Thursday, March 18, 2010

NetHope Summit, Day Four - The Path Forward

In my religious tradition, the liturgy ends with the statement: "The worship is ended. The service now begins." This is an appropriate metaphor for our NetHope Summit which ended on Thursday. We have had what can be seen as a grand celebration of information sharing, which is the basis of all collaborations. Our work as NetHope continues to grow and evolve in ways that merit anew our commitment to the group, and merit the partnerships with our supporters. We have broken bread, toasted with wine, and practiced singing from the same page. Now we return to our home countries and organizations where the real work begins.

I want to encourage each of you who attended, and those who have followed from afar, to think about your key take-aways: what you have learned and what things you will change and put into practice.

To jump-start your thinking about this, here is my list:

1) I met dozens of new people from the membership and from our supporters. Making these connections and continuing the conversations is an important way to carry the Summit forward. I'm inviting each of you write me with your questions and connect with me on

2) I saw a number of presentations with conclusions, charts and links that I want to study more. I look forward to review these on TAG, NetHope’s SharePoint intranet.

3) I was reminded how hard change is, not only from Chip and Dan Heath’s new book[2] , which I’m reading, but also in the bewildered and pained faces –as well as the arms-crossed disbelief-- that I saw across the meeting rooms and in 1:1 conversations. I need to paint clearer pictures about what all the changes mean for IT workers. We all want to know WIIFM[3].

4) I heard a number of personal stories, especially about the personal impact that the field trips had. The Masai Mara group had moving accounts and photos that I hope you get to see on the NetHope Flickr page (see for details.) I’ve been a collector of stories, which you can read on my book project page, Letters to a Young Manager.

5) Following advice from those more knowledgeable is often wise. I was warned about wearing sunscreen and not eating uncooked foods. Yet I’m an advocate of “do something” and “ready, fire, aim,” which sometimes means you get burned and set-back. This was a case where “eating your own dog food” may mean literally choking on your words. To round out the clich├ęs: caveat emptor! But nonetheless, move forward. If you catch the paradox here, welcome to reality.

During the Shared Services session on Thursday morning, Rui Lopes told an interesting story about the “NetHope plane.[4] With apologies to Rui if I’ve not done it justice, here’s a paraphrase of the story:

“There was a person who wanted to go on a plane ride (Ed), so he acquired a plane. However, he didn't want to go on the ride by himself, so he tried to get some other riders, so that the ride would be more cost effective and so that he would have more fun, with companions. The plane was called NetHope, and the initial navigators were two guys named Ed and Dipak. Soon passengers (members) were added and the journey moved on. The plane was going to have several destinations (connectivity, ER, I4D, Shared Services, etc.). As the airline grew, a number of other employees were acquired to handle related activities (Joe, Jack, Frank, Barry, etc.) And we needed the expert services of some senior pilots (ADP: Jessica, Dan and Tom).”

What I heard in this story is that it takes a growing collaboration to move a growing organization and our collective missions forward. That's a fitting summary for where we are and the path forward. As I stated in my keynote to the BPO Conference in Nairobi on Friday: We cannot go it alone!

[1] See my profile and send me an invitation at

[2] Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Broadway, 2010

[3] WIIFM = What’s In It For Me. In other words, what’s the personal value statement for me.

[4] I heard this story second hand as I was out ill Thursday morning (see take-away #5).Thanks to Barry Sanders for filling me in.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

NetHope Summit, Day Three - Build for the Field

Today was arguably the most important day of our conference. It was the day to visit programs in the Field. I was in the group that visited the Greenbelt Conservation Reforestation Project in the Gatamaiyo Forest Nature Reserve.

As I mentioned in my Monday keynote, we believe in building for the Field. We have been unpacking the meaning of this statement in the NetHope Collaboration Manifesto, which the Board of Directors has been reviewing. The latest draft states "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."

One of the most important strategic questions we can ask as IT leaders is, who is our most important client? If you think about where our agency programs are delivered and connect the dots, it's obvious that our #1 client is the fieldworker. So seeing the technology that the Greenbelt workers are using to register trees they are planting was instructive in two ways. first, it showed how a combination of instruments could be used in a remote location to track progress; and second it underscored the need for simplicity.

The process for verifying the planting of a tree appeared to exceed the actual planting by about 10 to 1. I was told that this is a combination of World Bank and UN requirements. It seems to me the the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) time should not exceed the program delivery time. While the technology helped ease the data collection, the business process seemed antiquated. I could not help but think of Michael Hammer's edict about business process re-engineering: "don't pave the the cow path."

Nevertheless, it was appropriate for our group to get our hands dirty (literally) and plant a dozen trees. The photo above is the "NetHope" tree I planted in Kenya. It was fitting to leave a living marker that contributes to the ecosystem in an emerging country. We can do no better with IT in our organizations.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

NetHope Summit, Day Two - On the Same Page

I'd like to talk about two comments that were bookends to day two of the Summit in Nairobi.

This morning, Weibe Boer, Associate Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, challenged us with two things:

1) To encourage our other back office departments (HR , Finance, Legal) about the what, why, how and benefits of collaboration;

2) To have a double impact as NGO IT leaders: first, on program delivery in the Field, and second, creating economic impact on emerging countries by where we choose to put our IT services.

The role we increasingly play as NetHope is advocating within our own organizations on the value of technology and the impact it can have on our work. Charlie MacCormack, Save the Children's CEO, spoke about this in a
white paper on the NetHope web site. Charlie concluded that over the past 13 years "the same headquarters staff is supporting over two times the number of people who are working with children in the field. That type of productivity gain would not be possible without technology."

Our Board panel said similar things about increased technology investments in the midst of the recession. It's one of the few capacity building levers we can pull in our downsized organizations. Doing that together has proven even more impactful, realizing more than a 300% return on our NetHope investment. This is a collaboration that works, which other departments would do well to emulate.

Our Shared Services initiative is about building capacity, not necessarily by off-shoring IT services, as many of our corporate colleagues have done, but growing services to meet increased Field application demand. NGOs are behind the corporate IT services curve, and therefore usually do not realize the savings by moving functions to lower cost alternatives. If we have a small services staff, with only 8-hour by 5-day support, we are hard pressed to find the 30% plus savings that other organizations do. However, if we share services, we can grow support to 24 by 7 without increasing support costs.

One of the reasons we are in Kenya, is we believe that this increased capacity can be better delivered by an emerging country, especially one in which we deliver our program services. That these decisions can help the local economy is a "give-back" opportunity for us.

This evening, I had the honor of introducing Catherine Ngahu, Chairperson of the Kenya ICT Board, our host at this year's Summit. When I learned that she was very interested in the social side of technology, I could think of no better way to introduce her to NetHope than with the story of the
Fallen Tree. I said that we are that village who sang from the same page and moved the obstacle out of the way forward-- no matter whether the challenge of insufficient staff, budget or equipment, when we all pull together and trust each other, we can move mountains.

Catherine then told a story about the importance of context that we would do well to heed in our technology work. It was about an ad campaign NGOs ran a few decades ago to encourage the poor in Africa to have smaller families. The marketing approach was to show a family with four healthy children in front of a nice home, contrasted with a family with eight children in front of a meager shelter. However, the poor kept having more children. When they finally asked them why, they said the ad told them that poor families have more children! This was a perfect way to end the day: ask and listen before you build. We can be on the same page with our audience as well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

NetHope Summit, Day One – The Big Rocks

We kicked off our NetHope Summit in Nairobi Kenya today. All 29 members were represented; with our sponsors and guests, we have 90 attending. It is very gratifying to see the simple vision of collaboration I wrote about nine years ago having become the force for shared technology in nonprofit organizations.

We heard welcoming remarks from Bill Brindley, NetHope CEO and Paul Kukubo, CEO of the Kenya ICT Board. It was over a year ago in Geneva that Paul and I talked about Kenya hosting a NetHope Summit. Hearing his welcome brought home more than the importance of the work we do as NGOs in the emerging world. Paul talked about how the shared services concepts he saw beginning in NetHope were being applied throughout the Kenya government organizations today. Now we can learn from their success.

This is one of the messages I touched on in my Summit address this afternoon: we need to have the humility to learn from the far reaches of our organizations, and the people we assist, how technology can be applied to benefit all. As IT leaders in NGOs we need to be clear that our beneficiaries and our fieldworkers are our top customers.

To make the point of the fieldworker as our #1 customer, I told Steven Covey's story about the rocks [1]

To paraphrase the parable:

A teacher placed a large jar on the table in front of the classroom and proceeded to fill it with large rocks.
"Is it full," he asked the class.
All the students said "yes!"
He then took a carton of gravel and added it to the jar.
"Is it full," he repeated.
Becoming more wary, half the class said yes.
He then took a carton of sand and added it to the jar.
"Is it full now?"
None of the students raised their hand.
The teacher added a pitcher of water.
"So what’s the moral of this story," he queried?
"That there’s always room for more," some asked [2]?
"No," he said;
“The point of the experiment is that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never fit them in."

So I challenged the NetHope group: as you go out and visit field programs this week, and meet people who work here in Kenya and East Africa, ask yourself one question: What are the big rocks?

[1]Stephen Covey story: First Things First, Simon & Schuster, 1999, pp. 88-89

[2]That may be our “normal” answer in nonprofit organizations; everything can fit under the umbrella of the good!

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,