Revised with new information as of December 10, 2015

Introducing New Technology Successfully into an Agency
Why Your Organization Needs a Technology Plan

Change is stressful. Good or bad, it adds tension to any office. Throw the word "computer" or "upgrade" or "Internet" into this equation, and stress can skyrocket. Plus, mission-based organizations (nonprofits, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, public sector organizations, civil society organizations, etc.) are often facing intense, even do-or-die deadlines -- so the stress of dealing with computers can sometimes seem too much.

Introducing or adding computers, tablets or smart phones to a mission-based organization, or upgrading software or hardware such an organization uses, will change the way staff at the organization access and manage information -- for the better, you hope. But without realistic expectations and a thoughtful strategy, a new system can create as many problems as it is supposed to solve.

With all that said: success in using technology tools is driven by user attitude. Users who want to reach out, to make people feel informed and involved, who are committed to quality and timeliness, and who are ready to try something even at the risk of making a mistake are the people who flourish using technology. People who hate change, don't like sharing information freely and continually, and don' like involving others in their work are those that struggle with technology. What's your attitude?



Your Agency Needs a Technology Plan

No matter what an agency's mission is, no matter what size an agency's staff or budget, no matter who an agency serves, no matter how many years you have been in operation -- your agency needs a computer and Internet technology plan. Just as you should do a critical analysis and form a strategic plan for your fundraising plans, your staffing needs and your program activities, you need to evaluate your technology needs and create strategies to meet those needs. How your organization will access and use technology will effect just about every function of your agency, in fact. If you choose not to create a technology plan, you will find yourself in a constant state of reactive crisis management. You also might end up spending far, far more on hardware and software and training than you would have had you thought strategically about your needs and created a plan to address those needs.

At the Philanthropy News Network's "Nonprofits and Technology" conference in Seattle in January 1999, a representative of CompuMentor (now TechSoup) offered advice that still holds true even now, all these years later. He told attendees that technology plans are more than just hardware and software wish lists. They can help nonprofits:

He cited a 70/30 rule for technology funding used by many large companies and organizations: For every $1 budgeted for technology, 30 cents would be used for hardware and software purchases, with the remaining 70 cents used for training and support. Now, I would change that to a 60/40 rule, with 40 cents used for hardware, software and apps, and 60 cents for training and support. I change the numbers because, now, unlike in 1999, it's rare to find someone working in an office who isn't at least somewhat familiar with word processing software, spreadsheets and some kind of database software.

Reasons to Computerize or Upgrade a System

Augustine "Tino" Paz, Network Development Specialist at Orlando's Community Services Network, made this insightful observation on CUSSNET (Computer Use in Social Services Network Internet discussion group) many years ago, and it also still holds true:

So much of that advice, which is more than 20 years old, applies even to the latest apps and social media tools.

David Arons of Tufts University added during this discussion:

The first step in introducing a computer technology or upgrading/changing a computer system or introducing a new tech tool in your agency is exploring the "whys." In the excellent Guide to Automating I & R Systems: Automating Information and Referral Systems for the Non-Profit Community (published by TechSoup, then CompuMentor, BUT NO LONGER AVAILABLE), several reasons to automate are cited: With apps built for tools, there are now even more "whys" to explore. For instance, you can make critical information more easily available for clients - even the very poor and homeless in the USA often have cell phones, even smart phones. Mobile apps can also make it easier to interact with clients, potential clients, and supporters.

Clinton Jones of South Africa cited this formula on the CUSSNET group for introducing or changing technology during a discussion on "Planned Change vs. Rapid Development," and I think it's still valid:

Included in his post was an example of this formula in action.

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Disadvantages and Risks

Any kind of change or upgrade can at first seem more work than it's worth. That in itself can make introducing computers or upgrading technology seem not worth the effort. Also, there's

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Staff Buy-In

Staff and volunteers may tell you they have been doing just fine without computers or the Internet (and maybe they have!), so why computerize systems and data? They may tell you that whatever version of software they use meets their needs and it took an enormous time to learn and upgrading will cause more trouble than it's worth. Or, they may have unrealistic ideas about the technology -- that computers, a new software package or the Internet will instantly and effortlessly raise more money for the agency, or improve staff and board communications, for instance.

Many agencies invest considerable resources in computer hardware, software and staff training for computerized systems that then end up being under-utilized and failing to live up to their vast potential, because the staff had unrealistic expectations for the technology, or they never bought in to the idea of the technology in the first place.

The key to worker acceptance seems to hinge on the following factors:

  1. User-friendliness of the new system (and remember, what is user-friendly to YOU isn't always for OTHERS).
  2. Clearly identifying the benefits of the new system to those who will use it.
  3. Training and hands-on practice with the specific application.
  4. Clear commitment by management to support staff during their learning curve.
  5. Clear and communicated commitment by management to support the introduction of the new system.
  6. Timely hardware/application support.
  7. Clear expectations by management that staff are expected to use the new system.
  8. Welcoming and addressing questions and fears
  9. Attitude of users (many times, users refusal to use new technology comes from factors that have nothing to do with the technology and everything to do with unresolved staff performance issues or already-existing staff/management conflicts)
  10. Immediate recognition for any staff members new use of technology

Most who have commented on this subject via various Internet discussion groups, at least that I've read, feel that forcing technology on someone outright doesn't work. It's not efficient, creates even greater tension around the use of the technology, and takes even longer for the system to work. They emphasize that successful integration of a new technology into an agency requires good and ongoing communication, long-term commitment by the entire staff, monitoring, support, intervention and patience.

One person on CUSSNET noted that, at the time of his post (July 1997), California was installing a state-wide information system called Child Welfare Services/Case Management System (CMS/CWS). The system was comprehensive and covered everything from caseload listings, client history, placement and payment processes, contact narratives, management of court documents, service plans, state-wide search capability, etc. His story on the introduction of this system offers many lessons for anyone introducing a new technology, no matter what system it is computerizing:

Another participant on CUSSNET had this real-life example to offer, which also offers good advice regarding the introduction of any new technology: Another real-life example, this time from a reader on CYBERVPM (a discussion group for volunteer managers):

Still another CYBERVPM participant said:

And with all that said... the reality is that no amount of training and support materials is guaranteed to compel staff to change their communication and work behavior that might defeat the introduction of technology tools. What changes behavior, beyond training? I'm putting in two personal stories here to illustrate what I mean by different ways to motivate behavior change and an embracing of tech tools:
Story 1:
Back in the 1990s, I was a board member at a professional association. I was in charge of new member recruitment and publicity. For my fellow board members, I developed materials and a training to talk about the benefits of using email instead of sending postal mailings to invite new members to our meetings, to no avail; my fellow board members remained skeptical. It took generating a standing-room-only audience of newcomers for a monthly meeting, something that had never happened in the group's history, to convince the board that, indeed, we could sell an event successfully with email. I asked at the beginning of the meeting for everyone who found out about the event via email or the web to raise their hands, and most of the room raised their hands. As of that meeting, there was an expectation that the organization would use email and its web site for communication - there was no going back. I've always wondered how long it took this org to use social media when it came around...

Story 2:
I was a part of a huge, multi-office international organization that adopted a new software program that would take over all human resources and budget database functions. Unfortunately, those who would actually use the software weren't involved in the choice, so they felt very much that something was being imposed on them that they didn't ask for. Bad start, definitely. The organization engaged in several activities to both educate staff on why the software tool was a good thing and how to use the software, such as:

and on and on. About 60% of the staff became both comfortable with the software and convinced it was worth using. But 40% didn't. What finally got them to use it was a mandate -- their reports would no longer be accepted in any format except such that was generated from the database itself. The mandate got the remaining 40% on board within probably two weeks.
These illustrations include examples of peer pressure (new members expected use of online tools by the association, staff expected by their peers to use new software), incentive to change behavior (elimination of postal costs and phone charges to mail or fax press releases, testimonies from colleagues at staff meetings, recognition by supervisors for use of new tool).

What could these methods look like in practice? Here are some ideas:

Also see Being Fluent with Information Technology, an excellent book that will help you measure your success in getting your nonprofit staff up-to-speed regarding using technology. It's from 1999, and still dead-on in its advice. It's no longer available at its original URL, but if you type this URL into, you can access the book:

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Other Resources
Don't discount these resources because they were written so long ago - what they recommend is still applicable to today. Devices and software comes and goes - but best practices pretty much stay the same.

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