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by Shimon Avish | September 6, 2013

A technology platform is a great foundation for strategic meetings management (SMM). It handles all the usual tasks like managing attendance, facilitating sourcing, budgeting and reporting. But how accurate is the data that's being fed into that platform? If it's not very accurate, you'll find out soon enough.

You've heard it before: "garbage in, garbage out," and how true it is! Data entry into meetings software is handled through imports from Excel, data feeds from other systems (e.g., human resources) and manual entry by various users, including meeting and travel planners, booking agents, attendees, sourcing specialists, technology system administrators and so on. In other words, there are lots of ways for garbage to get in via many types of users. They can make errors of commission, but also of omission, and any one of your user types can upload a file, manually type information into the meeting profile, budget module or RFP section, resulting in numerous mistakes in fields such as event dates, number of attendees, attendee names, contracted rates and venue locations.

Bad data can lead to lots of problems. Among them:
• Serious problems locating travelers en route and on-site during emergencies
• Ground transportation errors, leading to stranded attendees
• Arrivals and departures at the hotel set for the wrong days
• Misreported amounts spent on doctors or financial service brokers, causing regulatory problems
• Misreported SMM program costs, leading to unwarranted budget cuts or expansions

Three Things You Should Do Immediately

1. Do not be overly demanding in data collection requirements.
Nobody likes filling out endless forms. I have seen meeting request forms with more than 70 fields to be completed. The more you ask of your users, the more likely they are to resist completing all necessary fields. So cut down on the number of fields by critically evaluating every data-entry field to determine if it is mission critical to the report types you require to manage the operations, supplier management, security, compliance and financial reporting imperatives of your program. Better yet, develop a reporting strategy covering nine categories -- operations, financial, executive, supplier program, security/data feed, regulatory, ground and group air, and arrival and departure -- and map every data-entry field back to a specific data point in your reporting strategy.

2. Cut down on data errors by using drop-down menus, mandatory fields and tabs.
To cut down on some types of data-entry errors, whether of omission or commission:
• Use drop-down menus to populate fields with variable spellings, such as venue name, chain, city, country, etc.
• Use mandatory fields to force users to provide all critical information prior to submitting the form.
• Use tab next to force users through the workflow of the form.

3. Implement intermediary processes to check data quality and ensure accuracy and completeness.
Information flows directly from the fingertips of your users to the eyeballs of your CFO, with no intermediary buffer. However, there are two ways to insert a buffer, one manual and one fully automated.

How can you further eliminate errors? The manual solution is to simply have every completed form routed to another person to review all data-entry fields for completeness, reasonableness, typos, empty fields, approvals received, proper dates, locations, etc. Imagine the poor person doing this job! Human error is bound to creep in after a few hours of doing this thankless task.

The second way of ensuring accuracy and completeness is to use a fully automated middleware system (such as Meetings Analytics) to review every record for these types of errors. This solution uses a rules engine to test every record against an established set of exception rules. These rules look for the exceptions described above, but additionally they can determine whether actions were taken or not, and whether on time. For example, one exception might be whether a sourcing specialist turned over an event to a meeting planner, and if not, the middleware can generate a warning to do so. This way a meeting never falls between the cracks. The system also can generate periodic exception-report summaries that help educate users so they don't repeat their mistakes.

The stakes are high, but many organizations have not yet identified the risks that stem from bad data. Items 1 and 2 above are pretty easy, and there are no excuses for not getting them done ASAP. Item 3 will take more effort and resources, but I have seen the results of a fully automated solution, and I am a big fan. I have seen dozens of errors caught per week -- even by very experienced sourcing specialists and meeting planners. Good luck on your journey.

Shimon Avish is a Strategic Meetings Management consultant, who specializing in helping companies assess, design, and implement their meetings programs to gain control over spend and the risks associated with corporate meetings and events.  He can be reached at shimon@smmconsulting.com, and more of his articles can be found at  smmconsulting.com.