Like many involved in some type of non-profit management, over the last year I’ve had the opportunity to sit on both sides of a growing organization – one that has reached maturation but continues to learn, expand, and grow and one that is just getting its feet wet and off the ground. A question I’ve been grappling with in both worlds boils down to something like this: “what are the organizational barriers to growth, and how can technology best be applied to solve them?” What I’ve discovered is that the levers don’t change much between the old and new orgs, but how leaders apply them does.
Technology should help people spend as much time as possible doing what they love and do best.
It could use some word-smithing, but it articulates what I see as technology at its best across business and private life. Why I’ve come to enjoy this framing is that it helps put everything else in perspective and helps you prioritize what technology you do and don’t need.
It’s a principle that cuts across the world of a nascent startup to a 1000+ person national organization. It’s why to a large degree, even when the options are technically superior on an Android, tens of millions of people continue to buy and upgrade their iphones each year – beauty, simplicity, and love.
I fully recognize that not everyone will agree with that framing, and that’s a good thing. But here are a few examples of, when applied at the organizational level, for how this principle can help you weed out unnecessary projects and identify critical opportunities for tech investments:
- A relationship-based organization needs a way to manage its relationships. While most non-profits try to get by with excel sheets before moving over to some donor-database, it only goes so far. Once you’ve hired a full-time development staffer, the information needs to flow seamlessly between CEO and the rest of team and technology can be a huge enabler.
- If you have a webpage, you need analytics. But you also a) need an analyst which is much more important, and b) can get many good analytics tools for next to nothing (if not for actually nothing). The technology is not the enabler here, the analyst is.
- Everyone wants to have an intranet. Why? Do you even know what an intranet is and have a clear vision for how it will help your organization? If you do, by all means dig in, but clearly define the must haves (real-time doc management, cloud storage, etc.) vs the nice to haves (pretty portal, blogs, etc.). You can choose your must vs. nice, but have the business needs drive that and not everyone has the same needs.
I’d love to hear more examples about how you see this paradigm working (or failing), but also wanted to share it’s limitations: it takes prioritization and saying “no”, and a good leader will have a process in place for doing that.
Saying no to technology
How do you measure “does this technology make my people do better?” There are a few key practices you can use to do this:
- Develop a model to allocate tech costs to teams. Keep in mind a model should be fair, but not necessarily equal. A per-person model is probably not right because some teams (like development and marketing) might be higher on a per-person basis than a program team (or vice versa) because of licenses for software related to those business lines. Have your team leaders align on the model.
- Develop a framework for measuring ROI. This is tricky because we’re just beginning to see good models for measuring collaborative ROI, but if you don’t have strong metrics for measuring why you’re doing something, how do you understand if it’s working? Again, you can tweak your models based on the business needs and your valuations of worth, but beyond the pitch tech has real expenses that in an ever changing market need to be accounted for.
- Balance individual and group decision making. Not every tech decision should be made by a group or committee. Since you’ve developed a model to allocate costs to a team, each team should be able to make certain decisions about their technology needs. But that will cause havoc, with each team having their own tool for this and that, you say. Not if you do the model right – just like in the real world. Provide incentives and costs for doing things that cost the organization more/less money. And of course you can just decide there are some things that are off the table (like email). But be really careful about those.
Whether you’re just getting started or evolving and growing, the decisions you make now will have an impact on your work for years to come, so be smart, set up processes and models so that it’s not personal, and just get to work.