It was 20 years ago this June that I took a summer job at my college alumni association. I had no idea I would some day be in the association management business, but there I was, doing “data entry” for an association. And what did data entry entail, exactly? Well, it was three other guys and me sitting in a room, with books the size of an average desk. Within each book was a computer printout of thousands of names and addresses of alumni. Our job was to take the returned mail from a recent mailing, find the name in one of the massive books, scratch it out with a red pen, and then write in the correct information next to the address block. Mind you, this all had to occur within a space of approximately 1 inch by 1 inch.

How is this data entry, you ask? Well, once we were done, the books were forwarded to a central data entry area, where real data entry clerks looked up the names and made the address changes on the central database, presumably being able to decipher my chicken-scratch corrections. Meanwhile, at each desk within the association sat computer terminals that were never turned on. My fellow worker commented one day to me: “Those have got to be the most expensive paperweights in history.”

Fast forward 20 years, and what do I see happening in associations every day? We’ve moved on from the desk-size book of addresses. But we haven’t really improved our efficiency in data processing. We’ve traded the big books in for email. Now when someone receives an address change, they type it up in an email and email it to the data entry clerk. Then, some day, when he or she can get to it, it’s entered into the central database. Sound familiar?

At the alumni association, we weren’t allowed to touch the computers, because we didn’t know how to use them. And heaven forfend we get trained. Better to just make changes on paper and forward it to the person who knows what they’re doing in the database. The same thing is happening in thousands of associations around the country. This is a trust issue, as I write here.

It’s time for associations to acknowledge that more staff can work in the database if we’re willing to make the effort to train staff on how to use the database. We also have to acknowledge that with more staff will come more errors, but the increase in efficiency (if done right) will far outweigh any errors that occur.

How about your organization? Are you still scratching out addresses with red pen and forwarding it to central data entry? If you really want to be successful, your data entry should be decentralized, as I write here.

Update: Many thanks to Lisa Junker at ASAE for sending me her copy of this post.