It’s Not You, It’s Me – Learning to Love Your AMS

Remember how excited you were by the unlimited possibilities of your shiny new Association Management System? What would your staff say now? “We hate our AMS!” “It doesn’t do anything we want!” “We need a new system!”

Over my years in associations and as a consultant, I’ve see organizations switching away from systems that other organizations are switching to all the time. The secret is, many organizations don’t need a new system; the system they have would be sufficient to meet their needs. What they need is to use their existing AMS more efficiently and effectively to communicate with all their audiences and meet their constituents’ needs. Although this isn’t universally the case, sometimes it’s not the software – the software has become a scapegoat for internal dysfunction.

Assuming you’re not still using index cards and a ledger book, or a system that can only run on Windows for Workgroups, to track your constituents and their interactions with your organization, why do AMS installations fail? There are a host of reasons…

Lack of project management

“I know our IT guy manages our network, our firewall, our web server, our mail server, our database server, our VoIP server, our three file and print servers, desktops for 43 staff people, remote access for 4 staff people, and the peripherals to support all of the above all by himself, but he can run this project in his spare time, right?”

Lack of documented business practices

“We’re just like every other association – we have members, and sell books, and run some conferences. No big deal. Oh! Except we have international events, so I guess we’ll need multi-currency support. And we just launched this major fundraising campaign that will run over the next 5 years and include pledges and opportunities for planned giving and 27 separate endowed funds, each with its own rules. Oh, and we have this certification program that’s pretty complex…”

Lack of clarity about organizational needs

“We’re definitely not planning to run our annual meeting sponsorships through the new system.”

“We’re not?!?”

Excessive customization

“I know the new system includes 73 different membership reports, but I really need to duplicate this one particular, specific way of formatting the information. No, it actually never worked properly in the old system, but I need it! And can I get it in cornflower blue?”

Scope creep

“While we’re at it…”

Poor communication with staff

“The Steering Committee knows what’s going on. We don’t need to involve the line staff.”

Poor communication with the vendor

“We told you we have chapters! You should’ve known that we’d need new members automatically assigned to the correct chapter based on their ZIP code, and that chapter leaders would need to be able to be recognized by their logins to our member portal and then be able to generate current, new, prospective, and lapsed member lists online through self-service!”

Lack of executive sponsorship

“The senior management is behind you 100%. Unless things start going wrong or we have cost over-runs, in which case, you’re on your own.”

Competing priorities

“I know we just selected a new system, and we’ve agreed to a really aggressive implementation timeline with the vendor. But the marketing team was thinking this would be a great time to launch an entirely new product line that we want to track in the AMS and sell online.”

And even if the initial implementation goes well, things can fall apart later on…

Lack of ongoing training

“We don’t need training. OK, sure, the entire customer service staff has turned over since implementation was completed. But we know how our AMS works.”

Lack of distributed ownership of the system across the organization

“Oh, the AMS is the membership department’s responsibility (problem).”

Failure to inform staff about system capabilities

“I didn’t know ’30-60-90 Day Aged Receivables’ is a standard system report! I just went 10 rounds with the vendor creating a custom report!”

Lack of decision-maker attention to meeting new or changing business needs

“I just approved the education department’s new certification program, and they just signed a six-figure contract with this company they found to develop a custom certification module. Wait, what do you mean we’ll have to create a custom interface so members can track their certification status through our member portal? Is that going to cost more?”

Failure to plan post implementation phases and features

“The ‘parking lot’ filled up and we had to build a three story garage to hold all the outstanding issues.”

Insufficient level of effort

“This is a pain in the neck. I give up.”

Notice any commonalities? Most of these items come down to a lack of strategic vision, a lack of planning, or a lack of communication. And those three are inter-related: if you have no vision, you can’t create a plan, and if you don’t have a vision and a plan, there’s nothing to communicate.

Even the best, most fluid, most flawless implementations – even the best UPGRADES – involve an incredible amount of upheaval for an organization. Change is scary, particularly when that change is occurring to a product that nearly all staff members use, that records virtually every dollar that comes into the organization, and that drives an increasing percentage of constituent interaction with the organization. Without a strong, compelling vision of the future of your organization and how this big, scary change is going to help you achieve it, your staff members aren’t going to be willing to – much less excited about – go through the pain of getting there.

Even if you’ve created a fabulous dream of members interacting with each other and the organization freely and getting the information they want when and how they want it and of the automation of dull, repetitive tasks so that staff members can focus the majority of their time and energy on serving the members and fulfilling the mission of the organization, and your leadership and staff members are fully investing in realizing that dream, if you lack good planning and project management, it will remain a dream. AMS implementations are highly complex projects that involve people and resources from every department of your organization, multiple staff members from the chosen vendor, and most of your other technology vendors. And even when everything goes really smoothly, the process is going to take at least 6-9 months. Juggling all those competing needs, interests, schedules, and data over the better part of a year is not a job for the faint of heart.

Project management is the area where organizations most frequently skimp. It’s understandable – AMS implementations involve significant expenditures of money and time. Your staff is already going to be heavily involved, and hopefully the vendor you’ve chosen has a standard project management methodology, so why not just assign someone, usually from IT or membership, to run the project? That can work, assuming the staff person in question has an aptitude for managing complex projects and assuming many, if not most, of her or his normal responsibilities can be re-distributed for the duration of the implementation. It can, however, be valuable to hire a neutral, third party project manager. Some of the benefits that accrue to the organization include:

  • Ensuring that the project stays on time and on budget;
  • Maintaining focus on your core requirements;
  • Minimizing unnecessary customization;
  • Documenting your business processes and procedures;
  • Streamlining your business processes through capabilities of the new system; and
  • Leveraging the new system to achieve better work flow and business intelligence.

And finally, hiring a neutral project manager means you don’t have to be the bad cop, should it come to that. If the key to real estate is “location, location, location,” the key to vendor relationships is “communication, communication, communication.” An external project manager can get tough with your new AMS vendor or your staff without worrying about damaging the ongoing relationship. The overwhelming majority of association executives whose organizations have stayed with the same AMS vendor over a number of years credit the same thing: the vendor relationship is critical. Maintaining open lines of communication and a positive relationship with your vendor allows you to work together to meet the needs of your organization and membership. A poor or combative relationship with your AMS vendor can sour what looked like a successful implementation faster than almost any other single factor, and a strong relationship can allow you to work through many of issues above without changing systems.

There are a few additional tips that can help you maintain that happy “new AMS” feeling over the long term:

Document your business processes. Good software installations start with good business process documentation. Good upgrades necessitate good business process documentation. Good AMS utilizations that last across organizational change and staff turnover require updated business process documentation. If you don’t know what you do or how you do it, how can you tell whether your staff is using your software properly, or even if the software is working properly in the first place?

Reduce customization. The less you customize your software, the more likely you are to remain on a relatively trouble-free upgrade path, which means you don’t find yourself in a situation where support for your antiquated version is being phased out and an upgrade would be as painful and expensive as acquiring a new system.

Review what’s out there periodically. If you’ve maintained a positive relationship with your AMS vendor, you’ll be in a good position to make suggestions based on the capabilities being offered in the latest versions of other packages. That benefits your organization, as you can offer staff and members the latest in AMS functionality, and it benefits your vendor, as you help them remain cutting-edge in the AMS market.

Train your staff. And not just a week of training before your initial “go live” date. Training should be a component of every single staff person’s annual goals, and their managers need to be held responsible for making it happen.

Talk to your vendor! Remember, if you can keep a good relationship with your vendor, nearly everything else is fixable. And you can fall in love with your AMS all over again.