Lessons In Doing Associations Right, From The American College Of Cardiology

Associations are part of the fabric of the United States. For over 100 years they have been bringing American professionals together to network, get the best education, and provide the collective heft it takes to lobby. For most, the way they conduct business is also more than a century old, wedged firmly in the past.

People do not need or desire associations in the same ways they once did. They can network today in a myriad of venues, such as LinkedIn and Facebook to name only the most well known. Education is provided, often free, by the private sector as a loss leader. People just don’t join associations because they work in a particular field. They do it today only if they see a return on their investment. And time is often more precious than money.

To an outsider it seems most associations have their heads in the sand when it comes to education. When there is a breakthrough, or simply new ways of doing things, the meeting planners find an expert in their ranks and put them on stage to share the news. Nobody measures the success of these teachers; instead, they count themselves lucky to have gotten someone who is credible to speak for free. They don’t conduct market intelligence to learn what people are willing to pay for—if members are asking for it, they put it on even when the actual turnout is paltry.

But, digging deeper, I don’t see people with their heads in the sand. I see people who simply do not know what to do. They are mostly logistics experts, not business innovators. They specialize in large-scale gatherings, not curriculum design or market savvy product development. The American College of Cardiology (ACC) is different. Their chief learning officer is Mary Ellen Beliveau. She knows what she's doing, and it shows up on the bottom line as well as the smiles on members’ faces.




Before January 2011, Beliveau had no association experience. She was a business entrepreneur running her own continuing professional development firm. ACC lured her onto staff by promising her the opportunity to transform cardio-education where it could have the biggest impact, among its members. Comprised of 40,000 physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and practice managers, it is the premier organization for cardiology in the United States with a strong showing overseas. Beliveau brought a very different way of looking at education; one grounded in the Darwinian realities of business.

The ACC’s annual meeting is a major source of revenue, with over 20,000 professionals in attendance every year. So, Beliveau’s ideas were high risk—she was fiddling with a mega-operation that the ACC relies on for significant income. But, Beliveau is used to that kind of pressure and it only focuses her attention. I know because I worked hand-in-hand with her during the first six months of the transformation she engendered.

She told me once while we stood waiting for an elevator at ACC’s headquarters, Heart House, “I feel like a fire is chasing me down the hall. There is so much to be done. If we get this right, we can be both the first and the best. There is a lot at stake here.”

Beliveau set about taking the ACC’s old-school meeting machine and turning it into an intelligent learning system that breeds value. It is driven by market intelligence, feedback from participants, panels of experts, and continuous monitoring of her financials.

Beliveau has developed a curriculum that puts just-in-time education in the hands of cardiologists, delivering it through 30 live courses, the annual scientific sessions, and over 300 online activities all accessed through a personal transcript in the form of a web portal which tracks their education so they don’t have to. One of the biggest constraints cardiologists face is time, yet they must continually keep up. The ACC’s lifelong learning system will give them credit for advances they accomplish in real time, requiring no additional overhead.

Beliveau measures her results. Her organization developed a set of holistic competencies that her program is built to deliver. Using these she solicits participant feedback and monitors it in conjunction with data from the ACC’s registries, measurements of cardiovascular care that the ACC has been keeping for over two decades. She is able to tell what has been learned (and requires relatively less attention in the future) and what demands more emphasis. These metrics are used to drive patient outcomes and quality of care. Thus, ACC is moving from a volume-based model of course development and delivery to one that is driven by value.

Beliveau works with a business analyst on her team to go over revenue performance on a weekly basis. But, that’s not all. She says, “Every department is reporting back to me. We don’t stop. I am literally looking at these numbers across my portfolio continuously. I know immediately if we think usage, revenue, costs, or margin are suddenly forcasted to be off so we have time to proactively make decisions to keep our educational portfolio on target. Our analytics are deep and anticipatory so we have management tools to keep us on or above target. This is the art of product management, putting the right analytics in place, looking at them regularly, and making management decisions day-to-day according to the financial indicators.”

How much does a transformation like this cost? It saved ACC $200,000 in the first year. Not only that, Beliveau developed a single product that generated an extra $1.3 million in revenue with a margin of $400,000, so ACC saw an increase of $600,000 in the first year.

Transformational change in an association is complex and requires acquisition of key skill sets and re-alignment. Through business analytics and commitment associations can improve their value proposition to membership and actually improve their relevance within existing P&L models. It's an evolutionary step for associations. The time has come.

—Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. He has consulted with CEOs and executives organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, American Geophyscial Union, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, is a Washington Post bestseller. Learn more about Seth's work at VisionaryLeadership.com.

[Image: Flickr user Carlos Porto]

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