For the last couple of decades, technology has been advancing at a breakneck speed, with each generation of technology continuing to reinvent, if not make obsolete, the previous generation. At the personal level we now enjoy expanded communications, near real time sharing of our lives though social media, and digital tools that allow us to be both consumers and producers. At the organizational level, the dizzying speed of change makes long-term strategic planning and short-term operational planning more complicated. For nonprofits, who are often constrained by artificially low operating costs, the strategic challenge of technology use is even greater. The proliferation of new media tools expands communication, program and collaboration opportunities that can strengthen donor and volunteer involvement and engagement. Additionally, new technology tools and platforms can increase organizational efficiency across the areas of financial, human resource, donor and volunteer management. The pressure of operating on razor thin budgets makes challenging for nonprofits to understand how they can capitalize on such tools with fear that the wrong “technology bet” will drain vital resources. Indeed, the technology advances, “back in the day” of the mid 1990’s led me to pursue a Master’s degree in Educational Technology to help me understand the role of technology in education and nonprofit organizational performance. My purpose of studying educational technology was to better equip me to help nonprofits navigate the challenges of technology integration. In this post, I want to outline some facilitation principles and strategies to help teams discuss and manage the process of technology adoption.
Function Drives Technology: The first and foremost principle of technology is that function drives technology decisions. In facilitating conversations about technology the starting point is not technology but “technology for what purpose?” I recently sat through an orientation to the Apple iPad with a team considering adopting the new technology as a way to enhance team productivity. The person facilitating the orientation began by asking what functionality was being sought by the team. There was clearly some vagueness to the purposes expressed by the team. “I’m looking for a document reader” was most common functionality followed by some notions of calendaring and communicating. Eventually the group discussed editing documents. The pivotal gestalt of conversation was when the trainer acknowledged that the iPad was a “consumption” tool rather than a “creative” tool. In essence, the trainer suggested that, at this point, the functionality of the IPad was about media interaction, reading, communicating and less about document creation and sharing. There is no ending to this story, rather, it serves as a useful metaphor for this facilitation principle. A clearly understanding of function should always drive change and adoption.
Technology is the Media and not the Message: As long as technology has been used as a tool for improving educational and organizational performance, there had been a debate about technology being the “cause” of improvement. Many studies have demonstrated that technology rarely (if ever) is the cause of change but rather technology can, at times, be an efficient (or the most efficient) media/tool to deliver the organizational change. The classic metaphor that is used to describe the relationship between technology and performance change is that of a farmer growing tomatoes. A farmer can get tomatoes to the market through u-pick, can deliver the tomatoes to the market by walking, horse and cart or truck. The point is that while there may be differences in delivery vehicles, the vehicle does not change the tomatoes. Likewise, while social media tools like Twitter and Facebook can expand the communication reach of a nonprofit agency and online donations might improve administrative efficiency but cultivating audiences and helping them become supporters of an agency requires the application of relationship-building principles that have been employed for decades. Likewise successful online advocacy employs the same principles of community organizing that has always been the foundation advocacy.
Choose Any Two: The third facilitation principle is to consider the concepts of “fast, cheap, done” correctly process. There is the old software development saying (at least that is where I first heard it) that goes “fast, cheap, done correctly, choose any two.” The principle, while a bit snarky sounding has much face validity. If the anchor is “done correctly” then an organizations investment of resources in technology is proportional to time. By implication, the faster you want the change to happen more resources (money & staffing) will need to be invested in the project.
Trend Watching is Imprtant: The fourth facilitation principle is to ensure that someone involved in your planning process is a “trend watcher” Technology is rapidly proliferating and for nonprofits with limited budgets it is important to consider the larger trends that shape nonprofit use of technology. A few good resources for trend watching in the nonprofit world include Tech Soup (external link), Groundwire (external link), and the Pew Internet & American Life Project (external link). As you move into planning, it will be important for your team to consider the trends that will most likely influence your community and stakeholders. So for example, an agency with a mix of activist volunteers and donors might assess the salient trends as early technology adoption, open-source orientation, participatory use of technology, and heavy social media use. The trends among your clients and supporters should shape your technology platforms for outreach. Internally, trends of “cloud computing” or outsourcing back offices functions may also influence your operational technology decisions.
With these four principles a team is prepared to facilitate a technology planning process. Whether it is the development of a social media strategy to augment community outreach or whether it is considering moving from an in-house technology network to “cloud-based” network, the facilitation becomes a four step process.
1. Get clear about the why: As suggested earlier, the discussion of what you are trying to accomplish is the first and foremost consideration of technology planning. Having clear goals and objectives are important to define the technology context.
2. Inventory what your currently have: With clear goals and objectives, the next step in the facilitation process is to inventory the what and how of your reality today. If social media is the strategy being considered to increase your community of supporters, consider how are you currently reaching out to your supporters? What technology platforms are you currently using to grow and manage your community of supporters? What additional functionality do you need to help you grow your community?
3. Build a picture of the gap and evaluate the alternatives: As a performance improvement process, the next step to to place your goals and objectives on one side of the dry erase board or wall space and the existing inventory on the opposite. The space between your inventory of “where you are now” and the goals and objectives of “where you want to be” is the gap that you are seeking to fill. In the white space in between the team then needs to explore alternative strategies to close the gap. Exploring alternatives requires some homework and likely more than one meeting. So, for example, if a team is looking to use technology to increase connection with potential donors, alternative strategies might include publishing an enewsletter, building a social media community, hosting conference calls, or webinars, creating a dynamic content blog, or a combination of strategies. Each strategy carries with it time, staffing and monetary costs that need to be weighed against the potential return and the mission fit.
4. Create and Opportunity Matrix: Once potential strategies are developed a team can then use an opportunity matrix to weigh the relative merits of the alternatives. While each team will create unique evaluation criteria to meet their needs, the general process is that a team needs to be able to compare alternatives and make decisions based on the resources and priorities of the agency. In essence evaluating opportunities answers the questions of which alternative: 1) Is most feasible with your resources (time, money and talent)? and 2) Is most compatible with your mission, vision and values? Your opportunity matrix should also include how the alternative compares against your trends.
5. Create your Operational Plan: Once you have explored opportunities, alternatives and decided on the alternative(s), the next phase of facilitation is to develop and implementation or operational plan. Describing operational planning is beyond the scope of this post but a simple search on the internet can provide you with dozens of operational planning models and templates. In the past I outlined in 3 posts to frame the workplan development process that can also be a useful starting place.
Following a facilitation process, a team can move from a universe of options through a thoughtful narrowing process to finally arrive at a strategic decision. In my experience and practice, I have found that many nonprofit teams are nearly paralyzed by technology planning. Often with weak (or completely absent) technology support, small to mid-sized nonprofits have reservations about investing in technology despite the potential organizational improvements that can result from such investments. However, for those nonprofits that start with “function” and work backwards to technology through a thoughtful assessment of alternatives to realize the benefits that technology can bring to the agency operations and program management.
As always, your comments are welcome.