Build a Mission-Friendly IT Department

By: Jennifer J. Salopek

If your association's vision of IT is a staff in the basement working on a host of dull-but-necessary tasks, you're selling your employees short and failing to think of technology as a revenue driver. Luckily, you can take steps to align IT strategy with an association's goals and financial success. (Titled "Technology, Meet Mission" in print version.)

As associations have struggled to keep up with the march of technology and the changing needs of their members, they have often done the most expeditious, not necessarily the most strategic, thing when adding new IT products and services. Portfolios are put together piecemeal, with e-newsletters assigned to publications, CRM to membership, and online learning to education—all in a noble but often clumsy effort to get things done.

The risks of this approach, experts say, include a decreased focus on mission and what truly serves members best. Another downside is the lack of time, freedom, and resources for staff members to experiment, test, and innovate with developing technologies, because they are scrambling to stay on top of demands from multiple departments. A step back, a deep breath, and a new approach to developing strategies for your organization can help you transform information technology into innovation technology.

All Aboard the Gerbil Wheel

So how did we get here? Bernie Khoo, senior director of integrated media and information technology at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, has thought about that question a lot. He has a dual perspective on the matter, having spent six years with a dot-com before entering the association and nonprofit world 14 years ago; he has worked at ASCO since 2002. Khoo argues that the main issue associations face is complexity. "Information technology in associations is not one nice, neat entity," he says. "It has many interdepartmental connections and, when diagrammed, can look like a bowl of spaghetti."

Another factor, according to Khoo, is that associations spend too much time "keeping the lights on"—doing the rote tasks that could easily be automated or outsourced. "There is too much emphasis on the nuts and bolts of IT," he says. "Solving business problems is really the issue." Combined with a common fear of change and an organizational culture that views IT as the mysterious purview of basement-dwelling techies, associations can back themselves into expensive and unproductive corners.

Such cultural disconnects are common, says Dahna Goldstein, founder of Philantech, a mission-driven software company headquartered in Washington, DC. "Many associations don't see IT as a department that can further the mission of the organization. They must shift organizational culture so that technology is seen as a priority and is integrated into strategic planning," Goldstein says.

The time is right, says Khoo, who notes that since the down market of 2009, associations are relying on IT to be more efficient and effective. "This is how IT can create more value for business units," he says. To take advantage of the predicted recovery in 2010, associations must position IT to be more innovative, better aligned with business units, and better positioned to identify potential business opportunities. These sequential, deliberate steps are critical to aligning information technology with your organization's mission.

Designate an Executive Champion

When Craig Dellorso joined the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) as director of information technology and strategy in 2002, his appointment was a mandate for change. "My predecessor was a real techie. The CFO wanted technical expertise and business strategy," he says. "I was given the authority and the resources to effect change."

In smaller organizations, the de facto chief technology officer or chief information officer may also be the CEO. Jonathan Harrison is vice president of the Product Liability Advisory Council, a three-staff-member organization based in Reston, Virginia. Though Harrison is a practicing attorney and spends much of his time drafting amicus curiae briefs for PLAC's members involved in product liability lawsuits, he is intimately involved in setting IT strategy and selecting vendors and partners. "It helps that I am an attorney and understand our members' needs," he says. "They are very information-driven but not necessarily tech-savvy attorneys whose needs are immediate."

"There must be a clear directive and buy-in from the top of the organization that technology is an important part of furthering the mission," says Goldstein, who contributed a chapter to the recently published book Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission: A Strategic Guide for Nonprofit Leaders.

Institute a Governance Model

"The key is to have a governance model for IT," says Khoo. In IT, governance is the administration and management of resources by utilizing strategic planning, prioritization, decision making, metrics, and measurement.

Seek to transform your IT people into valued partners who seek to solve business problems and share equally in the organization's success.

ASCO has a volunteer IT committee as well as an internal steering committee composed of the CEO, CFO, and 12 department heads. Both groups periodically review the organization's IT portfolio and set priorities. Projects and services are developed and delivered by centralized departments; of ASCO's 260 employees, 40 work in IT and 30 in integrated media.

When it comes to such committees, Khoo says, "one size does not fit all." He suggests starting with a governance model and letting it evolve based on the association's circumstances. Build slowly, beginning with strategic planning, standard setting, and high-level IT project prioritization, and add more functions later.

At the American Council on Education, Director of Membership Audrey Kelaher describes a "very collaborative relationship with IT and the CEO." Kelaher initiates the identification of needs for her area, then takes them to the IT strategy group, which is made up of members of the senior leadership team. "This group ensures buy-in and support from the top, ensures that projects support our mission, and allocates resources. The process is very transparent," she says. The IT strategy group has been in place for about a year.

Khoo lists seven benefits the governance model provides:

  1. Help in aligning and prioritizing IT with organizational mission goals;
  2. Help translating strategic goals into IT projects;
  3. Assistance with project and portfolio management;
  4. Management of the demands for IT;
  5. Buy-in and project visibility;
  6. Periodic review of the total cost of ownership;
  7. Raised profile of IT, embedding it into the organizational culture.

The last item is especially crucial in transforming IT into an area of innovation and ownership.

Effect a Cultural Shift

Bringing IT out of the basement requires understanding what it is, the better to align it with the association's mission. Association IT encompasses many things, among them networks, servers, websites, applications, security, and resource management. And it serves many areas: accounting, legal, finance, government relations, marketing, membership, human resources, education, and customer service.

"IT has many functions, each requiring different knowledge and skill sets," says Khoo. "Aligning IT to the business is a many-to-many relationship. You have to determine which part of IT should be aligned with which part of the business."

Seek to transform your IT people into valued partners who seek to solve business problems and share equally in the organization's success. This has implications for future recruitment, hiring, and retention of IT staff and so must be taken into account in strategic planning. Such transformations may mean recognizing that you cannot be all things to all people—and probably don't need to be.

"Our association's value is in serving as an information node and collaboration space," says Harrison. "It is all the same action done repeatedly.

 "The brain trust is distributed throughout our membership. Our challenge is to help them by connecting them. It is inefficient for us to try to collect their knowledge, shuffle and repackage it, and redistribute it."

Give IT a Role in Planning and Plan for IT's Role

Effective planning means considering the IT implications of everything, says Dellorso. At NACUBO, each department was required to plan its activities for the next year, highlighting any IT components. Further, each IT project was required to demonstrate value for the association or its members, by improving internal efficiencies or creating new revenue. "We also realized that a project could have negative ROI if its main goal was providing value to members," he says.

Once the planning process was complete, NACUBO stuck to it. "We only funded new projects midyear if there was a compelling business case," Dellorso says.

Always put the IT strategic plan out front, and recognize that it takes many subordinate steps to get there, says Harrison. Reduce planning cycles on IT, which will help you keep things fresh and able to try new things. Set goals for IT projects, and establish a hardware replacement cycle and stick to it, he says.

Harrison also suggests being bold. "Understand and accept the maximum amount of risk you can tolerate." Eschewing backup tape systems as "a waste of time and money," he says that redundant ISPs are far more important for his association.

Highly customized online experiences offered by sites like Amazon.com make the pressure on associations to innovate more urgent. "Amazon was the worst curse ever for associations," says Diane James, executive director of the Women's Transportation Seminar, which has three full-time staff members. "However, websites are a wakeup call to the power of small associations in a tech-savvy environment. We have to figure out how to leverage the resources we have to innovate and consistently engage members. Strategic planning plots a very narrow path through a very big world."

It's also helpful to prepare your staff, Goldstein says. "Any new technology involves a change element, which creates an emotional ripple effect and some anxiety. Leaders should be aware of this and address it early on. Involve staff members and allow them input and control of the process."

Listen to Staff Who Listen to Members

IT staff members have the potential to become operational experts and turnaround artists, says Khoo; the key is to give them freedom and opportunity.

Goldstein concurs. "Many successful changes come from the grassroots level. Staff members who serve and communicate with members are well positioned to understand their needs. Listen to your people; the front lines have really good ideas."

Harrison listens closely to his members, who have "told us that they want to share and collaborate. But setting up collaboration systems is not collaboration." He notes that most commercial, off-the-shelf collaboration software doesn't work for his members; customization and personalization are key. "If it's good technology, they will come."

When Dellorso joined NACUBO, post-9/11 fallout was still being felt in terms of corporate travel reductions. The organization's many face-to-face educational events were suffering reduced attendance, so Dellorso's department initiated a distance-learning program. Members wanted an Amazon-like experience, with a single logon, the ability to manage their own account information, track continuing-education units and print out confirmations, and purchase events, books, courses, and subscriptions with a single checkout process.

By contrast, members weren't really interested in the online communities of practice that NACUBO launched. "Getting participation was a challenge," Dellorso says. "You must understand your membership and whether they will take advantage of what you're offering."

Kelaher is planning a full member survey in 2010. "We are in the process of examining our role in serving members with technological capabilities and facilitation. We want to back up those efforts with research," she says.

The Women's Transportation Seminar conducted an extensive survey of its members in 2009; although it took almost 30 minutes to complete, the association garnered an astonishing 20 percent response rate. What it learned was that the highest percentage of members wanted concise, consolidated news about the transportation industry and its issues, delivered electronically.

"We have moved to a very data-driven, targeted strategy, and members can see our responsiveness," says James.

Outsourcing and Partnering                                                                                              

"Outsourcing partners are critical to our success, and the nature of the relationship is changing as fast as the technology," says Harrison. To create a successful relationship, he advises, each partner must understand the other's business needs and implied mission. Your association should be demanding of its partners' attention.

"The CEO of our major partner organizations should put his feet on the ground in our location at least once a year," he says. "This is vital to continued learning, understanding, and communication." 

Strategic outsourcing can also help get needs earlier and better. While at NACUBO, Dellorso recognized that the future of association management was a web-based platform. However, all the available products at the time were fairly immature. Therefore, Dellorso partnered with a vendor on customization. "A solid software package was at the center of what we were trying to do. Our strategy was to make a bigger investment initially, in exchange for having an impact on the direction and functionality of the evolving product. The pain and cost were definitely worth the gain," he says. (Dellorso currently works for Avectra, the software vendor selected by NACUBO.)

By restricting "keeping the lights on" activities at ASCO to 40 percent of IT staff time and outsourcing the rest, there's ample opportunity for staffers to become operational experts and innovate. "We don't need consultants," Khoo says. "Our internal staff are better suited but were often too busy." The result of a merger between the publications and online departments, ASCO's integrated media and information technology department now employs 70 people who are responsible for all content delivery channels, strategic business creation, and creative content delivery. They are working on such projects as mobile applications, e-books, and an online membership directory with Web 2.0 functionality and a mobile version.

"We create products that we sell; IT is not a cost center at ASCO," Khoo says. "We know as much about products as the marketing department and are positioning IT staff as enablers of the business." 

Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer and former association CEO. Email: [email protected]

Jennifer J. Salopek