Association Data Challenges – New Survey Results

Gravitate attended four association-focused conferences in the last quarter of 2019 – AMSFest, Community Brands Xperience, Higher Logic HUG, and ASAE Tech.

At each conference, we asked participants “What is your greatest data challenge?” and thought the results were interesting.  The responses clustered as follows:

Data Challenge Percent Examples
Aggregating/Blending 34% Data silos; Disparate systems; Incongruent data
Data Governance 28% Consistent data definitions; Imports/Exports; Incomplete data; Duplicate records
Leadership 11% Buy-in; Trust of data; Pushing data driven culture; Communication
Actionable Data 7% Presenting data in meaningful way; Too much manual work; Making sense of unstructured data
Archiving Data 6% What’s important to keep; Combining current data with historical data
Misc. 14% Non-member data; Volunteer engagement; Trend analysis; Steve?!?

As we suspected, the biggest concern about data is related to data silos and disparate systems not working together. While most associations are surprised to learn just how much of their important member data is stored outside their association management system (AMS), they instinctively understand that by not incorporating all relevant member data into their overall decision-making, they are not maximizing their efforts.  And they are right – Gravitate has discovered through first-hand research that only 20% of the average association’s data is in their AMS – and that percentage is shrinking every year.

A consistent theme related to blending and integrating data is that it is very difficult and expensive to integrate an AMS with all the satellite applications that associations run these days: email marketing systems, communities, learning management systems, even/registration systems, learning/certification systems, etc.  This is true because it is hard to transform data from one transactional system into another transactional system – these systems simply were not built for this purpose. This is not the case with a state-of-the-art data analytics system like Nucleus (and the primary reason the product was developed in the first place) because we import data into Nucleus in its native format, making it easy to bring all member data together in one place.  We then blend the data and use it to generate association-specific analytics that effectively support decision-making.

The second biggest data challenge reported were issues related to data governance – inconsistent data definitions, import/export issues, incomplete data and duplicate records.  It was not particularly uncommon to hear that some organizations have issues agreeing on the formal definition of what constitutes a member – and if that’s the case, reporting on membership numbers can never be consistent.  Data must be easily accessible, complete, accurate, and understood. It is critical that the entire staff agree on fundamental data elements such as the definition of a member (current/paid, lapsed, within the grace period, etc.) when a member should be terminated, etc.

When we conduct an implementation of Nucleus, our first step is to identify the requirements and facilitate a fresh focus on data governance.  It can help to have an outside entity asking the hard questions and working to achieve organizational agreement on data definitions, and we see that as our role (if our client association desires).  Recently, we enhanced Nucleus to include an on-line data dictionary so that all this important information could be captured in each client’s system and not be lost somewhere in an off-line pdf. This online data dictionary also is context-sensitive so that when users are reviewing a chart or graph, the system will tell them what the elements of the visualization mean, so everyone always understands exactly what they are looking at. This built-in data dictionary is always 100% tailored to each association’s newly agreed-upon definitions and is very useful!

The next three data challenges – leadership, actionable data & archiving data – are important elements in any successful analytics initiative.  Like any important technology project, without leadership sponsorship or buy-in, the project will suffer. The key to drive support with leadership is focusing on the outcomes – new insights, better educated decisions, and more efficient operations.  Fortunately, being able to provide actionable data is baked into the DNA of an analytics tool like Nucleus that was built specifically for associations, and our baseline of pre-built analytics expands every year as our clients discover new ways to benefit from data analytics and we incorporate these into the system for everyone.

At these conferences, the participants who graciously identified their data challenges also provided other responses that we captured in a miscellaneous category – items such as non-member data, volunteer engagement, and trend analysis.  We got a chuckle when one individual said that the single biggest data challenge at their association was “Steve” – I guess we’ve all had a Steve at some point in our careers. While Nucleus can’t make the Steves of the world play nice with others, by making the data accessible and understood by everyone, you won’t have to ask Steve for help anymore.