Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Strategic Look into 2011

I received a letter recently from a NetHope member CIO asking for some advice for a meeting with his senior management strategy team. With his permission, I’ve turned this into a letter of questions and answers, below.

Every so often it’s useful to pause and take the helicopter of our imagination up a few stories and look at the broader landscape. Here is one such view, for which I invite your comments.

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Dear T,

First, welcome to the NetHope team. I am delighted that you have joined our collective of NGO ICT leaders.

I’m happy to give you some thoughts in response to your 2011 ICT outlook. You have listed four areas worthy of forecasting.

Q: In our next “Senior Management Team Meeting” one important agenda point will be to give a strategic outlook on the year 2011. Which trends do we expect, which challenges and opportunities?

Let me start by quoting an American author and humorist who wrote over a century ago, before the age of technology: “The art of prophecy is very difficult-- especially with respect to the future"! Two thoughts follow from this:

1. Forecasting future IT trends is risky business; history shows that we usually get it wrong. So while strategy is about making bets on future destinations, your “b plan” is as important as your “a-plan.”

2. In times of crises and uncertainty (think recession), smart organizations vary like mad. Ask yourself every few months: what is my portfolio of pilots and experiments for testing ideas? Learn from this: throw away what doesn’t work: take to scale what succeeds.

Q: “Cloud Computing”/virtualization of services & applications as well as Web 2.0 are further increasing the “digital gap”, but not only between North and South but also between the “Generation Facebook” and the “Generation 40+”. Does our management still understand the world in which people between 15 and 30 are living? Do we use all technologies which we could use to help children, organize ourselves efficiently and raise funds?

For Cloud-computing and the “digital gap,” I see an additional divide growing between newer NGOs (e.g., and established NGOs. The reason for this is that established ways of delivering ICT is hard for organizations to change, especially when IT resources are so limited. It’s easier for a newer, younger or smaller NGOs to adopt cloud computing than it is for older, larger NGOs. Here are three strategies for bridging this divide:

1. Create a small group and send them away, preferably to another country, to build on and adopt the newer technologies from scratch. Take your brightest under 30, Gen-Y tech-savvy IT and business people and have them work away from headquarters, the further the better.

2. Partner with a newer web 2.0-savvy NGOs and learn from them by having them deliver services for donors and beneficiaries on your behalf.

3. Bet on established technology companies who offer a fluid set of options for premises-based and cloud-based computing so you can evolve to the Cloud while older technologies coexist in your organization (think Microsoft BPOS, for example.)

Additional food for thought: I’d expand to those in developing countries Gary Hamel’s advice that CIOs hang out with under-25 year-olds to learn about new uses and ways of working with technology. For example, watch how beneficiaries use mobile phones to move information and get work done, not just talk. When given the opportunity, the poor may be our brightest innovators and entrepreneurs. Will we be humble enough to learn from them?

Q: IT literacy is getting increasingly a precondition to get a proper job. Do we offer children enough training in this area (using PC and Internet)?

On IT Literacy, I’m a big supporter of workforce development and readiness programs that teach computer skills. Three points to consider:

1. In Bolivia, adolescents trained in hardware/software 101 are now helping their teachers use and maintain the schools’ computers. Don’t underestimate the ability of children to train younger children (and sometimes the reverse happens, as in the hole-in-the-wall computer project in India’s slums – see ).

2. Look at the technology award programs for students like Microsoft’s Imagine Cup and Intel’s Science Talent Search program. Both attract students from around the globe and develop more innovations in six months than I’ve seen in years. It’s one of the primary reasons I volunteer as a judge in these events. Partner with technology companies who run these contests and send them your unfunded IT projects to work on!

3. Take this to the next step and start a competition in your organization to uncover hidden technology talents in other departments and in the field offices. Make it fun; have an award ceremony that’s a big deal, even if no cash is involved. Then look to harvest the innovative applications for others to use, and take them to scale in your ICT offerings.

Q: Collaboration between NGOs in the area of technology will help to decrease the problem of underfunded IT. To what extent can we imagine standardization across NGOs (not only within our organization)?

Collaboration is indeed an important trend for extending the creative, advocacy and learning power of your organization. In NetHope, we can attest that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. When you look at your IT budget, plan on these additional factors:

1. NGO Discounts: The purchasing power of a collective of organizations is substantial. See the NetHope Deals and Discounts doc on the TAG site for specific NetHope member benefits

2. Technology Gifts in Kind: These often come from NetHope partners, like Microsoft, Cisco, Intel and Dell, but increasingly come from in-country or regional branches of these global organizations, each of whom has their own philanthropy budget.

3. Volunteers: In addition to the ideas above, seek IT-skilled volunteers from local corporations, secondary schools and universities. Nonprofits have not done a good job of marshaling IT volunteers. That’s an area that’s ripe for developing.

Finally, I’d argue that the most important trend for nonprofits over the next three years is to

1. Get out of the infrastructure business, and

2. Reinvest more in the mission-moving technologies

I developed these thoughts in my NetHope Annual Meeting presentation, which is on my web site, under “2009” papers, here: . You can also find related discussions on my blog at .

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In answer to your follow-up questions, here are some further thoughts:

Q: Is education and quality management what you mean with the top of the pyramid or do you see additional possibilities?

The top two levels of the NGO IT pyramid are the most strategic. They are focused on the child (in the case of your organization) and on the fieldworker who works with children. At each level of the pyramid, ask “who is the person who touches the technology?” That’s the audience for your strategic objectives at each level. (At level 3. there are two audiences: the organization’s business unit leaders, and the donors. At level 4 it’s primarily the employees of the organization (usually headquarter focused) and the applications that depend on the IT infrastructure platforms.)

Q: Regarding education: do you know any good program that goes beyond learning how to use a computer, how to use the Internet? (Target group: kids in Africa and Asia.) How can we use mobile phones for these programs?

For children, three programs areas come to mind where technology is the delivery means:

1. Education programs: as a means to (1) learn new content (e.g. on-line text books), (2) supplement a shortage of teachers (a key issue in Tanzania) with eLearning, and (3) workforce readiness (for example, learning technology skills for IT service jobs—see the Fundatec program in Brazil on the Microsoft grants page, here: .)

2. Health information: examples (a) disseminating HIV-AIDS info to adolescent mobile phones (STC has a program in the Republic of Georgia; there are others in Africa), (b) health clinic registration programs using PDAs (for example, an extension of STC’s work in Bangladesh; David Isaak (mailto: a consultant I worked with at STC can help.)

3. Microcredit and banking: examples: (a) providing micro loans to mother-daughter entrepreneur teams (I saw the potential for this in Minya, Egypt during a field visit last year.) and (b) student savings accounts via mobile phones (I believe Vodafone, via Africacom, is working on this in Kenya and elsewhere.)

I hope this helps stimulate ideas; there are many opportunities to introduce mission-moving technologies at our organizations. As an IT leader, I'd argue that's our most relevant job.

Best regards,

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