Choose the Right Technology: Goals, Tools, and Match

Hand choosing a colored pencil.

I try not to use over­wrought, hyper­bol­ic dra­ma-words too often in my writ­ing.

Okay, so maybe I don’t try very hard.

But there’s no oth­er way to say this: the time peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions have wast­ed by using the wrong tech­nol­o­gy is utter­ly trag­ic.

It can hap­pen so eas­i­ly, espe­cial­ly for non­prof­its who often need to rely on well-mean­ing vol­un­teers for tech­ni­cal help. But it’s not hard to pre­vent.

Who this arti­cle is for.
  • Any­one who wants to solve a prob­lem with tech­nol­o­gy.
What to expect.
  • A sad sto­ry.
  • Thoughts on how it could have gone dif­fer­ent­ly.
  • A sim­ple frame­work for think­ing about tech­nol­o­gy selec­tion.
Top­ics.

A sad, sad story

Is any­thing in this sto­ry famil­iar?

  1. Non­prof­it seeks help for tech­nol­o­gy prob­lem X.
  2. Well-inten­tioned intern or vol­un­teer (WIIoV) offers to solve X.
  3. WIIoV picks the tech­nol­o­gy that he or she knows best, or likes best, or would most like to learn.
  4. WIIoV sets it up and maybe even pro­vides some doc­u­men­ta­tion or train­ing.
  5. Non­prof­it staff are hap­py. They appre­ci­ate the help, and it all seems so rea­son­able and intu­itive.
  6. WIIoV leaves.
  7. A few weeks go by. It no longer seems so rea­son­able or intu­itive.
  8. Non­prof­it staff are less hap­py. Either they keep using it, fudg­ing around the prob­lems until they can’t stand it any more, or it grad­u­al­ly dies from neglect.
  9. Non­prof­it seeks help for tech­nol­o­gy prob­lem X.

Of course it’s not always that bad… but often it’s part­ly that bad.

A young child looking very sad

A sad, sad sto­ry

Image cred­it: Fatback[Dale]

What went wrong?

That par­tic­u­lar sto­ry is a litany of lit­tle tragedies. But you know what I think is the most impor­tant, most pre­ventable, and most… well… trag­ic tragedy?

  1. WIIoV picks the tech­nol­o­gy that he or she knows best, or likes best, or would most like to learn.
All it takes is think­ing before geek­ing.

Too often tech­nol­o­gy gets cho­sen because it’s what the vol­un­teer (or con­sul­tant) hap­pens to know, or because it’s what your Board or oth­er con­stituents are ask­ing about, or because you know some­one who was hap­py with it in a fair­ly dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion.

Some­times that comes out just fine.

Some­times.

A technology selection method

I believe, and have seen, that the secret to good tech­nol­o­gy selec­tion is as sim­ple as Goals, Tools, and Match.

Diagram showing narrow goals, broad list of tools, and narrow match.

Goals, Tools, and Match

Goals: As specific as possible

Dart in a bulls-eye

If you don’t know what you’re aim­ing at…

Image cred­it: Gare and Kit­ty

Our first step, and one that gets skipped sur­pris­ing­ly often, is to clear­ly define our goals.

Clear­ly defin­ing goals means going as deep as pos­si­ble, artic­u­lat­ing specif­i­cal­ly what we want to accom­plish.

A diagram showing goals as narrow.

As deep & spe­cif­ic as pos­si­ble.

Don’t be mis­lead: even though our goal is to get nar­row and spe­cif­ic, this isn’t a closed-mind­ed process. In fact we’re talk­ing about brain­storm­ing here, so it’s impor­tant to get inter­est­ed par­ties involved. If at all pos­si­ble it’s also impor­tant to involve the per­son who will help with choos­ing and imple­ment­ing your tech­nol­o­gy.

So what’s a spe­cif­ic goal? Not this:

Goal: Set up a Face­book page.

Ver­dict: Not even close.

That goal isn’t deep or spe­cif­ic. In fact, it’s not a goal at all.

Face­book isn’t a goal. Face­book is a tool.

The ques­tion is: Why do you want to set up a Face­book page? Until you know that, or have at least thought about it some­what, you shouldn’t be set­ting one up.

Let’s go deep­er.

Goal: Set up a Face­book page to con­nect with vol­un­teers.

Ver­dict: More spe­cif­ic, but slight­ly mis-tar­get­ed.

Face­book” has no busi­ness here (yet).

Again, Face­book is a tool, not a goal. Let’s not assume it’s the right tool too ear­ly. So now we have:

Goal: Con­nect with vol­un­teers.

Ver­dict: Get­ting there.

We’re get­ting there, but we can cer­tain­ly get deep­er and more spe­cif­ic. Our goal so far has answered what but could be more spe­cif­ic. How about this?

Goal: Inform vol­un­teers of upcom­ing needs for their time.

Ver­dict: Spe­cif­ic.

Very nice. If that’s as far as we think about it, we’ve thought fur­ther than peo­ple often do, and we can start the next step of con­sid­er­ing tools.

But wait. We can do even bet­ter than that, can’t we?

We’ve talked about what we want to accom­plish. How about why we want to accom­plish it?

Goal: Bet­ter inform vol­un­teers of upcom­ing needs for their time so we can get peo­ple to sign up for work in advance, avoid­ing last-minute staffing sur­pris­es.

Ver­dict: Bin­go.

Now we know not only what we hope to do, but also why we’re doing it—in oth­er words, we know what we want to accom­plish.

And in yet oth­er words: we have some­thing we can mea­sure to gauge our suc­cess.

Tools: As broad as possible

Several tools laid out next to each other.

With tool options, more is bet­ter.

Image cred­it: Jan­neM

Great. Now we’ve fin­ished the most impor­tant step, and the one that’s so often over­looked: decid­ing what we actu­al­ly want to accom­plish.

Diagram showing tools as a broad collection.

As broad as pos­si­ble.

Next comes the fun part—or else the part where you enlist the help of some­one who con­sid­ers it fun.

For goals, we were try­ing to brain­storm as deep and spe­cif­ic a list of goals as pos­si­ble. Now we’re going to broad­en out, bring­ing in as many can­di­date tech­nolo­gies as pos­si­ble.

Let’s make a first attempt.

Goal: Inform vol­un­teers of upcom­ing needs for their time.

Can­di­date tools:

  • Face­book, because it’s cool

Ver­dict: Weak.

Get cre­ative. This is brain­storm­ing in a pur­er sense than when we did goals. We want to encour­age a big list, which means don’t rule any­thing out ini­tial­ly.

Maybe we get this far.

Goal: Inform vol­un­teers of upcom­ing needs for their time.

Can­di­date tools:

  • Face­book
  • Twit­ter
  • A blog
  • Meet­ing requests from an online RSVP tool like Doo­dle
  • A vol­un­teer sched­ule man­age­ment tool like Joon­ers
  • An email newslet­ter
  • A ground-mail newslet­ter
  • A good old-fash­ioned List­serv
  • Phone calls
  • Chalk mes­sages on side­walks
  • Hire a telepath

Ver­dict: Now we’re get­ting some­where!

If you don’t feel able to brain­storm a list like this, ask staff and vol­un­teers whether they can, or whether they know peo­ple who can.

Match: Just right

A child's hands picking from several colored pencils.

Which to choose, which to choose…

We start­ed nar­row, with some deep and spe­cif­ic goals, and then went broad with a big list of tools that might meet the goal.

We fin­ish by get­ting nar­row again.

Diagram showing Match as narrow

Nar­row it back down

To do that we take the buck­et full of can­di­date tools we’ve col­lect­ed, and we pour them into the nar­row Require­ments sieve of our goals. What we’re left with is…

Okay, I’m out of ideas for this metaphor. Let’s just say we’re left with our match, the list of one or more tools that have a rea­son­ably good chance of meet­ing our goals rea­son­ably well.

How to know which tools meet the goals?

A knowl­edge of the tools is prefer­able, so if pos­si­ble find some­one who’s used them and get their opin­ion on the match.

Lack­ing that, though, you have a few ways to get the infor­ma­tion your­self.

Questions

There are sev­er­al you can ask for any tool, and a lit­tle email­ing or cre­ative Googling will answer them. See the side­bar “7 Crit­i­cal Ques­tions” to the right.

Experts

There’s a lot of help on the web, whether in arti­cles like this one or forums with advice from peers and experts.

Here are some of my favorites in the non­prof­it IT world:

And a few from the IT world at large:

Location, location, location (aka “Audience”)

For any tech­nol­o­gy that’s meant to reach con­stituents (vol­un­teers, staff, Board mem­bers, grant fun­ders, ser­vice recip­i­ents, etc.) you need to ask whether they already use the tool you’re con­sid­er­ing, and if not, whether they’ll be moti­vat­ed enough to learn a new tool.

In gen­er­al, go where your audi­ence already is. Don’t assume they’ll start reg­u­lar­ly using a new tech­nol­o­gy just because you’re there wait­ing for them.

Want to send a last-minute request for vol­un­teer help? On the sur­face that sounds like a good job for Twit­ter. Bam, you’re done.

Assum­ing your vol­un­teers use Twit­ter.

And that they con­sis­tent­ly keep an eye on your Twit­ter feed.

But maybe you know 75% of your vol­un­teers use Face­book reg­u­lar­ly. (A great way to find this out: ask them.) In that case Face­book might be a bet­ter approach.

And it’s a good bet that many or most of your vol­un­teers have email accounts and tele­phones. That’s a lot less sexy, but if it’s a tool they use reg­u­lar­ly, it’s a good tool.

Rocket science, not

In no way do I think this frame­work is mys­te­ri­ous, pro­found, or par­a­digm-shift­ing.

What I do think is that, even though it’s not espe­cial­ly hard, it does take a lit­tle dis­ci­pline. Why?

  • It takes time (though not much).
  • It’s less fun for the ser­vice provider than just pick­ing a tool he or she knows and/or likes.
  • It’s less easy for the ser­vice recip­i­ent than just let­ting the ser­vice provider use his or her best judg­ment.
  • Peo­ple have to sit down, take a cleans­ing breath, and think.

But the results are so much bet­ter that it’s worth invest­ing a lit­tle willpow­er to do it.

In fact, the con­ver­sa­tion is usu­al­ly pret­ty fun and edu­ca­tion­al. Much more so than grip­ing six months lat­er about a tool that doesn’t quite meet your needs.

All it takes is think­ing before geek­ing.

Diagram showing narrow goals, broad list of tools, and narrow match.

Goals, Tools, and Match

P.S. Up in the goals sec­tion we came up with a good list of things, prob­a­bly mea­sur­able things, that you want­ed to accom­plish. Remem­ber to go back and mea­sure your suc­cess lat­er, adjust­ing as need­ed from there.

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