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Associations Now

Contemplating My Professional Mortality

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, July 2012 Horizons

By: Ericka Plater-Turner, CAE

Summary: No one's job stays the same for long. As one association education professional watches her field evolve, she sees associations becoming less the source of expertise and more the facilitators of connections.

I had a recent conversation with a long-time friend about health concerns that had surfaced for her. The most frequent "symptom" was an intense awareness of the fragility of her life. The dread that came with the thought of not being around to see the seasons change or her own grandchildren was intense for her. It made me realize that I, too, have been experiencing similar feelings of my own looming mortality, though in a different sense: my professional mortality.

I am an association learning professional, and I have been for more than a decade. Today, learning is no longer confined to the classroom with an expert instructor at the front of the class. With quickly evolving technology and instant access to information, learning is dynamic and every peer is a teacher. It's hard to determine where I fit in this new world as a learning and professional-development professional.

As the field of learning has evolved, so has my role. In my early years, I acted as a content expert, writing publications, designing and delivering programs and curricula, and creating learning tools from A to Z. I had the freedom to unleash my creativity in every aspect of my job.

As the years have advanced and I've experienced different types of associations, I'm expected to be more of an expert in instructional design, program and product lifecycles, content mapping, and project management. I find myself designing programs similar to most of the new homes being built in my neighborhood: lots of open space inside the house but a small plot of land to build on. I'm expected to structure programs with open space for peer-led learning, but I have limited creativity in program type and delivery. It's more about the architecture of programming.

My current association conducted a membership survey in 2011 and posed questions related to learning needs. Providing ways to connect members to their peers so they could learn from each other was one of the top areas of need and opportunity for the organization. While there's still a need for traditional instructional programs, the demand for creating space for peer-to-peer learning is growing quickly.

As I approach a milestone birthday in December, I find myself reflecting on my life as a whole, but with particular focus on my career: where I've been and what's next on the horizon. I've been an association professional working in education and learning for 13 years—literally growing up in the association field—watching my job function and the learning needs of association members change.

I contemplate my role frequently. Am I facing extinction? It's not easy to remodel yourself for a job that doesn't yet exist. With the rapid pace of change in the association field, there are various notions of what the future will look like, but no one truly knows.

My one forecast for the future of learning is that associations will become connectors, conveners, and orchestrators in the learning space in order to keep up with member needs. What does that mean for association learning professionals like me? Who really knows? Perhaps the concept of learning professionals as curators will take shape. Perhaps our function will remain distributed across multiple learning and delivery methods, requiring multiple skill sets but also demanding that we be more nimble and flexible.

One thing is certain: I have decided to look at this as an opportunity, not an obstacle. It is an opportunity to revive my creative side, to be a pioneer in the next generation of learning, to reinvent myself as a professional, and to provide additional value to the members I serve.

Ericka Plater-Turner, MS, MBA, CAE, is managing director of professional development at the Council on Foundations in Arlington, Virginia. Email:

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  Glenn Tecker , August 02, 2012
Adsociations become more a source of connections when the best and brightest abandon them because they are not working on the things that matter to them. The ability to create a meaningful connection is a competitive advantage of adsociations. However, not at the expense of relevant and useful content delivered in an enjoyable environment.
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  Kristi Donovan , CAE , July 03, 2012
Great column! The job I am doing now did not exist when I started in associations 15 years ago... and I absolutely see it as a hybrid and extension of professional development and membership functions. And I have a feeling it will be very different 15 years from now! Staying flexible and open to new opportunities is the key to staying relevant as a professional in any field. Your last sentence sounds like the beginnings of a great professional mission statement...
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  Elizabeth Boyd-Flynn , CAE , July 02, 2012
Very nice piece, Ericka! It's simply the truth that many of our organizations won't survive the next decade - nor will some of our job-types. Time we look it squarely in the eye and see where reinvention is possible.


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