“How do we get a seat at the table?”
I hear this question a fair amount from tech staff. I wish there was a single answer or approach to getting invited to the table, but of course there isn’t. However, there may be some ways to spark the conversation by working to spotlight how technology planning can be impactful to the organization’s mission and how IT staff can serve as visionaries.
Technology and IT staff are often typecast as problem solvers, project managers, or data analysts; this doesn’t leave room to explore the role of visionary or strategic partner. If IT projects and staff solely focus on the infrastructure—fighting fires or implementing tools—IT may be relegated to the function of help desk. Having a strategic technology plan will help show the benefits of tech, but it may not change an organization’s cultural relationship with IT.
A key to changing how technology and IT staff are viewed is truly aligning your tech to the mission. This doesn’t mean aligning your tech to the organization’s strategic plan (though that is a key step); rather, it means focusing some of your technology strategy directly on overcoming a barrier to meeting your organization’s mission.
Let me explain what I mean by highlighting three different types of technology planning: tactical, strategic and missional. You need to have the tactical and strategic elements in place no matter what, and then you can use missional planning to shift how IT is perceived.
Tactical: This focuses on using quick timelines with small teams (even one person) to get all of the technology working correctly; establishing a replacement plan with improvements; and beginning to address problems, not symptoms.
Tactical is a natural place to start. A solid infrastructure and functional technology is key to building trust and allowing next steps.
Strategic: On this level, we shift to meeting the operational and strategic needs of the organization. Cross-functional teams with a need for business process changes, staff training, and change management can inform this process. As strategic technology improves, it gets tied to and can even be integrated into the organization’s strategic plan.
Strategic technology planning is a great step towards getting IT seen as a partner in the organization because it demonstrates the ability for tech to enable the staff. It also allows the IT staff to be involved in changing how the organization works. Be advised that much of the involvement of IT may still take place after the strategic plan is written and key decisions are made. In that case, IT is just filling the needs of others. The strategic technology planning then supports those plans. I am not discounting the importance of this; it is critical!
Missional: On this level of planning, scope shifts beyond the goals and plans to the mission and vision of the organization. This often requires expertise, insight, and collaboration from outside the organization. Identify gaps between your ability to meet the mission and the capacity of the organization, then match technology to the gaps.
This type of planning requires a real understanding of the mission and what it would take to impact it. When you embark on this type of technology planning with leadership, it clearly shows your organization why technology should have a seat at the table. Below is a set of potential steps to follow to get started with missional technology planning (but make them your own).
Missional Technology Planning
Before you start, get your tactical and strategic plans rolling. There are plenty of resources out there to show you how to do the tactical and strategic planning. I would suggest reviewing the Tactical Tech Planning course from Idealware, attending the Nonprofit Tech Academy from NTEN, and reading the Unleashing Innovation paper from MAP Tech Works. You should also consider working with a consultant to run the process and bring in outside expertise.
While resources for tactical and strategic tech planning abound, I have not found as many that focus on mission-focused technology (which is why we ran a session on it at the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference). Lindsay Bealko from Toolkit Consulting, Andrea Berry from Idealware, and I worked together to develop the following game plan to help move your missional technology planning efforts forward.
Who: Pull together a diverse group of people from inside and outside of your organization with a wide set of experiences and expertise (including some who may not know your organization well but who understand the cause). Have this group break into small teams. Note: I would get leadership support and buy-in before attempting missional technology planning, or perform the activity with organizational leadership first.
1. Mission or Vision Statement
Review your mission and/or vision statement and look for the phrases or concepts that accomplish the following:
- Extend for many years
- Exceed the capacity of your organization
- Require collaboration across the sector
- Reflect the big hairy audacious goal of the organization
2. Identify the barriers
What stands in the way of acting on or in completing the selected part of your mission or vision statement? Create a list of these barriers.
3. Brainstorm with technology
Use a set of cards with different types of emerging and core technologies (prepare these cards ahead of time). These cards should have a range of things, such as e-learning, emails, websites, mobile apps, text messaging, tablets, computer labs, CRM, big data, and/or wide area network.
Have the group brainstorm possible technology approaches to each of the barriers you identified in the second step. To make it tougher, we had the group pick the technology which seemed like the least likely match. Challenge the group to look for ideas which do not rely on staff intervention, which extend past the reach of the organization, and which have a direct impact on constituents. Come up with your own rules for the group based on your style, culture, and cause.
4. Bring it back
You may or may not come out of this exercise with a real and actionable idea to act on. But what you will get is a whole new conversation. Find a way to collect the info and then build on it.
If all of the actions taken by IT staff start with a request from other staff or other organizational stakeholders, how can IT ever be seen as innovative or visionary? Starting the conversation about technology planning can help shift the perception of IT staff from help desk attendant to visionary leader and reserve IT staff a seat at the table.