Change is stressful. Good or bad, it adds tension to any office. Throw the word "computer" or "upgrade" or "Internet" into this equation, and stress can skyrocket. Plus, mission-based organizations (nonprofits, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, public sector organizations, civil society organizations, etc.) are often facing intense, even do-or-die deadlines -- so the stress of dealing with computers can sometimes seem too much.
Introducing or adding computers, tablets or smart phones to a mission-based organization, or upgrading software or hardware such an organization uses, will change the way staff at the organization access and manage information -- for the better, you hope. But without realistic expectations and a thoughtful strategy, a new system can create as many problems as it is supposed to solve.
With all that said: success in using technology tools is driven by user attitude. Users who want to reach out, to make people feel informed and involved, who are committed to quality and timeliness, and who are ready to try something even at the risk of making a mistake are the people who flourish using technology. People who hate change, don't like sharing information freely and continually, and don' like involving others in their work are those that struggle with technology. What's your attitude?
No matter what an agency's mission is, no matter what size an agency's staff or budget, no matter who an agency serves, no matter how many years you have been in operation -- your agency needs a computer and Internet technology plan. Just as you should do a critical analysis and form a strategic plan for your fundraising plans, your staffing needs and your program activities, you need to evaluate your technology needs and create strategies to meet those needs. How your organization will access and use technology will effect just about every function of your agency, in fact. If you choose not to create a technology plan, you will find yourself in a constant state of reactive crisis management. You also might end up spending far, far more on hardware and software and training than you would have had you thought strategically about your needs and created a plan to address those needs.
At the Philanthropy News Network's "Nonprofits and Technology" conference in Seattle in January 1999, a representative of CompuMentor (now TechSoup) offered advice that still holds true even now, all these years later. He told attendees that technology plans are more than just hardware and software wish lists. They can help nonprofits:
He cited a 70/30 rule for technology funding used by many large companies and organizations: For every $1 budgeted for technology, 30 cents would be used for hardware and software purchases, with the remaining 70 cents used for training and support. Now, I would change that to a 60/40 rule, with 40 cents used for hardware, software and apps, and 60 cents for training and support. I change the numbers because, now, unlike in 1999, it's rare to find someone working in an office who isn't at least somewhat familiar with word processing software, spreadsheets and some kind of database software.
Reasons to Computerize or Upgrade a System
Augustine "Tino" Paz, Network Development Specialist at Orlando's Community Services Network, made this insightful observation on CUSSNET (Computer Use in Social Services Network Internet discussion group) many years ago, and it also still holds true:
"Human services are in the information processing business whether they use software or not. Any effort to 'automate' that aspect of the business without first understanding what Kate referred to as 'How information flows through out and is used in the agency, issues of power and control that sort of stuff,' will inevitably make things more difficult when it comes to implementation any software application.
"One of the challenges, in my opinion, involves managing the conflict between what is perceived as a slow, time- and resource-consuming planned developmental approach to organizational change (especially when we assume that we already know what's "wrong" with the organization) and the feeling that we must act with haste to fully benefit from the rapidly changing information technologies tools."
David Arons of Tufts University added during this discussion:
Included in his post was an example of this formula in action.
Disadvantages and Risks
Any kind of change or upgrade can at first seem more work than it's worth. That in itself can make introducing computers or upgrading technology seem not worth the effort. Also, there's
Staff and volunteers may tell you they have been doing just fine without computers or the Internet (and maybe they have!), so why computerize systems and data? They may tell you that whatever version of software they use meets their needs and it took an enormous time to learn and upgrading will cause more trouble than it's worth. Or, they may have unrealistic ideas about the technology -- that computers, a new software package or the Internet will instantly and effortlessly raise more money for the agency, or improve staff and board communications, for instance.
Many agencies invest considerable resources in computer hardware, software and staff training for computerized systems that then end up being under-utilized and failing to live up to their vast potential, because the staff had unrealistic expectations for the technology, or they never bought in to the idea of the technology in the first place.
The key to worker acceptance seems to hinge on the following factors:
Most who have commented on this subject via various Internet discussion groups, at least that I've read, feel that forcing technology on someone outright doesn't work. It's not efficient, creates even greater tension around the use of the technology, and takes even longer for the system to work. They emphasize that successful integration of a new technology into an agency requires good and ongoing communication, long-term commitment by the entire staff, monitoring, support, intervention and patience.
One person on CUSSNET noted that, at the time of his post (July 1997), California was installing a state-wide information system called Child Welfare Services/Case Management System (CMS/CWS). The system was comprehensive and covered everything from caseload listings, client history, placement and payment processes, contact narratives, management of court documents, service plans, state-wide search capability, etc. His story on the introduction of this system offers many lessons for anyone introducing a new technology, no matter what system it is computerizing:
"We have decided to purchase laptop PC's for our staff in lieu of desktops to enhance worker mobility - this was a major concern expressed by line-staff. CWS/CMS also has remote dial-up capability - a worker will be able to do state-wide searches from schools, police departments, or from home - compose and submit court reports, service plans, detention reports from remote locations to their supervisor for review and approval. Mobility supports autonomy. Information supports risk assessments.
"One anecdote - we called a meeting of line supervisors to demonstrate the functionality of the court module - staff literally stood up and cheered when they realized how this tool would save them time.
"We had line supervisors do a simple inventory of staff skill and have tentatively identified several 'soft spots' (staff who may need a higher level of support) - we plan on shifting a portion of our support resource to these areas during the initial phase of roll-out hoping to facilitate early success experiences.
"Anecdotal accounts from other counties (about 25) which have already come on-line reflect that there is an initial period of frustration and loss of productivity, this seems to last about 90 days -as one moves through the learning curve, the tool comes to be perceived as an integral part of the process. A representative from one county (which has been up for a year) stated, '...we don't know how we did our work without it...'
"A major benefit of this system is the development of a state-wide database which will support an unlimited array of ad hoc reports - trend analysis, outcome studies, etc. Clearly, this will add precision in evaluating the needs of our clients and assessing the effectiveness of our interventions."
"We were able to take a Tracking System for social service activities and implement this in one unit. It spread from unit to unit after we saw its benefits. Now counties all over the State are using it in one fashion or another to suit their needs. This was done without forcing the technology on anyone. It is a much slower process, but seems to be more acceptable to staff."
"Speaking specifically of our (Client Services) dept. - it was also helpful to have one staff member who really loves computers - yet still understands the office and how work is really done around here. (OK, I admit, this person is me!) I am able to advocate for our department's needs, understanding the tasks that need accomplished and the general level of computer-savvy of the staff - BUT - I can also 'speak computer-ese' - so the tech guys find me easy to deal with! A big plus is how excited I get about new applications, etc. - that is usually infectious and pretty soon everyone wants to 'know how to do that!' We've almost become competitive - each trying to learn a 'new trick' to teach the others!
One lesson we have learned to our advantage: having a "linestaff" person who is computer-savvy is really great. Many times staff feel uncomfortable asking a tech staff to help them with the "little things" - especially when they need someone "right now!" I try to be available to answer questions, reboot machines, get the printer working again, etc. It took some time for my manager to be comfortable with my spending time on this, but in the end she understood that it was helping all our department work better - it is now an acknowledged part of what I do!
"It may be interesting to note that my department manager has been the last one to come onboard. Although she has had a computer on her desk from the beginning, she is just now beginning to really use it. For a long time, you knew not to send her an e-mail - she never learned to open up her Mailbox! I am always glad when she asks me to help her do things, because for a long time she would just give up in frustration and use the 'ol typewriter! This budget cycle, I think she is pretty much being forced to learn Excel in order to submit her department's budget -- and I think that's a good thing! But I think this is one example of linestaff making the change-over BEFORE management, and in our case it worked just fine!"
Still another CYBERVPM participant said:
Story 1:These illustrations include examples of peer pressure (new members expected use of online tools by the association, staff expected by their peers to use new software), incentive to change behavior (elimination of postal costs and phone charges to mail or fax press releases, testimonies from colleagues at staff meetings, recognition by supervisors for use of new tool).
Back in the 1990s, I was a board member at a professional association. I was in charge of new member recruitment and publicity. For my fellow board members, I developed materials and a training to talk about the benefits of using email instead of sending postal mailings to invite new members to our meetings, to no avail; my fellow board members remained skeptical. It took generating a standing-room-only audience of newcomers for a monthly meeting, something that had never happened in the group's history, to convince the board that, indeed, we could sell an event successfully with email. I asked at the beginning of the meeting for everyone who found out about the event via email or the web to raise their hands, and most of the room raised their hands. As of that meeting, there was an expectation that the organization would use email and its web site for communication - there was no going back. I've always wondered how long it took this org to use social media when it came around...
I was a part of a huge, multi-office international organization that adopted a new software program that would take over all human resources and budget database functions. Unfortunately, those who would actually use the software weren't involved in the choice, so they felt very much that something was being imposed on them that they didn't ask for. Bad start, definitely. The organization engaged in several activities to both educate staff on why the software tool was a good thing and how to use the software, such as:
and on and on. About 60% of the staff became both comfortable with the software and convinced it was worth using. But 40% didn't. What finally got them to use it was a mandate -- their reports would no longer be accepted in any format except such that was generated from the database itself. The mandate got the remaining 40% on board within probably two weeks.
- training as a group watching a slide show presentation or interacting with a live trainer
- training from each individual's desk top watching a slide show presentation or with a trainer sitting right there with the person
- a user guide distributed to all staff
- onsite user group meetings
- a phone hotline to get immediate questions answered
- discussions in department and organizational-wide staff meetings
- recognition of staff members use of the software by supervisors in department and agency-wide meetings
What could these methods look like in practice? Here are some ideas:
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