Thursday, October 11, 2012

Collaborate or Perish

The following article was published in the Berlin Civil Society Center publication "Global Futures – How international civil society organisations can make a real difference," which was launched at the BCSC Global Perspectives meeting in October, 2012. It is published here for the NetHope Summit with BCSC permission.

Collaborate or Perish –
How working together with technology can change the non-profit sector

Edward G. Happ
Global CIO, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
In the next ten years, smart organisations will get amazing work done, with new ways of delivering services, working with leaner processes, and more efficient tools; they will be agile enough to turn on a dime – all in the face of a more difficult economic climate. This will happen not as a result of some new flash of technology, but by banding together and pooling resources and talent in strong cross-sector collaborations based on a foundation of trust. How is this possible?

On the bright side, communities of people want to work together, especially if it’s for a common cause – it’s built into our DNA. On the dark side, collaboration is an unnatural act; it requires us to trust people we know little about and have no control over, especially if we believe we can do things faster and better on our own. This is the paradox of collaboration: it is something we want to do, and act to avoid.

As a result, we have not done a good enough job of collaborating, especially in the use of technology. As it is increasingly used to run all the services in our organisations, technology may be the microcosm for an organisation’s operations and execution savvy. Yet we continue to pursue the corporation path of the past two decades, moving to larger and more complex systems to run our businesses. We do this despite the 5:1 per person investment in technology that our corporate colleagues continue to make. I know of no board or senior management team who would approve a doubling of the Information Technology (IT) budget, let alone a five-fold increase.

This should drive us to partner and share technology more, especially for functions that really do not differentiate us. But for a variety of reasons, we haven’t done this. The barriers to collaboration include ‘Not-Invented-Here’ (NIH), abundance, and proximity. More funding is not the answer; in fact a large budget may be an obstacle to innovation and partnering. The recent history in the US housing boom provides the case of the ‘starter castle’ mindset and the need to protect and heat what is too large. For some of our organisations the ‘lights-on’ infrastructure has become the tail that wags the dog.

The lack of services collaboration, including IT, in our organisations is a call-to-arms. If we connect the dots among the evidence, there is a looming train wreck on the horizon for IT and NGOs. Large NGOs are pursuing a corporate IT path that they cannot afford or sustain. And as change gets harder and more expensive, it will ossify these organisations and become the likely targets for cuts as a post-recession downturn takes hold.

There are a number of cases to illustrate this. The donor management upgrade project at a leading NGO is a case in point: 50 per cent behind in time, with almost as much in cost overruns. What happens if this NGO is hit with a 30 per cent cost reduction in headquarters like one of its sister NGOs? The time and the cost of the change, plus the operating and maintenance costs are too high to begin with; now they become a prime target for cutting losses. It will take another three years to change to something smaller in scale and more sustainable or, worse, to restart and complete the project at a later date.

Collaboration is often driven by a scarcity of resources, a shared need, and the desire to band together as a social group. These were certainly factors that have pushed 35 of the largest international non-profit Chief Information Officers (CIOs) to join NetHope and work together on initiatives. We’ve built a model of trust and collaboration over the past decade. But we’ve only just begun.

What do we need to do to succeed? First and foremost, we need what I call ‘headquarters humility’, the openness to solutions coming from the far reaches of our organisation and others. The best answers may in fact come from the poorest countries, from people we least expect. We need to discover and harvest the best of what is happening in the field. Second, we need to shift from a ‘do then share’ to a ‘share then do’ mentality. We need to look first to how we can partner to meet a need, instead of developing me-too solutions and sharing the war stories later. Sharing stories may be essential to starting a collaboration, but there must be a shift to doing things together from the outset. Finally, the larger organisations among us, who have the resources to go it alone, need to take a leadership position on collaboration. This is part of our give-back to the non-profit community. Like a good manager who learns to accomplish goals through others, we need to get the business of non-profit services done through and with each other.

Abstract from the forthcoming book – Collaborate or Perish: How working together with technology can change the non-profit sector, © 2011, 2012 Edward G. Happ.  Advance copies of select chapters are available on Blogspot.  

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