Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Next Ten Years

Looking out ten years is an eternity for technology.   The pace of change and innovation has not abated even in the face of a tough economy.  In fact agility and the ability to ride the waves of constant change is an imperative for CIOs in the nonprofit sector as it is in the corporate sector.  This requires a healthy dose of humility, recognizing that we will often get it wrong.  But that is not an excuse for maintaining the status quo.  As I've described elsewhere, those who stand still get hit by the train.  We must embrace change, we must learn from it, we must look forward to it.  Change is not an option; change is a must.

NetHope is an amazing experiment that has worked beyond my dreams.   This year we turn ten as the collaboration at the intersection of technology and humanitarian-conservation work.  It is a time for reflection, of learning, and of anticipation for what we hope. 

Looking Back

NetHope was founded on two compelling hypotheses: (1) that INGOs would be able to get communication technology out the last 100 kilometers to where it could do the most good better, faster and cheaper if we did it together rather than each of us reinventing the wheel; (2) we would be a better, more interesting partner to technology companies if we came as a group rather than continued with the one-off grant requests.   Both have proven true beyond all initial expectations.

NetHope has branched out from its remote connectivity platform roots in two strategic directions: I4D application platforms that primarily benefit citizens, and shared services that primarily benefit members (see the strategy chart, below). 

 Looking Ahead

Looking out the next ten years, I envision three themes dominating NetHope’s evolution.  Asking what success looks like for NetHope and its members, these themes would indicate the next levels of success.

One theme that is front and center is what I am calling the “Relevant IT” initiative. The three areas I see for Relevant IT are (a) mission-moving projects such as I4D, (b) “good enough” agile applications such as smaller, fit-for-purpose applications, and (c) “lights-out” infrastructure such as cloud computing and shared services.  In short, this is about using technology more to move our member’s missions forward.  I’d like to see NetHope lead the way in mission-moving technology and shared-technology services among nonprofits. I call this the "get into" and "get out of" objectives: for non profits to be effective for the next decade we need to shift the IT agenda to get out of “lights-on technology” and get into “impact technology.”

Second, we will be the organization that empowers others in emerging countries to gain the skills to support their own social-benefit technology.   This is at the heart of the NetHope’s charitable purpose, to share technology knowledge locally so that the emerging entrepreneurs can enjoy the productivity gains we have seen in established economies, and the poor can benefit the poor.   In the next decade, we must move from a provider of technology to an enabler of communities.  This is as much about education (like the NetHope Academy) as it is about hardware and software.  In some senses this will mean working ourselves out of some jobs: a noble and necessary goal of charitable organizations.  It also means looking to the emerging countries in which we work for the technology innovations that will change the way we work at home and abroad.

Third, we will lead in becoming a new economic model for a self-sustaining organization in our sector.  This means a shift from dependence on the generosity of our partners to more services that fuel our programs.  This will be a significant challenge in balancing member-serving activities with member-services that come at a cost, and potentially compete with vendors.  I believe there is much to learn from the 150-year history of cooperative organizations in agriculture, banking, and other sectors.  The collective model can be applied to technology, both for NGOs and for local small businesses in emerging countries.   I will be writing about this during my upcoming sabbatical at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center.  

There are many other goals for growth, sustainability and impact of the work we do.  These three themes may serve as guide-posts to where the changes-of-impact for which we embark over the next decade ensure that we reach a destination that all would conclude that we have again exceeded our expectations.

As I said ten years ago, I renew today: The secret of success is getting started.  Let's go!

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