Need Better Decisions? Ask Better Questions.

An association research expert says we're spending too much time conducting surveys on member needs and not enough on strategic goals.

Association executives know the rule: If there’s a decision you need to make, the first thing you need to do is gather data on the issue.

If only doing that were simple.

Right away, a host of questions crop up. Do you need to perform qualitative or quantitative research? Focus groups or surveys? How many questions do you need to ask—and how many can you ask before you erode the patience of your members? Are your survey questions biased? Is your problem one for which you need survey research at all? And are you sure you’re not just calling for more research as a delaying tactic?

Decision-Focused Research for Association Executives,” [PDF] a new white paper by Robin Wedewer, a senior consultant at Tecker International, is a helpful guide to untangling the rationale behind research, and what methods are most effective for which particular problems. The most important issue, she writes, and one that associations often neglect, is defining what kind of questions they need answered—and how—before they begin calling in members for their opinions. “The purpose and information requirements are the most critical part of the research plan because these will determine what is included and, just as important, what is excluded from the research,” she writes.

Plenty of associations have dedicated research departments and send out regular surveys to their members without pausing to take that step. Which means, Wedewer says, that many associations are operating in a very narrow category of data-gathering when it comes to research.

“I would guess that about 90 percent of the association research I have worked on and seen falls into the member needs assessment/member satisfaction category,” she tells me. “These types of research are focused on: Who, exactly, are our members? What kind of job do our members think we’re doing? What can we do to better serve our members?”

This set of questions are fine as far as they go. But they do little help associations think about more forward-thinking strategic concerns. “How are boards making the high-risk decisions nearly all boards are facing–decisions about membership models, mergers and acquisitions, which markets to serve, where to invest resources in product development, or when to abandon under-performing products?” Wedewer says. “From what I have seen, they are cobbling together information from financial reports, anecdotal information, and opinion.”

There’s a hint of that in another recent report on association decisionmaking. “Association CEOs: Leading Through Change,” produced by Heidrick & Struggles and the George Mason University law school, shows that execs are increasingly challenged by membership and future-vision issues, and they feel uneasy about the decisions they make overall: As Ernie Smith highlighted in his article on the survey, 74 percent of respondents said they doubted themselves when faced with a major decision.

Interestingly, research of any stripe doesn’t emerge as playing an important role in executive decisionmaking. Asked where they draw support when facing a major decision, respondents cite board members, staffers, spouses, and peers. I’m aware that I risk mixing apples and oranges here: The survey is focused on the people who play a role in decisions, not the processes. But when you ask executives about just the people that they trust when making decisions, it’s no surprise that three-fourths of them are feeling anxious about deciding.

That said, Wedewer cautions against punting the tough questions to members. “Associations that field short surveys in advance of a major decision that asks members, ‘Should we do this?’… is not decision-focused research,” she says. “That is abdicating the important job of decision making to the rank-and-file member who probably doesn’t have all the information to make an informed decision.”

And getting informed should involve more than an emailed survey anyway. “Association folks just love their surveys, but many questions can only be truly answered with qualitative research. And qualitative research is sadly underutilized,” she says.

How do you use research to inform your decisions, and how do you determine which research methods are most effective for the particular questions you need answered? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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