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Do you really need a technology plan?

Do you really need a technology plan?

  • I just finished an article on how to get by without a formal technology plan: Technology Triage: Keeping Mission-Critical Technology Running.

    I'd love to get the opinions of others about the article. Do you think that a technology triage approach can work or do you think that organizations always need to have an updated and full technology plan?

    Experientially, it seems that more and more of the organizations we work with are interested in results. Not paper but things they can touch and use. And they want to get that point as quickly as possible. For those of you who are in nonprofits, how do you feel about planning processes? Do you think they are always necessary or are willng to get your technology dollars working for your organization at the expense at some of the diligence that might go into a really exhaustive planning process?

    -webb
  • I consult for clients ranging from 1 PC to 1500 PC's and 12 servers. The need for (and acceptance of) formal IT planning and associated documentation seems to be directly related to the size of the organization. As such, I have to be flexible enough to adapt to the client's environment as well as address their needs.

    I find that the usefulness of a formal technology plan is almost moot when dealing with very small businesses since they;
    -generally have no one on staff to interpret it,
    -tend to be reactive rather than proactive, and
    -give little importance to IT until something breaks.

    In many small businesses, especially those that are lacking in computer expertise, it's difficult for them to even figure out the relationship between technology and mission-critical goals. (I have one client where none of the 22 clerks has time to perform the weekly tape change but they've managed to put a hundred person-hours into creating an argument in favor of adding Flash to their workstations so they can watch cleverly animated pop-up ads.)

    I also find that, as you've pointed out, clients are interested in results that they can touch and use. Unfortunately, some of the most important results are the one's that they can't touch; such as the servers that haven't crashed in 6 years, or the viruses and spyware that "didn't" get into their workstaions today.

    I've even provided sample/starter plans to a few clients in conjunction with major upgrades. Sadly, the plans just get filed away as no one has the time/interest in maintaining and updating the documents.

    So for the very small NFP's, those for which even the very well thought out "triage" approach is still too complex, I do the following:

    First, I do whatever it takes to be involved in their planning process, whatever it might be. Even an hour or two of conversation can help them avoid risks or dead-ends, and make sure that important issues aren't overlooked.

    Second, when doing any sort of periodic maintenance or corrective work, I create a short but comprehensive service report, knowing that it must stand alone. With just a sentence or two in each category, I include,
    -the situation or request to which I am responding,
    -what I saw/found/learned,
    -what I did, and why,
    -what the results were,
    -any serial or license numbers,
    -any needed follow-up work, by me or my client, and
    -any recommendations for the future, and why.

    I hope that helps a little.
  • Thanks for your response, EvilNetworkOverlord ;-)

    I like how you've simplified the Technology Triage idea -- particularly involving yourself in their planning processes. I'm curious about that. Do you mean their budget or strategic planning processes? We often recommend that organizations identify someone who is a part of those processes, and knows about technology, to be in charge of high-level technology decision-making for the organization. And we suggest that for exactly the reasons you outline. What I hear from you is that you are acting in that role. Is that correct? How difficult is that to do? And how successful have you been with that strategy?

    Another part that captured my attention: "...some of the most important results are the one's that they can't touch; such as the servers that haven't crashed in 6 years, or the viruses and spyware that "didn't" get into their workstaions today."

    I've been thinking a lot about this; technology humming along like a utility and how hard it is for that to happen when our clients neglect basic things like regular back-up procedures (even just following them when they exist), the appropriate use of anti-virus software, updating software -- essentially all the stuff I identified as being a part of stability. We keep banging our heads against the argument that they *should* be taking care of their systems. They don't want to wait until those systems fail. But when we say, "Dude, come on. You have important information here. Back up." They tell us about the advocacy they are doing to get out the vote and how much time that takes and...it's hard to argue with that reality.

    So, I've been wondering: is there a way we can adapt to that reality? This has been seeded by some of my co-workers and some folks I was talking with at a conference this past weekend. Can we build a neglect-tolerant system and what would go into that?

    Remote administration abilities, automatic updates for software and definition files. A level of system lockdown so that users can't change critical settings.

    Maybe, we're fighting the wrong fight. Maybe instead of trying to get nonprofit staff to change their behavior we should change ours and adapt the technology we use to create the most successful possible technology system in that environment.

    What do you all think?

    - webb
  • The degree to which a plan may or may not be needed ignores the reason for a plan: to get money or use resources wisely. Surely it's overkill to create an entire strategy to fix a printer, but more than 80% of the Charter Schools lack any e-rate subsidy, at least in part because they lack a technology plan to justify that subsidy. Since it's worth anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 per site per year, that's a serious incentive which is not limited to a K-12 school. The legislation defines neither a classroom nor library setting, thereby encouraging community based organizations who deal with low income k-12 students and/or their families to exploit this remarkable capacity to access internet-phone-cable-and other telecommunications subsidies of up to 90%.
  • My experience tends to agree with the comments of EvilNetworkOverlord on this topic and I'd like to respond to the further questions raised by Webb as follows:

    "I like how you've simplified the Technology Triage idea -- particularly involving yourself in their planning processes. I'm curious about that. Do you mean their budget or strategic planning processes?"

    As technology becomes more important to small NPO's...it becomes so interwoven and linked in the organization that it is often difficult to separate Technology Planning from ALL the other planning that any organization should do, e.g. Strategic, Operational, Tactical. Limited time and resources often prevent an organization from doing all the "Best Practice" planning.

    In the case of the NPO I am working with...we have created a Technology Planning and Support Team(composed of "techies" and "non-techies") that meets monthly to discuss technology issues....as the Technology Advisor to the NPO, I manage the Team, setup the agenda, facilitate meetings, etc. AND as member of the Board of Directors I serve as a communications link between the Board and the Team AND the Team and the Board.

    The organization lacks a Strategic Plan (as I suspect a vast majority of the small to medium sized NPO's do) so our Team efforts are primarily aimed at the operational / administrative organizational "systems".

    An outgrowth of this effort is an increased awareness of the need for a clear and consistent Mission Statement, Vision Statement AND an increased overall awareness of the need for better planning whether it be for events or for mission critical decision making.

    The "Best Practice" lesson that I have learned while working with this NPO is that it is extremely important to understand how "business" is conducted in the organization BEFORE making any strategic technology recommendations / decisions. Understanding and documenting the underlying "business processes" that make an organization go is the first step to any longterm meaningful changes in organizational behavior.

    Dom Gieras Organizer Capital District Nonprofit Technology Assistance Project Serving the New York Capital District Region (www.cdntap.org)
  • That there are different catalysts for plans is an excellent point, oekosjoe.

    We often provide plans for organizations so that they can use them in fundraising. I think that's an entirely different purpose -- and sometimes an entirely different plan -- from the type that is being used as an action plan for implementation. In addition, we sometimes do planning so that organizations can incorporate it into their strategic plan, present the information to the board so that they can gather support for a budget that includes an increase in technology-related expenses.

    What are the other catlysts for nonprofits seeking technology plans?

    -webb.
  • Dom Gieras wrote

    The "Best Practice" lesson that I have learned while working with this NPO is that it is extremely important to understand how "business" is conducted in the organization BEFORE making any strategic technology recommendations / decisions. Understanding and documenting the underlying "business processes" that make an organization go is the first step to any longterm meaningful changes in organizational behavior.

    I agree with that. I'm just not always sure that it's possible. Your position on the board has set up an excellent probability for success (you can see more about the link between the board and technology in Fall 2002 and 2003 Technology Survey Results from the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management).

    The link you describe between the organization's management and the technology team -- a type of technology advisory council -- is critical. Setting that up can help nonprofits find ways to not get into a technology pit that they have to dig themselves out of. Rather, it can make sure that they are making planned decisions.

    However, not all nonprofits have a board or other leadership that provides them with the kind of support necessary to integrate technology planning into the fiber of their organizations. Do you have any recommendations for those organizations on how to get their board leadership involved?

    -webb
  • webb,

    I agree with you that not every NPO has leadership pushing them towards utilizing technology to its fullest capacity for the organization. My suggestion for organizations is to add at least one techie to their board.

    Techies are too often overlooked as a source of leadership for boards, but I think their input is critical in today's economy. Having just one technology minded individual is enough to get the ball rolling. That person should instincitvely question the organization's technlogy plan (or lack of) and begin to push the agency towards alignment with current best practices.

    Brian
  • webb wrote:
    "However, not all nonprofits have a board or other leadership that provides them with the kind of support necessary to integrate technology planning into the fiber of their organizations. Do you have any recommendations for those organizations on how to get their board leadership involved?"

    brian wrote:
    "I agree with you that not every NPO has leadership pushing them towards utilizing technology to its fullest capacity for the organization. My suggestion for organizations is to add at least one techie to their board.

    Techies are too often overlooked as a source of leadership for boards, but I think their input is critical in today's economy. Having just one technology minded individual is enough to get the ball rolling. That person should instincitvely question the organization's technlogy plan (or lack of) and begin to push the agency towards alignment with current best practices."


    I think we can all agree that there is no simple one-step solution for this problem BUT

    1) Having a technologist or a "techie" serving in a leadership role either on the Board or in an advisory capacity is a good first step. Unfortunately, a lot of "techies" don't have the patience to deal with Boards made up of "non-techies", so an advisory group may be a better choice.
    2) Working on the "Little Picture" items like setting-up PC's and solving file storage quandaries can help get the organization's staff management on your side and works toward addressing some of the "Big Picture" items.
    3) Being realistic...as noted above....Boards of small NPO's are not interested in "true" Strategic Planning for Technology....solving the operational technology issues is often their first priority...right up there with fundraising which consumes most Boards. I call this "guerrilla" tech. planning...put together a plan that addresses the tech. issues that have been "triaged" and sneak in a bit of strategic tech. issues like dealing with the quality of data in the donor database or developing a Communications Plan that addresses electronic communications.

    This is a great discussion thread and it would be great if we all could get in the same room and hash out all the ins-and-outs....I find that at many NPO technology support conferences that the assumption is made that NPO Boards are scrambling to get into technology..."it ain't necessarily so"...some (but not all) see it as just one more expense and headache to deal with....we need a practical and sustainable vision (and support model) of how technology can help an organization with mission accomplishment that can "engage" the folks on these Boards.

    Resources like Tech Soup, organizations like N-TEN and folks like you, who are devoting time to these issues, are doing a lot to address / solve these complex organizational, cultural and "political" problems.






    Dom Gieras Organizer Capital District Nonprofit Technology Assistance Project Serving the New York Capital District Region (www.cdntap.org)
  • I have read the above discussions and I am pleased to see that this has become a major issue for us "techies." I attended a conference last fall where this was one of the seminar discussions. It was common among the group in that seminar that none of the non profits had a tech plan. All had strategic plans and plans for fundraising, but a technogoly plan was no where in sight. In my case I report to the Chief Financial Officer, where we go over technology planning on a monthly basis. For example we are moving and merging two of our other locations into one building. This will require a tech plan in the coming months, so maybe it's a plan that is developed on a as needed basis for some non profits. I feel that if you have at least one techie and one officer, that plans can be developed from that.
  • Brian and Dom,

    I think that both of these posts contain the blueprint for getting technology considered, at a strategic level, within the organization.

    So, thinking about this in combination with the Technology Traige idea, I'm seeing that Technology Triage can be a strategy that an organization uses to help alleviate pain. A parallel process, however, has to be about getting strategic about technology planning. The small wins, techie on the board, pramatic approach to technology are all a part of doing just that. I'd add having people within the organizations as advocates of technology planning (and the resulting time commitments) is also important. I'd argue that there should be a exectuvie level staff member -- the ED or Financial Officer, for example -- who is willing to be an advocate for technology planning (and, often, technology itself). I also think having an advocate at the program level can be helpful.

    Any nonprofits reading this thread? What do you think is necessary to integrate strategic technology planning into your organization?

    -webb
  • Thanks for adding your thoughts, ArcAtlantiic.

    You wrote: "...so maybe it's a plan that is developed on a as needed basis for some non profits."

    I'm thinking more and more that you need to separate tactical and strategic technology planning. That trying to create a single document or process that does both can be unwieldy and create a document that doesn't quite do the job for either purpose. Tactical planning, it seems to me, can be prompted by case -- such as the example you used of moving offices and merging two locations. Tactical plans also seem to be some of the planning that happens by email; someone surfaces a specific problem and then, in solving that, an organization may discover a need for a new bit technology practice (lost information may lead to back-ups, for example, or a virus may need to a new software purchase).

    Stategic planning though takes as its catalyst the long-term mission and goals of the organization. This isn't just about stability, as I'm understanding it, it's about proactively examining solutions that help the organization move to new level of service or efficency.

    It may be too easy to say that all organizations need, want, or can support a strategic planning process (even with the things that have been identified in this thread as being a necessary part of success). It may be that organizations can only take this on when they have a good tactical planning process in place.

    What do others think? Are these really two distinct processes?

    :mw
  • This question was raised:

    Any nonprofits reading this thread? What do you think is necessary to integrate strategic technology planning into your organization?

    As the de facto tech person on staff (which, believe me, is a scary thing), I think the main ingredient necessary to achieve strategic technology planning at a small nonprofit (we number about 20) is to have a legitimate IT person on staff. As much as I appreciate the value of the disasters that don't happen, it isn't possible to give technology concerns the attention they need without the staff hours to do it -- both in terms of the day-to-day work and making the argument for the required investment.
  • Hi and thanks for posting.

    You said:

    I think the main ingredient necessary to achieve strategic technology planning at a small nonprofit (we number about 20) is to have a legitimate IT person on staff.

    I want to understand a little more about your comment. Do you feel that the in-house dedicated IT person is the person to do the strategic planning? Or do you think that someone keeping the gears greased, as it were, can provide the organization the room to move from disasters and into strategic planning?

    Or are you thinking of a hirer level IT person than maybe I understood. . .

    -webb
  • Keeping the gears greased, being a resource in the planning process, including helping management understand why a plan would be useful (and the implementation worth the money!).