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Forecast: Will Nonprofit Technology Planning Become Extinct?

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Will Nonprofit Technology Planning Become Extinct?

By Joni Podolsky, Independent Consultant and author of "Wired for Good: Strategic Technology Planning for Nonprofits"

With the recession, the backlash of the bust, and plain old resistance to change, these days it seems as if technology is not a high priority for the leaders of most nonprofit organizations. The problem is, those leaders may be missing opportunities. In a recent study of 400 nonprofit senior managers by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and Telosa Software Inc. (released on March 19, 2003), 100% of respondents said they are dedicated to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of their organization, and they believe that technology can contribute significantly to this goal. However, they are not including technology in their organizational planning. This suggests that while the power and potential of technology as an organizational tool is recognized, the leaders of nonprofits still view technology as an adjunct to their operations, rather than a mission critical tool. According to the authors of the study, " technology investment decisions are made, they are not generally made within the context of the organization's long-term strategic plan."

Why is the function of information technology (IT) still considered separate, needing a separate plan? Certainly one reason is the general mystique that technology holds in our society. We sometimes have a tendency to think of technology as a panacea, as a cure-all for societal ills. In this sense, we give technology bigger-than-life stature, which can be intimidating and even scary. The media, technology companies, and even those of us trying to help nonprofits with technology, may have done too good a job of selling technology as the great cure-all. We spent so much time in the boom of the 90's convincing agencies that technology could revolutionize the way that they achieve their missions that we failed to do a very good job of putting technology into its appropriate context. This has created an environment where it is very easy to see technology as a separate goal, rather than as a strategic tool for achieving our organizational goals.

The reality is that technology is simply a tool, and the goals and strategies that apply to technology planning are the same goals and strategies for the organization as a whole. Not incorporating technology planning into the agency's overall strategic plan may result in missing the critical relationships that govern how information flows in that organization. Thus, planning for technology separately may actually detract from serving the agency's mission rather than help to achieve it.

There are two types of technology planning that are most commonly used today-strategic and operational. Strategic technology planning has three tiers. The first tier focuses on the organization's mission, goals and strategies without regard for technology. Once the organization has clearly articulated these, then they can focus on the second tier, determining what technology applications or tools are needed in order to support the first tier. This includes applications such as e-mail, the Web, office software and databases. Finally, the third tier focuses on the infrastructure needed to support the second tier. This includes the physical infrastructure, such as the organization's desktop computers and network, as well as such things as training, support and maintenance and the budget to sustain all of the above.

In a strategic technology plan, all tiers are required. Without a clear articulation of the organization's mission, goals and strategies, it is impossible to know the right tools and to establish the infrastructure needed to achieve the mission. Therefore the strategic technology plan is centered on the organization's mission, the foundation upon which all decisions in the plan are made.

The second type of planning, operational planning, focuses mostly on the operation of technology systems. It does not delve as heavily into relating those systems to the mission, goals, and strategies of the organization. An operational plan is more like a technology audit or needs assessment. It is a process that can be led by a technology consultant, not necessarily getting the entire staff involved. In other words, it is a process in which an expert comes in, has some discussions with staff regarding their technology needs, evaluates the organization's current technology, and makes recommendations on the changes the organization should implement. Documentation consists only of the second and third tiers of the strategic plan-applications/tools and infrastructure.

For now, I believe both types of plans are needed. When engaging with an agency we have to start at the level they are at, and right now most are at the level of thinking in terms of separate strategic and operational technology plans. However, will there ever be a time when technology planning will become extinct? Possibly. If both leadership thinking and technology evolve to the point where IT is seen simply as one of the necessary tools needed to achieve the mission, like electricity and the telephone, then it is likely that it would become a natural part of the organization's overall strategic plan, not requiring a separate strategic *technology* plan. This would probably be healthier for the organization and certainly much easier for technology practitioners, as they would need to focus only on the technology systems and not on organizational strategies.

Our mandate as practitioners should be to work towards making the need for identifying technology as a separate function extinct. The irony is that we may be making our own jobs extinct, as well. If technology planning becomes unnecessary for the average nonprofit, what will be the role of IT professionals who work in the nonprofit sector? Technology is ever evolving and as it evolves our roles must continue to evolve with it.

Related Links:
* AFP/Telosa Survey
* Wired for Good: Strategic Technology Planning for Nonprofits by Joni Podolsky (Jossey-Bass 2003)
* Arts Wire Spider School
* The Benton Foundation
* Coyote Communications
* The NPower National Network
* Summit Collaborative
* TechSoup

About the Author:
Joni Podolsky is author of the book, "Wired for Good: Strategic Technology Planning for Nonprofits" (Jossey-Bass, 2003). In addition, she is a consultant, project manager, and trainer specializing in helping nonprofits strategically implement technology, build community relationships, and develop partnerships between the private and public sectors. Most recently, Joni was the founding program director of Wired for Good, a program of the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits (CEN) in San Jose, CA. Prior to CEN, Joni was a project director for Smart Valley, Inc., assisting school districts in the planning for and implementation of technology in the classroom and district offices. In addition to the book "Wired for Good", Joni is author of the Smart Valley guide, "District Administrator's Guide to Planning for Technology". She speaks on the issues of technology planning for nonprofits and building relationships with the private sector at conferences and workshops nationwide and in various industry and nonprofit publications. To contact Joni, email her at [][/link].

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Tue Jan 11, 2005 3:20 pm MST by fences

Comment Not long ago I left the forprofit world where I worked as a business strategist, and counseled clients about the need to integrate tech planning into overall strategic planning. Now,in the nonprofit sector [yes, I am assuaging my guilt and applying my skills in a new arena] I work as a staff member at a mission-driven NPO that has only just begun to understand the need for tech planning. While the real me longs for the day when anything having to do with technology [for work collaboration, data sharing and mining, knowledge management, fundraising, advocacy, leveraging social change] is ubiquitous, and integrated into overall planning I ALSO think we are in an evolutionary stage as an org. where, in order to understand the ROLE strategic technology adoption and adaptation can have on how we think and work we need to allow tech planning to be embraced and assessed and experienced in its own right. Anyone out there have a similar scenario, or has anyone also experienced this evolutionary thing? Karin ,

Thu Jul 24, 2003 1:39 pm MST by karin pritikin

Comment Joni, by taking a longer view, you're raising some really interesting questions. Look how much progress we've made just in the past few years in terms of giving control over IT to end users. For example, I'd never used HTML at all before my work with N-TEN, and now, thanks to idiot-proof, errr, user-friendly content editors, I'm able to manage N-TEN's site. (Whether or not I'm doing a good job is another matter ;-) Applications are constantly getting easier to user, and power is constantly being decentralized and pushed out to end users--follow those trends and eventually (5 years from now? 10?) IT is no longer a mystical function that's the province of experts, it's just an ubiquitous set of tools that everyone uses all the time without even thinking about it. In that scenario, there will still be a need for "tech planning" as we know it today at certain strategic levels--someone with specialized expertise will help generalist leaders make better decisions. But at many other levels, the entire concept of "tech planning" will be anachronistic, just as better content editors will eventually make webmasters obsolete. Ed

Wed Jul 23, 2003 4:17 pm MST by Ed Batista

Comment Thank you Steve and Mark for your thoughtful responses. You both raise excellent points. First, let me make very clear, I am not advocating the demise of technology planning, just trying to determine how it can be made a natural part of an organization's overall strategic planning, and how to get nonprofit leadership to address it as such. I agree with both your points about needing separate departments or functions that focus on IT (particularly in large, complex organizations like a school district), and therefore having plans for those departments makes sense. However, what if IT does, in the future, become as intuitive as electricity or the telephone (the technology of earlier generations)? Steve, I agree with your point that electricity is not the same as IT, as it is primarily a part of the overall infrastructure of an organization, but look at all the amazing tools that were invented to make use of that infrastructure, tools that are now naturally part of an organization's ability to be successful. Likewise, the computer can also be seen purely as infrastructure, it is the applications of that tool where innovation and efficiencies occur. Unlike electricity or the telephone, computers and the Internet have not yet evolved to the point where they are an assumed, intuitive, part of our daily lives. While nonprofits do have a monthly line item in their budget for paying for electricity and the telephone, they do not always have a line item for ongoing IT expenses. People today are practically born knowing how to turn on the lights and make telephone calls, but we still need to be trained on how to use the computer and access the Internet. Finally, while there are outside experts we can call on for a one-time servicing of our electric wiring and telephone system needs, IT is still at the stage where we actually have to consider having in-house staff or consultants to support, maintain, and run the equipment on an ongoing basis. What if in the future, we are able to take IT for granted in the same way we take electricity and the telephone for granted now. How would that change the way we view technology in our organizations? Would it become a more natural part of our overall strategic planning? If IT becomes a pervasive and natural part of our everyday lives, will the leaders of organizations more naturally incorporate it into their overall organizational strategy without having to think of it as a separate phenomena? This is not meant to imply that there won't need to be people with expertise on this technology, it's just that their focus may be able to be more on the operational than strategic level. Given how technology is constantly evolving, I have no doubt there will be new strategic tools for us to think about, but I look forward to the day when IT is seen simply as one of the many tools an organization uses to successfully achieve its mission, not as an adjunct. Planning will always be a part of organizations, but will the nature of it change? How so? What should we, as practitioners, be striving for, and how do we make sure that things evolve in the most beneficial way for the health of nonprofit organizations? I agree with your final comment, Steve, that we shouldn't be striving for transparency, but that we should be "working for a day when people make better plans, faster and with less risk to investment." However, my point is (and based on what you wrote, I think you agree) that for those plans to be truly effective, they must be fully integrated into the organization's overall strategic plans.

Wed Jul 23, 2003 3:02 pm MST by Joni Podolsky

Comment I think Mark makes a great point below, analogizing IT with finance. It's a complex function that will always require a degree of specialized expertise for an organization to be deploying them effectively. And having IT viewed as similar to finance by nonprofit leaders is a great goal for us in the nonprofit technology field. But I do see an important distinction today, one that I think is reflected in Joni's article above. An organization's leadership would never make a major set of strategic decisions without consulting their financial experts--but they do it regularly without consulting IT experts. I don't think "making IT planning extinct" means that there won't actually be any IT planning going on--but it does mean that IT planning will be better integrated with the rest of the leadership's strategic decision-making and not treated like a tactical afterthought. Ed

Wed Jul 23, 2003 12:55 pm MST by Ed Batista

Comment I like the concise description of technology planning here. Technology planning, will not, I believe, ever disappear, nor should it. Just as separate programs and departments within an organization will always need plans, so will IT. Perhaps, someday, it will be integrated into our lives at a level similar to financial management, but I agree with one of the other comments here - technology "infrastructure" is not as simple as electricity or phones. As a matter of fact, even "phone" functions are at this point very complex and should be given planning attention. The position and role of a "Strategic IT Plan" may very well diminish, especially if the change in the industry slows down. However, the importance and complexity of information (and telecommunications) technology is such that it must be addressed in the strategic planning of the organization through a higher level of technology experience and knowledge than is likely to be found in executive, program, or finance directors. Representation in the planning process by technology professionals is and probably will always be as important as representation by finance professionals.

Wed Jul 23, 2003 10:30 am MST by Mark Dyer

Comment Whew. I got hot under my collar reading this. I really like what Joni has to say usually, but the idea that technology planning is not necessary confuses me. I work with public school districts. These complex organizations often need help planning for facilities and maintenance, assessment instrument management, instructional leadership, professional development, etc. They also need to spend time planning for technology. Technology planning needs to be well incorporated into a master strategic vision and plan, but the idea that someday technology planning will become invisible belies the complexity of large organizations. We need multiple moving parts of an organization but they need to be integrated under a common set of goals, strategies, etc. Technology is not like electricity because it has logical and technical functions built into it. It's not just infrastructure. Similarly, professional development for teachers is not like instructional materials and they can't be bought wholesale: they have to be thoughtfully integrated into the work of a District. (Of course materials have to carefully selected as well). I'm curious what Joni and others think of this. I for one am not anticipating the day when IT and other organizational planning becomes transparent, but I am working for a day when people make better plans, faster and with less risk to investment.

Wed Jul 23, 2003 9:15 am MST by Steve Midgley

Comment Thanks for the thought-provoking comments, Joni. In some sense, all nonprofits should be working toward their own extinction, N-TEN included. So not only should we be encouraging nonprofits to integrate technology into their overall strategic planning process, but we should also be encouraging nonprofit leaders, staff and clients to take greater control over how IT can be used for their benefit. It's not contradictory to be envisioning a future in which IT loses its significance as a separate function while I'm simultaneously working to organize the nonprofit technology field. The benefits of IT will go much further when better-designed tools and more effective training allow end-users to manage their basic IT needs on their own, and allow IT specialists to spend more time solving other problems. And as Joni notes, "our roles [as IT professionals in the nonprofit sector] must continue to evolve." Ed

Tue Jul 22, 2003 10:06 am MST by Ed Batista

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