Thursday, December 31, 2009


Last week a journalist asked for my comments about New Year’s resolutions for CIOs. “Could you give me a few ideas,” she wrote. I sent her three, which I’ll unpack for your holiday reading pleasure.

Resolution #1: Ponder Paul Samuelson’s: “Good questions outrank easy answers.”
[1] We would do well spending time with the right questions in the coming year. One I recommend wrestling with: how are you shaking up the business, inspiring your peers to imagine in new ways, and empowering your customers (or beneficiaries)? This may prove the better question than asking how we can better align with our business peers—a good question to ask anew, but a rear-view mirror, to borrow a Tom Peters’ phrase. Times of crisis are an invitation to experiment, harvest what works before the turnaround, and have the humility to recognize the answers that come from places we least expect.[2]

Resolution #2: Do not allow a retreat to lights-on computing take the IT agenda from moving missions. In nonprofits we've seen IT budgets and staff slashed to operations-only cost levels. That means little to no IT time and budget will be spent on technology that impacts field workers and beneficiaries. That’s cutting the wrong things. We end up spending a greater percentage of the technology budget pie on commodity items like email and desktop computing. We need to get out of the infrastructure business and redeploy more resources to get into the mission-moving business

Resolution #3: Employees increasingly want to help save the world; help make the connections to do so. Over the past five years we've seen an explosion of interest in colleges, business schools and the new generation of employees, in business for social good. It’s a fundamental shift from good corporate citizenship, and the desire to give back, to an expectation that our businesses can make a difference in the big global issues like poverty. This isn't about rich versus poor, as a “we versus them;” this is about us –to paraphrase John Green
[4] That means more partnering among corporations, nonprofits and people in emerging countries. It’s a question—to come full circle—about what are we doing together?

[1] Echoing Rilke’s “Learn to love the questions,” economist Paul Samuelson died at his home at Belmont, Massachusetts on December 13. He was 94. As a fellow collector of quotes aptly said, “… Samuelson was brilliant, insightful, and witty. He kept thinking about the economy, and writing articles, up until two weeks ago. He will be missed.” (See G. Armour Van Horn’s collection at )
[2] As Jim Collins notes, when there is rapid change and uncertainty, smart organizations vary like mad. See Jim Collins, Built to Last, Harper Collins, 1995, pp. 146-47. I want to know what's the portfolio of experiments the CIO is sponsoring? No experiments; no innovation. So to apply the Tom Peters’ phrase above, business alignment has been overrated in that it’s looking back on the organization that is rather than on what it can be.
[3] For nonprofits, this means more radical partnering in 2010, sharing services, and trusting others to do the basics. We need to standardize and share business processes and applications; invest the savings in applications that deliver programs, and innovate with those app’s that beneficiaries can use directly. Something to add to our agenda in 2010: in addition to things that run the operation, and build the business, we need a portfolio of prototypes from which we can harvest. To put more pointedly: build versus run is not enough for IT. We need, build, run, and experiment to innovate, which means more pilots and prototypes, even from outside our organization
[4] See John Green’s video response to Shawn Ahmed and the “Uncultured Project,” here:
“[Nonprofit advertisements are] making you think that the poor are in some ways fundamentally different from us; that they’re like a ‘them.” So in our minds it becomes this formulation: we should help them. But it’s not a ‘them’ problem; it’s an ‘us’ problem. We need to help us.”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Panels, Speeches and Leadership

It's been a busy six weeks since my last post. I've made two presentations and participated in two panels. The former are posted on my web site. Some common themes are emerging that I'd like to highlight by event.

C-Suite Trust Panel, “On Leadership,” NYC, October 22

The most important take-away for me studying and experiencing leadership is being in touch with what brings you alive. This is sometimes referred to as authenticity, or "true north" as Bill George calls it.[1] It's two of the five characteristics Jack Welch emphasized for CEOs: Energy and Energizing.[2] There is nothing as contagious as pursuing your passion. To illustrate this, I told the story of the Tree in Zaire. Emulating the old man who sang the song at the core of the village moved mountains (or in this case a large tree.)

My second take-away is to immerse yourself in the dialog of the brightest people you can find. Try out your ideas with people smarter and more experienced than you; and be open to being surprised by how much your own thinking and creativity ratchets up.

Third, be the first one up the hill, and the last one to take credit. Being five steps ahead is both good and bad. People want to know where you are going, what’s the destination (the core to strategy.) And they also want you to recognize that change is hard. Bottom line: care.

Fourth, have the humility to partner and collaborate; going solo is to waste more resources than may be readily apparent. At NetHope, we’ve found that the key to collaborating is trust. Leaders would do well to remember that trust is long to build and short to bring down.

CCITDG Conference, “Making a Difference in Interesting Times,” UK, October 8

I gave the keynote address to set the tone for this UK NGO CIO leadership event. I posted my slides on my web site. The top three things for me that came out of the Q&A that followed were:

1) Immerse yourself and your organization in the courageous conversations.[3] For the NGO CIO leader, this means talking about divesting yourself of the infrastructure management and taking on more of the mission moving technology (i.e., Field technology.)

2) My epitaph: "He made connections for good." This was tied to Tom Peter’s nightmare of finding his tombstone with “he made budget” on it (which I paraphrased as “he cut costs”), and in response, to “what would I want on my tombstone. Asking the “legacy:” question is an important leadership exercise. In the end, what do I want my and my team’s work to be about?

3) Collaborate or perish as irrelevant IT. This was the conclusion of having a fifth less IT budget in NGOs on average than corporations, and erring on the side of “lights-on” IT, which in the end is irrelevant to our mission. To do the mission moving things we need to do, we must collaborate.

2009 NGO Executive Workshop, “The Role of NGOs in Unleashing Technology,” a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference, NYC, September 22

Akhtar Badshah, Senior Director of Community Affairs at Microsoft and a long-term colleague, presented an important paper to kick off this session. His title: “Unleashing Technology to Advance Social & Economic Development.” One of the statements he made summed up the challenge: “there are not enough healthcare workers to provide healthcare to every person—we need new delivery models.” I could not agree more. We need new delivery models—not only for healthcare but for all our program areas, in the Field and in the value-chains that reach back to the donors who drive the engine that is humanitarian aid.

Microsoft invited me and four other colleagues to discuss these issues in a panel that followed Akhtar’s noon-time address. Here are some the Q&A I contributed:

1) What are the key challenges with IT for NGOs and social development today?

Three things:

a) The tyranny of the “pie chart” that hampers investments in game-changing technology innovations[4],

b) Shrinking undesignated revenue that funds most IT spending in NGOs, and

c) The rise of ICT4D[5] applications in the Field.

This last one I consider an opportunity. The severe under-spend on technology in NGOs means that over 85% of the IT budget goes to operations and applications in headquarters. That needs to shift if we are going to take the ICT4D pilots to scale and have real impact.

2) How are you thinking about the new technology business models (social networking, etc?)

One of the growing trends is the new workers are bringing their technology with them into the workplace. The word we are hearing is that “my tech is better than your tech.” In many cases they are right. Many NGO IT directors are locking out these consumer techniques. I think that’s a mistake. Most significant changes in the IT department over the past 30 years have been through such user revolutions. We need to embrace rather than fight these changes.

3) You are a leader when it comes to IT for development. Where do you see innovative technologies being developed and what difference can they make?

I look to NetHope pilot projects as my innovation lab. Recent ICT4D pilots among NetHope members, like the Catholic Relief Services Cassava Root disease program using Intel classmates and messaging forms, are an opportunity to build on the work of one for the good of many. That’s a key value for NetHope’s brand of collaboration. It means sharing the results and taking them to scale across other members in other sectors.

Another source of innovation is student competitions, like Microsoft’s Imagine Cup. As a judge for the past two years, I’ve seen more innovation in a week from these amazing student teams than I’ve seen in five year at NGOs. We should take this as a positive challenge, and gain the humility to look to their ideas and prototypes as rich sources of technology innovation for NGOs. I’ve written about this experience in my Blog and continue to pursue the connections between students and nonprofit work.

4) Based on your advice and learnings throughout your careers, what advice do you have to put people on the path to using IT for social and economic development?

Understand your delivery value chain and where you can build capacity (improve productivity) for incremental and radical improvements. Of the seven levers you can pull, the first four are about people (hire better people, training those you have, advocate with local governments and agencies, and partner with other NGOs.) The last three are about technology (better tools, processes and standards.) This last one may be the most obscure, but the history of IT is clear: convergence of platforms and applications (a tenet of standards) costs less and delivers more.

NTEN Online Technology Conference, “Strategic Thinking for Leaders,” September 16

I presented a seminar on this first NTEN web-based conference, showcasing the book Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission[6], in which I authored the chapter on the technology future for nonprofits. I posted my slides on my web site. The top take-aways for this session bring us full circle with yesterday’s leadership panel:

1) IT Strategy at an NGO is about capacity building and moving the agenda up the strategy pyramid to mission-moving applications

2) NGOs cannot follow in the footsteps of corporations; we need to stand on their shoulders

3) Look to the future in the Field and the schools

4) Ask good questions

A fitting ending to this whirlwind tour is Ranier Rilke’s famous quote: “…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”

[1]Bill George, True North, Jossey-Bass, 2007, p. 66.

[2] Jack Welch, Winning, Harper Business, 2005, see the 4-E framework on p. 84. Also note Howard Thurman's notable quote: "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. What the world needs is people who have come alive."

[3] See David Whyte’s “Life at the Frontier - Leadership Through Courageous Conversation” audio CD, 2004.

[4] See By Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2009.

[5] See the ICT4D article here:

[6] Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission: A Strategic Guide for Nonprofit Leaders, Holly Ross, Katrin Verclas, and Alison Levine, editors; Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Strategic Thinking for Leaders

I'll be leading a session on strategy on September 16 at the upcoming NTEN Online Nonprofit Technology Conference. You can find event details at If you enter the discount code ONTC25 you will receive 25% off registration - $250 for members / $350 for nonmembers. See you on-line!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Peering Over the Horizon

In the movie Big, a young boy puts a quarter in a fortune telling vending machine and makes a wish. When he doesn't appear to get it, he is disappointed. The storyline ends up being a fantasy of "be careful what you wish for; you just may get it."

Such is the business of looking to the future of any enterprise, nonprofits included. Yet that is what I was asked to recently do-- imagine the future of the 21st century NGO. Here is what I said:

From my vantage point as chairman of NetHope and CIO for Save the Children, I see six areas of impact technology and related collaboration will have on International Nonprofits[1].

  1. Virtualization of the organization – Technology has made it increasingly possible to work remotely and in teams that are geographically dispersed. This trend, along with the continuous improvement in personal communications technologies and collaboration tools, will increasingly question the structure and cost of maintaining traditional office space. The “road warrior” will become the norm. For technology, this means outfitting our workers to have access to all their tools wherever they are.
  2. Further digitization of the way we work – More of our work will be done on portable devices from wherever we are. Face-to-face meetings, learning, working on documents, and even social interactions will increasingly move on-line. Technology and communication improvements, coupled with economic pressures, will drive a more self-service culture in the organization. We will need to lead-by-example in setting expectations about how we will work.
  3. Mainstreaming of consumer technology and the web “cloud” resources – employees and partners will increasingly bring their technology with them. Consumer technology is already passing the capabilities of “industrial” technology in a number of categories (witness the iPhone, Facebook, etc.). Our understanding of standardization and information security will need to shift to embrace this. Most students know and expect that the technology is the social network on which they rely.
  4. Innovation from outside – we will need to increasingly look to emerging countries, youth, “skunk works” and other partners as sources of innovation. We will need to partner with disruptive innovators (like Kiva and Vodafone’s M-Pesa) even when it’s threatening to the value chain in which we have historically worked.
  5. The wired beneficiary- we can expect beneficiaries to increasingly drive our program and fundraising agenda as they gain access to information through cell phones and low-cost devices. Social entrepreneurs and local emerging country entrepreneurs will grow quickly and drive ICT for Development (ICT4D) programs in an ala carte and even franchising fashion based on beneficiaries acting increasingly as consumers.
  6. Disruptive Innovations – four potential disruptions enabled by technology are (a) the renegade in-country partner who links directly with suppliers for emergency relief, (b) the beneficiary driven relief catalog with beneficiaries placing orders via portable kiosks, (c) in-country corporations taking the lead on programs and relief efforts in functional areas where they have strengths beyond ours (e.g., supply chain) and inviting us to join them, (d) donor directed projects in the micro-finance (Kiva) and other areas. How we deliver programs will change, either by us or despite us.

These shifts for the international nonprofit community are not new. Many of them have been at work in corporations and schools and are reaching into nonprofits as the “late comers” to the party. They will require two types of humility:

  1. Humility to admit we got our forecasts wrong. Technology changes rapidly and impacts society and organizations in ways we don’t foresee. Ten years ago we would not have expected the degree of penetration of cell phones in emerging countries, and the data access capabilities of mobile phones at almost a 4:1 rate over PCs. When the future is uncertain and there is rapid change smart organizations vary like mad.[2] They run an increasing portfolio of pilots and experiments and constantly test ideas. That which works, they take to scale; that which doesn't, they throw away. That takes humility.
  2. Humility to recognize most organizations will not embrace radical change. I asked Clay Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation research at Harvard, whether he knew of examples where the incumbent organization embraced disruptive innovation internally. He said “no.” The only successes he’d seen were where physical and geographic separateness was required, as in creating the remote subsidiary[3]. Tom Peters’ law of proximity also comes to mind: the degree of innovation is directly proportional to the distance from headquarters. It takes humility to accept the change dampening effects of an entrenched culture (think Kodak) and look to create it, or partner with it, outside HQ.

I heard an interesting rejoinder this morning to looking to the future with humility. It's half right. We are called to approach the future with humility and wonder. Yes, a beginner's mind is more apt to learn and be surprised with an "ah, yes!" rather than an "oh no!".

[1] Selected references:

Ed Granger-Happ, Where Will We Be Tomorrow?, Blog recap of remarks at an NTEN book launch webinar, March 31, 2009.

Ed Granger-Happ, Where Will We be Tomorrow, in Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission, Josey Bass, March 2009.

Ed Granger-Happ, M. Eric Johnson, Joel S Obillo, Nick Richardson, Are Nonprofits Ripe for Disruption?, an unpublished paper, The Tuck School at Dartmouth, August 22, 2008.

[2] See Jim Collins, Built to Last, Harper Collins, 1995, pp. 146-47.

[3] Hung Kim, the VP of Innovation at Ascension Health (a $12B corp.) and former McKenzie consultant, told me, “you must create separateness to innovate.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lessons from the Field

It is a long hot, dusty ride from Cairo to Minya[1], but the roads are good and the AC works (sometimes :). We pass the Pyramids in Giza again; the memories still strong from the Imagine Cup award ceremony.

We arrive late at the hotel on the Nile. People have been waiting and I am anxious to see the children and our programs.

In Shousha, the first village, we drive through narrow packed-dirt streets where people squeeze past us. Egypt is often a country of inches. Driving reinforces this; I am relieved to be a passenger. At the school we are met by the proud headmaster. Iman, our Early Childhood Development (ECD) manager, greets him and we all shake hands.

We can hear the children happily chanting their lessons in the full voices of preschoolers. Iman leads us through the building and we enter the first classroom where four year-olds proclaim our welcome in their language, Arabic. Some stare at us; some steal glances and shyly turn away. It is no different than any classroom I have visited, bursting with energy and natural creativity of little ones, before self-consciousness and rationality stamps it down.

The room is decorated as any preschool, with small round tables and tiny colorful chairs. On the walls are posters of lessons about colors, numbers and the alphabet. The children are drawing and coloring with markers.

Iman tells us that the goal of increasing primary school enrollment has been met, with near 100% of the students in the ECD program entering the public schools, an increase from less than 20% just five years ago.

We visit four classrooms. In one, the children are shouting a sing-song lesson about expressing emotions. Saying how they feel and acting on it forms a basis for learning by inquiring—the "why?" of curiosity.

Iman tells us that we are phasing out this program, as the school has been training and mentoring other schools; and writing their own grant proposals. They are ready to take it over, a test of sustainability. The headmaster and three caretakers tell us about what they have accomplished with a mix of modesty yet fierceness in their eyes. They are passionate about the program and want it to continue.

Of course, I ask about computers. My trusted host, Farouk Salah, tells me a PC is installed in each school.

"Do the children use it," I ask?

"No, it's for record keeping."

"Is it a common application?"

"No, it's created for each program; the indicators are different," he explains.

It is ironic that the PC that is so adept at multitasking is treated in such a single-threaded way.

I explain Microsoft's new MultiPoint product and how it allows many children to interact with one computer, so a learning game can be a group activity, with children choosing a color and character for their cursor[2]. Surely our computer is free for an hour a day for children. I note that Microsoft would be interested in applying MultiPoint in our ECD program.

An Access application for each program that needs to track children and program indicators troubles me. I like the entrepreneurial can-do attitude of our workers, and these applications are meeting a near-term need. But there must be dozens of these. Surely we can pick the best one and take them to scale in a way we do with our programs.

A difference in indicators in our programs should not be an obstacle; the engine should be the same regardless of the color and accessories of the car. And for registering and tracking (and counting) kids, we have a mature, shared application in Sponsorship called Asist. We should be able to adapt it for other programs. We are not leveraging our learning.

We travel next to Al Saleeba, and even poorer village. Goats are munching on paper from the street as we walk from the van to a maternity health center. We are joined by Montasser who manages our M&E (monitoring and evaluation) of programs. He tells us how women are being trained in a healthy diet during pregnancy and the importance of breast feeding.

Each week the women decide on a dish to cook and bring to the center. Today it was sweet rice baked with milk and raisins, which they bring to me to try. Wary of a stomach tested earlier in the week, I hesitate, but cannot refuse their kind gesture. It is delicious, reminding me of home cooked rice pudding, but thicker, simpler.

A number of the women have been certified to train others. And so the program is passed on. As in the last village, we are partnering with Community Development Associations? (CDAs) to execute our programs. We are doing a good job leveraging our people, teaching others "how to fish." It is something we do well. We need to take a similar tack with our use of technology, moving it out of the back office.

In the third village, Taha, we see 5 teenage girls who have started their own businesses. A third program manager, Mona, joins us for this leg of the tour. This project is part of our Livelihoods program, where young girls learn the basics of business. The first is proud to tell us of her small "grocery" business of snacks she sells locally. She started with a loan of about $10, which she used to buy goods in a market in Minya. She was proud to say she paid off the loan in three months, and now her mother is borrowing from her.

The next three have a business selling fresh popcorn, made on a stove top. Remembering the fields of corn we passed on the drive, I ask if the corn is from their farm. "The local market" they say in unison. I ask them about their goal. They want to buy a popping machine.

We are running late and a colleague suggests skipping the last stop. I ask if the girl has been waiting and would be disappointed. She says yes, for about an hour and yes, she would be disappointed. We decide to go. She has the most successful business, selling house wares like pitchers, plates and brooms. She is shy, and searches for words. But she is proud that she paid off her first loan in two months. Her father was so pleased with her success, he decided to give her a room in the house to display her goods and increased her loan by $100 to expand her inventory.

Mona tells me that this program is also mature and being handed off CDAs. I ask if our micro-finance (MF) program can be applied to this project. I am told that MF loans are made to women and others over 21. I ask about the mothers becoming MF loan sponsors and posting these projects on-line as Kiva does. It is worth exploring. I would invest in these girls. They are clearly the small business leaders of the future that will lift the emerging world out of poverty[3].

What is her dream, I ask? "To break down the wall and expand to the street" where everyone could see her shop. It is a fitting image and one that stays with me as I say goodbye.

[1] For a description of Save the Children's programs in Egypt, see For a brief history of Minya, see Wikipedia

[2] For some case studies on MultiPoint applications, see the Microsoft Unlimited Potential page, here:

[3] See Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty, where he writes, “when they gain access to new sources of income, poor people continue to astonish me with what they are able to do for themselves.”