Tag Archives: change management

Year-end Reflections

This post was originally published on the NTEN Blog on December 24th, 2015.

As years go, 2015 was a significant one in my career. The work of a CIO, or IT Director, or whatever title you give the person primarily responsible for IT strategy and implementation, is (ideally) two parts planning and one part doing. So in 2015—my third year at Legal Services Corporation—we did a couple of the big things that we’d been planning in 2013 and 2014.

First and foremost, we (and I do mean we—I play my part, but I get things done with an awesome staff and coworkers) rolled out the first iteration of our “Data Portal.” The vision for the Data Portal is that, as a funder that works primarily with 134 civil legal aid firms across the U.S. and territories, we should be able to access the relevant information about any grantee quickly and easily without worrying about whether we have the latest version of a document or report. To reach this vision, we implemented a custom, merged Salesforce/Box system. This entailed about a year of co-development with our partner, Exponent Partners, and a move from in-house servers to the Cloud. We’ll complete our Cloud “trifecta” in early 2016, when we go to Microsoft’s Office 365.

This was particularly exciting for me, because I have been envisioning and waiting for technology to reach a level of maturity and… collegiality that makes the vision of one place where documents and databases can co-exist a reality. Integration, and one-stop access to information, have always been the holy grails that I’ve sought for the companies that I’ve worked for; but the quests have been Monty Python-esque through the days when even Microsoft products weren’t compatible with each other, much less compatible with anything else. What we’ve rolled out is more of a stump than a tree; but in the next year we’ll grow a custom grants management system on top of that; and then we’ll incorporate everything pertinent to our grantees that currently hides in Access, Excel, and other places.

I’m working on a much more detailed case study of this project for NTEN to publish next year.

Secondly, we revamped our website, doing a massive upgrade from Drupal 7 to… Drupal 7! The website in place when I came to LSC was content-rich, navigation-challenged, and not too good at telling people what it is that we actually do.The four separate websites that made up our entire site weren’t even cross-searchable until we addressed that problem in early 2014. Internal terminology and acronyms existed on the front page and in the menus, making some things incomprehensible to the public, and others misleading. For example, we often refer to the law firms that we fund as “programs.” But, in the funding world, a “program” is a funding category, such as “arts” or “environment.” Using that terminology. along with too buried an explanation that what we actually do is allocate funding, not practice law ourselves, led many people to assume that we were the parent office of a nationwide legal aid firm, which we aren’t.

The new site, designed by some incredibly talented people at Beaconfire-RedEngine (with a particular call out to Eve Simon, who COMPLETELY got the aesthetic that we were going for and pretty much designed the site in about six hours), tells you up front who we are, what we do, and why civil legal aid is so important, in a country where the right to an attorney is only assured in criminal cases. While civil cases include home foreclosures, domestic violence, child custody, and all sorts of things that can devastate the lives of people who can’t afford an attorney to defend them. This new site looks just as good on a phone as on a computer, a requirement for the Twenty-Teens.

My happiness in life directly correlates to my ability to improve the effectiveness of the organizations that I work for, with meaningful missions like equal justice for all, defense against those who pollute the planet, and the opportunity to work, regardless of your situation in life. At my current job, we’re killing it.

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.

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?

Three Ways To Make Sure that Your Next Big Software Project Is A Success

This post also appeared on the Cloud for Good Blog in April of 2014.

Buying a new fundraising CRM or replacing your finance and HR systems are big investments with critical outcomes. These are the types of projects can have a huge impact on your ability to accomplish your mission. Poorly planned, chosen and deployed, they will do the opposite. If you’re grasping for a cautionary tale, just look at the recent Healthcare.gov rollout, or the worse related stories in Maryland and Oregon. But successful implementations happen every day as well, they just don’t grab as many headlines.

How can you make sure that big software projects succeed?  Here are three recommendations:

1. Know what you need

All too often, the decision to replace a system is based more on frustrations with your current system than identified improvements that a new system might bring.  And, far too often, those frustrations aren’t really based on the capabilities of your existing system, but, instead, on the way that it was configured.  Modern software is highly configurable.  In nonprofit environments, where administrative staffing is low and people are juggling multiple priorities, the proper investment in that configuration is sometimes skipped. It’s important that you take the time to thoroughly catalogue your current processes and goals; clearly identify your reporting needs; and establish your core requirements before you embark for this sort of project.

Technology automates processes. If you automate bad processes, you get bad technology.  So making an investment in business process mapping, and taking the time to streamline and enhance the way you work with information today will insure that you know what your new system should be doing for you as you configure it.

2. Be prepared to change the way you do things

Ideally, you’ll invest in software that does exactly what you want it to do for you. In reality, there will be limitations in the way that the software was programmed, or the way that it has to be configured in order to integrate with your other applications, that will be out of sync with your preferences. Software doesn’t have a mind of it’s own; instead, it inherits the assumptions and biases of the developers that created it. They might assume, for instance, that you collect donations from individuals and have no need to recognize households in your system. Or they might assume that your average employee turnover is less than 20%, whereas, at a workforce development agency that hires its clients, 50% is more on the mark.  If the best system you can find suffers from some of these limitations,. you will have to either work around them, or buy the second best system, if it requires fewer workarounds, because you do want to minimize them.

Regardless, you’ll want to understand the underlying assumptions in the application and have a strategy for working around them. Some companies will go so far as to commission or design their own systems (commonly called “build” vs “buy”), but you need to weigh the cost of having a supported system vs. a homegrown one, because, unless what you do is truly unique, those will not be worthwhile trade-offs.

3. Hire a consultant for their expertise and compatibility, not their billing rate

We all want to get these projects done for as little money as possible. So there’s a tendency to hire consultants based on the lowest bid. I’d caution against this. major system configuration projects are generally open-ended — determining the exact configuration and number of hours that it will take to get there before the project starts is akin to inviting the whole city to a dinner party and determining the number of plates that you’ll require before anyone RSVPs. So you want to work with consultants who are very efficient at their work, and very conversant with your needs. What you don’t want to do is hand your project to a consultant who doesn’t really understand your requirements, but has their own idea as to how it should be done.  You could well be left with a system that met the budget, but not your needs, or one that exceeded the budget while being reworked to satisfy your requirements. A good consultant will work closely with you.  they’ll spend more time meeting with staff to learn about your needs then they will setting up the project, but they’ll set it up quickly and correctly based on their thorough understanding of your goals and needs. The hourly rate might be double the low bid, but the total cost could be equivalent, resulting in a usable system that will compensate for the initial dollar outlay all that much faster.

Here are slides that I developed for a talk/discussion on creating Requests for Proposals that vendors will appreciate at the recent Nonprofit Technology Conference.  These include some key strategies for making sure that you hire the right person or firm.

In conclusion, how you go about a software project has far more to do with how you conduct your business than it does with the actual technology.  Make sure that you’re investing wisely by taking the time to understand your needs, know where you can compromise, and hire the best partners.

The Nonprofit Management Gap

I owe someone an apology. Last night, a nice woman that I’ve never met sent me an email relaying (not proposing) an idea that others had pitched. Colleagues of mine who serve in communications roles in the nonprofit sector were suggesting a talk on “Why CIOs/CTOs should be transitioned into Chief Digital and Data Officers”.  And, man, did that line get me going.

Now, I’m with them on a few points: Organizations that rely on public opinion and support to accomplish their mission, which includes the majority of nonprofits, need to hire marketers that get technology, particularly the web.  And those people need to be integrated into upper management, not reporting to the Development VP or COO.  It’s the exact same case I make for the lead technologist role.

Let’s look at a few of these acronyms and titles:

COO – Chief Operating Officer.  In most NPOs that have one, this role oversees operations while the CEO oversees strategy and advances the mission with the public.

CIO – Chief Information Officer.  CIOs are highly placed technologists whose core job is to align technology to mission-effectiveness.  In most cases, because we can’t afford large staffs, CIOs also manage the IT Department, but their main value lies in the business planning and collaboration that they foster in order to integrate technology.

Some companies hire CTOs: Chief Technology Officers.  This is in product-focused environments where, again, you need a highly placed technologist who can manage the communication and expectations between the product experts and the technical staff designing and developing the products for them.

IT Director – An IT Director is a middle manager who oversees technology planning, budgeting, staff and projects. In (rare) cases, they report to a CIO or CTO.  In the nonprofit world, they are often the lead technologists, but they report up to a COO or VP Admin, not the CEO.

CMO – Chief Marketing Officer.  This is a new role which, similar to CIO, elevates the person charged with constituent engagement to the executive level.

This is how many nonprofit CEOs think about technology:

Public Domain Image

Say you, at home, have a leaky faucet.  It’s wasting water and the drip is driving you crazy.  You can’t just tear out the sink — you need that.  So you hire a plumber.  Or, if you have the opportunity, you get your accidental te– I mean, acne-dented teenager to read up on it and fix the leak for you.  So now you have a plumber, and your sink is no longer dripping. Great!
Now you want to remodel your house.  You want to move the master bath downstairs and the kitchen to the east side.  That’s going to require planning. Risk assessment. Structural engineering. You could hire a contractor — someone with the knowledge and the skill to not only oversee plumbing changes, but project management, vendor coordination, and, most important, needs assessment. Someone who knows how to ask you what you want and then coordinate the effort so that that’s what you get.  So, what should you do?
Have the plumber do it.  He did a good job on the leak, right?
Every job that I’ve had since 1990 has, at the onset, been to fix the damage that a plumber did while they were charged with building a house.  Sometimes I’ve worked for people who got it, saw that they needed my communication skills as much or more than they needed my technical expertise.  At those jobs, I was on a peer level with the other department heads, not one lower.  Other times, they expected me to be just like the plumber that I replaced. They were surprised and annoyed when I tried to tell them that what they really needed was to work with me, not delegate to me.  At those jobs, I was mostly a highly-functional pain in the ass.

Some of those jobs got bad, but here’s how bad it can get when management just doesn’t get technology.

So, back to my rant, here’s my question: why would we increase the strategic role of marketing at the expense of strategic technology integration?  Is that a conscious desire to move just as far backward as we’re moving forward?  Is this suggestion out of a frustration that people who manage technology aren’t exclusively supporting communications in our resource-strapped environments? In any case, it’s a sad day for the sector if we’re going to pitch turf wars instead of overall competence.  There is no question: we need high level technologists looking after our infrastructure, data strategy, and constituent engagement. But we can’t address critical needs by crippling other areas.

Succession Planning

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in September of 2009.
graduates.jpg

Idealware’s blog is not the best place for me to talk about my kid.  There’s Facebook and Flickr> for that sort of thing. But I want to talk about him anyway, and open a discussion, if possible, about children and the nptech community.

My career is in nonprofit technology (nptech). My plan is to continue working for nonprofits (or, if for profit, a for profit with a mission and a socially beneficial bottom line) until I retire or expire.  While my ten year old boy’s stated goal is to become a NASA engineer, and that’s great, I want him to understand why I chose my path of purposeful work and understand what’s involved in it, should he, at age 15 or 25, decide that NASA isn’t the only option.

A few year’s back, former NTEN CEO and current MobileActive CEO Katrin Verclas suggested adding a program for teenagers at the annual nonprofit technology conference. This is a brilliant idea. We have a great opportunity to educate children in the work we do: advocating for social justice and good; raising funds and resources in order to act effectively and independently; and collaborating in a  supportive community to accomplish our varied, but sympathetic goals.  Whatever our children end up doing with their lives, we have something worthwhile to teach them.

When I was a teenager, I was active in a youth group called Liberal Religious Youth (LRY). LRY was an independent group affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, but it was not a particularly religious group. The themes were more along the lines of addressing social concerns and building community. At ages sixteen and seventeen, I was creating flyers, renting facilities, giving presentations, leading sessions, planning menus and taking a leadership role that prepared me far better for my current career than high school actually did.

When I look at our nptech community, I see a similar environment, where our commitment and excitement regarding our work is bolstered by a natural adoption of supportive camaraderie and peer development. We definitely model something of value to our high school age kids who will face career choices and challenges like ours. We can develop a mentoring program that passes on our expertise in resource management, activism, fundraising, community building, nonprofit technology and social media as a social activism tool. This would provide them with an early introduction to the skills that will be needed when we retire to continue the important work that we do. As much as a grant, donation, or volunteer effort, this is an investment in our work and our world that we should be making.

I want my son to develop his skills and community with socially-conscious peers and mentors.  I want his generation to be more effective than we are at solving problems like poverty, pollution and social injustice. It’s not enough for us to try and save the world. We should be prepping the next generation to keep it protected.

Who’s with me?

The Silo Situation

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in May of 2009.

The technology trend that defines this decade is the movement towards open, pervasive computing. The Internet is at our jobs, in our homes, on our phones, TVs, gaming devices. We email and message everyone from our partners to our clients to our vendors to our kids. For technology managers, the real challenges are less in deploying the systems and software than they are in managing the overlap, be it the security issues all of this openness engenders, or the limitations of our legacy systems that don’t interact well enough. But the toughest integration is not one between software or hardware systems, but, instead, the intersection of strategic computing and organizational culture.

There are two types of silos that I want to discuss: organizational silos, and siloed organizations.

An organizational silo, to be clear, is a group within an organization that acts independently of the rest of the organization, making their own decisions with little or no input from those outside of the group. This is not necessarily a bad thing; there are (although I can’t think of any) cases where giving a group that level of autonomy might serve a useful purpose. But, when the silo acts in an environment where their decisions impact others, they can create long-lived problems and rifts in critical relationships.

We all know that external decisions can disrupt our planning, be it a funders decision to revoke a grant that we anticipated or a legislature dropping funding for a critical program. So it’s all the more frustrating to have the rug pulled out from under us by people who are supposed to be on the same team. If you have an initiative underway to deploy a new email system, and HR lays off the organizational trainer, you’ve been victimized by a silo-ed decision. On the flip side, a fundraiser might undertake a big campaign, unaware that it will collide with a web site redesign that disables the functionality that they need to broadcast their appeal.

Silos thrive in organizations where the leadership is not good at management. Without a strong CEO and leadership team, departmental managers don’t naturally concern themselves with the needs of their peers. The expediency and simplicity of just calling the shots themselves is too appealing, particularly in environments where resources are thin and making overtures to others can result in those resources being gladly taken and never returned. In nonprofits, leaders are often more valued for their relationships and fundraising skills than their business management skills, making our sector more susceptible to this type of problem.

The most damaging result of operating in this environment is that, if you can’t successfully manage the silos in your organization, then you won’t be anything but a silo in the world at large.

We’ve witnessed a number of industries, from entertainment and newspapers to telephones and automobiles, as they allowed their culture to dictate their obsolescence. Instead of adapting their models to the changing needs of their constituents, they’ve clung to older models that aren’t relevant in the digital age, or appropriate for a global economy on a planet threatened by climate change. Since my focus is technology, I pay particular attention to the impacts that technological advancement, and the accompanying change in extra-organizational culture (e.g., the country, our constituents, the world) have on the work my organization does. Just in the past few years, we’ve seen some significant cultural changes that should be impacting nonprofit assumptions about how we use technology:

  • Increased regulation on the handling of data. We’re wrestling with the HIPAA laws governing handling of medical data and PCI standards for financial data. If we have not prioritized firewalls, encryption, and the proper data handling procedures, we’re more and more likely to be out of step with new laws. Even the 990 form we fill out now asks if we have a document retention plan.
  • Our donors are now quite used to telephone auto attendants, email, and the web. How many are now questioning why we use the dollars they donate to us to staff reception, hand write thank you notes, and send out paper newsletters and annual reports?
  • Our funders are seeing more available data on the things that interest them everywhere, so they expect more data from us. The days of putting out the success stories without any numbers to quantify them are over.

Are we making changes in response to these continually evolving expectations? Or are we still struggling with our internal expectations, while the world keeps on turning outside of our walls? We, as a sector, need to learn what these industrial giants refused to, before we, too, are having massive layoffs and closing our doors due to an inability to adapt our strategies to a rapidly evolving cultural climate. And getting there means paying more attention to how we manage our people and operations; showing the leadership to head into this millennia by mastering our internal culture and rolling with the external changes. Look inward, look outward, lead and adapt.

Regime Change

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

I’ve been pretty fascinated by the news reports about how the Obama staff reacted to the technology in place at the White House. If you haven’t been tracking this, you can read the full story, but the short story is this: the Mac/Blackberry/Facebook-savvy Obama staffers were shocked to find ancient systems and technology in use at the White House “Windows XP, MS Office 2003, traditional phone lines, and web filtering in place” in other words, the same stuff my org uses. I found myself both sympathetic and skeptical regarding their plight, because I am a big fan of all of the new technology that they are familiar with, but they walked into a network that is a lot like 90% of the businesses out there. The Bush Administration, perhaps surprisingly, was fairly current in their use of technology.

Some quick things I draw from this:

* The Obama campaign distinguished themselves by their smart use of modern, internet technology, and that use played a major role in their successful campaign.

* The shock they’re facing is less about the technology in place than it is about the culture they’re moving into. Political teams run freely and nimbly, and Howard Dean established the Web as the infrastructure of choice in 2004. Businesses, like the White House, do not drive so close to the cutting edge, for a variety of good reasons, such as the need for standardization and security.

* Over the next few months, the Obama-ans are going to compromise, and I’m dying to learn what choices they’ll make.

In my work, I’m on both sides of that fence every day, working with staff to understand why we have to standardize in order to manage our systems, stay a little behind the curve in order to avoid risk, and stick with applications like Microsoft Office because they have the mature feature set that we require. At the same time, I rally my staff to be creative in finding tools and solutions for our people, to stay abreast of which new tools are going to be worth the risk in terms of the benefits they offer, and understand that, should we get too far behind, it will be as risky as being too far out on the technological edge. We don’t want to fall off of any cliffs, nor do we want to stand still as all of the other cars race around us.

Some of us, like the leader of the free world, can’t imagine a day without a Blackberry; others, like a former free world leader, don’t even want an email account. Most of us live in this world where we have to creatively embrace the new while we tighten our grips on the traditional, because technology platforms thrive on stability while they obsolesce rapidly. Where the Obama White House winds up might be a good indicator of where we should all be. I hope we’ll have a window into that.

Filling the Communication Gaps

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2008.

We’ve come a long way since the Pony Express. It’s hard to imagine living in a time when your options for communication were limited to face-to-face, sllooowww mail, and, perhaps, carrier pigeon. Today, we have the opposite problem: there are so many mediums to choose from that a key communication skill is to gleam the method that the person you want to reach prefers. I was taken aback by an Australian ruling that Facebook was an acceptable medium for serving subpoenas, until I read that the defendants had been unreachable by phone or email for months beforehand. At first I thought they were just avoiding the subpoena — still a big possibility — but then I reconsidered. How many people have completely abandoned their primary email accounts, assuming that anything in them is spam, in favor of only reading their mail on Facebook or MySpace? Probably a considerable number. I know, just from my day-to-day business dealings, that I will reach some of my coworkers more effectively by phone than I will by email, and vice versa.

So we have postal mail, the telephone, the telegram, facsimile, short wave radio, walkie-talkie and intercom holding up the old guard. And we have email, cell phone, IM, chat, IRC, blogs, Twitter, forums and social networking services charging in as new(er) mediums. And I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch. The internet has opened up a Pandora’s box of communication mediums. So why use one over another? If we break it down to a manageable number of mediums, say, Phone, IM, email and Twitter, there are some intriguing differences. These differences don’t imply that one is better than another, but, certainly, one is more practical, courteous or efficient than another in a given circumstance. I evaluate the mediums on a few defining attributes:

Private or Social? While allowing that you can send group emails and IMs, and hold phone conferences, these mediums are primarily suited for one to one or a few conversations, whereas Twitter, and many of the web-based mediums, are social, with a large and partially unknown audience included.

Ambient or Invasive? A phone call is invasive, as is, to some extent, an IM. The sender is sitting there waiting for a response, so the courteous thing to do is to immediately re-prioritize whatever you’re doing and respond to them. Email and tweets, on the other hand, are casual mediums. Ignoring either one for an hour is within the bounds of the sender’s expectations.

Convenient or In Need of Management? I can send and receive IMs and Tweets and forget about them; phone calls as well, although voicemail needs to be dealt with. Email, on the other hand, is a demanding application. i have to manage it, sort it, categorize it, and clean it up.

Disposable or Archived? Phone calls and IMs, unless I record them, disappear after the conversation is ended. Emails and tweets are saved and searchable, giving me an always available archive of my communications (unless I delete them).

I suggested in a post last week that Twitter bridges the gap between email and IM, just as email bridged the gap between the letter and the phone call. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out if a social, ambient, archive-able and convenient medium like microblogging is compelling in my organization. I took a look at Socialcast, one of the many corporate Twitter clones popping up, and I was very impressed with their implementation, which breaks the messages into statuses, ideas, questions and links.

Selling my staff on a tool like this is proving to be a challenge. The argument for it is fairly nuanced, and urging anyone to try something new on faith isn’t easy. They’re asking why this is better than the Microsoft Messenger chat application, or a more full-featured Sharepoint site? Those are good questions. Micro-messaging software lacks some of the features that these other mediums sport, but it provides a very simple and powerful, approach to information sharing that is far more collegial and less invasive than chat, while it’s simpler and quicker to use than Sharepoint. And my bet is that, in the war of communications mediums, it will ultimately be the ones that are easiest to use and least disruptive that win. Or it should be.

Managing by Maxim

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2008.

I’m a big fan of maxims, adages, anything that sums up an important, and possibly complex point in a sentence that can convey, if not the whole point, at least a conversation starter. The main challenge for a technology manager is communication, particularly with those who are uninterested and/or threatened by technological terms. I live and breathe this stuff, but I understand that I’m in the ten percent, the ten percent of people who like and are completely comfortable with technology. The rest of the world ranges from averse to highly competent, but not gaga over it all, like I am. Remembering that, and approaching each project and decision with that in mind, has helped me accomplish significant things for people who aren’t necessarily bought in to all of my ideas on first listen.

My current favorite maxim is Users own functionality, techies own platforms. This encompasses a couple of key concepts. First, technology isn’t owned by IT or the people they serve; it’s owned by both those who install it and those who use it. Therefore, technology can’t be evaluated and planned for solely by one group or another. But I’ve seen lots of cases of both – IT rolling out a fundraising database or point of sale system with no input from the people who will base their revenue goals on the systems’ capabilities; and staff rolling out equally complex systems with little or no IT guidance. Both situations are likely to be a big waste of funds and effort. Second, the breakdown is clear – IT might be wowed by the cool, Ajaxy interface on that web app, but if it doesn’t have the reporting capabilities that the users need, they might be better served by something less flashy. That’s for the users to decide. But IT will have a better read on how sound a database structure is for querying and reporting, or what will integrate successfully with other key systems. So IT should have sway over the technologies used, to a large extent.

If you build it, they won’t come is another favorite. Unlike some cinematic baseball greats, techies can’t build huge systems in anticipation of user’s needs and expect them to be adopted, no matter how great the systems are. Clearly identified needs and ample amounts of input and involvement are required for home-grown system development. At my job, I am pushing agile development, which includes user testing and input from early on in development. This means that I’m teaching my staff how to let go a bit, and be more open to feedback, as I’m teaching the non-techie staff how to evaluate functionality in unfinished, and possibly somewhat ugly systems. It’s not as much training as it is imploring all parties to have some faith in each other.

In business communications, you haven’t said anything until you’ve said it three times in three different mediums. This one was taught to me by one of my greatest mentors, an ED at a commercial law firm that I worked at in the 90’s. It boils down to the terser rule of thumb: Assume that they haven’t read your email. The biggest mistake that we all make is thinking that we’ve made our intentions and priorities clear by sending a memo or an all staff email. The truly important initiatives that you’re pushing through should be reiterated and the message diversified, to reach people who may not respond to your favorite medium. And, as Paul has well-pointed out, at least one of those mediums should be verbal, and hopefully in the same room.

What are the maxims that you manage and survive by? Leave your best ones in the comments.