What’s Plaguing Associations 2009

For the past three years, I’ve conducted a non-scientific survey of association executives, asking them what immediate concerns they have surrounding the management of their database. This year, nearly 150 association executives responded.

In years past, standout issues have included integration with multiple systems (including the website), data integrity, and system selection. While those issues are well-represented again this year, there were a couple of additions to the list: user adoption and budget issues. Also, the distribution of these issues has changed. Whereas in the past, reporting and integration have been the top two issues, this year’s results suggest there is more focus on collection and management of data. Interestingly, issues of querying and reporting represent only 10% of the responses, versus 25% or more in years past.

Also interesting, though perhaps not surprising: budget issues. For the first time, there were more than one or two comments about a lack of budget to address data management issues.

Using a subjective measure, I’ve categorized these responses in to the following broad categories:

Data collection, management, and integrity (23% of respondents): These are issues related to challenges in collecting data and challenges in managing the data that has already been collected. Some representative comments:

“[Data] maintenance! Our members do not necessarily take the time to update their profiles and things like industry, employer, time in practice are necessary for us. Not to say about addresses, contact info, etc.”

“Identifying what additional data is critical to segment marketing efforts without requesting/requiring too much information from members/prospects.”

“Maintaining accuracy in the face of a mobile membership.”

My thoughts: Maintaining the integrity of the data in the database will always be a challenge. There’s an old adage in the directory printing business: “A directory is out-of-date the minute it hits the street.” The same can be said about your database; it’s out-of-date now, and always will be. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to keep it as accurate as possible. Among other things, to improve data integrity, associations should be developing data integrity and exception reports, reviewing how they collect and manage data, and getting rid of data they no longer use.

Implementation and upgrades (21%): Issues related to upgrades to existing systems or acquiring new systems. Some representative comments:

“We are converting to a new AMS and it has been very challenging to find the time outside of our ‘day jobs’ to devote to testing, etc.”

“In process of new database design study – Making decisions about what to take with and what data to leave behind.”

My thoughts: It’s critically important to keep your technology up-to-date, so this issue will be a perennial concern. Technology changes, and in order to provide the best possible service to members and customers, associations need to keep up with the changes that allow them to do that.

Integration (20%): Issues related to integrating multiple data systems (e.g., database to content management system, database to accounting software). Some representative comments:

“Lack of seamless data base integration with online/web functions is making e-commerce functions bulky and unreliable.”

“How to link member data well to a new hosted CE system.”

My thoughts: As more “best of breed” vertical software tools hit the market (think email marketing tools, certification software, job bank software), it’s becoming increasingly important to associations to be able to use these tools. To be most effective, this will often require some level of integration between the primary AMS and the third-party software. The good news is that the software vendors are recognize this and are working to develop standard integrations (for example, look at any major AMS vendor’s website and search for “technology partners”). The bad news is that a lot of these integrations are still in their infancy, so there is still some learning to do on all sides.

Reporting and querying (10%): Issues related to extracting data from the database, whether through ad hoc queries or formal reports. Some representative comments:

“Getting accurate and meaningful reports out of our new AMS.”

“I am unable to get reports/queries of the information I need. I rely on long time staff who know the quirks of our system and it is VERY time consuming, even for them.”

My thoughts: Getting data out of the database is always a concern, so I was surprised that this didn’t rank higher in the responses. My hope is that part of the decline can be attributed to data management systems getting better at providing tools for querying and reporting (I think they are, though very slowly).

User Adoption (7%): Issues related to getting staff to actually use the database in place at the association. Some representative comments:

“Still trying to crack the nut of how to get everyone on staff to use it for at least the basics (updating contact info, recording conversations).”

“Getting everybody to use it.”

My thoughts: As I’ve written here, getting users to actually use the database is a primary key to long-term success. And it’s no surprise that some associations are struggling with that. According to “Voices of CRM,” user adoption is the number-one problem with large-scale CRM implementations. But with proper training and documentation, as well as helping the user identify why using the system is in the user’s best interest, associations can improve the level of user adoption within their organization.Budget (5%): These comments reflected the need of the association to upgrade their technology but not having the budget to do that currently. Some representative comments:

“Budget for a replacement AMS.”

“How to afford to upgrade to newer, more efficient technology.”

“We are replacing our database – the challenge is picking the best fit for the organization and dealing with the cost of replacement.”

My thoughts: Given the current state of the economy, I’m almost surprised that this number wasn’t higher. But as with all important investments, every organization has to weigh the short-term pain of spending money against the long-term potential damage of not spending that money on critical infrastructure. While there are some organizations who are in truly desperate straits regarding their financial condition, many organizations are using the weak economy as an excuse for not making difficult but important infrastructure decisions. Those that wait will have to work that much harder to catch up once the economy turns around.

Training (4%): Issues related to learning how to use the database more effectively (or at all). Some representative comments:

“Learning how to use it! (We just started with [the new AMS])”

“Just figuring out all the best practices. We are constantly discovering new/better ways to do things, but wld have been nice to know in the first place.”

Miscellaneous (10%): This is for issues not easily categorized in any of the categories listed above. Issues include business intelligence, vendor support, and dealing with programming bugs.

Databases are organic, which means they have to be actively managed to keep them “alive.” Because they are organic, just like a living body always needs to be fed and exercised to keep it healthy, some issues in data management will never go away. We will always be faced with the challenges of data integrity, keeping up with changing technology, and getting the data out of the database (querying and reporting). But as is true with so many things, if we have clear processes in place to deal with these issues, so that our staff and our members and customers know how to interact with our data management systems, we’ll get closer and closer to the success we desire.

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