Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Social Entrepreneurs – driving the next wave of Not-For-Profits?

I've been working on a number of proposals for new projects recently. The organisation I'm on secondment to are working overtime at the moment on trying to secure funding for a whole range of different schemes and I've been right in the middle of it.

I've been amazed at how unstructured the process is here. I'm not sure whether this is a cultural thing, or whether it is an NGO thing, or if it's completely singular to the organisation I'm working with, but the approach is completely back to front at the moment. The good thing is that they're very open to new ideas and I'm already seeing some good new behaviours from the leadership team in terms of taking on board my ideas.

It's made me think about this whole issue though...does the social development sector as a whole suffer from a lack of skills in this area. It wouldn't surprise me – what makes someone a good fund-raiser and able to develop social strategies does not necessarily make that same person a good project manager.

I'm sure that there are people who spend their whole life in NGOs and the Charitable Sector who have never been given training on running a project, creating a budget or writing a proposal. And why should they have? I'm not saying that Big Corporations are the only ones who know how to do that – they're not. Unfortunately though, more often than not, it's someone from a Big Corp. or similar who's holding the purse strings, so being able to put something in front of them that they understand is vital in order to get access to funding – the life blood of any charitable organisation.

Which brings me to a term I heard today for the first time – social entrepreneur. I think it's a fantastic thought. The idea that there are entrepreneurs out there, business people, who understand how to make things happen, working to improve society. Yes, you might not find yourself amassing a personal fortune of $7bn like Mark Zuckerberg, but let's face it, if you're reading this post, chances are that's not your aim anyway!

So, social entrepreneurs – let's have more of them please. Let's take the lessons we've learnt as graduates of Big Corp. Plc. and apply them to the problems facing society today. Let's start our own Not-For-Profits and run them like businesses. Let's make them the best NFPs they can be and in the process maybe, just maybe, we'll make the world a better place at the same time.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

IT Consulting when IT isn't the problem

For those of you who don't know, I'm currently in the Indian state of Jharkhand, in the North of the country, working for a tiny Foundation based here. Ostensibly I'm here as an “MIS Officer”, but I'm basically taking on the role of “Consultant” - unsurprisingly given my background.

What's interesting for me to consider is how much of what we do tends to take an IT flavour, when in reality the underlying problem is not one of technology – that's just the solution we tend to use. If the only thing you have is a hammer, etc.....

Case in point – the charity I'm working with expected me to come in and provide them with an “MIS System”. Ask them to expand on this and they don't really know what they need. It has become pretty apparent that a one-system-to-fix-them-all approach is absolutely not the right answer here. For a start, I'd be significantly concerned about supportability once I've left!

My approach at the moment is to try and bring up their general IT skills. I'm not looking at specific problems yet, I'm not even really doing anything with MIS. What I want is to generate a culture where their employees are really thinking about what they want to do with the data they are collecting and then try to find a way of doing that. This isn't a technology problem – it's a people problem. And that is in no way a slight against the people I'm working with – they're great people who have just never had any exposure to this type of work before.

It's a lesson I hope to be able to take into my work when I return to the UK. Possibly easier said than done – but surely it's worth, every once in a while, taking a step back and asking the question “is this really a tech issue?”

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Knowing what you want

I work in consultancy full-time back in the UK, so I'm fairly used to organisations who aren't entirely sure what they want from me. Normally it's one of two situations:

  • They want a system that will do X, Y and Z, while solving global warming, world peace and finding a cure for AIDS, and they've got a budget less than my local hairdresser spends on styling-mousse. Oh, and if you could finish it a week ago, that would be peachy....
  • You're [insert name of massive, multi-national consultancy firm here] – you tell us what we should be doing. That's what we're paying you for!
Even those two situations are fairly easy for us to deal with. Scenario 1 obviously requires an analysis of what is actually possible, but at least the X, Y and Z represent some sort of end-goal that the organisation is aspiring towards. We may not be able to deliver all of that (obviously budget is another thing entirely) but we can start them on the journey.

Scenario 2 is much more difficult, but the strength of working for a multi-national like I do is the past portfolio of work – the “memory” we have of what has worked before in such-and-such situations. This gives us something to build from. Plus, the client invariably knows what it *doesn't* want - so if you get it wrong, you soon find out!

But what about the situation where the organisation you're working with doesn't know what they want (or thinks they do, but when put on the spot is completely unable to articulate it)? What do you do in that situation?

Well, that's the situation I find myself in here. I'm in a culture I don't know, in an industry I barely have any knowledge of, with an organisation looking for “MIS” - without really knowing what they mean by that....

So I'm starting from scratch. I'm trying to assess exactly what goes on in their daily business and basically doing some “first principles” analysis. There's no other way to do it. Sometimes you don't get it offered to you on a plate – a ready-made set of requirements all nicely laid out and categorised for you.

However, I don't think that this situation should be any different to normal. As consultants we should approach every job like this – reflecting on what it is exactly that the client needs and taking the time at the start to agree on what that is. Ultimately this is the only way that you end up delivering on your requirements – and isn't that what we're all striving for in the end?