Technology

Missing: One Chief Data Officer

By / Nov 3, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Your organization has a lot of data in a lot of places. Are you doing enough to keep it well organized? A recent study from an association data management firm found that many organizations have little in the way of centralization, and a large number of employees have access to essential data. Is a chief data officer the solution? And what’s the backup if that’s not an option?

It’s not just data breaches that associations aren’t ready for.

Indeed, there are other areas related to information that present problems. With so many platforms to consider, from association management systems to email providers, associations often struggle to keep information organized in the first place. Often, data management is not centralized, with no one person in charge of the association’s data and many people having access to important information.

The newest study from Effective Database Management, the consultancy run by association data guru Wes Trochlil, suggests that, despite the significant amount of data that associations have, data management is often decentralized or, in some cases, nonexistent.

“Associations spend a lot of time and money on systems and developing technology and creating a lot more data, and not thinking about what that means in terms of total impact,” Trochlil said in an interview with Associations Now.

The first-ever Association Data Management Benchmarking Survey covers responses from 170-plus associations and highlights all the land mines that come with data management. To put it simply, most associations don’t have a single person or team in charge of their data.

Rather than having a person or two running the whole kit-and-kaboodle, the efforts to organize and manage member data get split up among a variety of employees and among a wide number of platforms. When asked whether they have a position dedicated to data management, 71 percent of associations with budgets of under $3 million said no, as did 56 percent of those with budgets of between $3 million and $10 million. Even at associations whose budgets are more than $10 million, half don’t have a dedicated data management expert on staff.

Trochlil found certain survey results particularly surprising, including that 20 percent of respondents “rarely” provide training, and 9 percent “never” provide it.

“It was almost stunning to me,” he said.

(One positive thing he noted is that 59 percent of organizations described the accuracy of their data as “good but could be better” and 8 percent deemed it “excellent”—an unexpected result because, Trochlil said, he usually gets the opposite answer when talking with association executives.)

The Problems With Decentralization

At many associations the job of data management is decentralized, with most respondents reporting that they don’t have a formal team set up (78 percent). And access to the association database is widespread: 80 percent of respondents said all employees have access to it, regardless of whether they need it for their jobs.

But permitting broad employee access to data can create serious security or legal problems down the line. One notable incident of this nature occurred in 2013 when TechAmerica sued the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), as well as three former TechAmerica employees poached by ITI, over accusations that the employees stole proprietary member data while switching jobs, in an effort to expand ITI’s lobbying business. (The Washington Post noted that TechAmerica members were reportedly wooed by the defecting employees to join ITI.)

Despite the severity of the allegations, the two trade groups were eventually able to make peace: They settled their lawsuit in May 2014, days before TechAmerica was acquired by CompTIA.

Trochlil notes that such incidents in the association space are relatively rare because there tends to be less direct competition between trade groups, but other issues can rear their ugly heads—and those include disgruntled employees destroying data or taking advantage of it for more nefarious purposes. (Credit card information, fortunately, is rarely controlled by associations nowadays, Trochlil said. Even so, there have been occasional incidents involving the theft of sensitive association data.)

While contracts and nondisclosure agreements can help prevent this kind of damage, a lot of important information can still get into the wrong hands.

“The real risk is the human risk—of people walking away with data,” Trochlil said.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust, he explains: Associations need to hire people who they believe will behave ethically when given access to internal data.

New Exec or New Team?

Beyond issues of security, Trochlil says that the lack of centralization can create serious issues of waste and inefficiency. With data in separate silos, the result can often be complicated to clean up.

The obvious solution might be to hire a chief data officer who can keep this information in line, helping to ensure that someone is helping to control and manage the information being offered.

But not every association can make room for another person in the C-suite, and the process of deciding whether to hire someone can slow things down. One alternative, Trochlil suggested, is establishing a data management team to handle the duties of a chief data officer.

And it’s not as hard as it may sound, Trochlil said. An example of this is the term “disaster recovery plan,” which may seem like a headache-inducing endeavor. Fifty-nine percent of all respondents to the Association Data Management Benchmarking Survey don’t have one for their data management systems, and the trend is more troubling among smaller organizations, more than 80 percent of which do without one.

But developing one could simply be a matter of getting the right people together to hash things out.

“You say the word ‘plan,’ and people think there’s a lot of work involved, but the funny thing about disaster recovery plan is that it doesn’t have to be more than a page or two long,” Trochlil said.

Likewise, getting a handle on your association’s prized info is often a matter of writing things out. Trochlil often recommends using a data-channels exercise that lays out where the data are coming from, who’s in charge of the information, how much information is being parsed, and where it’s being stored.

“It comes down to knowing what data the association manages,” he said.

What’s your organization’s biggest pain point with data, and who’s in charge of it? Let us know in the comments.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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