The Information Audit: Useless Data or Valuable Information
Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa & Neil Sivek
Data versus Information
As an association executive, can you differentiate between useless data
and valuable information? If you don't have what you need, don't know how
to use what you have, or can't make the right decisions because the right
facts are missing, then you have data. However, if you can answer your
business questions and take action based on your collection of facts, then
you have information. The secret to achieving the latter is to make your
database work harder to help you better understand and achieve your
Briefly, data is factual information used as the basis for reasoning,
discussion, or calculation. It says nothing about how that data is
actually used. Information, on the other hand, is the communication or
reception of knowledge or intelligence. The difference, which is not as
subtle as you might think, is what facts you have at your disposal and
what you do with them.
Why is it that associations are accustomed to a financial audit but never
considered conducting an information audit? They don't know how to conduct
one nor know whom to call. For example, if you were offered a significant
amount of money for your data and information, you'd probably wonder what
that person sees that you don't. An analogy is how you use your computer.
Most people have learned to use less than 20% of all of the things his or
her computer and its software can do. Thus over 80% is an untapped
resource. Similarly your data and information is priceless when you know
what you've got and what you can do with it to increase your bottom line.
What can an information audit uncover? Simply put, three things: First, it
identifies what you currently do with your data and information. Second,
it uncovers what you would like to do - your wish list of things you would
like to do but think you are unable to accomplish. Third, the information
audit then takes you beyond your wish list and provides you with better
and more efficient ways to do those things that you and your IT staff may
not have ever considered.
Unfortunately, most association executives and IT personnel are unwilling
to audit themselves when it comes to data and information. Why? Fear of
the unknown. They do not understand the concept or the benefit of an
information audit. The ultimate result will be more ways of doing more
business with members. So what's wrong with that? Associations are
notorious for being overly conservative and reluctant to learn and try
something new... until everyone else is doing it. In many associations,
the automatic pessimistic responses of association executives are "That
won't work in my association," "That costs too much," "We've tried
something like that and it didn't work," and "We've never done that
before." The "optimistic" association views something "new and different"
as an opportunity save money and manpower with the goal of generating more
revenues, while "the pessimistic" perceives more work.
The Value of Your Membership
Your association's bread and butter is its membership. The more you know
about your members, the better you can serve them and the more your
association can prosper. Your membership database contains a great deal of
facts and figures, but are you using it to your maximum benefit?
Probably not! Is it chock full of items you and your IT people never even
look at or even know are there? Are there reports or activities you want
to do but can't because the necessary data is not there?
Do you really know what you are putting into, getting out of, and doing
with your membership database? An example of untapped data in your
membership database could be the annual revenue generated by each member
beyond annual dues. Do you use this piece of data? If so, do you use it
for anything beyond a sorted list from highest value to lowest just to see
who is at the top and bottom? Consider defining ranges of revenue and
correlating participation in association events to see who the
participants are and why or conversely who is not participating and why
not. If you don't use this data, then why is it important to maintain? And
by not using this information, your association is losing money!
Consider the missing data? How often have you wished for a report that
could not be produced because the data did not exist? If you feel your
decision making would be improved by tracking information about your
members, exhibitors, or sponsors, then do it. But do you and your IT
people know how?
The Information Audit
An information audit helps you identify if you have the required data or
information for your numerous on-going projects. First, define your "end
in mind". What do you want to accomplish? When you think you know, then
ask yourself why you think this is your goal. After several iterations to
refine your information needs, determine what data exists and what does
not. For the missing pieces, figure how where to get them and how to store
them. The answer is not always another field in a giant database.
The second issue is how to collect and present the results. Does the
report writer in the database software extend beyond extracting the
records selected and sorted according to user-defined criteria? If you
need to categorize certain items or combine them with data from another
source, is someone retyping the results of a database report into another
application such as Microsoft Excel -- a waste of manpower -- or can you
export the results of a query to avoid redundant data entry? If you want
to combine more than one field into a single item, can the database
accomplish this or is a person typing it into Excel or Word along with the
other data fields you think you need for a particular report? Another
waste of manpower and money!
Once you have all the data you think you need in the format you think you
want, how is being further manipulated? To continue with the Excel
example, do you manually step through the sort process each time you want
to see the list in a different order, or do you have macro buttons to
point-and-click for each possible sort? How do you subtotal or
cross-tabulate data and update the results each time it changes?
Instead of four departments (membership, meetings, publications, and
government affairs) meeting 20 information needs with overlapping
requirements, fewer people can achieve the same goal. The bottom line:
fewer labor hours dedicated to redundant information gathering and
reporting and more time to better serve your members.
A Practical Example
Often times it makes more sense to merge data from multiple sources for
specialized reporting. An alternative to maintaining national demographics
within a membership database might be to segment and analyze your data
while having the capability to merge your membership database with another
database that contains demographics. For example, you have an individual
who has been a dues-paying member for 10 years. In those 10 years that
member has attended only two annual meetings, purchased less than $100 of
educational products, and has never attended any of your educational
conferences. With an information audit, you can create the tools to
establish member profile categories and identify all of the candidates to
target for increased marketing efforts.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, you can now produce a graph to
illustrate the data you have finally transformed into information. A
properly constructed image more effectively highlights the relevant
information and is easier to comprehend than a page full of numbers.
To expand on the above example, you're probably saying to yourself, "I
sort and select the information I want" (your father's Oldsmobile). Did
you know you can extract the data to Excel to do more with it? (BMW). Or,
you can even look at the relationship between multiple variables using the
flexibility of an autofilter or pivot table? (Mercedes). The operative
words here are "flexibility" and "multiple."
The Million Dollar Question
For what size association is an information audit appropriate? The answer
is "any size" because there is value added in every case but usually for
different reasons. A small association may have only industry experts
(executive director) and business operators (business manager, membership
manager, etc.) on staff, but no one skilled in the management of the
information. A mid-size association may have some employees with more
technical skills, but not the inter-disciplinary experience to maximize
the benefit of merging technology with data to get more and better
information. Finally, a large association has IT people dedicated to
running the technology (LAN, membership database, PC software, security,
etc), executives creating information requirements, and accountants
generating operating data. However, no one has the time or insight to help
those three components work together more effectively to reduce manpower
while generating revenues.
Your Next Step
Most association executives and even their IT staff have no idea what they
can do with their data to generate increased revenues and save time and
money. For example, some associations are proud of its web site while
others readily admit their web site needs work. Does your association have
an "Enterprise Portal?" An enterprise portal is the "gateway" to your web
site not simply a "home page." It's a tool to collect data that can
generate increased revenues for your association. Is the need for an
information audit making more and more sense?
There are probably some things within this article that you don't fully
understand or comprehend nor did you learn in CAE school. As an
association executive, discuss its content with your IT team to assess
what they currently do; what else they could be doing; and what areas they
need to become further educated to make significant improvements in your
association's data management.
There are many other questions to be asked in determining if you are
getting the "most bang for your buck" with your data management tools and
processes. An information audit can put you on the right track to a more
efficient system. Your association can save time and money by reducing the
required labor and increase your productivity by providing more meaningful
information for decision making... and even increase revenues.
About the Authors
Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa is a behavioral and management psychologist with over
25 years marketing, management, and training experience. Dr. Jaffa
conducts marketing audits for associations to generate increased revenues
and has developed 15 management training programs many of which he
presents via live satellite TV. He may be reached at (703) 931-0040 or
Neil Sivek is a finance professional with over 20 years of experience in
data analysis, modeling, and financial systems. Mr. Sivek has applied his
information management skills to improve the reporting and analysis
functions for sales and operations at major corporations as both an IT
developer and end-user. He may be reached at (703) 323-8946 or