Computer says "Yes"
This may look like the only theme in the New Reality that is actually about technology. In fact that’s only half true. When discussing barriers to digital transformation interview conversations repeatedly turned to issues and questions about the culture surrounding infrastructure technology and ‘IT’ not just to the kit itself. It appears that the role that IT has to play in the New Reality is as much about human-ware as it is hardware, and as much to do with mindset as skillset.
‘IT’ is often seen as a nerdy-but-necessary evil - operating in darkened office corners, conducting impenetrable technical wizardry, whilst its people talk about “security” and “compliance” a lot. In some organisations this picture is not far from the truth, but the notion that infrastructure-focused technology can be handled by a single department “over there” – and largely left alone - is well past its sell by date.
There are certainly decisions to be made about the kit needed to build a fully technology-enabled future (and if you just want handy thoughts and recommendations about the ‘Kit’ then jump to this section below), but there are two broader questions which must first be answered:
- What kind of relationship with technology do we want for our organisations?
- What kind of technology people do we need to deliver that relationship? (and do we currently have them?)
What kind of relationship with technology do we want?
Strong feelings emerged during interviews when discussing the damaging impact that current infrastructure systems are on having digital transformation ambitions. Examples given repeatedly painted a rather dark picture of internal ‘IT’ that has become unfit for purpose – with systems that have grown monstrous in both size and reputation over time.
Ouch! It’s no wonder that people are failing to see the opportunities technology can offer when this is the kind of treacle they’re wading through on a daily basis. So, what would an ideal relationship with technology look like?
AN INVISIBLE RELATIONSHIP
Many interviewees expressed this vision for technology: a world where infrastructure was no longer erecting barriers between reality and progress within the organisation – and therefore becoming, to all intents and purposes, ‘invisible’.
But how likely is invisible IT when most organisations report that even though their websites and social channels are ticking along well enough, their infrastructure is complex, cumbersome, and mired in legacy issues? Most of the New Reality cohort felt that their organisations were some distance from this goal and for some, it seemed as achievable as finding the holy grail.
Certainly it is true that IT nirvana cannot be reached until there is a better understanding of both the existing systems we have, and the smorgasbord of new options available across the broader technology landscape.
A note of caution: There is a hidden danger that when IT becomes invisible – or, ostensibly, out of plain sight – it is also out of mind. One study participant in a very senior IT role described the perverse situation that had arisen after she had solved some of the technology ‘pain’ at the major charity she worked for:
A RELATIONSHIP BUILT ON UNDERSTANDING
For an organisation to have a strong and transformative relationship with IT and technology we must start with the basics: being clear, at all levels of an organisation, about which areas of IT we need to focus on.
Emma Thomas, former CEO of Youthnet, offered this excellent and straightforward definition of the technology services within an organisation:
The three areas Emma identified overlap, but it is #3 where understanding most frequently breaks down. Most leaders who contributed to The New Reality believed that they still had a way to go to realise a truly strategically managed infrastructure, rather than one based on a series of tactical decisions taken over years. What did they feel was holding them back?
a) Reporting lines: currently most sector IT teams report into Finance - a reflection of how tech infrastructure has historically been viewed as a tactical means to efficiency, rather than underpinning the wider organisational strategy. For organisations without a strong CIO or collaborative IT Director to bridge the divide, technology infrastructure conversations are usually separate from conversations about the core organisational strategy.
b) Perceived complexity: Some areas of IT infrastructure require a deep level of technical knowledge to fully comprehend. However others – for example integrating databases in order to build a single view of the supporter and beneficiary – are not difficult concepts to grasp, but the vision still ends up being lost in translation:
Clearly the fear of complex technology scenarios is damaging many organisations’ ability to work strategically with IT teams to achieve the best outcomes.
A SUSTAINABLE RELATIONSHIP
Unlike other areas in digital technology high importance is placed on IT infrastructure within organisations. Many larger non-profits are now investing millions in their internal systems, but interviewees questioned the quality of decision-making around this expenditure, and whether it was actually delivering `bang for buck'. A critical gap was identified between the amount of investment made and whether that investment was structured sustainably:
What solutions are there to prevent bad investment decisions in IT infrastructure?
The following summary of interviewees responses offers a useful checklist:
a. Make sure that there is enough money – not just to pay for the implementation and any licence costs – but also to customise the system to the organisations specific needs.
b. Be really clear about both the need and the cost of ongoing system management. If software consultants are going to be £800 a day, make sure you’ve factored that in.
c. Focus on building a solid relationship with the service provider you choose – this is crucial.
d. Make sure that the provider has a well planned roadmap for future iterations, and that your organisation is able to adopt upgrades relatively painlessly.
e. Make sure you have someone in-house who really understands the system and can troubleshoot before you need to start paying for expensive consultancy.
You might think this checklist is stating the obvious, but you might also be surprised to learn that many organisations had failed on one or all of these factors for building a sustainable infrastructure – and that it had cost them dearly.
To get further on this transformation journey we need a shared understanding of both the technology and how to handle it sustainably. Ultimately we need to see a New Reality where the technology has become so much a part of everyday working culture that it is invisible.
How do we achieve this? The New Reality cohort’s recommendations and successes were drawn almost exclusively from efforts to break silos between ‘IT’ teams and other departments, and from making tough decisions to ditch systems that their organisations felt they were intrinsically bound to.
Whether the technology achieves invisibility or not, we need to get a place where this is a relationship that works – and most of the New Reality’s participants believe this needs to start with redefining the roles of technology and IT people within non-profit organisations.
2. WHAT KIND OF TECHNOLOGY PEOPLE DO WE NEED TO DELIVER DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION?
This is a much thornier question than asking ourselves about the kind of relationship we want with technology. Firstly because it involves actual people, not just software and hardware. The blunt answer, according to the majority of the study’s interviewees, appears to be “not the people we have now”.
New research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services shows that roughly half of 750 business and technology leaders said their organisations had missed out on new technology-enabled business opportunities because their IT department was too slow to respond.
Be aware though that the IT team is a soft target for taking the rap – they aren’t very good (on the whole) at self-publicity – and the balance of maintaining systems that handle key risks like privacy, performance and security (whilst keeping them flexible and usable across an organisation) is sometimes hard to strike.
Perception is everything and IT technologists need to take control of their own PR and change how they’re viewed internally and externally. Naturally this will require that some people also change or adapt their behaviour to deliver the step change integral to the sector’s overall positive development.
The New Reality’s cohort had a clear view of the kind of technology people needed to lead the sector through this transformation:
PEOPLE WHO SAY "YES"
Many contributors highlighted the growing divide between what they described as ‘old school’ IT and the growing generation of ‘New school’ modern technologists. Where the majority of digital professionals can be categorised by their positive attitude to change, classic IT teams are often seen in stark contrast as the people who always say “no”.
The defined differential boils down to mindset – it’s not enough to only have ninja tech skills within a team; the foundation stones also need to rest on strong people skills and a positive attitude to the New Reality.
This is a legacy issue. Look at the job history of most IT directors and CIOs in large non-profit organisations and you’ll see a career developed in classic, locked-down companies from the security and finance sectors. It is unsurprising then that in trying to protect organisations from risks around data security, these people have unintentionally become leaders of a risk-averse “no” culture.
Modern technology leaders need to be pioneering: open minded, curious, development focused and collaborative. They have the people skills required to excite those around them and bring them on board with new ideas, approaches and tools. These aren’t people who want to hop on every new, shiny piece of tech, but they are typified by their continual search for better ways of doing things - and they aren’t afraid to throw things out and start again. Their attitude is reflected in the development of hardware and software itself, which is exciting, empowering and growing exponentially.
The need for collaboration is a recurring theme across the New Reality, and nowhere more so that between those who are supporting the infrastructure of an organisation, and those who need that infrastructure to facilitate what they do. Concerns were raised about IT team's lack of engagement with the wider organisation, but this is not a one-way street - contributors also admitted that they rarely sought to involve IT staff in audience-facing service discussions.
Better collaboration may help us use the untapped potential that exists within IT teams. One example given was the humble IT service helpdesk: the people working there almost certainly know more about the pain points within their organisation's infrastructure than almost anyone else. They may also be in charge of the systems that gather audience feedback through digital channels. The data from both those sources would provide extremely useful insight into where transformation efforts in internal infrastructure could offer the most value.
The vast majority of IT successes shared by the New Reality’s interviewees were as a direct result of efforts to break down silos within their own organisations, and to build new ways for teams to work together.
British Red Cross CIO Rosie Slater describes her process for breaking down boundaries:
The takeaway here is clear: treating IT as one directorate, separate from the wider business isn’t working. Keeping a hard distinction between IT in one and digital in another is a recipe for disaster when technology of both types have a role in enabling all departments to succeed. Although simply merging the two also risks stalemate. The New Reality research shows that now, more than ever before, there is a clearly defined need for people who can cross the IT / digital divide and foster collaborative working practices.
In practical terms this means:
No more acronyms or pet names for systems – speak the same language as each other and the rest of the organisation.
Build cross-discipline groups that include IT / IS people, digital people and services people working together on a regular basis.
Make sure there’s someone in the mix who has good supplier management skills.
Ensure HR are primed to hire people with a variety of backgrounds and knowledge - not an identikit ‘tech person’ – no-one has all the skills needed on their own.
Have teams undertake secondments to other departments (or even outside the organisation).
EXTERNAL ADVISORS WHO OFFER OBJECTIVE ADVICE
Internal teams cannot be expected to cover every aspect of the fast-evolving technology world, and there is an important role for external consultants in the sector. As high-paced change is the New Reality, trusted sources of advice are going to be crucial – and in high demand. Unfortunately – as many interviewees identified – it is not always easy to find advice you can trust:
This isn’t a malicious attempt to sabotage the sector - the fast pace of change also means there are lots of IT consultants out there who haven’t caught up yet either. Many are tied into selling particular systems, often proprietary, non-modular and not cloud-based, and they haven’t adjusted their position to keep up with the new tech movement and its development.
Digital technologists who are excited about these changes, and who are actively trying to bring their organisations along with them are worth their weight in gold. IT dinosaurs who resist this change should be very worried indeed about their place in The New Reality.
3. What kit do you need?
1. ASSUME THAT THE KIT YOU NEED ALREADY EXISTS
There has been a proliferation of low cost tools and services launched into the world and led by the growing tech startup movement. Initially these services were aimed at small businesses, but now many have established themselves as mainstays of major businesses and will soon be the market leaders ahead of the Sage, Care, Raiser’s Edge, and the rest of the old guard.
In the New Reality there’s already a proliferation of options which will help you run your organisation more effectively and they’re probably cheaper and easier to use than you might expect.
What kinds of services and tools are we talking about? The New Reality cohort’s bucket list is here, but a few favourites stand out: Quickbooks and Xero for finance, Dropbox or Box.com for file storage, Slack for internal comms, Stripe for payment and donation services and Basecamp for project management.
2. GO MODULAR AND NIMBLE
This theme has already described how big IT systems can cause a lot of pain. In non-profit organisations and commercial organisations alike we suffer a semi-regular ritual of trying to replace a failing system with a new one that is affordable, comprehensive, flexible and user-friendly. Often we have to compromise on at least some of these ambitions (usually one or both of the last two). Traditional IT systems are rarely well loved. Tolerated is probably the most positive any of us feel about them.
There is an alternative to this fruitless search for a one-size-fits-all panacea. A new, more flexible way of developing infrastructure has been born out of the types of tools and services outlined above, and this approach is now being embraced by both commercial companies and non-profit organisations. To free yourself from the beast you need to take a nimble and modular approach.
What does this mean? At its most basic it simply means ditching the idea of a one-size-fits-all, multi-function system in favour of making your own – shaped to your organisational needs – by combining best in class small services. It sounds painfully obvious, but it has taken until now for the range and quality of these services to reach a tipping point.
There are two key differences between the old systems and these new more modular ones:
a. These systems are built to be open and to integrate. They all come with straightforward APIs to use as standard and for free.
b. There is higher value placed on the user experience and design than on the number of features. Given the important functions of many of these modular tools it is incredible how fast the learning curve for most of them is.
Modern software technologists no longer believe that creating a great user experience is someone else’s job, or that an IT system should require a manual.
This modular approach allows organisations to find tools to fit the size of their operation, and to scale up or down according to need. It also means that even though there may be right and wrong decisions about which tools to choose, the learnings happen quicker, the impact is less costly and any mistakes made can be fixed without impacting the broader system too significantly.
The move towards this type of modular infrastructure has been led and championed in many emerging markets. The prohibitive cost of established, big systems has created a huge rise in demand for both customer-facing and internal systems that are more nimble.
CASE STUDY: How emerging markets are getting ahead in digital - thanks to nimble technology
Steve Rogers, Google's Director of EMEA shared this story from a recent trip to one of Rio's favelas:
"During a recent Google project, in one of the huge slums in Rio – where you’ve got people who are really living at a subsistence level - we found this incredible hive of digitally-enabled industry.
On one floor there was a full digital radio station being run. There were two cyber cafes with pretty high grade computer systems. A big hotel turned into a community hall at the top - that was being used as a school where they were running computer science classes. Another room where a women’s collective was running an online-only fashion house. Those people are all leapfrogging – they're missing out desktop web. You can run a whole business on a tablet using apps. A massive change is happening.”
3. GO CLOUD BASED
The Technology Trust offer this delightfully simple explanation of cloud computing:
“The cloud refers to an ability to store files and work together with disparate colleagues via the internet. Think of it as a virtual storage or collaboration space.”
Cloud-based services have been around for a while and many organisations have already adopted a cloud-based way of working. A recent survey by Eduserv suggests that the Cloud will be the dominant way to handle infrastructure in the next few years:
“61% of have adopted some sort of Cloud technology already, 30% of charities have adopted or plan to adopt Cloud infrastructure next year”. Eduserv paper
The 70% who have not yet planned to move to a Cloud-based infrastructure need to get moving, or risk being left behind. Even Microsoft has moved to leading with a Cloud-based service (Microsoft 365 is available for free to charities).
Technology Trust provide an excellent summary on the benefits of using the Cloud for non-profit organisations:
Of these benefits - the ones most frequently cited during this study were:
scalability to suit growing organisations;
flexibility for staff to work productively outside the office (particularly helpful for regional teams who are usually last to get any IT infrastructure updates)
software that is automatically updated for staff
This last point is a significant shift for the sector. Charities often don't have the most up to date software and therefore security, simply because they don't have the resources to keep pace. As the cloud computing service provider is constantly updating its own software, the problem disappears.
Are there any serious risks?
Security used to be a reason cited for not adopting cloud-based data storage, but these concerns have shown to be unfounded. In fact a cloud trust study conducted by Microsoft found that: “Among small and midsize businesses, 91% said moving to cloud services had a positive effect on the security of their organisation, and 94% said they’ve had security benefits (like up-to-date systems and antivirus protection) that they didn’t get with an on-premises solution.” (Source: Capterra)
There are of course some other important considerations. In particular the need to consider where data will be held in order to check that the provider has a UK data centre.
CasE study: Staff are starting to reject traditional it
One study participant offered this insightful - and common - modern scenario where staff are moving to cloud-based solutions in spite of official IT policy:
“We had an older IT director who set up everything on non-Cloud contracts and has since left. However none of the staff are using the massive server that hums in a corner of the office - they're all using the Cloud. This is happening to a large extent below the radar – people are simply using their own devices, and choosing their own software services to do what they need to do. In the meantime all of the IT budget is being poured into the wrong place.”
CASE STUDY: Leading by example
Richard Craig, CEO of Technology Trust shared his organisation's approach to IT infrastructure:
“We realised a while back that to really offer future-proof, strategic advice to charities we’d need to live this stuff ourselves and trial it. In the space of three years we’ve put everything cloud based including telephony. Anyone can work from any computer or work from home in the same way.
We run our finance systems in totally different way - we have an app for $18 a month that automatically sucks in credit card statements, we take photo of receipts, it scans them and pays them. It’s a nice interface and I can do it on the run on my mobile. There’s no way you could deliver that kind of feature-rich experience cross platform for that cheap cost in the old way of doing things.
The world has moved on from an idea that you take a one-size-fits-all system, to thinking actually we'll find the right app for this one thing and make sure it works with the other things we’ve got. That way if we decide we don’t like one part any more, it's quite easy just to switch out that module without impacting the wider network of services.”
The fundamental changes which have taken place in technology culture and practice over the last couple of years is reflected in this theme more than any other: this is about having organisational infrastructure that is truly ready for ‘The New Reality’ we are living today.
Painful IT projects and dinosaur infrastructure systems have been responsible for giving tech a bad name. Better tools, services and working practices that are leaner, more nimble and with better future-proofing now exist, and are already helping staff to work more flexibly and in more efficient ways. If your organisation is yet to see these benefits, it might be that it is the IT leaders that need changing, not just the kit they’re running.
The age of corporate infrastructure systems is over. Non-profit organisations’ approach and attitude to IT needs to change along with the tools we're using. IT must be seen and led as a strategic function that can improve productivity and service delivery across departments.
With particular thanks to Rosie Slater and Richard Craig for their input to this theme.
- Sever ties: start planning how you can phase out systems that are causing you pain
- See what's out there: Get familiar with the new range of software options that exist and test them - app development in particular is prolific and has much to offer all sectors, but particularly those who need to show maximum value for money
- Don’t start with the crown jewels! Pick one system to change first - but probably not the biggest. Try a new approach with something like the intranet – if it’s done swiftly and is a reasonable success then it's easier to build the case for the bigger system changes
- Beware the snake oil: just because a consultant has 20 year experience in IT consultancy, doesn't mean they know what works now. Seek independent advice from people or companies who can demonstrate that they're moving with the times
- Put in the right technology leadership: If your technology leadership is letting you down - get a CIO from the new world, not the old one