Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Emerging Technology Decisions (Nonprofit Examples)

This article was originally posted in Dimensions (a journalist publication from the National Catholic Development Conference). I redid a bit for a better read on a blog and threw in some pictures for fun.

I have a few stores I enjoy shopping at, but those stores also seem to know exactly how to get me to buy things I don’t want or need.
  • The hardware store has amazing sales and rebates on items which drive me to spend more time in the store, buy things and return for more when I get the rebate. 
  • The big box warehouse I shop at encourages me to buy everything in bulk. So an impulse buy turns into 30 items I don’t need, instead of 1. 
  • Then there's my favorite gadget store, they have the coolest things I never knew existed and the kid in me just wants to buy them. 
I think it is pretty easy to relate how we evaluate emerging technology to how we shop, which may result in efficient use of funds or unused technology. We need to have a purpose and framework to evaluate emerging technology.

Emerging technology is the wrong thing to focus on. It is only a means to an end. The real end goal of emerging technology is to drive innovation. So it makes sense to follow the steps for Unleashing Innovation. Luckily MAP for nonprofits, Idealware and NTEN have created a great resource to walk you through Unleashing Innovation. I will refer to the steps they have outlined and would encourage you to go read the full report. But I want to use some examples of how to approach emerging technology with two nonprofits I have personal experience with.

The steps from the Unleashing Innovation resource are:
  • Understand your Needs - Assess the things you could be doing better or differently 
  • Know what Technology is available - Take time to educate yourself about the technologies available (resources like Idealware and NTEN can help) 
  • Connecting the Needs - What is the catalyst or driver for exploring emerging technology 
  • Make the Change Happen - Get leadership support, staff buy-in and drive adoption 
  • What Success Looks Like - Define the planned outcomes and how you will measure it 

First a quick overview of the two organizations:

The Cara Program

I am the Manager of Technology at The Cara Program. The Cara Program is a workforce development organization focused on homeless or nearly homeless. We help them get and keep a job. We use a series of transformations classes, internships at social enterprises and professional development to prepare our students. Then a team of staff work with employment partners to identify job opportunities and match students to ensure a right fit. This is followed by a team of staff to stick with the student throughout the first year of employment. The culture is one of innovation, data driven decisions, tolerance for risk and ongoing change.

Leap of Faith Arts Ministries

My wife is the Executive Director at Leap of Faith Arts Ministries, a nonprofit focused on using arts to worship, and I volunteer to help them with their technology. Leap of Faith:

  • Much smaller and has limited resources.
  • As a Faith based organization their culture is rooted in their beliefs and impacts all decisions. 
  • As a newer, smaller organization their tolerance of risk is less and they need to focus on building a stable base. 
  • Their staff consists of an Executive Director, Dance Director and instructors, this small team has to focus their efforts on running the program.

These two orgs are different enough to illustrate how to approach emerging technology.

The first step is to understand your needs. 

The Cara Program
Leap of Faith Arts Ministries
  • Stable technology infrastructure, strategic technology plans, formal business process management and sophisticated data analytics.
  • They have needs to improve their workflows, innovate programs, build sustainability and drive long term change.
  • The technology needs are more focused on operations and supporting a smaller staff with limited budget. 
  • They have needs around creating efficiency, enabling communication, increasing awareness and establishing a stable foundation. This is the best time to involve others from your organization to build buy in during adoption.

This is no different than my example of the stores I enjoy. If I wander in to browse, without knowing what I need, I may leave with some cool stuff I will never use. Offering samples at the big box warehouse is no mistake, it purposely feeds on our impulses. Knowing what you need before you go to the store can help avoid the impulse buys. Now the exception may be if your need is to get new ideas, going to a store to browse and explore is a great idea.

The second step of finding available technology can happen in a number of ways. As a volunteer I help Leap of Faith Arts Ministries know what technology is available to them. They also belong to an organization called More Than Great Dancing which allows them to learn from similar orgs about the technology they are using. At The Cara Program we have a technology team of three staff, each taking time to learn about their perspective areas, as well as leveraging a group of volunteers in a Technology Advisory Committee. This committee provides an outside perspective and additional insight into emerging technology.

The trickier third step is connecting the technology to the need. It is easy to fall into the shiny object syndrome with emerging technology. You see an awesome technology and an opportunity, so you jump in and try it out. But having an opportunity is not the same as connecting to a need. Every organization needs to allow room for experimentation and pilots, however there should be a strategy behind it to avoid ending up with a collection of unconnected tools.

The other danger with emerging technology not rooted in a real need is experiencing a hype cycle ending with an unused toy. The technology hype cycle from Gartner shows the excitement when it is new, which quickly declines then levels off when the tool meets a real need (often way below the peak it originally reached).

I don’t buy too many things on a whim in bulk at the big box store. If I am going to try something new, I buy it in smaller quantity to try it out. And I know what my family typically likes, enjoys and needs before I go. Then I base my shopping on our budget, upcoming plans and what we already have. Much easier than trying to pick the right technology to meet the need and make sure it is useful.

Making the change happen is the fourth and toughest part of this process, especially if you haven’t done your homework in the first few steps to include your organization. A key to this step is defining what success looks like before the technology gets implemented. At The Cara Program a key to our adoption has been tying it to documented business processes and needs, taking the time to understand how we will use it before we buy it has been very effective. We also try out technology in small pilots while steering mission critical technology to integrated technology. At Leap of Faith it has been important to make all technology as easy to use as possible since there is no tech support. All technology is tied directly to a function, while balancing the faith based culture and limited resources. The innovation is really driven by cost savings and efficiency.

To close the loop (final step) you should compare the outcome to what you thought success would look like. Did the technology have the intended impact? Is the original need being met? Have things changed? Is the technology being used the intended way and is it sticking? This is a time to ask these questions.

Innovation driven by emerging technology can be a powerful way to radically change the way a nonprofit meets its mission and changes the world. It provides new ways to do old things, new opportunities and new ways of thinking, but without context on how you will use them or how they are needed in your organization, they will just be shiny toys. The way you approach emerging technology needs to be unique to your organization, goals, culture and mission. Be sure to read the full Unleashing Innovation resource to learn more about this process, then make it happen!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What I learned at #15NTC!

The annual NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference is something I look forward to all year long! And #15NTC did not disappoint! I saw old friends, made new ones and learned tons!

NPTechies rule! This year had a good mix of sessions for the Techie!  We had security, contract negotiations, help desk, IT alignment, analytic, data, CRM, disaster planning and so many more. Loved seeing a theme of "People, Process and Tools" come from numerous sessions and different speakers! I was worried sessions on Ello and Crowdsourcing would crowd out the IT staff. oy. Big kudos to peeps like Peter S. Campbell for laying the groundwork to keep tech tracks alive (be sure to read his recap of #15NTC).

Weds, March 4

Ignite Plenaries!
The first round of ignites were great with quotes like:
Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes. from @jiandamonique
Be a mindful techie! #15NTC ignite. Savor the moments. Put your phone to bed and rest. Take time to focus.
"ie8 is a dumpster fire dressed as a web browser." from @dotcarly: Ha!
But the group on Friday really inspired me! Debra Askanase showed true bravery and shared a personal story about overcoming challenges with math. My favorite paraphrased quote was:
"I decided failure was not my story. Fear can not box me in. You can change your story." 
Then I enjoyed the play on semantics with Liza talking about how we should not "use" our volunteers. We use toilets, not volunteers. They are partners.

(And of course to the right is a video version of my ignite from last year, since Scope Creep did not get to perform this year)

Help Desk or Service Desk: Either Way, How Does IT Become a Partner?
It was amazing how much attention this session got since it was about Help Desks. I presented with Dar Veverka and John Cronin and it went super well! The key learning on this one was that most of the audience was already doing parts of service desk and didn't even know it.  But everyone appreciated the structure and more defined approach we offered.

Some key points:
  • A help desk is about responding to users needs, while service desk is more proactive and changes the way the organization works
  • A service desk is focused on providing expertise, structure & tools to improve processes across the organization
  • The process of implementing a service desk takes time and includes a plan for service strategy (policies, standards), design (plans), transition (change mgmt) and operation (daily support). 
  • The book ITIL V3 Small-Scale Implementation, is a complex but great resource to learn more about Service Desk

Avoiding Disaster - A Practical Guide to Backup Systems and Disaster Recovery Planning
This session was well run and the speakers (Dar Veverka and Andrew Rugninis) rocked, even lightened things up by sharing some stories about disasters they had faced (mostly water & monkey guts following Andrew around). Some key points:

  • Disaster plans should be iterative. Start with basics, then build over time. 
  • Disaster planning can be lead by IT, but should be an organization effort.
  • BIA - Business Impact Analysis combined with level of risk is a big part of how to prioritize in your Disaster Plan.
  • Knowing which key team members & vendors you will go to when a specific event occurs is critical.
  • There are a large number of backup options these days; cloud, drives, NAS, tapes, etc. Balance cost, ease & speed. 
  • Even if you are on all Cloud services, you need a backup. Crazy things happen when nature or humans are involved.
  • When fighting a disaster. Stop. Communicate first. Then start fixing. Admit problems, don't hide it. Establish trust.

Thurs, March 5

Strategy, IT\Mission Alignment and Outcomes -- How Do Yours Fit Together?
This session was even better than I thought! I can't wait to find a funder or partner to turn this into a book, workbook and full training for nonprofits! (contact us if you are interested!) This session built off of the IT Alignment model plus the Tactical vs. Strategic vs. Missional concept! The idea is:

  1. Spend time understanding how well your technology is aligned to your mission using these tools on my blog
  2. Build a set of plans and strategies which correspond to your IT Alignment Maturity
  3. Implement the changes using the seven IT Alignment Super Powers from the SIMO model
  4. And voila! You have the concepts, strategies and tools to align your technology!

What to do When Technology Isn't Your Problem?
Just like the family dog, technology is often blamed for things that are not its fault. Many of us rush to replace the technology we have. If it isn’t doing what we want, it must be broken. The greatest database in the world can’t save an organization that isn’t functioning well. And expecting it to will only lead to project failure along with a lot of frustration and missed opportunity. Some key points from this session:
  • Triangle of success: corners=tech, people, process with mission at the center. If you focus on a corner, you will topple the table.
  • A good role for leadership is to clear time for all staff for big projects  
  • Something will go wrong with projects, chunk the project to minimize & brainstorm risks ahead of time.
  • Can't convince the CEO, see if you can build other management support on a smaller scale to build off of.
  • Features don't sell technology, it should be the value it delivers.
  • Never underestimate the power of demonstrating opportunity costs. Sometimes NO is the best answer.
  • Projects need a definition of success, but they also need a definition of failure. Create go-no checkpoints.
  • When you are overloaded & a new project is added, always ask: "what should I stop doing?"
Igniting a Culture of Tech Innovation
If nonprofits don’t innovate, they are going to lose talent, support, and funding to other faster, sexier tech startups. Let’s talk about how to create a culture of tech innovation in nonprofits, because we have people’s interests, not just the bottom line, at heart. Some key points were:

  • Good, documented process= you don't have to think about how to do your work as much, more time to innovate
  • process maps are great for innovation because they provide a visual representation to react to. 
  • attributes, attitudes & behaviors = Org Culture. understanding these can help you influence innovation.
  • a good innovation driver facilitates the change, rather than doing it
  • innovation success factors after starting, follow up, integration, top level buy in, inclusion
  • Often a good idea, is just that, a good idea. Ideas get implemented when there is a real need, urgency, owner or ???
  • Resources: Innovation Network,, Standford Social Innovation Review

Fri, March 6

To be honest Friday's sessions were good, but the only session I attended worth mentioning here was:
Adoption Shouldn't be an Afterthought: Making Sure your Organization Actually Uses the Technology You Implement
Evidence shows that IT project failure happens more often than we’d like to admit in all types of organizations. The reasons for failure can be diverse, but at the root of many failures is lack of adoption. We’ll investigate the reasons that new IT systems don’t take hold in organizations, and how you can avoid these problems, starting from the very beginning of your project.  Some highlights included:

  • People may like a change, but may hate the disruption it causes & be snarky in the background
  • Include your skeptics in the project as project champions or planning. Don't avoid the conflict
  • documentation is key to adoption!- prelaunch feedback, living documents & human vs tech process
  • During adoption, watch for people returning to old habits or tools. Don't scold tho, find out why they went back
  • Talking about risks pre launch is good, but FIXATING on them causes them to come true. acknowledge, plan, move on. 
  • exec sponsor, org alignment, adopt plan, monitor success, tools - key steps to adoption
  • If a problem or conflict comes up in a project (or adoption), take the time to address it directly.
  • Silence is not a sign of support or all is well with adoption. Questions & complaints are better, at least they care

Sat, March 7 

Fishing with Friends at Lake Travis, best way to end a tech conference ever! Thanks to Scott Rockenstein for making it happen!


All in all it was one of my favorite NTCs! I met some awesome new people and learned a ton. But lets see if we can get a social media campaign started to bring back #ScopeCreepTheBand at #16NTC!