Thursday, April 2, 2009

Where will we be tomorrow?

On Tuesday NTEN held an on-line virtual book party for the launch of Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission (see Each of the authors had the stage for a five minute "what are the key take-aways" from your chapter. Here's what I said about the chapter I wrote on the future of IT in nonprofits.

I'd like to tell a story and invite you to imagine the scene: a three year-old boy is sitting on a stack of books on a chair in front of a computer. Two of his friends are watching what he's doing, and chiming in their ideas about what's happening on the screen and what to do next. The computer program hits a slow spot and the action stops. Without taking his eyes off the screen, the boy picks up the mouse a inch or so and bangs in down on the mouse pad, partly out of frustration and partly to make the program move again. He expects it to keep up with him.

One of the things I learned listening to students present at the Imagine Cup Competition last year (see
"Turning the Pyramid Upside Down") is that the question we need to ask about the future of technology is not "what do you study to see the future"; it's "who do you study?" What students are doing with technology today is what organizations will be doing with technology tomorrow.

So what about our story of the preschooler and his friends, and what does this have to do with my book chapter? The lessons from watching children are:

  1. Think small. We will increasingly need to use bite-sized applications in nonprofits, something we can easily get our hands around, and throw out when something better comes along.

  2. Think sharing. With most corporations spending five times per desk what we are paying, the only way we will be able to embrace the full benefits of technology is by sharing our IT services, like sharing our toys.

  3. Think play. Michael Shrage was right when he said we need to play our way to innovation. The mission-moving IT pilots we run today will create the nonprofit technology of tomorrow.

The last point is perhaps the most important; it is also the hardest to do in the midst of a recession. Echoing Jim Collins, I ended the chapter by saying that “when there is rapid change and uncertainty, smart organizations vary like mad.” This takes a certain kind of humility: admitting that when it comes to the future of technology we most often don’t know. This may be a bit philosophical, as my editor pointed out—after all, people want to know about the impact of the “cloud.” My short answer is that it will be different than we expect; so make your bets small, shared and vary like mad.

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