Many associations have a love/hate relationship with data and research. While recognizing its importance in providing insights for decision-making, staff may also feel overwhelmed by the challenge of collecting, understanding and interpreting the key information. However, incorporating a data strategy into your management approach does not need to be difficult or expensive. It does require forethought, planning, and sensitivity to the organization’s culture around decision-making.
Working within your association’s cultural framework
Data is widely available to individuals and organizations. It can be gathered inexpensively from a myriad of secondary sources, such as government statistical portals, social media and universities, or your association’s database. You can also directly collect data to answer specific questions through surveys or interviews with your audience. Most associations tap into one or more of these sources. However, many forgo these valuable opportunities because they lack an organizational culture that supports data-driven decision-making.
How do you best fit data and research into your unique organization? To identify the best path forward to develop your data strategy, a loose typology of associations is presented below.
The data-disdaining association
When an association avoids the use of data, sometimes this is due to a lack of comfort in the underlying meaning of the information. Or, the culture may be more oriented towards using instinct and experience for decision-making. In this case, strategic and tactical decisions often rely on the anecdotal experiences of volunteers and staff.
Out of all groups in this typology, the data-disdaining association may have the most to gain from strategically incorporating research and data. They frequently come around to the need for data to help validate a major decision facing the organization.
Tips for success
- Be sensitive to the stakeholders involved in data and research utilization to make the most of your efforts.
- Pay greater attention to initial planning, including the critical decision of how best to obtain buy-in for any research that needs to be conducted.
- Involve key individuals or groups at the beginning of the process to help increase understanding of the required steps, establish trust, and provide support for the outcomes—ensuring that any data collected is utilized to its fullest potential.
The data-informed association
Most associations fall into this category. They tend to conduct research occasionally, either as part of a defined timetable, such as a needs assessment survey every three years, or on an as-needed basis, perhaps to inform a planning or goal-setting process. They may use the data and research purposefully or as an afterthought, but they tend to value it as a decision-making tool.
Data-informed associations place merit on objective information but may not have a well-defined data strategy. This could be the result of a lack of staff expertise or capacity, or simply because they have not yet prioritized mapping out existing and future data requirements to meet their research needs.
Tips for success
- Conduct an initial assessment of the return-on-investment of current data efforts. Identify what types of information have helped in the past and how that data has been used. Are key data points, including trends and other information that would be helpful to association management and leadership, missing?
- This initial review will help staff identify and more fully appreciate the confidence that data creates and the insights that research can produce.
- Perhaps most importantly, taking stock of past research efforts is an integral part of continual process improvement. Draw on it to plan incremental or substantial changes to the research program and to fully capitalize on available resources.
The data-driven association
These associations integrate clearly defined data collection strategies and rely on data to inform decision-making. They devote greater staff and financial resources to their data collection efforts and benefit from having empirical evidence readily available when making decisions.
Unlike data-disdaining and data-informed associations, data-driven organizations typically have a high awareness of their institutional knowledge and the industry that it represents. Notably, this includes the ability to distinguish between what knowledge is strongly supported by empirical evidence and what is based on assumptions and anecdotes.
How does the data-driven organization succeed?
- Their culture is conducive to making the most out of their data and research efforts.
- Resources, staff and organizational energy are devoted to maintaining a strategic data and research plan. This ensures staff and leaders have the data they need to make informed decisions.
- Data is captured, curated, presented and updated, including sharing the most important data points in an online dashboard. Not only does this help share knowledge and understanding across the association, but it also facilitates the development of new research questions as users pinpoint evolving information needs.
Data is widely available to associations. However, the key to its effective utilization frequently hinges on the organization and its comfort level with research—rather than the expense or effort of data collection itself. Understanding your organizational culture can help your association maximize its research efforts to make informed decisions that drive success.
Are you interested in creating or revitalizing your association’s research and data strategy plan? Get in touch to learn more, and find out how we can help deliver a research solution that works for you.