Business Intelligence That Turns Data Into Action
By: Joe Rominiecki
The Executive of the Future
Stop us if you've heard this one before: Associations resist change. Associations are slow-moving ships. Associations have a "we've always done it that way" mentality.
That's not what we see. This magazine has always featured leaders who reject conventional thinking. And in this special package you'll meet three who embody the essential skills of next-generation association management. For Nathan Victoria, it means possessing the kind of flexibility that lets you take charge in any context. For Paula Feldman, it means knowing that research implies providing solutions for members, not just pumping out data. And for D.A. Abrams, CAE, it means recognizing that a commitment to diversity and inclusion is about more than doing the right thing—it's about reaching new markets and meeting business goals.
Want to see what the association executive of the future looks like? Meet three of them, right here.
Like any modern industry, packaging machinery has evolved from slow and mechanical to swift, computerized, and networked—and also complex. High-tech machines require advanced service technicians, and right now there just aren't enough of them.
Until 2011, this was a blind spot for the industry, but it came to light when the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) studied the expectations for service quality among its members' customers. They were loud and clear: "Less than half of participating end users are satisfied with the number of knowledgeable ... service technicians and their availability."
It was one of several key findings in what has become PMMI's most requested study. "We found out problems that the end users said they were having that our machinery manufacturers didn't even know about," says Paula Feldman, director of business intelligence at PMMI.
It's this kind of in-depth market analysis that PMMI's member companies clamor for, and it's a small example of why "business intelligence" is more than just a dressed-up term for surveys. A few years ago, PMMI realized that research and data without clear calls to action weren't helping its members make better business decisions.
"We needed to do more than just take numbers, regurgitate it, send it to the members, and hope they understand what to do with it," says Feldman. "So we redefined our scope."
Today, PMMI publishes 12 to 15 reports per year that explore the conditions in markets where packaging machines are used, with a goal to "strengthen our members' competitive advantage." For example, when high-end cosmetics took a tumble in the recession, PMMI members knew they could shift their focus to the pharmaceutical market, which had remained stable. PMMI's reports told them so.
A typical packaging line comprises several component machines that perform separate tasks: folding, labeling, filling, sealing, and so on. PMMI's business intelligence operation is much the same. It relies on a bevy of stakeholders to assemble, from a volunteer committee that guides topic choices to third-party research firms that conduct surveys to manufacturers and end users who participate.
Of course, none of that process is automated. Directing it all is Feldman, who says developing the business intelligence program was an exercise in developing as an association professional, as well.
A New Approach to Research
In a single meeting in 2006, PMMI's Research and Surveys Committee reinvented itself as the Business Intelligence Committee, with a vision to take its work to a higher level. That meant Feldman's role would evolve, too.
Business intelligence is characterized by a strong emphasis on analysis and interpretation of data, a skill set Feldman says she lacked. She started her career in accounting but found herself in statistics in 1992 after a merger at a previous association.
From there, Feldman absorbed as much as she could about statistics and research, including multiple workshops at Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP), an association for "everyone involved in creating and managing business knowledge." She learned to look at research in new ways.
"One thing they focus on is your key intelligence questions, making sure that you're asking the right questions to get the right answers, and that the questions are worded so that you get the right answers," Feldman says.
She has also become better at listening for what knowledge PMMI members need. "You have to be able to pick out what it is that they're looking for. They might say something, but there's really an underlying thing that you have to get at."
Feldman works with the 20-person Business Intelligence Committee to choose research topics, develop questions, and analyze results; a subcommittee of three to five members is assigned to each report. The third-party research firm writes the initial drafts, and Feldman and the committee follow with edits and additional analysis.
"We're hoping once they download the report that they're taking the information and doing something with it," she says. "We try and make sure that, either at the beginning in the executive summary or somewhere within the report, they're actually given action items. So, based on the information we give you, here is what we think you should be doing."
Not every association is skilled at—or even comfortable with—making direct, data-driven recommendations for its members, but it could keep members renewing when associations' traditional benefits are eroding.
Anna Caraveli, managing partner at Connection Strategists, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia, says most associations "are still selling products when the demand is for solutions." PMMI's approach to business intelligence fits what she calls the "demand perspective."
"Demand orientation requires the ability to connect with and enter the minds of customers, which, in turn, requires intimacy and constant interaction and co-development with them," she says. "If you define your business as solving customers' critical problems, learning with and about your customers becomes a core business function and measure of success."
Measured in member feedback, PMMI's business intelligence program is indeed a success. Charles Yuska, PMMI president and CEO, says that, in member-satisfaction surveys, business intelligence ranks second only to PMMI's tradeshow. "It consistently came up that we're the go-to source for information," he says.
The expansion of the business intelligence program in 2006 proved fortunate when the economy tanked two years later. PMMI was ready to provide the industry a wide array of data and analysis it could use to navigate the storm. In addition to analyzing packaging needs in specific industries, PMMI publishes monthly reports on business and economic conditions, a quarterly index of end-user purchasing, and as many as 25 ad hoc "quickie surveys" per year based on member queries. It also convenes and reports on in-person town-hall discussions and focus groups.
The reports are rolled out with webinars, press releases, and executive summaries, and beginning this year they are translated into Spanish and Mandarin Chinese by PMMI's offices in Mexico City and Shanghai. Every report is free to PMMI members.
Industry research is not a new concept for associations, but adoption of the philosophy of business intelligence is minimal. Feldman says she sees few other nonprofit professionals at SCIP events.
"I think it's a lack of understanding that the process is out there and that there's a formal way to do it," says SCIP CEO Ken Garrison, CAE. "At a nonprofit, it helps all the members collectively understand where their industry is going. Associations have a unique ability to do this."
Feldman says an association needs a good number cruncher for business intelligence work, as well as someone who can multitask. She and the committee typically have three or four reports in progress at any time.
It also "really helps having an active committee who don't mind working," Yuska says. "Paula's been very good at getting the committee and subcommittees to work together to come up with the right RFPs and picking the right research firms."
Whether more associations will double down on market research and venture into the territory of business intelligence is an open question, but Feldman says she's glad PMMI did.
"When you've been on the job for 13 years, you look for something new, and I just thought business intelligence was pretty exciting to do," she says. "I love my job."
Joe Rominiecki is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Juggling all the things I have to do, making sure they all get done within the timeline that I've set out for myself.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love working with the Business Intelligence Committee and the members. It just gives you a huge sense of satisfaction because they are so eager to work with you and so eager to get this information out.
What skills do you think someone needs to have to be successful in your position?
Writing and analysis, and you need to be a number cruncher, because you need to make sure it all works in the end.
- "A Partnership of Knowledge and Resources," by Whitney Redding, Associations Now, June 2011
- "Business Intelligence: What It Means for Marketing and Membership," by Wes Trochlil, Marketing Insights, May 2008
- "Building Better Business Intelligence," by Michele Packard-Milam, CAE, Executive IdeaLink, April 2008
- "American Electronics Association Brands Itself as an Information Clearinghouse," Innovation and Excellence Case Study, ASAE, February 2006