Most smaller organizations, by far, do not have a full-time IT person on their staff. This includes both nonprofits and foundations. Historically, the solution has been for such organizations to hire a regular IT consultant and also assign some part-time duties to a staffer who principally does something else. This solution may no longer be working.
The problem is the shifting role of IT. In the past, it was to keep the infrastructure running. Most regular IT consultants to small organizations focus on two or three things: desktop support (including things like printers), network and server support, and, possibly, hosting. What’s missing from this picture, increasingly, is anything to do with new applications, knowledge management, change management, and governance. These duties fall on the accidental IT staff, and they’re getting harder to accomplish.
Back when most applications were desktop applications for small organizations, desktop support might have been enough. Today, however, applications offer much more, particularly in areas like grants management, constituent relations management (CRM), file sharing and collaboration. All applications are also moving to the cloud, as Microsoft Office, for example, is being replaced by Office 365. Even basic applications support, then, is going beyond the old support model.
Choosing New Applications
Beyond this is the more complex question of choosing which new applications to adopt. This involves being able to measure user needs, on the one hand, and being able to compare alternative applications, on the other. Neither of these is as simple as one might think. Finding out what users think by informal means often results in knowledge too incomplete to drive a decision. Assessing alternative applications is even harder, for several reasons.
First, many of the new applications are collaborative. By their nature, collaborative applications involve groups, rather than individuals. Thus, it is difficult for an isolated individual to test a collaborative application. Second, getting enough information to compare applications well is difficult for organizations.
Consider file sharing and synchronization apps as an example. Most of these use the “fremium” model, where a basic set of features, and limited storage size, are free, but advanced features put you into another class, called “business” or “enterprise.” Even small organizations may find themselves deciding they need enterprise features. What happens then is that the prospective customer can only get enough information to decide by talking to a sales representative. Sales representatives, of course, have their own agendas. They want to take you down the path to adopting their product, not comparing several products.
Finding Good Comparative Reviews
Meanwhile, good comparative reviews of products online seem to have gotten more rare. First of all, good reviews are buried in the search results by fake comparisons that are simply trying to forward your interest on to vendors. Second, it seems like the trade press that used to do lots of comparative reviews no longer has the preferred position to afford the effort. Third, the few remaining interesting comparative reviews, like Gartner’s series of magic quadrants, are often so oriented to the needs of large companies that it’s hard to apply their results to small or even mid-sized nonprofits.
What this means is that the staff person trying to select an application is in for a lot of work. And the pity is that this work is being repeated in one organization after another, since the results of somebody’s search don’t have a way to get reused by others.
One answer is to network. For slightly larger organizations, professional organizations like the Technology Affinity Group (TAG) and the Grants Managers Network (GMN) provide a structure within which you can ask colleagues at similar organizations what they’re doing. Smaller organizations might consider joining.
The Role of Consultants
Another answer is consultants. Certainly, consultants are used by smaller organizations on an episodic basis. When it’s been decided to adopt a new major application, be it email, CRM, grants management or collaboration, for example, a consultant may come in to get the application set up. A lot of these applications have ongoing requirements, however, and when, over time several applications get involved, each one, and its consultants, have to be managed, as well as the interactions among them.
On top of this, an emerging issue is data management. Like a family, an organizations acquires stuff over the years. For organizations, a lot of this stuff are documents, most of which are electronic. Finding them, deciding which to keep and where to store them become issues.
We have found that more and more organizations are opting for a new kind of IT consultant, one that has a continuing, but fairly lightweight presence. These consultants can either handle both the infrastructure and the applications and data issues, or can supplement what the infrastructure consultants are doing. We suspect that over time, this model will become more popular. In the same way that the role of IT managers is changing, so will the role of IT consultants.