What does your association know today that it didn’t at the beginning of 2020?
Two possible and equally correct answers to this question are “far more than it did” and “far less than it needs.” When we look back on 2020, we most likely will forget the full extent of the learning that was required to adjust to the complex challenges thrust upon us this year. As association decision-makers look toward the year ahead, however, they cannot ignore the sheer depth and breadth of the learning they will need to pursue in 2021 and throughout the rest of this decade to adapt themselves to an irrevocably-altered world, and undertake the difficult work of reinventing their associations for the future.
Unfortunately, for many association boards, chief staff executives (CSEs) and other governing contributors, learning remains a low-priority activity that occurs on an incidental basis at best. Even this year’s novel and unforgiving conditions, created by powerful forces of turbulence far beyond their control, have failed to move many senior decision-makers to fully embrace the importance of learning for themselves, as well as their peers and colleagues, organizations and stakeholders. The purpose of this article is to make the case for why learning is a non-negotiable requirement in The Turbulent Twenties (The T20s), explain what learning demands of us individually and collectively and consider how associations can make learning intentional both inside their organizations and externally through their business models.
Why is Learning So Important?
My first use of the term, The Turbulent Twenties came in an article in July 2019. Throughout last autumn and into the beginning of 2020, my message to association decision-makers was clear: this decade will be shaped by myriad forces of turbulence, among which three primary forces—the accelerating adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technologies, the growing urgency of the global climate crisis and the expanding impact of inequality throughout our society—will create significant upheaval throughout our society. The unexpected (but not unforeseeable) arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying consequences has brought that instability sooner, unleashed a shockwave of global disruption and put our society under extreme stress from which it may never completely recover.
In this decade of profound turbulence, intentional learning is a vital “superpower” for human beings, teams and organizations who want the chance to thrive. According to the authors of an August 2020 article from the global management consultancy, McKinsey & Company, learning is “the most fundamental skill for professionals to cultivate,” and they suggest that “[w]hile intentional learners embrace their need to learn, for them learning is not a separate stream of work or an extra effort. Instead, it is an almost unconscious, reflexive form of behavior. Learning is the mode and mindset in which intentional learners operate all the time.” It is precisely this mindset that associations must strive to develop in all stakeholders, and especially in current decision-makers.
For association boards, with the support of the CSE and staff, the most essential learning to be done is the work of foresight, i.e., an intentional process of learning with the future. Fulfilling the board’s duty of foresight (discussed in my July 2019 article mentioned above) is critical if associations are going to have the ability to understand, anticipate and prepare for the full range of plausible futures, including other unfavorable/unthinkable futures that could emerge during The T20s. Intentional learning with the future must be a team effort that includes varied contributors from both inside and outside associations who bring divergent and provocative perspectives to the conversation. (Author’s Note: I will present a next practice process that association boards can use to advance the work of foresight in an online article for BOARDROOM next month.)
What Learning Demands of Us
In our conventional understanding, learning is mostly about collecting and processing information inputs as if human beings are computers. In fact, human learning is a much deeper, richer and more inclusive process that demands more of us cognitively and emotionally. In my work, I use the Foresight First Learning Cycle to provide association boards with a pragmatic frame in which to pursue learning:
Sense-making involves developing a common intellectual understanding of the future concerns under consideration and is essential to conducting generative conversations in which boards can tackle difficult and unfamiliar questions. For example, to prepare for a conversation about the plausible impact of AI and automation on the association, board directors and officers would need to engage in individual sense-making around AI’s foundational issues and questions, e.g., what are the different types of AI, their common applications and limitations, before joining with their colleagues in a shared and integrative exploration of those issues and questions.
Meaning-making is about connecting intellectual understanding with an ethical and empathic perspective of the implications for stakeholders and successors. While sense-making and meaning-making are frequently seen as the same thing, I regard the unique purposes of each mode of thinking as sufficiently distinctive to pursue them in connected yet separate phases. In the case of our hypothetical board conversation on AI/automation technologies, the meaning-making phase might emphasize the potential human impact of increased machine intelligence use on the association’s current and future stakeholders.
Decision-making strives to integrate sense-making and meaning-making into the board’s on-going process of making decisions to ensure those choices are grounded in learning. Another mistaken belief about learning is that it is somehow disconnected from action. In fact, the best evidence that learning has occurred is the ability to use it as the basis for real-world actions. These actions then create new learning to continue the cycle of sense-making, meaning-making and decision-making. For example, to follow through on the AI/automation conversation, an association board could decide to commission specific research into how these technologies are already in use within its ecosystem to gain further insight into its emerging beneficial and detrimental impact on stakeholders.
Board directors and officers can begin to bring a higher level of intention to this focused and disciplined learning process by 1) minimizing unhelpful distractions that may prevent them from devoting their attention to learning, 2) actively questioning their orthodox beliefs, i.e., the deep-seated assumptions they make about how the world works, that can be serious barriers to learning and 3) reconnecting with their intrinsic human motivation, curiosity and empathy for other people as critical energy resources for sustaining the work of intentional learning over the long term.
How Associations Can Make Learning Intentional
In addition to working with their most senior staff and voluntary decision-makers to build new capacity for intentional learning, associations also must be thinking more deeply about the role that intentional learning can play in stakeholder value creation as they work to alter traditional membership-centric business models for the rest of The T20s. To frame an initial conversation on this topic, I recommend association boards and staff collaborate to explore the following three questions:
•How can the association make its stakeholders smarter?—Associations need to begin shifting their business models away from an interruption-based approach to educational programming and toward developing a continuous flow of learning that keeps their stakeholders employable and enriches the context within which they try make sense of a complex world every day.
•How can the association support its stakeholders as they navigate uncertainty?—Associations can be powerful advocates for intentional learning as a practice for stakeholders to use to clarify their orientation toward the future (optimistic/pessimistic) and make deeper meaning as they confront personal and professional challenges in 2021 and beyond.
•How can the association prepare its stakeholders to make better decisions?—Associations can provide their stakeholders with unique intelligence resources, collected and curated using an intentional learning approach by carefully organized contributor networks, to strengthen their stakeholders’ ongoing decision-making.
This painful year will come to its inevitable end soon enough, but The Turbulent Twenties are here to stay. There will be no return to “business as usual, and there is no “new normal” ahead. While the disruptive dynamic already animating this decade will make learning a constant struggle, it can be a generative and ultimately beneficial struggle for associations, their stakeholders and successors. To make that happen, however, it is imperative for association boards, CSEs and other contributors to work together to make intentional learning a genuine and consistent priority.