Managing Your Database: Why Documentation is King

Is it a problem if only one person in your organization knows how to run certain database procedures? You bet it is. It’s never too early to start documenting procedures so that you don’t have to re-create the wheel every time, say, annual dues renewals roll around.

Consider this scenario: Your association database runs fine as long as Jean, the membership assistant, is around–she is the only one who really knows how to work the database. One day, Jean decides to take a job with another association. During her last two weeks at your association, you scramble to get everything she knows about the database down on paper.

Now it is two weeks since Jean has left, and you find yourself having to run annual membership renewals, a process that she neglected to document. You’re faced with running 500 membership renewals with no documentation or guidance on how to do it.

Sound familiar?

Too often we assume that because someone on staff knows how to run a particular process in our database, there’s no need to document it. But with today’s tight job market and higher staff turnover, the need for documenting procedures is greater than ever before.

Why should you document?
The scenario above is just one of many reasons to document your database procedures. Aside from keeping you from being left in the lurch when someone leaves, documenting your procedures can help with the following:

  • Training new and temporary staff. Once training is complete, new employees and temporary staff will have documentation to refer to when they have questions.
  • Identifying bad business practices. As you begin to document your procedures, you’re likely to find that some things you’re doing don’t make sense. For instance, why do you keep a copy of the membership renewal form with membership, with accounting, and in the database?
  • Saving time and money. Once you’ve documented a procedure, you can refer to that documentation again and again rather than having to call your software provider every time you need help.
  • Avoiding re-creating the wheel for once-a-year processes. The toughest procedures to remember are those you run only once a year, like annual dues renewals. With good documentation, you don’t need to remember; it’s all written down.

What should you document?
Quite simply, it makes sense to document every process that works its way through the database. In the area of membership this includes, but is not limited to, how to

  • process a new member;
  • enter a prospective member’s information;
  • run dues renewal notices;
  • drop a member; and
  • run a membership listing or labels.

Of course, if you’re using your database for meetings registration, publication sales, exhibit sales, or other processes, these areas need documentation as well.

How often should you document?
Your documentation should be a living document. That is, you should update and revise it whenever procedures change. Suppose you typically run three renewal notices to send to your members–one at two months before their membership expires, one at one month before, and one at their drop date. Should you decide to add an additional notice one month after the drop date, be sure your documentation reflects this added step.

What’s the best way to get started?
The next time you sit down to work with the database, whether to enter a new member or prospect or to run a membership or mailing list, document the steps it takes to handle that process. If you do this for each process, you’ll quickly have much of the documentation you need.

What’s the best way to document?
There are many ways to handle documentation. The simplest way is to use your association’s word processor to document the steps of a given procedure, and then save each process as a separate document. Save all the different documents to a separate drive on your network, so all staff can access them. If you want to protect your work from accidental changes or deletions, you’ll want to make the files read-only.

For associations with greater technical resources, an intranet is a good solution for documentation. A well-organized intranet allows your staff to see all the available documentation in a quick, easy-to-understand format and will allow you to use more sophisticated tools, such as definitions and cross-referencing to other documentation. Intranets can be especially useful for associations with large numbers of users.

Why don’t we document more often?
Documentation is tedious, time-consuming, and not much fun. With all of our other responsibilities, who really has time to put everything we do down on paper?

Before you fall into this trap, think about the last time you had to do something in your database that you had previously done–but just couldn’t remember how to do. How long did you spend trying to remember or re-create the process? This is exactly the kind of situation that careful and comprehensive documentation can help you avoid.

This article originally appeared in the March 2000 issue of ASAE’s Membership Developments newsletter.


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