Thursday, June 22, 2006

Wiki in the Museum Workplace

Richard Florida points out in "The Rise of the Creative Class" one of the most powerful opportunities in the creative economy is the reduction of boundaries, hierarchy and the increase of diversity in the work place. This applies equally to the corporate and nonprofit world.

There is perhaps no better technical realization of Florida's creative class ideas than the Wiki. The Wiki paradigm is a prime example of broadening and diversifying the creative voice and stake of employees in the nonprofit workplace. It comes in many flavors, programming languages, implementations, and architectures. In the end, the Wiki is the same; it is a democratic platform for information sharing, editing and contributing. It is a paradigm shift (both technically and editorially) for most organizations and one that many are curious and anxious to test.

Strangely, this revolution has lent itself to the most extreme applications and thinking. When considering Wiki, organizational dialogue has trended towards placing a Wiki on outer-facing contact points such as Wiki external relations or community building. It seems that even before a robust online community has been built for organizations, a Wiki is thrown up as a marketing device and interaction tool. This does a disservice to both the community and the technology. Rushing the Wiki to production seems a tad hasty - especially given that even Wikipedia has shifted to a managed editorial review process. Perhaps it is time to pause and reconsider the Wiki just a bit...

The genesis of the Wiki was a technical implementation for sharing code and best practices amongst computer programmers. On internal, specific projects, a Wiki is a great tool for building towards common goals and sharing knowledge. For good reason, this tool has grown within the technology community and gained many proponents. However, this acceptance and distribution process took time and involved a long lifecycle of technology need, innovation, learning and acceptance amongst the community.

If you love Wiki, can't get enough of it, I would suggest starting simple and getting back to basics. It might be better to introduce the Wiki paradigm internally first to test your own political, administrative and technical waters. This makes sense and is entirely in-line with the initial applications of the Wiki principle. Perhaps implement a Wiki-style intranet page of staff comments and suggestions. If successful, other services and applications will follow; dynamic FAQ's, a collaborative customer service knowledge base for front-line service employees or even an executive Wiki to hash out strategic direction. In all these suggestions, there is a growing of the Wiki power to foster collaboration.

In the end, Wiki is more than a coding and collaboration platform and must be understood astransformationive perspective, one that can improve management, productivity, employee buy-in and ultimately service. But, the milestones for integrating and achieving this transformation should be measured. A Wiki, like any technology is neither a panacea nor a downfall; it is a tool that users must need, grow to appreciate and understand before it is, ultimately, relied upon.

The revolution may be here, but it will take time for everyone to appreciate it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

On Innovation (II)

Beyond Competition and Dependency

I received some great feedback to my last post: the imaged letter to the CEO of a corporation serving the nonprofit world. In this installment, I want to expand on that conversation and use that feedback as a counterpoint to expound and refine some further possibilities.

One great piece of criticism I received on the initial letter was that innovation should be coming from nonprofit support organizations, the open source community and even organizations themselves. I certainly agree. Ideally, these sources would power innovation. Practically, though there are a number of reasons innovation does not circulate freely within the nonprofit sector. Mostly, the dispersion of innovation across the nonprofit sector is hampered by two forces, competition and vendor dependency.

On competition; organizations need to programmatically define advantage and uniqueness in their fields. Therefore, a cultural organization with a distinct content delivery mechanism, a humanitarian aid group with unparalleled impact reporting and stewardship mechanisms, a university with distinct alumni relations and community technology, these are competitive advantages to raise more money, serve more people, attract greater attention to a mission and an organization. In an online and offline world of finite constituent attention and fundraising dollars; there is a very real pressure to protect internally defined and developed best practices and solutions.

How would this competition be overcome? There would have to be some group that was immune or beyond competition for fundraising dollars. This group would need to have substantial technology expertise, knowledge of nonprofit business practices of varying scales and would need to be large enough to support the differing programming needs of the breadth of third sector institutions nationwide.

The open source community fits this description on most counts. A group of innovators above organizational segmentation, the open source community (OSC) occupies an unique position and outlet for defining nonprofit best practices in both theory and practice. Indeed, open-source is a powerful tool for those technology shops with the expertise and resources to integrate disparate open source parts into their technical environments. But from my experience, the majority of nonprofits are not looking for the moving parts to build a technology engine, they are looking for a fully formed product - a panacea. As such, the vast majority of innovation and best practices at the enterprise level are being defined by the small handful of nonprofit enterprise vendors that were able to ride the venture capital wave and also survive the bubble collapse; those megaliths that steer nonprofits through the sheer weight of their market share and product offerings.

There are certainly some exceptions; take Koha, an open source integrated library system. It is really a fantastic project, one that I have followed for some time, but one that has difficulty keeping up with the innovations of its commercial counterparts - for example, in regards to the Z39.50 standard. There is just not enough of a committed and educated user community to sustain a level of parallel innovation. As library technology continues to advance , this gap will only widen between the innovation offered by Koha and those of its commercial counterparts. I explore this example, not to undermine this respected project, but to outline the very real challenges of open source innovation for small and medium-sized nonprofits.

This is why I start with the CEO; a top-down approach. This would fit the previously outlined requirements description as well, technical expertise, size, knowledge of nonprofit operations at a variety of levels. I believe the route that will ultimately create a mutually-supportive cycle of technology need, innovation and capacity building within the nonprofit sector is encouraging (even demanding) more forward-looking, transparent and open commercial products. To reward vendors when they are expansive in their vision of new technologies (and penalize them for the downward spiral of non-productive version and upgrade co-dependency) will benefit all and create a foundation for future growth. I am not advocating a new run-for-the-vendors ideology. I am speaking on behalf of a new idea of the relationship between vendor and customer. With the shifting of that paradigm, a greater wave will be possible; a wave that includes organizations, technology vendors and a growing community of open source practitioners, looking for new and engaging ways of extending, improving and connecting various technologies.

I can anticipate the questions: Is this new idea even possible? What would it entail?

Look around. There is already a shift in the relationship between open source and the corporate sector. It is apparent in Java's recent dabbling, IBM's reliance on Linux, even Microsoft's suggested opening of code. The behemoths of the corporate IT world are cracking the flood gates. Why? Not because they are adherents or believers of open source, but because it makes good business sense. As a further example of how this paradigm shift can play out, consider the Google API community. By publishing API's, creating windows into their inner-workings, extending the capabilities of its commercial products, a whole range of software and applications are available. This open-source model (driven by the corporation) is compatible both with the bottom-line as well as linkage with the community of users and practitioners. Now it is time for nonprofit technology corporations to follow. Where is our sector's Google?

Friday, June 16, 2006

On Innovation (I)

An Imagined Letter to the CEO of a Nonprofit Technology Company

Dear Sir,

I just wanted to follow-up on your presentation last night. It was very nice to meet you and I think the discussion was a fruitful one for the wide range of experience levels present. Personally, it was certainly interesting to hear the perspective of someone such as yourself, a thought leader in the field, who has seen the growing tide of ePhilanthropy since its infancy.

One thought that struck me is the importance of continued innovation for nonprofits. Technology in the non-profit world, unlike government or corporate, has a tough time mitigating the pressures to fulfill their missions while also exploring new mediums, outlets and constituencies to direct their message. It occurred to me that it is incredibly important for vendors in your field to be warrior-poets in a sense. It is critical to the health of the third sector that technology vendors not only fight to bring new products and innovations to market, but also power an informed, forward-looking and critical discourse on what the ethical and operative terms for managing nonprofit technology are. The fact that you study, advocate and have built ethical fundraising foundations into your product is critical. As web technology powers ever greater portions of the cultural and transactional lives of individuals, the importance of individual such as yourself will only increase.

As such, I greatly appreciated your closing remarks touching on web 2.0 trends. I believe it is important for both today's and tommorow's nonprofit leaders to understand that donor/consumer expectations surrounding organizational transparency, approachability and usability (via technology) will only increase. The bar will be raised, neither by vendors nor the tech marketplace, but by those that are looking for information and services in new, previously unforeseen mediums. Expanded expectations will be driven by constituents continuously. Whether the nonprofit sector wants it or not, online communication and service strategies will have to keep pace.

I look forward to hearing your response on these topics.


The Nonprofit Community


This is the first of many installments of what I hope will become a staple of analysis on technology issues from a cultural sector perspective. It is my hope, that this blog will benefit a range of technology employees from entry-level to managers.

Some may ask why another perspective on technology is necessary in the already over saturated blogsphere. (And only in reference to Museums? What a tiny niche!) Futher, I can anticipate the protests that cultural technology's concerns are really no different than those in the business world. If there is a difference, it is just one of scale. I can understand how such perspective could arise, but I could not disagree more strongly. On a plethora of issues, from salaries to development resources, from professional growth opportunities to the relationship with the software market, Museum and cultural technology operates in a de facto different world than its counterparts in the corporate world. The discrepancy between these two worlds often leaves nonprofit technology professionals afloat on a sea of ideas, perspectives, products and advice that are never entirely applicable to their organizations.

It is my opinion that amongst all nonprofit technology professionals there are few reliable sources for technology news and analysis. Further, the level of professional discourse surrounding nonprofit technology management, ethics, horizons and impact is relatively low. This state is not reflective of the quality of workers in the nonprofit technology field, but rather parallels the lack of communication and analytic mediums. Without a platform for a more pervasive and professional dialogue of what delineation and meaning are derived from nonprofit technology as a profession (opposed to its current self-understanding as an extension/reduction of corporate and government technology), its management and execution will be continually under informed as to accountability, direction and opportunities.

As a counterpoint, consider the field of fundraising. Nonprofit fundraising, as a profession, has grown by leaps and bounds in the last three decades. The professionalization of fundraising has arisen in no small part because of the need of nonprofit organizations to identify a core skill and knowledge base when making hiring and promotion decisions. Throughout the 70's and 80's it became clear to nonprofit boards that the skills needed to successfully manage and operate a fundraising program differ significantly from those in related corporate and even nonprofit realms. Even those staff members within organizations with experience in nonprofit administration often did not have requisite knowledge and perspective to move into the fundraising world.

In the last decade, to help serve this need, professional trainining and accredidation programs, certificates, and now Master's Degrees are offered in support of the professional fundraiser. Parallel to these educational opportunities, a wealth of information resources have also arisen to identify industry trends, changes in fundraising cultures, as well as, outlets for self-analysis and critique. The Chronicle of Philanthropy has been published since 1997, both defining a community of fundraisers and simultaneously defining the terms of that community; its applications, issues and opportunities.

It is my hope that in some small way, this blog will help to extend and deepen the community and conversations of technology professionals in the cultural world.