Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Relevant IT Manifesto

Here is a draft document that I hope invites some debate and discussion.  It is clear to me that if we connect the dots, nonprofit IT cannot follow in the footsteps of corporate IT without crippling our organizations over the longer term.  The experience at NetHope, an organization I helped found ten years ago, is that there is a better way: based on trust, sharing and collaboration.

Toward Relevant IT – A Manifesto[1]

We are uncovering better ways of applying technology to solve problems of emergency relief, development and conservation by working together at home and in the field. Through this work we have come to value:

·         Working as one group more than as individual solo organizations;
·         Technology as a means of moving missions[2] and delivering program scale more than delivering support services;
·         Technology as core to connecting our communities, field workers and beneficiaries to the rest of the world more than simply an optional peripheral service;
·         Developing for those who deliver programs in the Field more than those who work in headquarters;
·         People and interactions more than processes and tools;
·         Piloting and testing locally more than adopting what works for headquarters.

While there is value in all of the items on the above continua, we value those on the left hand side more.  We believe these emphases allow us to have the greatest impact on our members’ missions and, in turn, on individuals, wildlife and the environment where our members operate.

* * * * *

Guiding Principles behind the Relevant IT Manifesto

We follow these principles:

1)    Mission-Moving Projects.  We believe that technology matters. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have impact on the work we do as international Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).  Our effectiveness as NGOs depends on our ability to effectively use technology both to build capacity and provide new venues for the work that we do.  Most importantly, we believe ICT can move missions, which is the most strategic application of ICT to which we can aspire.
2)    Good Enough Applications.  Small is beautiful, faster to change, and fit for purpose.  In developing our systems, we seek to increase our technology agility and not get trapped by ubiquitous systems that increasingly NGO’s cannot afford to implement or upgrade.
3)    Shared Services.  Sharing resources stretches and enhances what we do as individual organizations.    And what we do individually can be shared for the good of all.   We support what a small group of members can do as well as what we do for the larger group.  Each is an opportunity to learn and benefit our individual missions, while sharing the risk.
4)    Lights-Out Infrastructure.  To get into mission moving applications, we need to get out of basic IT operations. We need to shift the IT agenda from "lights-on" technology to “impact” technology.  This means trusting others who are in the business of providing infrastructure to be our data centers.
5)    Increased Experiments.  Rapidly changing environments and economies demand innovation, new ways of doing things, and more experimentation.  In times of stress, organisms vary like mad, with pilots, prototypes, and trials.  We believe in partnering more, to “pilot” together and share the risks as well as the rewards of innovation.
6)    We believe we learn by collaborating.  While technology can facilitate collaboration, we believe in face-to-face conversation for building relationships. Insights come through the dialog.  It also comes by doing projects together.  To accomplish this we partner with leaders from governments, donors, business and education. By dialoging and debating with the best minds from inside and outside our organizations, and challenging each other with ICT and other innovations, we can develop new ways of working that benefit those most in need.
7)    We are mindful of our audience.  Using the IT Strategy Pyramid, we are aware of four orders of technology: Beneficiary, Program, Operational, and Infrastructure applications.  The IT strategy is different at each level, and each has an audience with differing though related needs. They need to be a part of our IT team at each step of our work.
8)    We believe in building for the Field.  The field workers delivering our organizations’ programs are our primary clients.  Our IT solutions must work in the most remote and challenging parts of the world.  In this, field workers are our most important teachers and critics.  We seek to deliver technology that improves program design, delivery and impact in the Field.  Demonstrating measurable impact is the building block for what we do.
9)    We have a strong bias for action.  This is especially so for emergency response work, where speed is paramount.  It is also true for the pilots we run and prototypes solutions we build; we learn from the doing.  We believe that the secret to success is often “getting started.”  Lessons learned help us become better prepared. We are therefore impatient to see early results and indications of what will work and what needs to be improved.  And getting to what works is a primary measure of our progress.[3]
10) We value Trust above all else.  Trust comes through open dialog and working together over time.  This means trust in working with each other as members and NGOs and with our corporate partners, funders and vendors.   It also means we value each other’s expertise and have the humility to seek and accept approaches and solutions outside our individual organizations.   We trust the small group as well as the larger group to get their work done.

[1]For a comparison document, from which lessons have been drawn, seen the Agile Manifesto, here: .  A sample Agile principle worth pondering: “Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.”
[2] Each NGO has an impact-based mission statement, such as IFRC’s “to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity” and Oxfam’s “to fighting poverty and related injustice around the world.  IT leaders at NGOs must constantly ask how technology is helping to achieve this mission.
[3] Nonprofits refer to this as program pilots that are repeatable and scalable (for greater reach and across multiple countries.

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