failure_successThe private sector and government organizations have been using Business Intelligence (BI) for over 15 years. The good news for those of us in the association space is that we can learn from their mistakes and avoid them when starting BI programs for our associations. Below is a summary of common mistakes and how they can be avoided.

1. Not Solving a Real Business Problem

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of business intelligence. It’s cool, it’s great for your resume and you may be getting pressure to just get it done. However, too many organizations fail to focus on the real business problems and opportunities they should address. Even if IT is ready and willing to take on a BI project, the initiative will fail deliver a return on your investment if it is not directly connected to addressing the problems and opportunities the association needs to address.

First identify and prioritize the business situations that need attention. We advise our clients to begin small.  Start with an area that will yield measurable benefits (such as Finance or Membership) but initially select an aspect of the area that can be analyzed in a relatively short time-frame.  A skilled analyst can collect requirements, conduct interviews, and facilitate group sessions focused on identifying and describing the challenges and opportunities facing the association and how they tie to the association’s strategic plan. Working as a team the analyst, business users, and technical resources locate and document the available data sources as well as identify the gaps in which essential data is not being collected. Once this information is gathered, requirements are grouped into logical areas.

2. Focusing on the Dashboard

You may have seen impressive examples of flashy dashboards from BI vendors, media outlets, or personal websites. It is easier than ever before to grab data from any source and present it in a visually pleasing matter. However, to make that visualization meaningful and actionable for your association, you will need to determine what will help your specific organization. Even in the association space, what makes sense for one group can be completely meaningless for another. Spend your time and resources to find and prepare data that will provide meaningful information to allow business users to make better decisions.  You can use the flashy visualizations and dashboards as inspiration once you have the underlying data and business questions formalized.

3. Not Including Business Users when Data Modeling

Data modeling is a task performed by the technical team. However, how quickly business users embrace and adopt BI solutions often comes down to how the data is organized. The data needs to be organized in a way that makes sense to the business so that they can interact with it by having “conversations” directly with the data.   The technical complexities of a highly normalized transactional data model should be abstracted so that the business user interacts with familiar objects and attributes with friendly names. Discussions with business users should be conceptual, not technical. In addition to technical documentation, documentation should also be created to capture the concepts and components of the data model in a way that business users can understand.

4. Lack of Communication

Too often business intelligence projects start off strong. Requirements are gathered, discussions with business users are held and then IT goes off into their private corner to design and build a solution. They may be working hard and making progress, but the business is left in the dark. Regular communication with the core team, including in-person meetings, frequent demos and status reports are vital. When IT and the business users communicate regularly about the progress, adjustments can be made which improve the outcome.  BI is a business initiative and technology is the enabler.  It is not a technical project that should be foisted on the business.  Our experience has proven to us that collaboration and communication is the most essential ingredient in a successful BI program.

5. Not Providing Education and Documentation

Although many BI visual interfaces are built to be intuitive and use features users are already familiar with, training is absolutely necessary. At a minimum, the staff need to know what data is available and how it is organized. They also need to know how the data and the analysis applies to their day-to-day work. Staff members also must be provided with technical training on how to use the tool. Just like any software or technology, ongoing training is needed to provide continuity in the association as people move to new positions or are new to the association.

Documentation should also be provided. First, documentation about the published dashboards should be created. This includes topics like the name, location, business description and the business owner. Documentation about the data is also important. This includes the business name for each attribute and measure, business description, and the calculations used to create the measures. Develop documentation as you go. If you leave it until the end of the project, it has a way of falling to the wayside as deadlines near.

6. Not Providing Support after Development

Everyone is clamoring for more self-service. This term means different things to different people, but in the BI world this often means that the business users can go get the information they need without asking technical staff for help. This could involve the ability to drill-down for more details and/or change the filters or even create new visualizations. However, self-service does not mean that once the datamart is built and the BI tool is installed, IT is finished. IT must continue to be involved to ensure that the offerings continue to meet the needs of the business. Often, more data can be brought in and more analysis can be performed after the initial offering is a success. The needs of the association will evolve and the BI solution must also evolve.

7. Not Measuring Results

After the investment of time and energy to create a BI environment, sometimes organizations neglect to track the results. What you want to determine is if the initial business questions have been answered and if the business situation is improving. For example, if your initial business question was “How can I increase my membership retention?”, then evaluate if the BI solution added value by determining the improvement in the retention rate after BI enabled you to identify and connect with “at-risk” members. It is essential to track successes by quantifying and documenting when BI has resulted in an improvement in a key result or key performance indicator (KPI). This should be shared on a regular basis during staff meetings. Success stories justify the original investment and support future phases.


If you’ve made these mistakes before or see them happening now in your association, you are in good company. Some of these mistakes have been made by the best run and smartest companies in the world. The great news for associations and  nonprofits is that because we know what these common mistakes are, we can take deliberate measures to avoid them.

“A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes that mistake again. But a wise man finds a smart man and learns from him how to avoid the mistake altogether.” –Roy H. Williams