Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa

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The Information Audit: Useless Data or Valuable Information

[Article List]

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 association's objectives.

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 ejaffa@mindspring.com.

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 neil.sivek@verizon.net.




Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa
(703) 931-0040
ejaffa@mindspring.com