Saturday, May 30, 2009

World Affairs Council

At the end of the week, I took part in a presentation and panel discussion at the World Affairs Council in Seattle[1]. The presentation was not one of my finer moments, having a slide deck that wasn't supporting my train of thought--a train that did not fit the tracks! My colleagues were far more lucid. Pasteur got it right: "chance favors the prepared mind."

The moment of redemption came when we were asked to forecast where technology would be in five years for nonprofits and the countries in which we work. I said three things that echoed my remarks at the Microsoft panel earlier in the week[2]:
  1. We will likely get it wrong; we therefore need more humility;
  2. “good-enough” mobile phones will likely be the dominant technology platform; and
  3. innovations will likely come from emerging countries in a way that will drive innovation in the west, turning the development path upside down.
We will do well to look at emerging country uses of technology as a leading indicator. And I will take another look at my emerging slide deck.[3]
[2] See the May 19 entry, here:
See the revised deck on my presentations page, here:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Poke in the Eye Questions

For the Chairman's address at this year's NetHope Summit I told the members they could expect me to talk about values, tell a story, and make some provocative statements.[1] This year's provocative statement was a list of questions (mostly) that I've asked or heard asked over the past few years. I call these the poke-in-the-eye “walnut" questions.[2]
  1. Why are we still running our own email? –a former CIO of a software giant, who forecasted we would all outsource our email services by 2008.
  2. Why are we running our own help desks?
  3. Why are we running commodity IT instead of mission-moving IT?
  4. Why are we following in steps of corporations instead of leap-frogging them?
  5. "Shadow IT" should be encouraged, supported, recognized –A Fortune 10 Technology Strategist
  6. Why do we need a server, period?
  7. Why haven't we changed our program delivery significantly in past 30 years?
  8. Why do Imagine Cup students develop more field-based IT innovation in 9 months than nonprofits in 5 years?
  9. Why is Cisco able to cut travel 50% and increase customer contacts 25% and we can't approach that with our Field?
  10. "Every day, somewhere in the world, something is being reinvented in our organization poorly."–An INGO VP of International Operations
You might call this a cold shower list. But there's often value in asking ugly questions. Often framing the right questions is more valuable than having the answers. Here are some corollaries:
  • Ugly questions stir the imagination
  • Truth comes from the dialog and debate
  • Disruptive innovations start with quality we would never accept but customers find good enough –and then the market blows past us
  • Peters' law: innovation occurs proportionally to the distance from headquarters
  • If we don’t figure these things out, other organizations will, and we will become irrelevant.
  • We need to collaborate or perish!
We need groups like NetHope to have any chance of tackling these problems within the nonprofit community. A CEO of a UK organization told me that NetHope seems to be the one collaboration that works on-the-ground; it is a whole that is more the sum of the parts. If you watch the ant video in the footnote below, you will grasp this metaphor: Like the ants, we can lift the weight of these questions up the cliff and crack them open and solve the problems in ways that individually none of us can successfully do alone. When great minds come together, when things are piloted, when we collectively shine the spotlight on successes, when we advocate for the impact of technology, great things can happen.

[1] See the slide deck for my NetHope Chairman’s report on my presentations page, here:
[2] See the video about the ants to see the challenges questions need to crack, here: .

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Keynote about Values

Our value statement for NetHope is simple. That's as it should be. We believe:

1) Technology (ICT) Matters: NGO Effectiveness depends on technology and capacity building
2) Benefiting all benefits one: Benefiting one also Benefits All
3) Learn through collaboration: Learn by doing
4) IT solutions are deployed solutions: Bias for on-the-ground action
5) The need for speed, especially for emergencies
6) Technology gets close to beneficiaries; we want to move the IT agenda up the strategy pyramid

This year I emphasized value #2, the "Three Muskateer" value: all for one and one for all. I highlighted our learning through projects, that all members support NetHope projects even though only a few participate in any one initiative. And the successful pilot run by one becomes available for all the members to benefit. That means we have developed a mature level of trust for each other. We also gain the advantage of NetHope running an "innovation lab" in which it can execute small pilot projects and--to borrow a page from the P&G playbook--fail fast and fail often. The NetHope members can then cherry-pick the successful pilots and take them to scale.

I added the sixth value after this Summit, when it became apparent how important ICT4D pilots were to our members. These are technology projects that get close to the people we serve. And the closer the technology gets to our beneficiaries, the more strategic it becomes.

Quid Pro Quo

I was at the NetHope Summit on the Microsoft campus in Redmond this week. On Monday I was part of a panel of nonprofit CIOs. Our audience was Microsoft managers. It was quid pro quo time. We were talking about the technology challenges of working in the most infrastructure challenged places in the world and the technology authors were listening.

During the Q&A one of the Microsoft exec's talked about his recent experience with small businesses in the Philippines. In emerging countries, the value proposition is often based on three things: access, simplicity and radical pricing. If small businesses in the emerging world see how they can improve their business and make a short-term profit from technology, they will buy it.

It was appropriate for the conversation, then, when the question was posed about how we would advise Microsoft. I drew from this example and cited four things we've learned from our field work as an international nonprofit:

1. A Disconnected Internet—Applications need to work well in a "sometimes connected" environment. The always-on, broadband Internet is something we take for granted in the West. It is not the reality in much of the world; where it is available, it is not affordable for most people.

My favorite example of this is the Internet Motoman Network in Cambodia[1]. This project provides Internet access for solar-powered telemedicine clinics and others. The network uses a WiFi and storage unit on the back Honda motorcycles to delivery email to and from the provincial capital. There a donated satellite dish provides the connection to the Internet. When I described this “disconnected Internet” to a web 2.0 company, they looked at me as if I had two heads.

Microsoft is well-positioned for this world, having relevant roots in the Outlook client and Groove architectures. Leveraging this across the technology stack may be the operating model for the sometimes-connected user.

2. Brutal simplicity—Technology in emerging countries needs to run without the benefit of technology people to operate and maintain it. This includes setup and maintenance. To borrow a page from Garrison Keillor, technology needs to work for English majors.

One of the lessons of disruptive innovation studies[2] is that good enough technology often beats established technology. The cell phone is a primary example; it still does not measure up to AT&T standards for quality landlines. The Internet Village Motoman Network, above, is another example.

Another point is that the further from urban centers, the less available are IT resources in the field. For international nonprofits, if we have the technical people in the field, we often can’t retain them. Scarce resources are snapped up by companies with the greatest buying power. We need technology that decreases demand on skilled IT labor.

3. Price on demand—Emerging countries cannot afford software licenses and maintenance fees. Rentable models, like Software as a Service (SaaS), make more sense. Free components make even more sense.

My favorite example for this is the “missed call feature” of cell phones in India. Cell phone users only pay for completed calls. Calling a cell phone and hanging up produces a “missed call” notice on the recipients phone, This ends up being a very useful method of presence management, letting people know you are at a predetermined location, for example. I’m told it’s one of the widest uses of cell phones in India. And it’s free. Would we have thought of this in the west?

4. Run-less infrastructure—Since corporations spend five times more on IT per employee than NGOs, it’s obvious that nonprofits need to get out of the infrastructure business in order to leverage IT more for mission-moving applications like ICT4D. The lesson from NGO experience is that the IT agenda needs to move up the strategy pyramid, from the infrastructure-focused “keep the lights on” technology, to technology that impacts beneficiaries[3]. The same is likely true for most businesses—especially the small ones—in the emerging world. Small businesses can't get in the infrastructure business. Business applications will need to be “server-free.”

The bottom line is that technology in emerging countries will need to run without the always-on Internet, without the IT professional, without the high prices and without the servers.


[1] See the related article to the Design for the Other 90% at
[2] See Clay Christensen’s, The Innovators Dilemma, Collins Business, 2003.
[3] See the slide deck for my Oct-08 NetHope Chairman’s report on my presentations page, here:

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Power of Metaphors

I was sitting in our monthly All Staff meeting listening to MB talk about a new ad program. Toward the end of her update she started telling a story of the bicycle. This is how it goes at Save the Children:

Charlie (our CEO) has a vision and he picks me to ride the bicycle toward the vision. While we are riding, we are actually building the bicycle. And we are looking for some cash to purchase needed spare parts to build the bike. So we have the mandate to act now, but we are often resourcing the mandate while we are doing it.

This story communicates a very pragmatic, "do something now and figure out the details later" approach, which indicates our bias for action as an organization. The story captured the essence of this way of doing things in our organization. Lining up the plan and the funding in advance is not the way we get things done. This is the power of a metaphor, it communicates a truth in a way that's more powerful and memorable than if we just stated how we do things.

American author Orson Scot Card writes that "Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space." I like this sense of compactness, and the sense this a small spark can engender a big idea. These two aspects are certainly a part of the bicycle story.

Lately I've been searching for pithy stories among our project management folklore, stories or pictures that indicated a dramatic turn in our understanding and became galvanizing force for the project.

The "migraine chart" from our capital campaign project, above, is one of those examples. It showed all the types of revenue for which we had to account, and how many of these were individual data stores. We called it the "migraine" because it reminded us--on a single page--just how complex keeping track of revenue at an NGO was. But it also became the rallying point for the project: "This is why we are moving to a new campaign management system, to handle the migraine and make the headache of the all the disparate pieces go away (or more precisely, come together.)"

Capturing the "why are we doing this" in a single image is very powerful. Regardless of all the other details, one stand-out issue can become the poster child for why we are in the midst of major change.

Don't underestimate the power of a simple story. Children never do; they readily see the magic in stories. They get on the bicycles and learn to ride them. We would be wise to seek out the stories in our organizations and retell them again and again.