What it takes to be digitally proficient

Lately I’ve noticed a few businesses pushing new fangled IT products and services to the community and voluntary sector. The most prominent of these is cloud-based computing. It’s promoted as being an ideal match for organisations.

The sales pitches are pretty extravagant, offering miracles on heaven and earth: it won’t break down, it’s always open, you can get access anywhere. On top of the superlatives, jargon flows: SaaS, outsourcing, virtualisation, te mea.

Much as I see merit in organisations using the cloud, what I’m thinking about goes a bit deeper. How do people working in the community sector decide if the cloud (or other new technology of your choice) is a good fit? Is this way of working  value for money? Are there hidden traps which mean it’s not as easy or as good as promised?

Of course some of these questions can be answered by learning more about the specific technology. A good example was Nigel Parker from Microsoft giving his slant on the cloud at the Connecting Communities showcase day in Auckland on 9 November 2010. There is heaps online, including resources on TechSoup’s Cloud computing for nonprofits page and recent cloud 101 webinar.

It was a speaker earlier in the showcase day that really had some answers for me – they sidestepped the cloud completely.

Andrew Mahar, the founding Director of Melbourne based social-business Infoxchange Australia talked about supporting organisations to become digitally proficient. I was delighted to catch-up with Andrew again having lost touch after my spell with Infoxchange in 2004. Their tagline — “technology for social justice” — rings as true as ever.

What Andrew talked about will be familiar to people working on capacity building of any sort. He described the goal of digital proficiency as ensuring organisations have the skills and facilities to serve our clients, and to improve efficiency and effectiveness. (See a video recording of the full talk below).

Although you will find a list of attributes to define digital proficiency, which Infoxchange have taken a stab at documenting (as many others have too), Andrew focuses on process. He says it’s not about ticking off a list of things then moving on. ICT capacity building is best seen as a series of improvements.

It’s something that needs to be integrated across the entire organisation, not just at the operational level. This means incorporating ICT into strategic planning, plus ensuring monitoring and board oversight. Leaders and managers need to actively coax and guide their organisations toward digital proficiency. There are strong echoes here of arguments put forward in NTEN’s “Managing technology to meet your mission”.

The conclusions are based not only 20 years of experience in the field, but the recent MeasureIT action research project. In 2009 Infoxchange visited 120 human services to ‘audit’ their IT practices and systems. They found strengths in some areas particularly around hardware, internet connectivity and use of office productivity software. ICT planning and budgeting, staff training needs analysis, access to software suited to community organisations, utilisation of tech support, and use of the web were identified as areas where capacity building could be profitably directed.

At the Connecting Communities day, Andrew gave us a sneak preview of a project funded by Victorian state government to build technical proficiency in community and human service organisations, called iTANGO. At the core is assistance for organisations to develop ICT plans, along with facilitated regional networks of people working on ICT in communities and development of a customer relationship management (CRM) solution designed specifically for not-for-profit organisations.

This type of initiative may not answer immediate questions as to whether the cloud or other new technology will suit a particular organisation. However, by building a good foundation of digital proficiency organisations will be better able to determine what their needs are, and decide what sort of lining is inside the cloud.

PS I’m doing some work for Family & Community Services mapping out how family and personal services can build their ICT capability. I’ve been wondering about both the similarities and differences with our neighbours. I’m wondering what you think?

IT Proficiency in the NGO sector by Andrew Mahar: MS NGO Day Auckland 2010 from Connecting Up on Vimeo.