February 10, 2014

Effective Modern Technology is Always a Work in Progress

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

In January 2013, the Communities of Impact kicked off with a retreat at Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond, WA. While there, we held a Failfaire-style conversation about times when our best-laid plans went awry.

For one participant, this was a chance to reflect on how a massive project taught him that there really is no such thing as an end result. At Parents as Teachers, a project that began seven years ago may never be finished – and that might be OK.

NTEN: Richard, tell us about PAT, your role there, and the data management system.

Richard Wollenberger (RW): PAT helps organizations and professionals work with parents during the critical early years of their children’s lives, from conception to kindergarten. I’m the IT Director. We have 65 staff and an annual budget of about $11 million.

When I came on board in 2006 PAT had been using a homemade database to track trainings and certifications. The tool was well-built to immediately handle whatever needs someone came up with, but ill-conceived in terms of long-range scalability and expandability. (One example: Every year, we train 500-700 people across the country. Every trainee had to fill out a registration form of two to 10 pages by hand and fax it in, and then someone on our end had to do data entry.) Then we hit a physical limit in the system that there was no way around.

I suggested that the CEO, my boss, meet with the business managers to tell her why the existing system didn’t meet their needs. I wanted it to be clear that this wasn’t a case of IT needs something to do and needs a budget for it. Each department got to outline their needs as business priorities. And in 2007, we brought a vendor in to meet the board, explain the project, do a needs analysis, and build a customized CRM system based on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Sharepoint.

NTEN: Then things went wrong. What happened?

RW: In fall 2007, a change in financial leadership revealed that mistakes had been made that led us to think we were in a better financial position than we were. Our budget fell apart, 15% of staff was let go, and the project was postponed. Months went by; we focused on other things and made do with our old system.

However, in 2008, PAT was able to hire a consultant to help us with an organization-wide SWOT analysis and a study of the early childhood education environment. I talked to the consultant about how technology could be a solution in different areas. Normally IT isn’t in a strategic plan; it’s a means to achieve your strategic plan. But in this case, using modern technology effectively became a pillar in our 2009-2012 strategic plan.

Then one day my boss said, I know you think I’ve forgotten about this, but I want to show you something. She picked up a folder where shed kept her notes regarding a new data management system. Our organization’s 25 year anniversary was coming up in 2009, and I was able to work with our fundraising team to secure grants as well as a commitment from the board for a capital campaign to finance the project. In 2011, we finally went live with the new online system.

NTEN: And what have been the results?

RW: On the plus side: We’ve reduced the number of systems we use from 13 to four. We moved all technical communication between those systems to automated processes, reduced our carbon footprint by eliminating faxed/printed forms, cut the time it takes to register for a training (from three to four weeks to instant!), and we’ve freed our staff from simple data entry. They’re now knowledge workers who can work with data entered by our customers.

But there are drawbacks. Any system like this is feature-laden and complex. It was beyond our ability to properly comprehend. We’ve set up so many rules and regulations that some departments hit snafus if others take certain actions in the system.

NTEN: What advice would you offer someone who is considering implementing a data management system like yours?

RW: When you’re trying to automate business processes, you must have them documented. And if you don’t have them written, create them before you try to automate them.

Documentation and communication are more critical than ever. The best thing about collaborating has been meeting with different departments to create our flowcharts. When we talk about these little nuances of the process, we realize that a step might mean different things in four other departments. To hear a topic discussed from all of those perspectives was eye-opening. In our old world they weren’t connected.

NTEN: What happened after you reflected on this in our session about failure?

RW: I remembered that everyone in our field can relate to not having the success they wanted at something. And I realized that this is a process, and there really is no such thing as an end result. A project has an end, but most nonprofits (hopefully) won’t. The real result is continuous improvement. And you have to celebrate whatever successes you do have.