The People Factor

It’s easy to think that a new database is the answer. It may be, but the successful implementation of a new system requires blood, sweat, and brains, not bits, bytes, and frames.

Associations don’t make $400,000 investments lightly. That’s the price one association paid for the software and installation of a new association management system (AMS)—probably about average for the size and scope of this organization.

The association’s leaders expected a lot for that kind of investment, and rightfully so. But this organization contacted me because they were encountering headaches they hadn’t dreamed of and they had that turn-the-stomach feeling you get when you’ve made a big mistake. A $400,000 mistake. Fortunately, they didn’t. However, they did make one error that is repeated often: they expected the software to be the solution to their problems. It sounds so obvious, yet so many organizations fall into this trap—software does not solve problems, people do.

I don’t mean to sell the software short. If you haven’t upgraded in the last five years or so, AMS software has come a long way. The big players are all good and if you choose a product that aligns with your association’s needs, you can see a vast improvement in productivity and effectiveness. The dirty little secret is, the software is only about 15 percent of the solution. So says Ed Thompson of the technology research firm Gartner UK, who said in a press release, “[The success of] a CRM (customer relationship management) program is typically 45 percent dependent on the right executive leadership, 40 percent on project management implementation, and 15 percent on technology.” Substitute AMS for CRM and the point is that the people, not the software, is what makes your investment in an AMS return dividends for your staff and members.

Executive Leadership

Responsibility for success ultimately lies with the board and executive leadership.  The implementation of an association-wide software product (like an association management system) is a venture that can last from six months to two years, and affects essentially every staff person, as well as members, volunteers, and customers. While the  implementation may be relegated to the technology staff, the result of an implementation (positive or negative) will be felt by all.  Executive leadership is one of the primary keys to success.

In 1997, the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) made a decision to implement a new AMS. In addition to the national organization, the database would be shared by four regional membership organizations loosely affiliated with NACUBO.

From the very start of the project, the leadership at NACUBO in both the executive office and at the board level, made sure everyone knew this project was of the highest priority. They did this in several ways:

  • As director of membership for NACUBO at the time, I was not part of the executive team, but the executives recognized the importance of their support of the project, and I was asked to attend weekly executive team meetings.  This was a small, but powerful show of support for the project.
  • The AMS project was a standing order of business at every NACUBO quarterly all-staff meeting. All-staff meetings were held only four times per year, it was difficult to get on the agenda. Yet the senior leadership decided that this project was so important that all staff should receive a report on it at each meeting. Staff received the not-so-subtle message that the project was important to NACUBO and its long-term success.
  • The AMS project was a standing order of business at the twice yearly meeting of the NACUBO board of directors. Like the quarterly staff meetings, the seriousness of this project was underscored by “having a place at the table” during board discussions.

By contrast, some organizations will implement AMS projects by announcing the project is beginning and never updating the staff again. Too often I’ve been invited into organizations that are deep into their implementation and struggling, and one of the first things I’ll discover is that senior management has not been involved in the process. They’ve signed the checks, but their head is not in the game. Consequently, most of the staff does not view the project as critical, and the project has been floundering. The project did not have the executive leadership required to make it a success.

Incidentally, smaller organizations (fewer than 25 staff) typically do not have this problem, as the executive director is usually directly involved in all major purchases and initiatives. It’s the associations with staff sizes of more than 25 that tend to get into this situation.

Following are some tips on how to get executive buy-in:

  • Show executive staff how the new system will benefit members.
  • Show executive staff how the new system will make staff more efficient.
  • Regularly invite executives to speak at project team meetings.
  • Have executives “demo” the system at all-staff meetings.
  • Give executives lapel pins that show support for the project. (I’ve even seen a ssociations create golf-shirts about the project, to demonstrate support.)
  • Have project update emails come from executives.
  • Host lunches in-office with executives and the software vendor.
  • Host lunches with the staff project team and the executives.

So what do you do with the executive director who prefers to stay out of the technology, letting the tech staff handle it? Explain to him or her that the organization is setting itself up for a $400,000 mistake—that has the potential to get attention.

Project Management
The next greatest impact on success is project management. Project management is the “hand-holding” that must occur throughout the life of the project to ensure the implementation is successful. The project manager’s job is to ensure that everyone else on the project is doing his or her job (both staff and vendor), that timelines are met, and that budgets are monitored. Project management is the link between the objective (this is what we want) and the process (this is how we’ll get there).

Project management is often given short shrift within associations. Most consultants to the industry agree that the internal staff project manager will have to spend 50 percent of his or her time on the AMS implementation, at a minimum. For larger or more complex implementations, the internal project manager may need to dedicate 100 percent of his or her time to the project. Unfortunately, most associations do not recognize this demand on staff time, and fail to allocate resources adequately. Simply put, associations fail to understand that if an internal staff person is expected to be a project manager on an AMS implementation, that person will have to offload other duties in order to have enough time to manage the project effectively.

Again, going back to my experience with NACUBO, on paper, my responsibilities were to recruit and retain members, as well as manage the membership database. But my boss made it clear to me in the interview that my priority would be the database implementation. In fact, because the database implementation would be my priority, the senior leadership agreed that no growth in membership would be required for that year.  They expected me to maintain membership levels, but because most of my time would be dedicated to project management for the AMS implementation, it was unrealistic to expect me to do that and grow membership.  My priorities and goals were established so that I would be able to dedicate a large portion of my time to the management of the project, rather than on the “typical” duties of a membership director.

As a consultant, I’ve had a broad range of experiences with associations and internal project managers. When I am asked what makes an internal project manager successful— aside from having the skills necessary for managing such a complex project—I offer these three pieces of advice:

  • Keep the scope of the project small and well-defined. Oftentimes, along with the AMS project, an association will also want to redesign the Web site. Unless you’ve got the resources to dedicate multiple individuals, don’t take on both projects at once. In addition, with the AMS implementation, try to focus as much as possible on what needs to be functional at go-live versus what can wait until a later phase. For example, is it absolutely necessary that members be able to manage their records online as soon as the system is live, or is this something that can wait six  or nine months? By clearly defining the focus, and minimizing the number of elements that need to be managed, you’ll increase your likelihood of meeting expectations and seeing the project through to success.
  • Dedicate staff.  Project management is not something you simply add to someone’s list of responsibilities.  If you want your internal project manager to be successful, you have to remove some responsibilities for the duration of the project.  This applies most significantly to the project manager, but all staff who are expected to participate in requirements gathering, testing, and implementation, need to have their goals and workload adjusted.
  • Do not rely on the vendor for project management. In likelihood, the vendor will appoint a project manager from their staff. In a lot of ways, this person will seem like an extension of your staff as the hours and sweat he or she accumulates on your behalf are significant. Still, he or she is not on your staff, does not have the authority to hold your staff accountable for project milestones, does not have the depth and breadth of understanding your culture and internal political issues, and is primarily responsible for the budget and costs of the vendor first, the client second. As much of an asset as these project managers are, they are no substitute for someone to oversee the project from your perspective.

The technology is important, but in terms of its impact on the overall success of the implementation, it’s a very small piece of the pie. The simple fact is that most of the problems that occur during an AMS implementation are not related to the technology, but how the project is being managed and how leadership views the importance of the project.

Getting it Done Right
Selecting the correct association management software for your association means you have ensured only 15 percent of the project’s success. Too often I’ve seen association executives operate under the mistaken belief that if the correct software is chosen, success rests simply on installation and data conversion.  In fact, association-wide projects such as an AMS implementation require considerable attention from executive leadership and serious attention to project management. The best software cannot compensate for poor management.  Eighty-five percent of the success of your investment is people, not technology.  Fund and support them appropriately.

This article originally appeared in the 2006 Technology Solutions Directory published by ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. Reprinted with permission.

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