Developing an ICT strategy (part three)
Who with, how, why, when, where, what for?
These are big questions. Everyone wants a website (and email) but who are you trying to communicate with? What is the best way to reach them? Why are you communicating at all? How often? Where will they get the information and what do they need it for, if they need it at all? Having a good hard look at your communication (or what might sometimes be better described as pushing information round and round) will throw up some useful perspectives and give you a much clearer idea of the tools you need.
Email is pervasive, gets overwhelmed by spam and it's easy for you to get your message lost in the morass. Make sure email is targeted at the people it needs to reach. As to how you manage it, a spam filter is an absolute necessity and you should have some means of collecting email out of the office (even if it's only simple webmail). Whether you need 24/7 access (and whether that's sensible) is up to you. You also need to 'train' staff on to how best to use email and the internet and set up appropriate policies for guidance and management.
Why do you need one and how are you going to manage it? True, nearly every organisation has one but they come with responsibilities. You need to design it well (make information easy to find as much as pretty to look at). You might want to make it interactive (but forums will need to be managed), full of resources (a good way to keep people coming back as long as its up to date) and cutting edge technology (but that costs money and needs skills). Do you want to update information yourself (you should!) and will you need a content management system? If as much effort went into planning the purpose and information content and structure of a website as the pretty colours and pictures, we would all be better off. Managed well, the website can field most of your general enquiries, raise awareness of your organisation and make a big impact for you. And that's the key to a successful website… 'managed well'.
Internet connectivity (broadband and narrowband impacts)
Connectivity is becoming less of an issue these days as broadband reaches more and more people. If you haven't got broadband, you need to plan ALL your resource management and information access around that, or find a way to get broadband. It's worth considering the hidden costs of taking longer to do things if you haven't got high speed internet access. It's also worth making sure your broadband connection is fast enough for all the information it needs to carry – this is more of an issue as medium sized organisations start sharing database information over the web rather than simply using the connection for email and general internet activity.
Out of office remote access
Ask yourself who needs to access their office computer out of the office. Outreach workers? Senior management? Sometimes you can manage with copying files onto a USB stick to work on at home (if you're fortunate enough to have a computer to work on at home). Sometimes you'll need to take a laptop with you (whilst travelling or doing outreach work and presentations). Sometimes you'll need to access email or server/PC documents from home or another location and need a secure out of office connection – most likely for senior managers or staff based a long way from the office who need to work on files not close at hand. None of this is complicated but is better planned at the beginning.
My favourite website story concerns a small community group in Manchester who asked me in to help build a website. The dialogue went something like this:
VCO: We need a website?
Web person (WP): Why?
VCO: Because everyone else has one
Web person (WP): That's not a good reason but let's talk some more. Who is the website aimed at?
VCO: Our clients. They're 13-15 year old Afro-Caribbean boys.
Web person (WP): OK. Are there any specific characteristics about these boys and their environment?
VCO: They come from very poor homes.
Web person (WP): OK, so they're not likely to have computers or internet connections at home?
Web person (WP): Well, maybe they could access the website at school or a community centre. Anything else you could tell me about them?
VCO: Most of them can't read.
Web person (WP): At all?
VCO: Yes. Most of them are almost functionally illiterate.
Web person (WP): OK, so you want to build a website for a bunch of young people who don't have access to the internet and can't read…
VCO: Ah, I see what you mean…
The project didn't go any further at that point or rather it was focused at being a communications/marketing project aimed at the young people using non-ICT methods. Now, some of you will be thinking…
They could have built a website to provide information for funders and other interested parties? Yes.
They could have built a website which was very visual/graphical and engaged the young people that way? Yes.
But that wasn't what they needed to do. They needed to communicate with people who couldn't read and didn't use websites. It's important to know what you're trying to do rather than simply going for the 'popular' solution.
Phase Five summary
Do we understand:
- How we communicate, who with, when, what, why and what suits them best?
- How we want to use email in the organisation and are staff clear about it?
- The purpose and function of our website and how it is managed effectively?
- The impact of our internet connection
- How we might best use our ICT out of the office, whether that's a USB stick, a laptop, webmail or a secure connection to the office computers?
It's time to talk about computers… hardware, equipment and networks.
What do we need to do the job, for the people to achieve their aims? If there's only one of you, then a single computer will do. If you move around a lot, then use a laptop. If you can share a PC, that's great.
If there are a few of you, you probably need a small number of computers. You might want to connect them on something called a peer to peer network and share your printer and your internet connection.
If there are more than five of you, it's time to upgrade to a client-server system. Your individual computers connect to the main server which stores all your email and documents and is usually managed by an IT person (either within your organisation or externally).
So, computers (and/or laptops) for people to use. A server (possibly) to store information and manage the internet connections and printers. One or more printers (laser or inkjet? Mono or colour? Capable of printing double sided or not? Works with a network or needs to be plugged into an individual computer?). Maybe a scanner? A few of those little USB keys to carry files around on. Or and the network cabling, router and everything else that goes with networks and servers.
It's not cheap, but if your aims and objectives fit, it's usually a very sound investment.
Three year replacement strategy
Computers don't last forever. In general you should be looking to replace your equipment every three or four years and you should be budgeting to do that now not later. Imagine wasting 20% of your time. You wouldn't do it would you? But that's exactly what you are doing with a four year computer which hasn't be properly looked after.
Don't overspecify equipment
It's tempting to buy the biggest and most expensive box of tricks you can but think what you need. Will you really need a 128MB state of the art graphics card for preparing a simple powerpoint? Do you really need that expensive software/printer/joystick package/bundle? Most PCs are sold for the home market and are more expensive than what you need for the office. Get some expert advice and buy what you need whilst taking care to futureproof to some extent.
Peripherals and small white boxes
Could you use an iPod? Well, could you? If it's useful, and you can justify it, put it in. Don't sell your strategy short but don't drop in toys for the sake of it.
Phase Six summary
- Are we being sensible about our choices? Have we got some expert, independent advice?
- Are we future proofed?
- Do the tools fit the task?
- Have we thought how we'll replace this in a few years time? (Think now, replace later!)
How vital is your ICT?
How long can you live without ICT? Sure we can still use telephones (as long as we don't store all the numbers in our shared database) and pens and paper. But how dependent are you on all that information in your system, on communicating via email, on using technology? The more important your system is, the more important it is that you get reliable, speedy ICT support.
The cost of downtime
I can live without my computer and do some of my best work with pen and paper. But on a deadline, when I need to send an important email or funding application, or dig up a file I don't have a paper copy of (the perils of being environmentally friendly and not printing it off), I NEED ICT and I NEED IT NOW. It may frustrate me but it will rarely be fatal (just more expensive some times than others). However, if you have 20 staff sitting around because they can't do their work, you've got a very expensive problem, and presumably some unhappy clients.
The cost of inefficiency (staff time or slow computers/applications)
We've already mentioned this briefly before but saving £500 on a new PC when your £25,000 staff member is wasting up to a day a week being hampered by a slow computer which crashes, loses documents which need to be rewritten and generally frustrates morale… well, it should be a no brainer. But it's not to some organisations. We see it happen time and time again. We haven't got £500 they say. Well, do you have £5,000 a year to waste on wages then?
New computers and new software don't come without costs but they're rarely as expensive as the ineffective and inefficient systems they ought to replace.
How much could you save with a better database shared amongst all staff members for instance?
The 50:1 rule of internal staff
If you have 50 staff, you should have one full time IT worker. If you have five staff, you should have 0.1 IT workers. Whatever the case, you should have some outside expertise (which costs money but hopefully less than you lose by having unproductive staff and a funding proposal which didn't get there because your computer broke). And you need SOMEONE to take responsibility and accountability for ICT in the organisation. If it's you and Fred, it has to be either you OR Fred. Even a five year old can change a printer cartridge under instruction. Make sure everyone can, and does, and make it simple to do things by putting up simple instructions by the printer… When someone goes really wrong, make sure you're got a number to call to get it fixed there and then.
Measure against 'lost resources'
Downtime costs money. What could you be doing with that time and those resources? How many lives are you impacting because you didn't buy a technical support contract?
Phase Seven summary
Do we know:
- How vital ICT is to our organisation and when we can't afford it to fail?
- The cost of downtime (by the hour) and of inefficiency?
- How many internal staff we need for ICT?
- Exactly what we need to do when something goes wrong so we're back up to speed as soon as possible?
It's time to look at people again and more specifically to consider the role of those outside the organisation.
Who does what and why around ICT?
Strategy, management (and budgeting), operations, technical support, development, training, project management… it all needs doing but by whom. If there's just you, then you need to decide what you'll do and what you'll 'outsource'. If there's a group of you, it's wise to split the roles as long as someone has overall accountability. Remember, it two people have responsibility for something, usually nobody does.
Internal/DIY, volunteers, consultants – horses for courses
What can (and should) you do yourself? It makes sense to learn how to do basic housekeeping on your computer (and to set it up to take care of most of that automatically). It makes sense to work on your own budgets (although you might want outside advice) to work with someone with an independent view to set your strategy (you know what you need to do and where you're going but maybe you lack the overall perspective of someone less intimately involved). It might make sense for you to update your own website, but not necessarily design it. It's up to you to decide what your skills are (and those within your organisation) and how those best fit the skills involved. In a small organisation it's rarely sensible to have a skilled member of staff fixing computers instead of working with clients (unless you're actually an ICT organisation). It's pointless learning how to do something if you'll only ever use that skill once. Make a judgement call, see what you can, want to and should do and then hand everything else over to either a volunteer or a paid consultant. Think about what we said about the relative costs and 'lost resources'. Managing an expert to do a specialised job is usually easier than doing something yourself and generally more cost-effective in the long run. If you've got less than 30 staff and you're running a server which manages your email and stores all your data, you'd better make damn sure you have somewhere to turn to when (not if) it breaks. External technical support contracts cost serious money, but so will a day of mishaps with no work happening and no clients being helped.
As to whether to use volunteers (and www.it4communities.org.uk and www.mediatrust.org are good sources) or paid consultants, well how soon do you want it done and how tightly do you want it tied down in contracts? If the answers are now and very, then pay someone. Volunteers are great, but have plenty of other things to do and may want more flexible working – also they'll generally take longer to find. But there are different strokes for different folks and you won't know until you're tried a few. The morale of the story is: use the right person for the right job at the right time.
Keeping things running smoothly
It's important someone has overall management, control, accountability and responsibility for ICT. It might be you! Make sure you know what's going on, who's doing what and when, and how it all fits together.
Dangers of dependency
It's hard to believe that organisations can become addicted to consultancy but it sometimes happens. Use the people you need and then figure out an exit strategy. This is especially important when using volunteers as they generally don't stick around for ever. If you're using paid consultants, you'll also find your budget starts getting hit! Plan for the future and use the right mix of internal and external, paid and volunteer, to get the right result.
Phase Eight summary
- Do you know who does what and why around ICT?
- Do the tasks and roles match the skills and the most effective 'use' of that person?
- What should you do internally and when should you call in the experts?
- Are you using the right mix of internal and external, paid and volunteer, for your ICT?
- Do you have a back up plan for when the consultants and volunteers move on?
Advice and support
- Funding and finance
- Coping with cuts
- Addressing needs
- Managing change
- Planning for the future
- Involving people
- Public Service Delivery
- Governance and leadership
- Compact Advocacy programme
- Campaigning and influencing policy
- Collaborative working
- ICT (information and communication technology)
- Climate change
- People, HR and employment