Michelle Murrain of Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology is asking some thought-provoking questions about what she's calling "Nonprofit Technology Consulting 2.0":
What would it be like if we could help nonprofits with the following:
- Asking whether technology implementations in their organization in the past have really facilitated their mission? In what ways have they not?
- Asking whether technology played a beneficiary, damaging or neutral role in internal organizational dynamics and staff morale?
- Asking, before implementing a new technology - what problem is really attempting to be solved? is it a problem that can be solved in any other ways?
- How does increasing use of networking technology, on-line presence, and internet communications facilitate or hinder work that is done face to face?
- Making choices about technology not just based on cost/TCO or feature set - but to bring in issues of the effects on staff, organizational dynamics, and the role of factors such as organizational determination of data destiny, source and ownership of software, and environmental impact.
- Being mediators between vendors and nonprofits - to look at issues that are technological, and issues that are about personality, behavior and organizational structure and dynamics (on both sides)
- Looking at the bigger picture - how does what an organization does with technology affect the larger community, and the planet?
I'm looking for ways that it might be possible to practice nonprofit technology consulting with head and heart, with a view to the bigger picture of our society and our planet, and the precarious place we are in as human beings at this time, and with a view that reflects my emerging belief that increasing human touch and human contact will do more, in the end, than many of our attempts to increase efficiency by using technology.
It seems that what Michelle is asking is "Are we in a place where we're automatically assuming that technology is a good solution, rather than questioning our uses of technology each step of the way to ensure that there isn't some other way we should be accomplishing a task"? She wants to make sure that nonprofits use technology in ways that are mission-enhancing and sustaining, rather than as the pursuit of technology for its own sake.
I think these are great questions to be asking. I would add to this list a few more thoughts:
- If we select a technology solution, what organizational and managerial changes do we need to make in order to ensure that we achieve the objectives of the technology implementation? Michelle hints at this in a few of her questions, but I think it needs to be explicitly addressed. Too often I see technology used as an add-on to current organizational practices. Staff continue to do things as they did before, with any new technology solutions treated as additional work. There's no corresponding change in paperwork requirements or daily work habits, which often has the unintended consequence of making the technology a burden rather than a solution.
- How does this technology improve conditions for our primary customers? I've blogged before about this, and it's my belief that while we often look at how to use technology to manage fundraising and reporting, we tend to not consider how technology impacts our interactions with our core customers. I think we need to always be asking how we're using technology to improve their experience and if our uses of technology have a positive impact on the people we're meant to be serving. This means not only considering how technology chosen for other purposes impacts our customers (i.e., how does our case management software impact case management appointments?), but explicitly evaluating technologies to determine if they might not improve the experience for customers and empower them to do more things for themselves.
- In what ways does this technology support and facilitate human connection? Does it appropriately replace people-to-people interactions or does it make us more faceless and anonymous? I truly believe that many technologies can actually improve connection. Skype, for example, allows us to interact with people from around the world in ways we might not otherwise be able to do. At the same time, anyone who has been lost in voicemail hell can understand that technology also has the potential to leave us feeling alienated and alone in a world managed by machines. I've also seen implementations of technology (such as case management systems) that force staff to be tethered to a computer screen, overly concerned with entering data and minimally engaged with the flesh and blood person in the chair next to them. I agree with Michelle that there's a serious need to evaluate how technology either frees us to be more connected to people because it saves us time in some other realm, or how it enhances our ability to connect with people with whom we might not otherwise be able to form connections.
As someone who sees technology as a tool, rather than as an end in and of itself, I'm really glad to see Michelle asking some of these fundamental questions. This is the kind of dialog we need to ensure that technology in nonprofits is truly a mission-sustaining solution, rather than another burdensome requirement.