’s time support. There’s letting them take part in both formal and informal learning. Organizations that enable, acknowledge and elevate staff members who learn and grow hopefully then inspire others to do the same. 

The challenge isn’t just a budgetary one; it’s also about changing models of learning that are based on expectations that staff are going to be with you for a long time. “We’ll support you getting your certification because you’re going to be with us for the next 5, 10, 15 years, so our organization will benefit from that.” We know that’s not the trajectory that most individuals have anymore, so there has to be a refreshed perspective on the investment in the individual and their learning journey. The measure of success isn’t how long they stay; it’s how well they do during their time with the organization and the brand and reputation that builds for the organization as one that invests in its employees. 

Are we seeing professional development as a line item that gets distributed on an individual, as-needed basis? Or are we seeing set allocations per person per year? 

I’m still seeing a typical budget allocation when it occurs, but what I’d like to see is an approach that asks people about the learning they need. It isn’t that everyone gets the same. It’s that everyone gets what they need for what their learning journey needs to be. I think that’s part of what could make this more impactful. 

The other piece is that, unfortunately, we do a really poor job of circling back to ask, “Was it worth it? What did they learn? How has it impacted their job? What was the ‘so what’”? They don’t close the loop, so when you get to the time to make the investment again, other than feeling like you want to support the person, how do you actually know that investing in them is worthwhile? 

Couldn’t we say the exact same thing about how we measure the learning we deliver to our membership? Instead of the checkbox, should we be assessing competencies and how we’re moving people along in their journeys? 

I don’t think you would find an organization that would argue that competency—rather than checkbox achievement—is a much more meaningful thing to track. I think that the hurdle with measuring competency is that it requires a greater investment of resources because you can’t rely on multiple-choice tests. The demonstration of expertise is much more nuanced and needs a different model than what we’re used to. So there has to be a greater ability to integrate efficiency into competency measurement for organizations to embrace it. 

The other side of that is that without being able to demonstrate affect beyond the retention of CEUs for certification, the true impact isn’t going to be known by anyone outside of those who experience it. So, as we think about how we measure success, certainly there are quantitative measures, and those are great, but there are also concurrent qualitative measures. Think about testimonials that start with, “What did I intend to learn? Did I actually learn it? Where did I hope to apply it?” And then evolve into, “Where did the application lead to a new recognition, path forward or output?” 

If we don’t capture that narrative cycle that shows the actual impact we’re making, then what we’re going to get is continued standalone learning offerings that allows people to have letters after their name but won’t entice employers to want to send their employees to participate because it lacks impact. 

So what happens if associations don’t make this change and adapt? What does the competition look like out there? 

What you’re identifying is that it’s a much more crowded space right now. You see that while industry partners and sponsors once wanted to go through the association to put out their content, they’re now putting out their own content for free. They don’t need the association to connect with members anymore. You see that large companies that used to go through their professional association would rather now just do it and bring in an expert. It’s more cost effective. You see grassroots things that can pop up and meet a need that an overarching organization doesn’t have the capacity to fill. Are you going to prefer going to a web learning experience with people from everywhere whom you’ll just meet for this one hour, or is there something about being part of the local community where you’ll see the same people a few times and form relationships?

I think the realization needs to be that the learning landscape isn’t going to get emptier; it’s only going to get more crowded. 
Lowell Aplebaum, EdD, FASAE, CAE, CPF CEO, Vista Cova

Organizations that want to see excellence in what they’re offering from a learning perspective can’t bank on being the sole voice in the space. So, what’s going to be the differentiator about what they’re offering? Most often, it’s because, as the professional organization that represents an industry, they have the ability to tap into thought leaders and respected leaders in a way that’s not about how much money you can pay them to keynote but is about contributing to the good of the profession as a nonprofit representative. 

It’d be wise if each year, organizations were able to step back and say, “What is going to make the learning offerings that we are constructing this year unique, excellent, different and memorable? What can we do that members can’t find in five other places? What strengths do we have that align with the needs of our learners?” It’s about producing an experience in learning that makes an impact, entices people to come back and gives them something to tell others about. 

Are associations ready to make the changes? 

I was in a strategic planning meeting, and there were these two board members who have known each other for 25 years. They didn’t start yelling, but one said, “You don’t understand; we need to have everything in person. This is where people learn. This is where they make connections.” The other person said, “You don’t understand. We had to adapt to digital means of learning. It made it more accessible, and if we give that up we’ll lose the reach for everyone that can’t come in person.” It was a very passionate discussion, but I’m not sure it has to be either/or. I think that there has to be a capacity to ask who your association is trying to serve and how you can deliver learning in a way that’s not just about checking boxes. My hope is that as we partner and help organizations construct their learning journeys, this is something they’ll be able to continue to learn from. 

colleagues collaborating over a tablet in an office

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