\ by Paul Ticher, email@example.com.\
Voluntary organisations often approach a technical expert for help with their computer system.\ But if you are asked for advice about IT or getting on-line because of your technical knowledge, it is easy to overlook the human and organisational aspects. Paul Ticher has worked as an adviser on IT to non-profit organisations for nearly fifteen years, looking especially at the links between information work and IT.
Many organisations not so long ago “got a computer” then wondered why it sat around not being used - perhaps there were no funds for training staff and volunteers, or the person in the organisation who did know how to use it left without passing on their skills. Or maybe their ambitions weren't matched by the equipment, skills and supporting finance available.\ \ This scenario is becoming less common as computer awareness increases, but another is rapidly taking its place: that of the organisation which “goes on the internet” in the same ill-defined way, only to end up disappointed.\ \ IT projects with a high information content have always been prime candidates for disaster. Over the years I have seen many attempts - sometimes very ambitious - to collect information and put it into a database, with no thought for who was going to use it or how the information was to be kept up to date. When the Web came along a very similar thing happened - people got sites, because they thought they ought to, or because the service provider included a small site in its package, but with no clearly thought out idea of what it would be used for, what benefit it would bring, or how it would be kept up to date.\ \ One of the hardest things to tell a client (whether they're paying you or not) is that they don't need you. Yet if your skills are technical and the organisation hasn't sorted out its objectives, it may not be appropriate - yet - for you to be involved. In the long run it's worth being tough: no one wants to be associated with a failed project. So it's always worth asking:
If you're happy with the organisation's answers to all those questions, then you can get down to the technical detail, the cost/benefit analysis and implementation plans.\ \ And there's no doubt that organisations can benefit from the well thought out use of IT. Some of the environmental and campaigning Web sites, in particular, achieve things which just would not be possible in any other way. E-mail and related technologies such as list servers and bulletin boards have enabled isolated experts scattered around the country, perhaps even in different organisations, to collaborate and support each other like never before.\ \ Even relatively humble systems bring benefits if the organisation knows what it is doing. An accounts system can allow faster and better management information, more accurate reports to funders, and better financial control, with a minimal staffing level in the finance department.\ Standard letters can give front-line staff control of their own communications without having to have all the skills of an experienced secretary. Searchable on-line directories (where the information is well-organised and properly indexed) can answer client queries faster and make the job of keeping the information up to date easier.\ \ All these examples are based on real organisations I've had contact with over the last few years.\ They make the point that an IT project needn't be innovative or very elaborate. Provided it really serves the organisation's objectives a cheap and simple solution, implemented with management commitment and support, may be all it takes to make a very real difference.\ \ And when you and the organisation have done everything right, and the project is a success, tell everyone about it! One thing the voluntary sector is very good at is sharing information about good practice and learning from each other. In the end, everybody wins.\ \ Paul Ticher can be contacted on 0116 270 5876, or by e-mail at\ firstname.lastname@example.org.\ \ Back to the Guide to Community Internet\