I was participating in a meeting with a new client yesterday and we were discussing some preliminary results of a data-mining exercise. Since some of the team members were unfamiliar with me or the project, I explained the process we used, and then we brainstormed for an hour on what they would like to learn and how they would apply it immediately to their normal practices. As I told them at the end, it was a rare (and gratifying) meeting when "data" and "really excited" occur together in the same sentence.
No wonder the "data driven decision making" approach recommended in ASAE's 7 Measures book never took off. Even in other ASAE publications, common advice regarding data seems to be "don't collect or store what you don't know how to use." This might be good advice and promote efficiency, if it wasn't so easy to actually snapshot your data—all of it—in an environment where it can facilitate ad hoc queries, periodic dashboarding, developing product purchaser profiles, measuring the migration patterns of your recent graduates into full membership, exploring the relationship between product/event purchase/attendance with membership conversion, measuring repeat customer repeat rates, doing market basket analysis, creating an RFM matrix for your fundraising, etc.
WARNING: MILDLY TECHNICAL DETAILS
The key is actually very simple—download your data just once from your AMS into a series of flat files (comma or tab delimited) and import them into a decision support tool. I use SAS, whose basic product for a single user runs $3200ish in the first year then $1600 for an annual license. John Dorman and the folks down at Texas Medical prefer to use the MS SQL that comes free with their network but he describes the cost of upgrades and training a staffer with at least some expertise in programming & analysis to be a one-time expense of maybe $8-$10,000. I find that loading and reprogramming an association's file takes me 2 to 10 hours depending on the number of modules the data is stored in and how much of the data we need to simplify or eliminate (since you don't really need to know the name of the event they registered for on July 2 2003—you just need to know it's one of ten they attended early in their membership tenure before they stopped attending but continued paying their dues). Querying it .. including re-sorts, creation of new variables, categories, etc. in new datasets might take 5 to 20 minutes, even for files with hundreds of thousands of members or millions of transactions. Of course, most consulting isn't iterative: most of our reports have to be large and episodic, rather than small and applied, because we're paid to do projects rather than programs, but if you added this capability in-house (my recommendation) any association who takes this approach could have answers literally on demand without annoying the IT staff with requests or annoying everyone by slowing down a production server.
END OF MILDLY TECHNICAL DETAILS