What Does Organizational Behavior Have to Do with Nonprofit Technology? Everything!

Defender! Analyzer! Prospector! Reactor! Could this be a new set of superheroes? Well, sort of. In an organizational context, it is a set of descriptors for the strategic approaches organizations use to make plans and decisions. In some organizations, those approaches are fueled by behaviors that are akin to superpowers. I’d like to introduce you to four strategy typologies and share with you how knowing your strategy typology and its accompanying organizational behavior superpowers can help your organization become a superhero in aligning technology with its mission.

According to organizational behavior researchers Miles and Snow, defenders have a narrow focus, a set service area, or they serve a specific client or need. They are the experts in their sector and generally do not seek out new problems to solve, new strategies to solve them, or partners with which to collaborate.

Analyzers exist in two domains: one that is stable and requires routine processes, formalized structures, and efficient technology; and one that readily adapts to changes in the community. When they find opportunities to solve new problems, they do so with conservative yet progressive technology, structure, and process choices.

Prospectors are always looking for new ways to meet emerging needs. They are always in search of the latest technology and processes to create novel solutions.

Reactors do not tend to maintain a specific niche or seek out innovative approaches in their work. Rather, these organizations respond to environmental demands by looking at what other organizations are doing, filling gaps, and eliminating duplicative services. Environmental pressures tend to force them to make disorganized choices in terms of whom to serve, what to provide, what tools to use, and how to structure and process the work.

As you think about the connotations of each of the four strategy typologies, which one would you be inclined to use to describe the way your nonprofit organization approaches its work? You may be wondering, why does it even matter?

Strategy typologies help us understand how and why our organization does things the way it does. Let me share an example from my own nonprofit journey. I was a brand new executive director hired into my first nonprofit gig. I had lots of great ideas of how to incorporate technology into the work my grassroots organization was doing. I was the technology champion. In the 1990s, there were many great technology tools available (ha ha), and the organization had a grand collection of grant opportunities. I knew those resources could take us to the next level, so I collected as many as I could, while providing my board and staff snapshots and snippets of information on an as needed basis. I was a prospector, and as the leader of my organization, it became a prospector organization. Sometimes a prospecting approach is appropriate, particularly when everyone is well-informed and well-equipped. But sometimes it can be a bad thing, when the organization has to work backwards to catch everyone up with the great ideas (we did a lot of catching up). No strategy typology is inherently good or bad; they are just different.

An organization’s strategy typology is essentially its personality. As with people, an organization’s personality is demonstrated by its behaviors.  Over the past few decades, IT strategy research has uncovered a collection of organizational behaviors that are actually precursors to IT/mission alignment, which we’ve learned in previous posts by Steve Heye is the deliberate process of planning and using technology strategies and tools in ways that directly help an organization achieve its mission, or mission-focused outcomes.  The research, which actually has its roots in the business sector and has been translated just recently to the nonprofit sector, supports what many of us know is true in our organizations—technology, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily lead to greater organizational performance. Rather, the levels of specific organizational behaviors have the power to enable or inhibit effective IT/mission alignment, and those levels reflect very different ways nonprofits use technology.  (Nod along with me if you have seen individual or organizational behavior, like resistance to change or lack of training, create incredible messes before the first version of software is installed or the first switch is flipped.)

In our session at  the 15NTC, Steve and I described the organizational behaviors as superpowers, because just like with superheroes, the things the organization does show its powers. (Spiderman is who he is because of his nifty web shooters.) As you read through each of the behaviors below, think about how your organization generally behaves. Does it show a high level or low level of each behavior, on, for example, a scale of 1 to 5? Organizations that have high levels of most of the behaviors tend to be the most effective at aligning IT strategies and tools with their mission. And those with low levels tend to struggle to achieve benefits to the organization and its outcomes when they implement new IT initiatives. Let’s look at each of the behaviors:

  • Communication describes actions that help leaders and staff effectively exchange ideas and share a clear understanding of what it takes to ensure that everyone is focused on meeting the mission and using technology in ways that align with the mission.
  • Measuring IT’s value involves data collection and evaluation processes that create a balanced view of the value of technology in terms of its contribution to the organization’s mission, and strategies for using rewards and penalties for achieving or missing objectives.
  • IT governance is the use of strategies that ensure that the appropriate leaders and decision-makers take the time to formally discuss and review priorities and allocation of technology resources, and that decision-making authority for technology changes is clearly defined.
  • Partnership and collaboration describes the extent to which departments, programs, and people work together in the organization, how well the “tech folks” and management work together, and how the organization works with external partners and stakeholders.
  • IT infrastructure describes the extent to which the organization uses, manages, and sustains technology in ways that are appropriate in structure and scope, understandable, flexible, customizable, and innovative.
  • Talent management refers to the ways in which an organization recruits, trains, and supports employees and volunteers so they are capable of using technology tools in ways that will help them increase effectiveness and efficiency in their day-to-day work.
  • Finally, organizational culture includes the values and priorities an organization demonstrates, such as innovation, the location of power in decision-making, the interpersonal climate, the level of trust among stakeholders, and how the organization deals with change.

Interestingly, each strategy typology tends to have different levels of each of the organizational superpowers. Based on initial work I’ve done in the nonprofit sector with 244 organizations of all different shapes and sizes, defenders tend to have balanced levels of all of the behaviors. Prospectors tend to be relatively equal in all of the superpowers but one – communication, which was well illustrated in my own experiences. I was in the know, but I unknowingly left my colleagues and board in the dark. Analyzers tend to have high levels of appropriate IT infrastructure, but low levels of communication. They use technology well for planning and measuring, but communication tends to be a rough spot because they have a tough time balancing data-speak and real, authentic communication that everyone understands. Reactors tend to be all over the map with organizational behaviors, They may build strong partnerships, hire great people, and have an innovative culture that allow them to put together amazing IT projects, but poor communication, governance, and measurement practices may cause the projects to be frustratingly short-lived or ineffective in the long term.

As you consider your strategy typology and your organization’s behaviors relative to technology, I encourage you to find opportunities to talk with your colleagues about how to create superpowers that can help you better align IT with your mission. Over the next several weeks on my brand new blog, I will be posting questions you can ask and resources you can use to help your organization grow its IT/mission alignment superpowers.

Note: Kelly’s initial research on the relationships between nonprofit strategy, IT alignment, mission, and outcomes was completed to fulfill the dissertation requirement of the Ph.D. degree at Western Michigan University, under the inspiring guidance of Barbara S. Liggett, Ed.D. (chair), Angela M. Eikenberry, Ph.D, Edwin C. Leonard, Ph.D., and Melisa Beeson, Ed.D.

Kelly Trusty
Assistant Professor
Western Michigan University School of Public Affairs and Administration