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Taking control with technology.

Associations wield a strategic tool to manage information and solve problems.

"Associations are information businesses, so the management of information is really where the rubber meets the road," contends Bruce Belrose, CAE, executive vice president of the Florida Retail Federation (FRF), Tallahassee, and chair of ASAE's Technology Committee.

For many associations, streams of information congest an intersection fed by several four-lane highways--with the association executive at the center playing traffic cop.

FRF is one of many associations taking control of information by using technology. Rather than buying the latest product solely on its cutting edge appeal, associations that effectively wield technology view it as a strategic tool, carefully chosen to help solve identified problems.

For example, when you're in a board meeting and a board member asks, "How many people have attended our seminars and who are they?" you don't want to sit there with your mouth open, says Don Johnson, executive director of the 350-member Arizona Contractors Association, Phoenix. That's why he invested in data base software that would enhance his computer system. Now an ACA staff member can exit the room and return five minutes later with the answer to such questions--a real boon to the decision-making process.

Like many associations, ACA purchased a personal computer system in the 1980s to enhance the way the organization stores, retrieves, and issues the information coming into its office. The association's three staff members used Macintosh computers for selected applications, but they couldn't share the information housed in different files and data bases--and some of the information didn't get on the computer at all.

Johnson wanted an integrated system that would cut the staff time wasted coordinating membership changes and committee activities and at the same time increase the quality of reporting to the board of directors.

"I called many associations and chambers |of commerce~ and found people had spent lots of money hiring consultants to design systems," says Johnson. "Spending anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000 was not an option for me, so I needed to find a canned program that would allow me to customize important features."

After reading an ad in a Macuser magazine, Johnson purchased The Associateur, a $5,000 data base software package from ORCA Software Solutions, Gilroy, California. The association management program encompasses membership, accounting, and meetings management, automating everything from automatic dues billing to printing conference name tags. A separate $500 purchase of accelerator boards for each of the three Macs doubled computer processing speed.

"Now all staff use the same data base to track members, events, and committee activities," says Johnson. "When one person is out of the office, someone else isn't stuck waiting for information that's in a file folder or desk drawer somewhere."

Networking information

Making information accessible to all staff is even more of a challenge for larger associations. Having purchased expensive mainframe systems to automate record keeping tasks in the 1970s, then personal computers for professional staff in the 1980s, many associations are now staring at a hodgepodge of computers that don't communicate with one another. The result: floppy disk swapping and wasted staff hours every time the mainframe crashes.

Such was the case at the American Nurses Association (ANA), Washington, D.C. Staff members responsible for membership records and accounting could perform only those functions on "dumb" terminals attached to an IBM 4361 mainframe computer. Although the professional staff could do word processing and create spread sheets on their personal computers, they had no way to gain access to the data bases in the mainframe.

To address these problems, associations like ANA are moving toward local area networks, or LANs. By distributing programs and processing power among microcomputers, or PCs, no one unit needs the kind of power provided by a mainframe. Executives on networked PCs can communicate electronically using work group software applications, such as group editing, computer conferencing, project management, document design, electronic mail, and scheduling.

Scaling down, powering up. In 1989 the 2,100-member ANA embarked on a project to scale down its computer operations. In phase one ANA installed a limited LAN so that staff on PCs could share files, programs, and printers. Using Netware from Novell, a LAN software publisher in Provo, Utah, one PC operates as the file server--a network traffic cop that manages hard disks and printers and controls the network. LAN boards installed in every PC provided the connection to the cabling used to link the PCs together.

Automating teamwork. Although the accounting and membership clerks were still tied to the mainframe, those with PCs were able to send messages to one another using electronic mail; collaborate on documents without having to transport floppy disks back and forth; use programs, such as Lotus, without having to install the program on each PC; and tap into a variety of data bases both inside and outside the association.

"|We've~ created a new sense of connectedness," says Barbara Redman, former ANA executive director. "We work more productively in teams on issues that touch the entire organization. For example, nursing is extremely involved in advocating for health care reforms, and that |advocacy~ involves many of our units--from government affairs to policy and practices, labor and field services, and membership and field services. It's important for everyone to have all the same information.

"Health care reform is going very fast as a policy issue, so it's important for me to know on a daily basis what's happening in the broader environment as well as with our members," adds Redman. "I often need to present testimony to and interact with many outside groups, and I'm much better able to find the information on policy, labor, and workplace matters that I need to make our case."

In 1992 the association replaced its IBM 4361 mainframe with an RS 6000 minicomputer. Not only does it process data five times faster than the old machine, but it interfaces with the LAN. Now all staff can gain access to the LAN server for various programs. While downtime is still possible, staff sitting at "intelligent" workstations can still work if a file server goes down.

Has moving from a mainframe system to a LAN enhanced staff efficiency? ANA's membership department is doing the same amount of work with half the staff, says Larry Spitalny, ANA manager of information systems. Furthermore, although the new hardware cost $100,000 and the software $100,000, the package will pay for itself in four years through reduced maintenance and electricity costs--down by 75 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

Altering the flow of information. With computer networks as a foundation, associations such as the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Washington, D.C., are deploying advanced technologies to not simply enhance but fundamentally change the way information flows. Until GWBOT installed a new data base system it calls AlphaBOT, top managers were constantly calling the accounting department to ask how much money remained in the budget for this or that project. Now all they have to do is select the appropriate report from a menu.

While GWBOT's accounting staff is half its former size, real-time accounting and fewer accounting salaries are but two of the many benefits GWBOT has derived by making all of the information that comes into the organization instantaneously available to everyone on staff. Using software called Advanced Revelation, produced by Revelation Technologies, New York City, as a common base and creating all computer applications so that they link with one another, AlphaBOT is--not technically but in essence--one big data base shared by all.

"Before we had this system, our centralized data base was very limited in scope," explains Mark Bolgiano, director of operations. "Nonmember data were kept separately, and there was a lot of information that didn't get captured except in a Rolodex or on a calendar. The communications department may have had a great Rolodex of media contacts but not been able to effectively share it with the rest of the organization. When we went with a network operating on a system that allows us to distribute information, our data base grew rapidly."

More than a glorified mailing list. Because GWBOT developed AlphaBOT in house, the costs came from initial investment in 42 PCs (one for each staff person) and funding for two years for a full-time information systems manager position (duties since incorporated into the director of operations position.)

The costs are offset by the fact that system efficiencies enable GWBOT to run

on two thirds the former staff. For one thing, the system eliminates data reentry, because changes posted to one list show up on all others. Furthermore, while most people think of data bases as "glorified mailing lists," Bolgiano says GWBOT's system tracks projects and proposed budgets, streamlining administrative project support.

The association can also do things it couldn't before, such as vary dues billing letters--useful because GWBOT has such a diverse member base. So while consultant bankers read testimony before bank regulators, real estate developers read about zoning actions.

By cross-referencing data files, they can also answer questions that were once prohibitively time-consuming, such as "How many of our members are vendors to whom we write checks?"

Tracking legislative affairs

Advocacy-oriented associations are more concerned with questions like these: "Who among our membership are constituents of the representatives on the legislative committee for this bill?" "Who's pressuring politicians from the other side?" "Is it best to approach the senator directly or contact influential legislative aides?" These associations are finding answers to such questions through legislative affairs software.

Geographic efficiency through electronic mail. With LAN MODEM, a sharing utility for networks, Florida Retail Federation staff dial into external on-line data bases, such as the legislative data base at the state capitol, for updates on committee meetings and the status of bills. They also use LAN MODEM to exchange legislative information with the National Retail Federation, New York City, Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C., and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia.

"We work very closely with these organizations, monitoring issues at the national level and providing information on events at the state level," says FRF's Belrose. "It would be very expensive to maintain a separate office in Washington. Using their |electronic~ bulletin boards and our electronic mail capacity, we transmit information."

To handle the myriad pieces of information about members and issues, FRF purchased DataEase, a relational data base software package produced by DataEase International, Trumball, Connecticut. Now staff can manipulate information and create reports using data from different screens. For example, when a key bill is poised for debate in the state assembly, staff can quickly pull addresses of the appropriate subset of members, match that data with information on committee members contained in a separate set of screens in the same data base, and compose letters to members asking them to contact their representatives.

More time for the issues. Innovative software tools are also allowing the 1,300 member Texas Automobile Dealers Association, Austin, to ratchet up its legislative efforts.

"While we've always done what we needed to do, we've had to draw lines in terms of priorities," says Tom Blanton, CAE, TADA's vice president of legislative affairs. "Now we can get more involved in general business issues that affect our members."

Depending on current bills under debate, as many as 7 of TADA's 30 staff are out lobbying at any one time. Using Guide to the Legislature, $250 software purchased from Reference Guides, Inc., Austin, Texas, and updated yearly, TADA staff can quickly find information on legislators--from political action committee contributions to personal and demographic information, such as a legislator's home address, birthday, and marital status. TADA staff can also enter their own comments.

"If you're trying to pass a bill, it's important to know if the opposition has helped this guy out," says Blanton. "It's also important for us to enter our own comments so that when we bring up a file we can see what we've done vis-a-vis any individual, whether we've visited him in his district--things |like that~."

TADA will soon integrate this information with a data base for targeting mailings to influential members who can make a difference. The data base, created using iMIS integrated data base software by Advanced Solutions International, Inc., Round Rock, Texas, divides the membership according to congressional district and holds data from an annual survey of member relationships with legislators. Any time a legislator's name appears, an accompanying list of car dealers who know the legislator comes on screen as well.

Growing grass roots. Several national associations that need this kind of intelligence for the entire country are using NAMGRASS, grass-roots software developed by the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C., now sold to members for $99 and other groups for $149.

"More people are looking to use this software because of political trends," says Bruce Hahn, NAM vice president of public affairs and the contact for NAMGRASS sales. "National parties and lobbyists are becoming less able to influence |legislators~. The group that has gained influence is the constituents."

"Using grass-roots software allows association government relations professionals to target swing votes," says Michael J. Smith, NAM director of public affairs. "NAMGRASS allows associations more ammunition following congressional redistricting, so they can quickly reach the new, 103rd Congress with their key messages. In the past, up to 30 percent of all ZIP codes were split between congressional districts, so you may not have reached the right member of Congress with your letter-writing efforts on a bill. Now we have a better system. Using nine-digit ZIP code sorts against congressional districts, we can hit the right representative with 90 percent accuracy."

Meeting members' information needs

When the person seeking information is a member rather than staff, it's vitally important to get the right answer, fast. Associations that tout their information centers as clearinghouses of industry information can't afford to play hot potato with callers.

"With our members' needs to make informed decisions and handle enormous regulatory burdens growing at an exponential rate, we have seen a similarly large increase in the numbers of calls for assistance," says Joan Gervino, director of the American Bankers Association's Center for Banking Information, Washington, D.C. "Automation has made it possible for us to vastly increase the number of members we can assist--and in significantly less time."

Electronic access and answers. For ABA's center, the key to fielding 1,000-1,500 incoming calls each week is AskSam software, produced by Seaside Software, Perry, Florida. AskSam is a text-based information-retrieval program. Callers to the ABA Connection, a hotline that serves as a gateway to the association's information center, discuss their problems, and in seconds a staff member makes the right connection. If the caller asks about an ABA project or program, the staff member logs into the AskSam program returning on ABA's local area network, types in word descriptors, and pulls up an answer, whether statistical data or the name and telephone extension of a staff expert.

If the caller seeks industry information, experienced research librarians use AskSam and other programs to word search through all documents and files stored on the ABA network and mainframe. They can also search the many on-line information networks--including Nexis/Lexis, Dialog, and DataTimes--to which ABA subscribes. To eliminate some of the per-minute user fees charged by on-line services, ABA has also purchased several data bases on CD-ROM (compact-disc-read-only memory), platters that can hold approximately the same amount of data as that stored on 1,500 floppy disks. By gaining access to these large data bases, ABA can search in minutes through a mass of information that fills volumes in printed form. For frequently asked questions, ABA maintains on AskSam a separate file of answers that read directly from the screen.

Some requests may require the frontline staff to use the same computer terminal to tap an electronic card catalog housed in the ABA mainframe. The electronic catalog is a guide to the information housed within ABA's 75,000-volume library.

All together, these on-line data bases enable the 20-staff-member center to answer about 55,000 inquiries a year, recouping costs through fees that vary according to type of request, staff time involved, and member or nonmember status.

Meeting market needs. Although smaller, the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Delaware, is also able to quickly sift through tons of industry data using CARE, a computer-assisted retrieval technology employed extensively by banks.

Trade press articles that come into PMA are filmed by an outside service. The number of the frame and cartridge on which an article is stored is entered into a customized FoxPro data base running on the association's Novell LAN, along with key words so that staff can answer broad requests for information using word descriptors. To print copies of a certain article, a staffer merely pops the film cartridge into a reader and hits correct numbers. The cartridge library fills a tiny fraction of the space that a paper library would consume.

Though the association spends about $200,000 to offer the service, PMA Executive Vice President Bryan Silbermann says "the advantages are tremendous, not just as a member service but as public affairs outreach."

"As our industry becomes more oriented towards target marketing, |the service~ is becoming a premium member benefit," says Silbermann. "Strategic marketing requires very targeted research efforts, and this provides information many never had the opportunity to access before."

Providing value with CD-ROM. To store the volumes of information it has gathered in its Hospitality Index data base, The American Hotel and Motel Association, Washington, D.C., uses CD-ROM. Data for the readers' guide are gathered by staff at several universities, in consortium with AHMA, and delivered to AHMA on floppy disks. AHMA dumps the data into bibliographic relational data base software made by InMagic and delivers it to Quanta Press, Minneapolis, which writes it to the compact discs.

When members call the AHMA information center with research requests, it takes staff about one fifth the amount of time to complete a search as it would if the data were stored in the hard drive.

Staff can also provide lead referrals for allied member firms, because the InMagic software enables them to pull targeted lists, such as callers who have requested information on property management software systems for hotels.

The CD-ROM reader's guide is also available to members for $149.95. Associations have been slow to market CD-ROM products because consumers have been slow to purchase the optical drives needed to read the discs, but AHMA and a few other groups, such as the American Academy of Dermatology, Schaumburg, Illinois, are betting on increasing popularity and introducing the their first CD-ROM products. (The academy's includes its therapy data base and two years of its journal.) Prices of the drives have fallen from thousands of dollars to $300 or $400, and compatibility is no longer a big obstacle. However, since the laser devices used to create CD-ROM discs are still quite expensive (about $6,000), associations farm out development to publishers that assume responsibility for sales and split revenues.

"We think that eventually the information services will prove to be profit centers, or at the very least new sources of revenue," says AHMA Chief Executive Officer Ken Hine. "People are willing to pay for information if that information is deemed of value, and much of what we have is of great value."

Achieving data-entry efficiencies

While data base software and CD-ROM technologies enable associations to pull what they need from reams of data and manipulate the information to suit their needs, getting those data on line in the first place can still be a challenge.

To reduce keystroking, the Society for Technical Communication, Arlington, Virginia, prints bar codes on dues renewal notices and election ballots.

Besides cutting processing time, STC has improved accuracy. With $499 software from Strandware, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, STC translates and prints numerical information in its data base as a bar code. A $400 bar code reader system, consisting of a wand to read the code and a wedge connecting it to a PC keyboard, quickly and accurately enters the data.

"Not only is this virtually error free, but we do in hours what used to take days," says Peter R. Herbst, STC assistant executive director. "By using technology such as this, we've been more productive and efficient, and such productivity helps us hold our staff size down." Plus STC saves an estimated $600 in mailing costs each time it bar codes a 16,000-piece first-class, ZIP-plus-four mailing.

Another association saving time and money is the 40,000-member American Society of Microbiology, Washington, D.C., which last year bought a $20,000 Kurzweil 6200 flatbed document scanner and optical character recognition software to load documents into its data base for manipulation.

When proposals to present research at an upcoming ASM conference flood headquarters days before the deadline, staff no longer face the daunting task of manually entering identifying data from as many as 3,000 proposals into the data base so that the association can track and schedule presentations. Someone merely must periodically place batches of applications in the scanner, which reads data from a cover sheet. After staff members make sure the scanned information appears in the correct place in the special data base established for proposal tracking, they save the data to a file that anyone in the association's network may call up.

While scanners are not a new technology, many early optical character recognition packages created poor-quality files. But the technology has advanced significantly and costs have dropped measurably.

"We waited until the market matured and the prices went down," says Suzanne Berry, the society's former management information systems director. "With technological investments, there's a lot of blood on the leading edge. By staying off the leading edge you get the most quality for the money, and people can tell you how to avoid the potholes."

"You can't be cautious to the point of paralysis though," warns Steve Michael, a senior partner at Trenton, New Jersey-based Tecker Consultants, which works with associations. "If you wait two years for the next technology on the horizon, you'll have lost the two years of increased productivity you would have earned from what's available now."

Portable Information Management

What do you do when you want to tap and use information--but you're not at the office? As a liaison between American Medical Association headquarters in Chicago and the national medical specialty societies represented on AMA's house of delegates, AMA field representative Jim Potter spends more than a third of his working hours on the road. Until AMA bought three-pound notebook computers and accompanying docking station units (at a price comparable to stand-alone PCs) for all of the heavy travelers on its staff, Potter expended much time and aggravation transferring files from portable computers to his office PC. Now he carries his new Toshiba T3300 SL 386 notebook computer with him everywhere, from staff meetings, where it has "replaced his day timer," to hotel rooms. Upon returning to the office, he simply reconnects it to a docking station unit that transforms it into a full-function work station tied into the AMA LAN.

"It's been a tremendous help," says Potter. "Recent developments increasing notebook computer battery life have made it a more versatile instrument. A modem on the notebook keeps me connected to the Chicago office and also to AMA's bulletin board system, so I'm never out of touch with recent developments.

"Just yesterday, from my hotel room in Washington, I was able to coordinate with my staff and turn around a briefing to be held the next day on an upcoming summit meeting--just by plugging into a wall jack. I get tickled that I can communicate so easily, remembering how difficult it used to be."

So Many Decisions, Too Many Choices

Ease your way out of this traffic jam with careful planning, starting with a technology needs assessment. Knowing what you need to accomplish and understanding how information needs to be used in your association clarifies processed. "Conducting a Technology Needs Assessment," by Maynard H. Benjamin, CAE, was the topic of the "Technology at Work" column in the March issue of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT. It may be just the jump start you need to lead and manage the communication challenges at your association.

Lora Engdahl is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:association management through computer systems
Author:Engdahl, Lora
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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