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How to Measure the Value of an IT Investment

This article was originally published by Techsoup on July 8th, 2016

 Person's hand holding several dice that are about to be rolledSome say life’s a gamble. But gambling can be very random, as in the rolling of a die, or very scientific, as in the calculation of odds and percentages. Investing in technology should not be a gamble, in as much as you can predict what it will do for you. In the standard business lingo, we call this prediction “return on investment” or “ROI.” And whether you calculate that with all the vigor of two college students on a weekend trip to Reno, or a scientist who deeply understands the odds, is important. In this article, we’ll discuss the many factors that go into a fully informed determination of the ROI for a technology project.

What Is ROI?

The simplest definition of ROI is that, for any project or purchase, it’s the amount saved or realized minus the cost to invest. If we spend $75 for a new fundraising widget for our website, and we make $125 in donations from it, then our return on investment is $50.

Maybe.

Or maybe not, because we invested in web developer time to deploy the widget to our website and staff time to process the donations. Plus, we spent a portion of each donation on credit card processing fees, right?

Not Strictly a Financial Formula

So ROI is not a strictly financial formula. Actual ROI is based on many factors, including hard-to-quantify things such as organizational culture, training, and readiness for adoption. The benefits of a major tech investment are proportional to the readiness of your particular organization.

Let’s try another example. We’ll spend $2,000 to upgrade to a new version of our fundraising system. It boasts better reporting and data visualizations, which, per the salesperson, will allow us to increase our donations by 10 percent. We think we’ll make $10,000 a year in additional donations, and expect the upgrade to benefit us for two years. So the strictly financial return is $18,000 ($20,000 new revenue – $2,000 upgrade cost).

But that 10 percent increase isn’t based solely on having the new features available in the product; it’s based on using the new features strategically, which your staff might not know how to do. It assumes that the software will be configured correctly, which assumes you are fully cognizant of your needs and processes related to the information that the system will manage. And it assumes that you have a staffing level that might be larger than you can afford.

It Doesn’t Start with Dollars

The concept here is pretty simple: it is easier to bake a cake from a recipe if you buy the ingredients beforehand. Then you need to have all of the required mixing implements and receptacles, clear the necessary counter space, and know how to turn on the oven.

Similarly, successfully calculating the return on investments requires having a complete picture of what you will be investing in.

Ask Yourself These Four Questions

  1. Do I understand what improvement this investment will result in and/or the problems it will solve?Core to measuring the return on the investment is knowing what it is that you have to measure. That will be some quantifiable amount of anticipated revenue, productivity gain, staffing reduction, or increase in clients served. You should know what those metrics are at the start of a project.
  2. Have I thoroughly considered the staffing changes that this investment might enable or require?For any large investment, like a new fundraising database or constituent management system, or a new, complex initiative, you want to know upfront how your day-to-day operations will be impacted. A new system might automate laborious processes, allowing you to repurpose staff. Or it might well require additional staffing in order to maximize the return. Those costs or savings are a key factor in the ROI.
  3. Do I have the necessary buy-in from the board, executives, and staff that will result in a successful implementation?Key to any large project’s success is having the support from the key decision makers. If you’re in middle management, and your initiative is not well understood and appreciated by those in charge, then there’s a significant chance that the project will fail. As right as you might be that your organization would benefit, again, the return on investment requires that the organization is invested.
  4. Have I identified any required training and ensured that we have the resources to provide it and the time to take it?So much of the value in a new system is derived from people knowing how to use it. In resource-strapped nonprofits, training time is often seen as frivolous or less important than whatever the crisis du jour might be. Don’t let that happen, because what you get out of a system is all contingent on being able to use it well and strategically. Without training, people will tend to try and emulate what they did before the new system was in place, and that will more likely reduce your return than produce it.

Tools and Tactics

There are some techniques for calculating ROI. As noted above, you should start with metrics that identify your current conditions and can be tracked after implementation. These might be dollars received, hours spent doing tasks, or number of employees dedicated to a process. Consider this your baseline. From there, you can forecast a scenario based on the advantages that you anticipate having upon completion of the project.

For example, if your current fundraising system can’t track multiple donors at the same address, then you’re probably expending time and effort to track such things in creative ways. A system that properly supports “householding” will eliminate the workarounds that you’ve created to maintain that data. You can estimate the time saved.

Once completed, these before and after numbers will help you quantify the anticipated return, as well as guide the implementation. That’s because the forecast is a set (or subset) of your goals.

  • Be sure to track both short- and long-term impacts. One basic calculation is a 5- or 10-year financial analysis. It’s not uncommon to have increased implementation costs in the first year, so tracking the annual cost fluctuations over the expected life of the investment will give you a better picture of its value.
  • For example, say you decide to invest in a donor tracking system, replacing a laborious task of tracking donations in Excel. Your current annual fundraising is about $1 million. You have reasonably estimated that the new system will net you an additional $50,000 a year, after a two-year ramp-up phase with the system. It’ll achieve that via cost savings due to efficiencies realized and increased revenue based on superior fundraising tools. Here’s what a 10-year analysis might look like:
Example spreadsheet showing ten-year analysis of costs, revenue, and net revenue

Other things might impact revenue as well, such as improved marketing, so we’re only tracking anticipated revenue associated with this investment.

Finally, don’t work in isolation. Talk with peers who have done similar projects. Find out what worked for them and what didn’t, and what successes they were able to measure. Much of this forecasting is based on speculation, and your job is to fact-check that speculation and get it closer to reality as much as you can.

Checking Your Work

As noted above, you should start with metrics that identify your current conditions and can be tracked after implementation. These metrics could be dollars received, hours spent doing tasks, or number of employees dedicated to a process. Checking your work may seem unnecessary, as the dollars have already been spent, but tracking your progress is the best way to improve on calculating ROI on subsequent investments. You can learn a lot, not only about the particular project, but about your organizational effectiveness as a whole.

The Secret to Calculating ROI

This is the secret: it’s not the return on the dollars spent. It’s the improvements in your organizational capacity and efficiency that can be made if you develop a culture that can predict which investments are worthwhile.

Further Reading

Image: Twinsterphoto / Shutterstock

Creating A Tech-Savvy Nonprofit Culture

This article was originally published in NTEN Change Magazine in June of 2015.

TechSavvy

What kind of challenge does your organization have supporting technology? Below are several scenarios to choose from:

  • Little or no tech staff or tech leadership: We buy inexpensive computers and software and rely on consultants to set it up.
  • Our IT support is outsourced: there is no technology plan or any staff training.
  • We have a tech on staff who does their best to keep things running: no staff training, no technology planning.
  • We have a tech on staff and an IT Director, but no technology plan: IT is swamped and not very helpful.
  • We have staff and IT leadership, but strategic plans are often trumped by budget crises. Training is minimal.
  • IT Staff, Leadership, budget, and a technology plan, but executive support is minimal. IT projects succeed or fail based on the willingness of the departmental managers to work with IT.

What do all of these scenarios have in common? A lack of a functional technology plan, little or no staff training, and/or no shared accountability for technology in the organization. While it’s likely that the technical skills required in order to successfully perform a job are listed in the job descriptions, the successful integration of technology literacy into organizational culture requires much more than that. Here are some key enabling steps:

Technology Planning: If you have a technology plan, it might not do more than identify the key software and hardware projects planned. Technology planning is about much more than what you want to do. A thorough plan addresses the “who,” the “why,” and the “how” you’re going to do things:

  • A mission statement for the technology plan that ties directly to your organizational mission. For a workforce development agency, the tech mission might be to “deploy technology that streamlines the processes involved in training, tracking, and placing clients while strategically supporting administration, development, and communications”.
  • A RACI matrix outlining who supports what technology. This isn’t just a list of IT staff duties, but a roadmap of where expertise lies throughout the organization and how staff are expected to share it.
  • A “Where we are” assessment that points out the strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities in your current technology environment.
  • A “Where we need to go” section that outlines your three to five year technology vision. This section should be focused on what the technology is intended to accomplish, as opposed to which particular applications you plan to buy. For example, moving to internal social media for intra-organization communication and knowledge management” is more informational than “purchase Yammer.
  • Finally, a more technical outline of what you plan to deploy and when, with a big disclaimer saying that this plan will change as needs are reassessed and opportunities arise.

Training: Training staff is critical to recouping your investments in technology. If you do a big implementation of a CRM or ERP system, then you want your staff to make full use of that technology. If you’re large enough to warrant it (50+ staff), hire an in-house trainer, who also plays a key role in implementing new systems. This investment will offset significant productivity losses.

Smaller orgs can make use of online resources like Khan Academy and Lynda.com, as well as the consultants and vendors who install new systems. And technology training should be part of the onboarding process for new hires, even if the trainers are just knowledgeable staff.

In resource-strapped environments, training can be a hard sell. Everybody likes the idea, but nobody wants to prioritize it. It’s up to the CEO and management to lead by policy and example – promote the training, show up at the training, and set the expectation that training is a valued use of staff time.

Organizational Buy-in: Don’t make critical technology decisions in a vacuum. When evaluating new software, invite everyone to the demos and include staff in every step of the decision-making process, from surveying them on their needs before you start defining your requirements to including staff who will be using the systems in the evaluation group. When staff have input into the decision, they are naturally more open to, and accountable for, healthy use of the system.

Executive Sponsorship: With technology clearly prioritized and planned for, the last barrier is technophobia, and that’s more widespread than the common cold in nonprofits. Truly changing the culture means changing deep-rooted attitudes. This type of change has to start at the top and be modeled by the executives.

True story: At Salesforce.com, every new employee is shown the “Chatter” messaging tool and told to set up a profile. If a new user neglects to upload a photo, they will shortly find a comment in their Chatter feed fromMarc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, saying, simply, “Nice Photo”. That’s the CEO’s way of letting new staff know that use of Chatter is expected, and the CEO uses it, too.

Play! One more thing will contribute to a tech-savvy culture: permission to play. We want to let staff try out new web tools and applications that will assist them. The ones that are useful can be reviewed and formally adopted. But locking users down and tightly controlling resources – a common default for techies, who can trend toward the control-freakish side – will do nothing to help establish an open-minded, tech-friendly atmosphere.

Overcoming Tech Aversion: We all know, now, that technology is not an optional investment. It’s infrastructure, supplementing and/or taking the place of fax machines, printers, photocopiers, telephones, and in more and more cases, physical offices. In the case of most nonprofits, there isn’t an employee in the company that doesn’t use office technology.

But there are still many nonprofits that operate with a pointed aversion to technology. Many executives aren’t comfortable with tech. They don’t trust it, and they don’t trust the people who know what to do with it. A whole lot depends on getting tech right, so enabling the office technologist – be it the IT Director or the accidental techie – is kind of like giving your teenager the keys to the car. You know that you have to trust them, but you can’t predict what they’re going to do.

Building that trust is simply a matter of getting more comfortable with technology. It doesn’t mean that management and staff all have to become hardcore techies. They just have to understand what technology is supposed to do for them and embrace its use. How do you build that comfort?

  • Have a trusted consulting firm do a technology audit.
  • Visit tech-savvy peers and see how they use technology.
  • Go to a NTEN conference.
  • Buy an iPad!

Building a tech-savvy culture is about making everyone more engaged, accountable, and comfortable with the tools that we use to accomplish our missions. Don’t let your organization be hamstrung by a resistance to the things that can propel you forward.

What Is Nonprofit Technology – The Director’s Cut

This article was originally published on the NTEN Blog on March 10th, 2015, where it was edited for length. As with any director’s cut, their version might be better than this one! But this is how it was originally composed. Click here for more context.

For the past 14 years, I’ve been working for 501(c)(3) corporations, commonly referred to as nonprofits.  I’ve also become active in what we call the “nptech” community — “nptech” being shorthand for “nonprofit technology”.  But nonprofits, which comprise about 10% of all US businesses, have wildly diverse business models.  To suggest that there is a particular type of technology for nonprofits is akin to saying that all of the businesses in downtown Manhattan have similar technology needs. So what is nonprofit technology?  Less of a platform and more of a philosophy.

Snowflakes? No flakes.

It’s often said that each nonprofit is unique, like a snowflake, with specific needs and modes of operation.  Let’s just remember that, as unique as a snowflake is, if you lay about a million of them next to each other on a  field, you can not tell them apart.

Nonprofits do not use any technology that is 100% unique to the nonprofit sector.  Fundraising systems operate exactly like sales systems, with leads, opportunities, campaigns and sales/donations. Similarly, advocacy applications are akin to marketing software. What nonprofits call Constituent Relationship Management Systems are called Customer Relationship Management systems everywhere else.  I want to make it clear that the technology used by nonprofits is analogous enough to what for-profits use to be nearly indistinguishable.

Also, small businesses, big businesses, most businesses operate under tight margins.  They keep overhead to a minimum.  They make decisions based on a scarcity of funding.   Nonprofits are not unique in their lack of sizable technology budgets.

No Margin for Investment.

The most significant difference between a nonprofit and a for-profit, from a business perspective, is this:

A for-profit holds to tight budgets in order to maximize profit. A nonprofit holds to tight budgets in order to remain funded.

Of course, for-profits can go under by getting their overhead ratio wrong.  But where they have room to move, and, say, invest 30% in overhead one year in order to boot up a long-term, profitable strategy, they can.  They can make the case to their board. Their customers will likely not even know how much they spent on technology, marketing, or extra staff.

If a nonprofit decides to boost the overhead rate by 30% for a year in order to boot up a long-term, mission-effective strategy, then Guidestar, Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau and their own website will, basically, tell their donors that they’re a bad investment, and the drop in donations might well sink them.  501(c)(3)’s are required to publish their financial statements for public review annually, and this is the data that they are primarily assessed on.  The effectiveness of their strategies are harder for nonprofits to qualify than it is for a retailer or manufacturer.

Customers don’t care how a Target and WalMart run their businesses; they care that they can buy anti-bacterial wipes at competitive prices. Constituents care deeply about how much of their donation is going to the people or cause that a nonprofit serves, as opposed to the operating expense of the nonprofit.

All businesses want to minimize expenses and increase profitability (even nonprofits!). But nonprofits must minimize those expenses; they have no strategic breathing room when it comes to funding operations.

Management is not the priority, fundraising is.

So, for a nonprofit, a CEO’s primary job is to maintain the funding.  In many cases, this means that the qualifications of a nonprofit CEO have a lot to do with their networking and fundraising skills.  Many nonprofits are run by people who don’t have extensive training or experience in business management.

Nonprofit IT Staff aren’t your typical techies

Nonprofits have lower IT budget and staff ratios than a typical for-profit. The average nonprofit IT budget is 1% to 2% of the entire budget, per NTEN Staffing Survey; average for-profit is 2% to 3%, per Gartner). IT Salaries are consistently below the market rate, and they vary wildly, with some nonprofits paying far below market, others at market. A common scenario at a nonprofit is for the technical staff to include, if not be totally made up of, “accidental techies“.  People who were hired for clerical or administrative work, had a knack for tech, and became the defacto tech person, sometimes also getting a title that reflects that. This is more common in smaller organizations, but it can happen anywhere that the administrative staffing is a small percentage of the overall staff and/or the CEO doesn’t know to hire IT professionals.

Is that a bad thing? Yes and no.  Accidental techies are often the people who had good, strategic notions about how technology could be applied to achieve objectives.  They tend to be smart, autonomous, good learners and teachers.  But they are more likely to be reactive and opportunistic in their approach to their work. IT also benefits from planning and consistency.  Truthfully, you need both styles on a healthy IT team.

So what is “Nonprofit Technology”?

It’s both a class of software and an approach to technology deployment.

Nonprofit technology includes fundraising, advocacy, grants management and other applications that support the primary technology needs, such as donor management and promotion of causes. In some cases, the same systems that salespeople and marketers use can suffice, as evidenced by the popularity of Salesforce in the nonprofit space. But the nonprofit sector has it’s own terminology around revenue processes, so, if commercial software is used, it’s modified to address that.  In the Salesforce case, a nonprofit will either use the Nonprofit Starter Pack, which “skins” Salesforce to feel more like a fundraising system, or purchase an actual fundraising application developed for the platform, such as Roundcause or Blackbaud’s Luminate.  Idealware, a nonprofit dedicated to helping nonprofits make good software choices publishes a booklet listing the types of software that nonprofits use.

Outside of those specialty applications, nonprofits use fairly standard stuff from Microsoft, Adobe, Google and other big companies. Many of these companies offer charity pricing, and further discounts are available to 501(c)(3)’s through Techsoup, a company that provides a transaction layer to vendors who want to donate software to charities. A seasoned IT staffer knows how to cut through the front line salespeople and find the person at a company that might make a donation or discount software or hardware.

But purchasing software is actually the easiest part.  Deploying it is the challenge, with little IT staff and less time to focus on how systems should be implemented, technology rollouts are often done on the fly.  Where a for profit might invest significant time up front analyzing the business processes that the system will address; evaluating products, and training staff, these steps are a hard sell in an understaffed environment where people always have at least five other things to prioritize.

Taking the NPTech Challenge

So if you are thinking of working at a nonprofit as an IT implementer (System Manager, IT Director, CIO), take heart: the work is rewarding, because the motivations are broader than just bringing home a paycheck.  The people are nice, and most nonprofits recognize that, if they’re going to pay poorly, they should let people have their lives nights and weekends. There are opportunities to learn and be creative. The constrained environment rewards inventive solutions. If you’re a tech strategist, you can try things that a more risk-averse for profit wouldn’t, as long as you the risk you’re taking isn’t too costly. For example, I built a retail reporting data warehouse at a Goodwill in 2003, saving us about a $100,000 on what it would have cost to buy a good reporting system.  I also pitched a business plan and started up ecommerce there, and I don’t have a college degree. If money isn’t your motivation, but accomplishing things that make a difference in people’s lives does excite you, this is a fertile environment.

That said, if you don’t like to talk to people, and you don’t think that marketing should be part of your job, think twice.  Successful technology implementations at nonprofits are done by people who know how to communicate. The soft skills matter even more than the tech skills, because you will likely be reporting to people who don’t understand what tech does.  If you can”t justify your projects in terms that they’ll understand, they won’t consider funding them.

You should be as good at the big picture as you are at the small ones.  NPTech is all about fixing the broken routers while you configure the CRM and interpret the Google analytics. You have to be good at juggling a lot of diverse tasks and projects, and conversant in multiple technologies.

Creativity trumps discipline. If you strictly follow the best ITIL policies and governance, be afraid. Strict adherence to for profit standards requires staffing and budget that you aren’t likely to have.  Good technology governance at nonprofits is a matter of setting priorities and making strategic compromises.

Collaboration and delegation are key. Nonprofits have a lot of cross-department functionality.  If you are all about IT controlling the systems, you’re going to have more work on your plate than you can handle and a frustrated user-base to work with.  Letting those who can do tech do tech — whether or not they have the credentials or report to you — is a key strategy towards getting it done.

NPTech is not just a job, it’s a community.

If some of what I’ve described above sounds discouraging, then know that the challenges are shared by a  committed group of tech practitioners that is welcoming and relatively free of ego.  Nobody has to take on the battle of improving nonprofit technology alone.  Search the #nptech hashtag on Google or Twitter and you’ll find groups, blogs and individuals who see this challenge as a shared one for our sector.  Make the time to check out an NTEN 501 Tech club meeting in your city or, better yet, attend their annual conference. Read all of the articles at Idealware.  Join the forums at Techsoup.  If this work is for you, then you are one of many who support each other, and each other’s organization’s missions, and we’ll help you along the way.

13 Lessons On Building Your Nonprofit Technology Culture

This article originally appeared on the Exponent Partners blog on December 19th, 2014. It was written by Kerry Vineburg, based on a phone interview with me.

EXPONENT PARTNERS SERIES: SMART PRACTICES

Is your nonprofit thinking about implementing a large database project like Salesforce? Nonprofit and technology veteran Peter Campbell, CIO at Legal Services Corporation, recently shared his valuable insights on how to prepare your team and culture for long-term success. His organization, the top funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the country, is developing Salesforce as a data warehouse for their grantee information and document management. 

We asked Peter to tell us more about what practices he uses to help ensure a successful technology implementation. As you’ll see, it’s just as much about working with people! 

Embarking On Your Project

1. When beginning a technology project, agree on the problem you’re solving, that all staff can relate to. Organizational readiness is critical. I’ve worked at organizations that didn’t recognize that their casual approach to data management was a problem, and they weren’t looking for a solution. If your staff don’t understand why they need an application, then you’re in danger of installing something that won’t be utilized. When starting a new organizational project, I identify 2-3 core bullet points that will explain the goals of the project, and repeat them often. For example: “The new system will provide one-step access to all information and documents related to a grantee.” That’s the high-level goal. It should be something where the product users all agree, “Yes, I need that!”
2. When planning technology upgrades and projects, schedule the changes. Plan for gradual change. Early in my career, I had to deal with the Y2K bug and replace every system at a mid-sized law firm in a short period. It led me to this philosophy: replace only one major system each year. It’s a myth that people hate change — people hate disruption. Change is good, but needs to be managed at steady level. If you’re doing regular implementations every year, people can get used to that pace. If you do nothing for 3 years, then switch out everything: 1) you’re putting too much of a burden on your implementers to achieve everything at once and 2) you’re making too big of an imposition on staff. Suddenly, everything they know is gone and replaced.

Getting Buy-In

3. Gain full executive sponsorship. There’s a common misconception that a new system will just work for you once it’s installed. To fully realize the benefits of a CRM requires cultural change. Every level of the organization needs to buy into the project. You’ll need to harness a lot of attention and energy from your team to develop requirements, manage the project, learn the new system and adapt processes. Otherwise, you’ll invest in a big database implementation and only one or two people will use it.
The importance of a major system upgrade should be set by the executive director and/or board. Everyone should know that the system is a priority. At nonprofits, our executive directors are often better at fundraising than managing a business, and many are somewhat technophobic. They don’t need to be technology gurus, but they do need to understand what the technology should be doing for them, and to take ownership of those goals. The last thing that I want to hear from my boss is, “Here’s a budget — go do what you think is best.” Without their interest in my projects, I’m bound to fail.
4. If one buy-in approach needs help, try a combo. If you can’t convince your executive director or other leadership to be regular active participants, power users can sometimes help convince your team. I’m not recommending an either/or approach, there should be some of both, but power users can engage staff in cases where management isn’t setting clear expectations. For any project that impacts staff, I will invite key users to be on our evaluation team, help with product selection, and potentially be on our advisory committee during the project. For example, we have a grants department liaison, who is charged with getting the right people in the room when we need input from the staff that know much better than we do what the system should ultimately do for them.
5. Incorporate perspectives from around the table. In addition to power users, I also want feedback from “standard” users. Maybe they don’t love technology so much, and maybe they wouldn’t volunteer for this. But they have an important perspective: you need to understand their reactions and what they’re going to find difficult. As the IT director and CIO, I know important things about managing a project. The users know important things that I don’t. If we don’t have views from multiple sides of the table, the project will fail.

Working With Good People

6. Look for partners (vendors and consultants) who understand your mission, not just the technology. In the ideal situation, you want people who not only get database and programming work, but also really understand your mission and business priorities. I’m blessed to have developers on my team who not only understand grants management but are also sympathetic to what the people coming to them are trying to accomplish. When they get a request, they can prioritize with a good understanding of our organization’s requirements. They’re able to answer, “How can I make the most out of what this person needs with my available time?” while being skilled enough to capably choose between the technical options. Getting people that have a broader mindset than just technology is really important.
7. Vary your team and role strategy with your size. At nonprofits, we don’t usually have big internal teams. Someone becomes our accidental techie/database guru. Even large nonprofits are hurting for staff. It’s always been less “here’s the best practice and ideal way to staff this,” and more “let’s see what budget and people I have, and make it work as well as I can.” Not many nonprofits have developers on staff. Hiring can be challenging. It’s a popular skillset, and won’t be cheap. If you’re tiny, you probably won’t hire full-time, you’ll outsource to consultants. But if you have 30 people or more using the CRM, you might benefit from in-house expertise, even if it’s a half-time role.
If you already have developers on staff, that’s great. If they don’t have experience with, say, Salesforce, but they do know database design and a programming language or two, it’s not hard to pick up the concepts. You’re modeling a database, designing it, and then scripting on top of it in a similar language. They can probably adapt.
8. Practice good compensation and retention strategies for your technically savvy (and/or newly trained) staff. I’ve seen a trend over the past 10 years. A nonprofit decides to use a solution like Salesforce and they charge their accidental techie with the task of implementing. The accidental techie gets the implementation done, becomes a guru on it, trains all the users, and then because the organization is paying them an entry-level salary, they leave and go get a much higher paying job as a consultant! It’s a valuable skillset, so don’t be short-sighted about compensating them for what they do for you. You need to be careful and invest properly. Give them raises along with the skillset, to make sure they are fully motivated to stick with you.

Project Management

9. Avoid surprises with good communication. My rule of IT management now is: “No one should ever be surprised by anything I do.” From experience with good mentors, I learned important lessons about communication: if you’re going to make a change, communication is critical. Say it 3 times in 3 different mediums (in email, on the internet, on flyers on the wall on every floor!). Be sure staff know how the technology contributes to the well-being of the organization, rather than being a time-waster, so they are motivated to keep working with it. Communicate well.
10. If possible, hold out for the right team. I put off projects to have the right people in place, rather than hold tight to a project deadline with the wrong people in place. See above for how to find and keep the right people.

Training and Baking The Technology Into Your Culture

11. Don’t reinvent the wheel; take advantage of the ecosystem. It can be really common for staff not to reach out for help. They may feel like their job is to learn the technology on their own. They should know there are many resources available to them! For example, with Salesforce, I recommend making use of peer support in the community, the Power of Us Hub, and local user groups. When they do seasonal updates, they do a lot of webinars and are good about providing information about how the app is growing. Salesforce also offers training (the Salesforce Foundation discounts by half) and every consultant I’ve spoken with is capable of doing some customized training. I know that other technologies offer resources like this also. It also behooves anybody on staff to know the specific implementation that you’ve done.
12. Allocate a training budget. I always push to have a staff training budget. For my organization, we even hired for a role of training and implementation specialist. We wanted to have a person on staff whose full-time job was training and strategizing how users use software and how to involve them in the implementation process. This should be part of your budget. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have people in your organization who know how to train on your applications.
13. Engage staff and help them understand the big picture of the technology. It’s good to get your team working with the database early on in the process, learning what it’s capable of and what it looks like. Engage your users: get people involved in every step of the process, from selecting products to implementation to training and rollout. Make the product demos big group activities, so that everyone can envision how similar systems work and what they might do with the product beyond what they’re doing today. Beta-test your implementations, giving staff lots of opportunities to provide input. Take an Agile approach of regularly showing what you’re developing to the people who will be using it, and adjusting your development per their feedback.
With a committed team that understands your mission, great communication, well-allocated resources, and gradual change, your organization can lay the foundations for a successful solution that will actually be adopted!
Thanks to Peter Campbell for these great insights. Peter also blogs at techcafeteria.com
For even more strategies on ensuring that your culture is ready for your system, check out our free report Nonprofit Technology Adoption: Why It Matters and How to Be Successful.

– See more at: http://www.exponentpartners.com/building-your-nonprofit-technology-culture#sthash.QPFll78h.dpuf

Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems

This article was originally published in the NTEN eBook “Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits” in January of 2014.

tape-403593_640Introduction

The reasons why we want to make data-driven decisions are clear.  The challenge, in our cash-strapped, resource-shy environments is to install, configure and manage the systems that will allow us to easily and efficiently analyze, report on and visualize the data.  This article will offer some insight into how that can be done, while being ever mindful that the money and time to invest is hard to come by.  But we’ll also point out where those investments can pay off in more ways than just the critical one: the ability to justify our mission-effectiveness.

Right off the bat, acknowledge that it might be a long-term project to get there.  But, acknowledge as well, that you are already collecting all sorts of data, and there is a lot more data available that can put your work in context.  The challenge is to implement new systems without wasting earlier investments, and to funnel data to a central repository for reporting, as opposed to re-entering it all into a redundant system.  Done correctly, this project should result in greater efficiency once it’s completed.

Consider these goals:

  • An integrated data management and reporting system that can easily output metrics in the formats that constituents and funders desire;
  • A streamlined process for managing data that increases the validity of the data entered while reducing the amount of data entry; and
  • A broader, shared understanding of the effectiveness of our strategic plans.

Here are the steps you can take to accomplish these goals.

Taking Inventory

The first step in building the system involves ferreting out all of the systems that you store data in today.  These will likely be applications, like case or client management systems, finance databases, human resources systems and constituent relationship management (CRM) systems.  It will also include Access databases, Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, email, and, of course, paper.  In most organizations (and this isn’t limited to nonprofits), data isn’t centrally managed.  It’s stored by application and/or department, and by individuals.

The challenge is to identify the data that you need to report on, wherever it might be hidden, and catalogue it. Write down what it is, where it is, what format it is in, and who maintains it.  Catalogue your information security: what content is subject to limited availability within the company (e.g., HR data and HIPAA-related information)? What can be seen organization-wide? What can be seen by the public?

Traditionally, companies have defaulted to securing data by department. While this offers a high-level of security, it can stifle collaboration and result in data sprawl, as copies of secured documents are printed and emailed to those who need to see the information, but don’t have access. Consider a data strategy that keeps most things public (within the organization), and only secures documents when there is clear reason to do so.

You’ll likely find a fair amount of redundant data.  This, in particular, should be catalogued.  For example, say that you work at a social services organization.  When a new client comes on, they’re entered into the case management system, the CRM, a learning management system, and a security system database, because you’ve given them some kind of access card. Key to our data management strategy is to identify redundant data entry and remove it.  We should be able to enter this client information once and have it automatically replicated in the other systems.

Systems Integration

Chances are, of course, that all of your data is not in one system, and the systems that you do have (finance, CRM, etc.) don’t easily integrate with each other.  The first question to ask is, how are we going to get all of our systems to share with each other? One approach, of course, is to replace all of your separate databases with one database.  Fortune 500 companies use products from Oracle and SAP to do this, systems that incorporate finance, HR, CRM and inventory management.  Chances are that these will not work at your nonprofit; the software is expensive and the developers that know how to customize it are, as well.  More affordable options exist from companies like MicroSoft, Salesforce, NetSuite and IBM, at special pricing for 501(c)(3)’s.

Data Platforms

A data platform is one of these systems that stores your data in a single database, but offers multiple ways of working with the data.  Accordingly, a NetSuite platform can handle your finance, HR, CRM/Donor Management and e-commerce without maintaining separate data stores, allowing you to report on combined metrics on things like fundraiser effectiveness (Donor Management and HR) and mail vs online donations (E-commerce and Donor Management).  Microsoft’s solution will incorporate separate products, such as Sharepoint, Dynamics CRM, and the Dynamics ERP applications (HR, Finance).  Solutions like Salesforce and NetSuite are cloud only, whereas Microsoft  and IBM can be installed locally or run from the cloud.

Getting from here to there

Of course, replacing all of your key systems overnight is neither a likely option nor an advisable one.  Change like this has to be implemented over a period of time, possibly spanning years (for larger organizations where the system changes will be costly and complex). As part of the earlier system evaluation, you’ll want to factor in the state of each system.  Are some approaching obsoletion?  Are some not meeting your needs? Prioritize based on the natural life of the existing systems and the particular business requirements. Replacing major data systems can be difficult and complex — the point isn’t to gloss over this.  You need to have a strong plan that factors in budget, resources, and change management.  Replacing too many systems too quickly can overwhelm both the staff implementing the change and the users of the systems being changed.  If you don’t have executive level IT Staff on board, working with consultants to accomplish this is highly recommended.

Business Process Mapping

BPM_Example

The success of the conversion is less dependent on the platform you choose than it is on the way you configure it.  Systems optimize and streamline data management; they don’t manage the data for you.  In order to insure that this investment is realized, a prerequisite investment is one in understanding how you currently work with data and optimizing those processes for the new platform.

To do this, take a look at the key reports and types of information in the list that you compiled and draw the process that produces each piece, whether it’s a report, a chart, a list of addresses or a board report.  Drawing processes, aka business process mapping, is best done with a flowcharting tool, such as Microsoft Visio.  A simple process map will look like this:

In particular, look at the processes that are being done on paper, in Word, or in Excel that would benefit from being in a database.  Aggregating information from individual documents is laborious; the goal is to store data in the data platform and make it available for combined reporting.  If today’s process involves cataloguing data in an word processing table or a spreadsheet, then you will want to identify a data platform table that will store that information in the future.

Design Considerations

Once you have catalogued your data stores and the processes in place to interact with the data, and you’ve identified the key relationships between sets of data and improved processes that reduce redundancy, improve data integrity and automate repetitive tasks, you can begin designing the data platform.  This is likely best done with consulting help from vendors who have both expertise in the platform and knowledge of your business objectives and practices.

As much as possible, try and use the built-in functionality of the platform, as opposed to custom programming.  A solid CRM like Salesforce or MS CRM will let you create custom objects that map to your data and then allow you to input, manage, and report on the data that is stored in them without resorting to actual programming in Java or .NET languages.  Once you start developing new interfaces and adding functionality that isn’t native to the platform, things become more difficult to support.  Custom training is required; developers have to be able to fully document what they’ve done, or swear that they’ll never quit, be laid off, or get hit by a bus. And you have to be sure that the data platform vendor won’t release updates that break the home-grown components.

Conclusion

The end game is to have one place where all staff working with your information can sign on and work with the data, without worrying about which version is current or where everything might have been stored.  Ideally, it will be a cloud platform that allows secure access from any internet-accessible location, with mobile apps as well as browser-based.  Further considerations might include restricted access for key constituents and integration with document management systems and business intelligence tools. But key to the effort is a systematic approach that includes a deep investment in taking stock of your needs and understanding what the system will do for you before the first keypress or mouse click occurs, and patience, so that you get it all and get it right.  It’s not an impossible dream.

 

It’s Time For A Tech Industry Intervention To Address Misogyny

News junkie that I am, I see a lot of headlines.  And four came in over the last 30 hours or so that paint an astonishing picture of a  tech industry that is in complete denial about the intense misogyny that permeates the industry.  Let’s take them in the order that they were received:

First, programmer, teacher and game developer Kathy Sierra.  In 2007, she became well known enough to attract the attention of some nasty people, who set out to, pretty much, destroy her.  On Tuesday, she chronicled the whole sordid history on her blog, and Wired picked it up as well (I’m linking to both, because Kathy doesn’t promise to keep it posted on Serious Pony).  Here are some highlights:

  • The wrath of these trolls was incurred simply because she is a woman and she was reaching a point of being influential in the sector.
  • They threatened rape, dismemberment, her family;
  • They published her address and contact information all over the internet;
  • They made up offenses to attribute to her and maligned her character online;
  • Kathy suffers from epileptic seizures, so they uploaded animated GIFs to epilepsy support forums of the sort that can trigger seizures (Kathy’s particular form of epilepsy isn’t subject to those triggers but many of the forum members were).

The story gets more bizarre, as the man she identified as the ringleader became a sort of hero to the tech community in spite of this abhorrent behavior. Kathy makes a strong case that the standard advice of “don’t feed the trolls” is bad advice.  Her initial reaction to the harassment was to do just what they seemed to desire — remove herself from the public forums.  And they kept right after her.

Adria Richards, a developer who was criticized, attacked and harassed for calling out sexist behavior at a tech conference, then recounted her experiences on Twitter, and storified them here. Her attackers didn’t stop at the misogyny; they noted that she is black and Jewish as well, and unloaded as much racist sentiment as they did sexist.  And her experience was similar to Kathy Sierra’s.

These aren’t the only cases of this, by far.  Last month Anita Sarkeesian posted a vblog asking game developers to curb their use of the death and dismemberment of female characters as the “goto” method of demonstrating that a bad guy is bad. The reaction to her request was the same onslaught of rape and violence threats, outing of her home address, threats to go to her house and kill her and her children.

So, you get it — these women are doing the same thing that many people do; developing their expertise; building communities on Twitter, and getting some respect and attention for that expertise.  And ferocious animals on the internet are making their lives a living hell for it.  And it’s been going on for years.

Why hasn’t it stopped?  Maybe it’s because the leadership in the tech sector is in pretty complete denial about it.  This was made plain today, as news came out about two events at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference running this week. The first event was a “White Male Allies Plenary Panel” featuring Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer; Google’s SVP of search Alan Eustace; Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy; and Tayloe Stansbury, CTO of Intuit.  These “allies” offered the same assurances that they are trying to welcome women at their companies. A series of recent tech diversity studies show that there is a lot of work to be done there.  But, despite all of the recent news about Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, etc., Eustace still felt comfortable saying:

“I don’t think people are actively protecting the [toxic culture] or holding on to it … or trying to keep [diverse workers] from the power structure that is technology,”

Later in the day, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, stunned the audience by stating:

“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.”

Because having faith has worked so well for equal pay in the last 50 years? Here’s a chart showing how underpaid women are throughout the U.S. Short story? 83% of men’s wages in the best places (like DC) and 69% in the worst.

Nadella did apologize for his comment. But that’s not enough, by a long shot, for him, or Eric Schmidt, or Mark Zuckerberg, or any of their contemporaries. There is a straight line from the major tech exec who is in denial about the misogyny that is rampant in their industry to the trolls who are viciously attacking women who try and succeed in it. As long as they can sit, smugly, on a stage, in front of a thousand women in tech, and say “there are no barriers, you just have to work hard and hope for the best”, they are undermining the efforts of those women and cheering on the trolls.  This is a crisis that needs to be resolved with leadership and action.  Americans are being abused and denied the opportunity that is due to anyone in this country. Until the leaders of the tech industry stand up and address this blatant discrimination, they are condoning the atrocities detailed above.

Postnote: The nonprofit tech sector is a quite different ballpark when it comes to equity among the sexes.  Which is not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s much better, and certainly less vicious. I’m planning a follow-up post on our situation, and I’ll be looking for some community input on it.

 

The Future Of Technology

Jean_Dodal_Tarot_trump_01…is the name of the track that I am co-facilitating at NTEN’s Leading Change Summit. I’m a late addition, there to support Tracy Kronzak and Tanya Tarr. Unlike the popular Nonprofit Technology Conference, LCS (not to be confused with LSC, as the company I work for is commonly called, or LSC, my wife’s initials) is a smaller, more focused affair with three tracks: Impact Leadership, Digital Strategy, and The Future of Technology. The expectation is that attendees will pick a track and stick with it.  Nine hours of interactive sessions on each topic will be followed by a day spent at the Idea Accelerator, a workshop designed to jump-start each attendee’s work in their areas. I’m flattered that they asked me to help out, and excited about what we can do to help resource and energize emerging nptech leaders at this event.

The future of technology is also something that I think about often (hey, I’m paid to!) Both in terms of what’s coming, and how we (LSC and the nonprofit sector) are going to adapt to it. Here are some of the ideas that I’m bringing to LCS this fall:

  • At a tactical level, no surprise, the future is in the cloud; it’s mobile; it’s software as a service and apps, not server rooms and applications.
  • The current gap between enterprise and personal software is going to go away, and “bring your own app” is going to be the computing norm.
  • Software evaluation will look more at interoperability, mobile, and user interface than advanced functionality.  In a world where staff are more independent in their software use, with less standardization, usability will trump sophistication.  We’ll expect less of our software, but we’ll expect to use it without any training.
  • We’ll expect the same access to information and ability to work with it from every location and every device. There will still be desktop computers, and they’ll have more sophisticated software, but there will be less people using them.
  • A big step will be coming within a year or two, when mobile manufacturers solve the input problem. Today, it’s difficult to do serious content creation on mobile devices, due primarily to the clumsiness of the keyboards and, also, the small screens. They will come up with something creative to address this.
  • IT staffing requirements will change.  And they’ll change dramatically.  But here’s what won’t happen: the percentage of technology labor won’t be reduced.  The type of work will change, and the distribution of tech responsibility will be spread out, but there will still be a high demand for technology expertise.
  • The lines between individual networks will fade. We’ll do business on shared platforms like Salesforce, Box, and {insert your favorite social media platform here}.  Sharing content with external partners and constituents will be far simpler. One network, pervasive computing, no more firewalls (well, not literally — security is still a huge thing that needs to be managed).

This all sounds good! Less IT controlling what you can and can’t do. Consumerization demystifying technology and making it more usable.  No more need to toss around acronyms like “VPN.”

Of course, long after this future arrives, many nonprofits will still be doing things the old-fashioned ways.  Adapting to and adopting these new technologies will require some changes in our organizational cultures.  If technology is going to become less of a specialty and more of a commodity, then technical competency and comfort using new tools need to be common attributes of every employee. Here are the stereotypes that must go away today:

  1. The technophobic executive. It is no longer allowable to say you are qualified to lead an organization or a department if you aren’t comfortable thinking about how technology supports your work.  It disqualifies you.
  2. The control freak techie.  They will fight the adoption of consumer technology with tooth and claw, and use the potential security risks to justify their approach. Well, yes, security is a real concern.  But the risk of data breaches has to be balanced against the lost business opportunities we face when we restrict all technology innovation. I blogged about that here.
  3. The paper-pushing staffer. All staff should have basic data management skills; enough to use a spreadsheet to analyze information and understand when the spreadsheet won’t work as well as a database would.
  4. Silos, big and small. The key benefit of our tech future is the ability to collaborate, both inside our company walls and out. So data needs to be public by default; secured only when necessary.  Policy and planning has to cross department lines.
  5. The “technology as savior” trope. Technology can’t solve your problems.  You can solve your problems, and technology can facilitate your solution. It needs to be understood that big technology implementations have to be preceded by business process analysis.  Otherwise, you’re simply automating bad or outdated processes.

I’m looking forward to the future, and I can’t wait to dive into these ideas and more about how we use tech to enhance our operations, collaborate with our community and constituents, and change the world for the better.   Does this all sound right to you? What have I got wrong, and what have I missed?

Career Management In The Social Media Era

Boy! I sure did a good day's work today!

Picture: National Archives and Records Administration

If you believe that your current job is your last job — the one that you will retire from — raise your hand.  You can stop reading.

Now that those two people are gone, let’s talk about managing our careers. Because its a whole new discipline these days.

Gone are the days when submitting a resume was sufficient.  Good jobs go to people who are referred in, not to those with no one to vouch for them. Per the ERE recruiter network, between 28% and 40% of all positions in 2012 were given to candidates that were referred in, but only 7% of all candidates were referrals. That 7% had a serious edge on the competition.

Earlier this year, Google announced that they were changing their hiring criteria, giving GPAs and college degrees somewhat lower priority and focusing more on prior accomplishments and the strength of a candidate’s social network.  This is a smart move.  College costs average to $92,000 for a four-year degree. Google is changing their criteria so that they won’t miss out on hiring the perfectly brilliant people who aren’t interested in amassing that level of debt.

So what does that mean for you and me, the people who aren’t likely in the job that we will retire at? My take is that career management is something that you can’t afford to not be doing, no matter how happy you are at your current gig.  And that it involves much more than just identifying what you want to do and who you’d like to work for.  I’m highly satisfied with my current job, and I have no concerns that I’ll be leaving  it anytime soon. But I never stop managing my career and preparing for the next gig. Here are some of the key things I do:

  • Keep my network strong, and make a point to connect with people whose work supports missions that are important to me.
  • Network with the people in my sector (nptech). I regularly attend conferences and events, and I make a point of introducing myself to new people.  I’m active in forums and discussion groups. Like any good geek, this type of social behavior isn’t something that came naturally to me, but I’ve developed it.
  • Speak, write, blog, tweet. I generously share my expertise. I don’t consider it enough for people to know my name; I want them to associate my name with talent and experience at the things I want to do for a living.
  • Mentor and advocate for my network. Help former employees and colleagues in nptech get jobs.  Freely offer advice (like this!). ID resources that will help people with their careers.
  • Connect to the people that I network with, primarily on LinkedIn. This is how I’m going to be able to reach out to the people who can help me with my next gig.
  • Keep my LinkedIn profile/resume current, adding accomplishments as I achieve them.
  • Stay in touch with recruiters even if I’m turning them down. I always ask if I can pass on the opportunity to others, and I sometimes connect with them on LinkedIn, particularly if they specialize in nptech placement.

As I’ve blogged before, I’m picky as hell about the jobs I’ll take. They have to be as good as my current job — CIO at an organization with a killer mission, great data management challenges, and a CEO that I report directly to who gets what technology should be doing for us. The tactics above played a significant part in my actually landing my current (dream) job.

So this is why you need to start securing your next position today, no matter how happily employed and content you are. Job hunting isn’t an activity that you do when you’re between jobs or looking for a change.  It’s the behavior that you engage in every day; the extra-curricular activities that you prioritize, and the community that you engage with.

Why I Hate Help Desk Metrics

image
Photo: birgerking

Tech support, as many of you know, can be a grueling job.  There are a huge variety of problems, from frozen screens to document formatting issues to malware infestations to video display madness.  There are days when you are swamped with tickets.  And there are customers that continually broaden the scale from tech-averse to think-they-know-it-all. I’ve done tech support and I’ve managed tech support for most of my career, and providing good support isn’t the biggest challenge.  Rather, it’s keeping the tech support staff from going over the edge.

In our nptech circles, it would be natural to assume that having good metrics on everything help desk would assist me in solving these problems. Good metrics might inform me regarding the proper staffing levels, the types of expertise needed, the gaps in our application suites, all that good stuff that can support my budgeting and strategy. But once I start collecting them I open myself up to that imminent threat that someone else in management (my boss, the board, or whomever) might want to see the metric, too. They want to see are metrics like:

  • Average tickets and calls per day
  • Number of open tickets
  • Average time to resolve a ticket

Their idea is that these numbers will tell them how productive the tech support staff are, how efficient, and how successful they are at resolving problems.

Every one of these is a unreliable metric.  Alone or together, they don’t tell a meaningful story. Let’s take them one by one:

Average daily tickets: This is a number that is allegedly meaningful as it rises and falls.  If we have 30 tickets a day in January, and 50 a day in February, it means something.  But what?  Does it mean that IT is being more productive?  Does it imply that there are more issues popping up? Is it because more people are feeling comfortable about calling the help desk?  If we drop to 15 in February, what does that mean?  That IT has stabilized a lot of problems, or that the users have figured out that others in the org are more helpful than IT?

Number of open tickets: The standard assumption is that fewer is better.  And while that is generally true, it can be deceiving, because the nature of tickets varies dramatically.  Some require budget approvals and other time-consuming delays.  An assumption that tickets are open because the technician hasn’t gotten around to resolving them is often wrong.

Average time to resolve a ticket:  This one is deadly. Because it is commonly used as a performance metric, and that’s based on the assumption that the quicker all tickets are closed, the better service IT is providing.  The common scenario I’ve encountered where this metric is shared with management is that the tech support staff grow so pressured to close tickets that they regularly close them before the issue is truly resolved.  It creates tension with staff, as the real power of a help desk ticketing system is in the communication that it enables, not the communication that it cuts off when staff are not geared toward taking a communicative approach to issue resolution.

Worse, it takes away the technician’s ability to prioritize.  Every ticket must be closed quickly in order to look efficient, so every ticket is a priority.  But, in fact, many tickets aren’t high priority at all.  People often want to report computer problems that they aren’t in a hurry to get resolved.  When every ticket is treated like a fire to be put out, staff, naturally, start getting resistant to shouting “fire”, and stop reporting that annoying pop-up error that they get every time they log in.  They start living with all of the little things that they have inconvenient but bearable workarounds for, and as these pile up, they grow more and more annoyed with their computers — and tech support.

So what might useful metrics to assess the effectiveness of tech support entail? Here’s what I look for:

  • Evidence that the techs are prioritizing tickets correctly. They’re jumping when work stoppage issues are reported and taking their time on very low priority matters.
  • Tickets in the system are well-documented. We’re capturing complex solutions and noting issues that could be reduced with training, fine-tuning or a software upgrade.
  • Shirts are tucked in, hair isn’t mussed, nobody is on the verge of tears. High stress on support techs is usually plain to see.

The type of person that gravitates to a tech support job is a person that likes to help. There are egos involved, and an accompanying love of solving puzzles, but the job satisfaction comes from solving problems, and that’s exactly what we want our support staff to do. Creating an environment where the pressure is higher to close tickets than it is to resolve them is a lose-lose scenario for everyone.

Career Reflections: My Biggest Data Fail

This article was published on the NTEN Blog in February of 2014.  It originally appeared in the eBook “Collected Voices: Data-informed Nonprofits“.

Peter Campbell of Legal Services Corporation shares his biggest data fail, and what he’d do differently now.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

Note: names and dates have been omitted to protect the innocent. 

Years ago, I was hired at an organization that had a major database that everyone hated. My research revealed a case study in itself: how not to roll out a data management system. Long story short, they had bought a system designed to support a different business model, and then paid integrators to customize it beyond recognition. The lofty goal was to have a system that would replace people talking to each other. And the project was championed by a department that would not have to do the data entry; the department identified to do all of the work clearly didn’t desire the system.

The system suffered from a number of problems. It was designed to be the kitchen sink, with case info, board updates, contact management, calendaring, web content management, and other functions. The backend was terrible: a SQL database with tables named after the tabs in the user interface. The application itself had miserable search functionality, no dupe checking, and little in the way of data quality control. Finally, there were no organizational standards for data entry. Some people regularly updated information; others only went near it when nagged before reporting deadlines. One person’s idea of an update was three to five paragraphs; another’s two words.

I set out to replace it with something better. I believed (and will always believe) that we needed to build a custom application, not buy a commercial one and tweak it. What we did was not the same thing that the commercial systems were designed to track. But I did think we’d do better building it with consultants on a high-level platform than doing it by ourselves from scratch, so I proposed that we build a solution on Salesforce. The system had over 150 users, so this would be relatively expensive.

Timing is everything: I made my pitch the same week that financial news indicated that we were diving into a recession. Budgets were cut. Spending was frozen.  And I was asked if I could build the system in Access, instead?  And this is when I…

…explained to my boss that we should table the project until we had the budget to support it.

Or so I wish. Instead, I dusted off my amateur programming skills and set out to build the system from scratch. I worked with a committee of people who knew the business needs, and I developed about 90% of a system that wasn’t attractive, but did what needed to be done reasonably well. The goals for the system were dramatically scaled back to simply what was required.

Then I requested time with the department managers to discuss data stewardship. I explained to the critical VP that my system, like the last one, would only be as good as the data put into it, so we needed to agree on the requirements for an update and the timeliness of the data entry. We needed buy-in that the system was needed, and that it would be properly maintained. Sadly, the VP didn’t believe that this was necessary, and refused to set aside time in any meeting to address it. Their take was that the new system would be better than the old one, so we should just start using it.

This was where I had failed. My next decision was probably a good one: I abandoned the project. While my system would have been easier to manage (due to the scaled back functionality, a simple, logical database structure and a UI that included auto-complete and dupe-checking), it was going to fail, too, because, as every techie knows, garbage in equals garbage out. I wanted my system to be a success.  We went on with the flawed original system, and eventually started talking about a new replacement project, and that might have happened, but I left the company.

Lessons learned:

  1. If I’m the IT Director, I can’t be the developer. There was a lot of fallout from my neglected duties.
  2. Get the organizational commitment to the project and data quality standards confirmed before you start development.
  3. Don’t compromise on a vision for expediency’s sake.  There are plenty of times when it’s okay to put in a quick fix for a problem, but major system development should be done right.  Timing is everything, and it wasn’t time to put in a data management system at this company.