Reprinted with permission from SmithBucklin. The article originally appeared in the 2018 edition of Circuit, which offers 20 articles on key trends, issues and development that will impact associations in the coming year.

Associations today rely heavily on data for decisions as varied as what membership benefits to offer, how to structure an educational course, or what the theme should be for the annual event. And where data isn’t being used yet, people are talking about its potential use. However, while data is an indispensable tool, experience and intuition are also a vital component of an effective decision-making process. In this regard, associations can learn from Major League Baseball teams that seek success by relying on both the data provided by advanced statistics and less quantifiable – but extremely powerful – sources of information.

Boosting your batting average

The use of advanced statistics in baseball and the use of data in associations are both about the search for objective knowledge. Baseball statistics isolate which elements of performance are key to the success of an individual and the success of the team. Similarly, for association board members, data points can help them know what members and attendees want from their association and its events, and how well they provide it. However, despite the fact that such data-driven practices have become sophisticated and effective, numbers are not the end of the story for baseball teams or associations.

While baseball teams hire analysts to study the statistics of prospective players, they also utilize baseball scouts to talk directly to those players and watch them play. Scouts use their experience and intuition to track skills not represented in mathematical evaluations. For example, in addition to using some of the best objective data in the league, the Chicago Cubs use their scouts to measure subjective qualities such as how a player handles adversity both on and off the field.

In 2012, the Cubs traded for first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was performing at a career-low level. The team’s scouts believed, based on Rizzo’s experience overcoming cancer as a teenager – and intangibles related to character, attitude, and work ethic – that he would overcome adversity and eventually improve to reach the potential the data showed he had. This high value placed on intangible attributes may chafe data purists, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Rizzo was selected for the All-Star Team in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and he helped the Cubs win the World Series in 2016.

Association board members must also wisely apply non-data elements to be truly effective. Volunteer board members are seasoned thought leaders, often with decades of experience in their field. This gives them a unique ability to put such factors into play. Their experience, combined with their innate intuition, translates into wisdom on how to best approach strategy, decisions, and issues. For this wisdom to be used effectively, the association’s leadership must recognize that the intangibles can matter as much as the data.

Stepping up to the plate

One example of effectively balancing data, experience, and intuition is the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE). This nonprofit event provides an important forum for connecting commercial bakers with suppliers, as well as showcasing innovations and exchanging professional knowledge. Because IBIE is held triennially, a successful show requires a strategic approach that incorporates both objective knowledge about what past attendees are looking for in the next show, and future-focused guidance from industry professionals about where the industry will be in three years.

When planning for the 2016 show, IBIE knew from prior attendee surveys that a big draw and driver of engagement was new products and innovations. As a result, IBIE enhanced and expanded a showcase area for these advancements by creating an interactive space that delivered more innovation-focused presentations and demonstrations on the show floor. To guide this content, IBIE sent representatives to competing shows during the three-year planning period to do research. With this data collected, IBIE then relied on its leadership team to use their vast experience in the industry and intuition to help predict the topics and trends that would be relevant.

Thanks to its use of data, experience, and intuition, IBIE’s 2016 event was a massive success. The show attracted more than 23,000 attendees, an increase of nine percent compared to the 2013 show. The triennial event also had more than 1,000 exhibitors-a 28 percent increase from the last exposition. IBIE 2016 was named one of Trade Show Executive’s 50 Fastest-Growing Shows by Number of Exhibiting Companies and Trade Show News Network’s Top 250 Trade Shows in the United States.

While collecting intangible information has helped drive success for teams such as the Chicago Cubs, as important as gathering that subjective data is the team’s leadership receptiveness to it. This is important for associations to note. To take proper advantage of the wealth of experience and knowledge of association board members, mechanisms must be in place to ensure their opinions are communicated to staff members, and then acted upon.

The association’s leadership must recognize that the intangibles can matter as much as the data.

Posted by Elizabeth McQuade

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