Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Dynamics of Technology for Social Change

I found this book off BusinessWire and wrote to its author, Jonathan Peizer, for a review copy which he was kind enough to send. To me, it seemed like a topic that's been needing exploring for awhile, especially for me personally in light of my recent stint at a patient advocacy, donor-centric organization.

Peizer is an IT consultant working in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, and is a pretty impressive guy, working on some pretty impressive things. The book covers his professional experiences and shares the lessons learned. Many of the examples given come from the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, and covers what's called in the book ICT, or Internet Communications Technology. The Open Society Institute was originally founded to help countries transition from communism. I must admit I didn't know about all the work that Soros had done toward promoting democracy, and the projects are quite impressive. (In an email exchange with Jonathan, I told him I thought Soros had jumped the shark with his activities around the 2004 elections, but that's a topic for another day, non?)

I am impressed with the book's straightforward assessment of the nuances (dysfunctions?) of the nonprofit sector, and of the challenges inherent in them. The text gives some good examples of how to deal with these (largely people- and personality-centered) issues. Getting buy-in, establishing quality relationships, are all put at the forefront of what some might consider to be purely technical endeavors. Peizer rightly prioritizes these kinds of people efforts as being the lynchpin to a successful program.)

Here's a quote that talks about the effort to build (or shall we say, foster) the kind of community that in turn made a successful program:
Together with the local foundation, the program identified various population segments in each country where Internet access would greatly benefit the enahcement of civil society and where the targeted constituency was ready to adopt its use. The major population segments targeted included: academic and research institutions, secondary schools, independent media, NGOs, libraries, medical institutions, museums and nonaffiliated individuals.
I like the way this is laid out, step one, step two, etc. This kind of systematic thinking is needed more in nonprofits. Even though you can see that it's based on relationship, there's a coherency about it, and a planning that's evident and conceivably there'd be an easy explanation as to why each consitutency had been targeted.

So, moving along, I feel like the author really "gets" some people issues that others miss, and these bits are shared in the contexts of his lessons learned. One people issue is keeping up with the Jonese or wanting to have what others have. Another is demonstrated below:
Concerning new ideas, if you throw a punch at someone, naturally they may defend themselves and may even retaliate. Forcing technology (or any new idea) on someone who is not ready for it elicits an equivalent intellectual response. Similar mental defense mechanisms and associated dissonance come into play. [...] People do not wish to look less than competent in front of subordinates. It is not unusual in an NGO for managers who are expert in other areas to be less proficient using a computer than their younger administrative assistants. A minefield of cognitive dissonance lurks in every ICT project. The most treacherous is forcing solutions on those not ready to accept them.
File that one under "we have learned through sad experience."

Another minefield explored is that the biggest challenge to an organization's mission may come from inside, where Peizer examines the clash between administration and programs. He talks about the need for "unselfish management," which reminds me of another book. Preach it, brother, is all I've got to say. There are more egos out there than you can shake a stick at.

Anyhow, this post is already plenty long, but if you are looking to have examples of how to implement a technology program (or any program, really), and would like to have some fresh case studies at hand, this is a good choice. And it's really good to have it come from a nonprofit person who understands that the personality element is key to success.

The Dynamics of Technology for Social Change, by Jonathan Peizer.
ISBN # 059537240