The Single Rule That Changed My Association

Human Resources By: David J. Martin, CAE

It's all about the database. At the Society of Critical Care Medicine, a policy of centralizing all member data in one system has improved customer service and opened a multitude of new opportunities. Making the one-database rule work took education, tools, and a will to enforce from the top.

When I began my role as CEO of the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) a decade ago, one of the first member complaints I heard was, "When I call and change my address, it doesn't ever seem to get changed." I recognized this as the classic sign of multiple unconnected databases. Sure enough, SCCM had seven of them, which is about six too many.

So, we spent nine months merging everything into one master database, and from that point forward we began operating under the "single-database rule," which we have followed ever since. Every piece of member data—from contact information to purchases to volunteer participation to publication authorship to faculty engagements—is stored in one database. No exceptions.

This change worked wonders for us. Of course, it solved our customer-service problems, but then it opened new doors we hadn't even thought of. Our staff can better analyze membership trends. We are in the process of rolling out "engagement scores" to encourage further member involvement. And we're now using a predictive analytics tool to identify potential future volunteer leaders based on their prior activity.

None of this would have been possible without the single-database rule, nor would the rule have been effective had it not been enforced from the top. Association CEOs are charged with making sure the business runs well. In the 21st century, that means understanding technology—the why and the how—and establishing a culture that embraces it.

Building a single-database culture is a two-part process, involving education and tools. First is sharing the bigger picture with staff. When they understand the power of a strong central database and the problems caused by ad hoc Excel sheets or nonintegrated systems, they buy into the single-database rule.

The second part is making sure staff have the right tools. It's important to remember that staff who don't comply with the single-database rule aren't doing it for the sake of being insubordinate; they're doing it to make their jobs easier. If working in compliance with the single-database rule is a burden, of course staff won't buy in. So, you have to work with your staff and your database supplier to develop tools to let staff do their jobs efficiently and follow the single-database rule at the same time.

For instance, at one point we discovered staff were maintaining committee email lists in Microsoft Outlook. They didn't want to use the database system's email tool because it wasn't as sophisticated as Outlook. So, we asked our database partner to create a simple list-lookup button that could be integrated into Outlook. Now staff can compose committee messages in Outlook, click a button in Outlook to pull an email list from the database, and then send their messages, which are saved in a contact log in the database.

On a larger scale, we sometimes find that alternate software systems are better for managing certain processes; our online jobs board and manuscript management for our journal are prime examples. Our central database software isn't designed for these specialized processes and never will be. But following the single-database rule means we find and use only external systems that can be developed to integrate with our central database.

You might be tempted to delegate the single-database rule to an IT director, but be cautious. When the director of another department wants to use a system that doesn't integrate, the IT director is faced with the challenge of enforcing a rule on a colleague at an equal level. Without support from above, that's no easy task.

At first, adopting the single-database rule was a rocky road, but over time—with education and tools—it became our culture. It takes a certain amount of faith in the power of data, which SCCM can attest to. But association management systems are so much better than they were 10 years ago that centralizing your data is easier now than it ever has been. Now is the time to lead your association toward a single-database culture. I promise you won't be disappointed.

David J. Martin, CAE, is CEO of the Society of Critical Care Medicine in Mount Prospect, Illinois. Email: [email protected]

David J. Martin, CAE