Why Your Applications Don’t Deliver

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

January 30, 2014

By Tim Haight

Do you have a nagging feeling that you’re not getting all you should out of your applications, particularly collaboration applications? A lot of people do, and I think I know why.

First, some context: I’m talking about how applications perform in charitable foundations that are smaller than the Gates Foundation. Many of our strategic consulting customers are in this group. This probably also applies to other nonprofits, with staffs below 150.

Organizations of this size don’t have the resources to determine how to use many applications as a group. This is increasingly problematic, as we’ve gone beyond the Office apps and are now turning to more complex systems like constituent relationship management, document management, and collaboration. Grants management has been around for a long time, but it falls into this area, too.

Let’s also stipulate that the problem with these apps isn’t that their supporting infrastructure is messed up, or that they are administered  improperly. These things can happen. It’s hard to attend a Webinar if your network doesn’t support it. But let’s assume that it does.

Steps to Successful Apps

Getting groups to use applications effectively requires a series of successful steps. First, you have to decide what applications you need. You then need to implement them. This includes setting up procedures, such as workflows. You need to train users on these procedures effectively.

All done? Not really. There’s as much difference between having a collaboration application and using it well as there is between having Microsoft Word and knowing how to write. Group applications can also be less forgiving than individual ones. If you get something wrong in Word or Excel, you do it over until you get it right. If you get something wrong in conferencing, the people on the other end may drop out.

Even the early stages in the process have issues. Knowing which applications to implement first requires some strategic planning. This is easy to put off, so departments may adopt their own inconsistent apps, or needs may just get ignored. Hiring a consultant who interviews users and presents a plan can provide the basis of a strategy, but very often that’s as far as the strategic consultant goes.

Most IT departments in small organizations that we’ve worked with aren’t equipped to go far beyond the technology into the human issues of collective application use. An exception to this is the organization that can afford to have developers on the IT staff. Figuring out how an application is supposed to function requires an understanding of how people do and should use it. For most small nonprofits and foundations, however, applications come off the shelf.

Consultants and Administrators

The response is usually to hire an administrator or to temporarily hire consultants to do the implementation. Administrators can help a lot, grants managers being a good example. They will often address how their application is used. It doesn’t help, however, if the app is hard to use. Administrators can be tempted to do other users’ work themselves, which is a short-run fix but a long-run deficit. Program officers, for example, understand their grants management better when they’re interacting with it.

Moreover, you can’t hire an administrator for every app. Among the big applications that nonprofits and foundations are using now are ones like Salesforce, SharePoint, and grants management. Also, of course, there’s finance and investments, but they are not so widespread. But then there are the little but important ones: events management, meeting and room scheduling, contract management, expense and travel reporting, real-time collaboration, project management, performance management, document management. The list goes on, not to mention how these apps fit with the Web and social media. Not to mention how they fit with each other.

When you hire a Salesforce consultant, you get a Salesforce consultant, not a SharePoint consultant. The Salesforce consultant may have a Salesforce solution for contract management, but is it the best solution? The other issue is that you can afford consultants temporarily, but not permanently.

Training so often misses the real issues encountered in use, particularly in collaboration. That’s assuming people get trained. Enough said.

We Need More Help

This post is getting way too long, so I’ll cut to the chase. Now that the front office is getting beyond Office apps, we need a new kind of IT person. It’s somebody who takes the same kind of across-the-board responsibility for the use of applications that the IT manager takes for the use of infrastructure. It’s the development department in a shop that uses clicks, not code.

It’s somebody who can bridge the gaps between all the consultants and who knows how to continuously work with users, improve organizational routines and help collaborating groups to perform enthusiastically and creatively. This person goes beyond administering to teaching and works across all of the organization’s apps.

I believe it’s possible to create such people, but we don’t have them now. Because we don’t, we’re missing the great potential of our new applications.

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