What do you do when an earthquake wipes out your data infrastructure, you have to rebuild from scratch, and you are a not-for-profit delivering health-care and community services with limited funding? For starters, talk with Peter Deefholts, a practice lead with Theta, New Zealand.
That’s the position Deefholts found himself in after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked Christchurch, New Zealand, on February 22, 2011. The event destroyed over 300 commercial buildings and left many community and healthcare service providers unable to access their clients’ data. At the time, Deefholts worked with some 50 organizations under a program of work jointly funded by the New Zealand Government and Microsoft to get not-for-profits up and running again, and enable them to become more resilient organizations.
Two years later, he found himself working for New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA), a not-for-profit organization that places volunteers in roles across the Asia-Pacific region. The same challenges of resilience that he saw in Christchurch were faced by VSA and the Asian and Pacific communities in which it operates when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The natural disaster that ensued erased decades of work by communities supported by VSA in just a few hours.
VSA’s data infrastructure need to be rebuilt from scratch—a sizable undertaking—and Deefholts thought Business Intelligence (BI) held the key. He had become a believer in the power of BI years before when he witnessed first-hand the cultural transformation of a large services delivery organization. The transformation had come about, in large part, as a direct result of its giving all of its staff access to good quality operational and outcomes data, and empowering them to act on it.
“With immediate access to accurate information about any aspect of your business, there is a significant shift in corporate culture,” said Deefholts. “When managers and staff lose the ability to hide behind debates about inaccurate data and vague interpretations of its significance, management teams start, almost magically, to seek ways to change things to fix the numbers. Discussions that once focused on the problem now focus on solutions.”
According to Deefholts, with a well-architected BI solution, an organization can track the success of its efforts on a daily basis; and respond immediately to change and new opportunities. By focusing on its metrics day after day, month after month, it can develop an outstanding information culture, which makes it very resilient, irrespective of any challenges it faces.
Deefholts also knew that BI was key to evidencing outcomes for not-for-profits; especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Many are funded by international aid agencies and dependent on proving they are delivering the results for which they are being funded. A good outcomes framework can provide the needed empirical evidence; however, for many not-for-profits this is an enormous challenge. Their numbers aren’t always able to stand up to the increasingly intense scrutiny of funders, and, while they may be delivering great outcomes and great value for the money, they aren’t able to provide the facts to prove it.
While transforming an organization’s information culture to obtain these outcomes might sound like an expensive undertaking, Deefholts believes that being smart about how you do it is the key to success. In the case of VSA, that meant finding good partners to work with and ensuring management was engaged and the champions of cultural change.
Under VSA’s business transition program, suppliers were selected on the basis of their technical competence, willingness to act as both supplier and mentor to the organization, and ability to provide resources at not-for-profit rates. While the program started out with the traditional functional requirements document and subsequent request for proposals from suppliers, it quickly became apparent that the Microsoft not-for-profit licensing was a game changer for VSA, with its very modest budget.
For VSA, the transformation from a Novel operating system, GroupWise email and Paradox database environment, with backup tapes taken home by staff as they had been for nearly 30 years, to one that involved online productivity services hosted over the internet (cloud services) could not have been a more dramatic change in technology. In reality though, the twelve-month program caused little disruption to the business.
A key decision in the process was to use a customer relationship management (CRM) software application without the usual plethora of custom code. “The brief to the solution architect was to configure the system using the tools provided by the platform out-of-the-box, and not to specify custom code unless absolutely necessary,” Deefholts says. The result was a system that meets the complex functional needs of the organization, but only has a handful of custom code. Also, it was architected so as to enable VSA’s more competent users to maintain and modify the system themselves.
Deefholts said that, “within a few weeks of the system going live, the users had taken ownership of it and begun to further tailor it to meet the specific needs of their own teams in a way that I have never seen with a CRM implementation before.”
The infrastructure VSA now has in place meets all of its needs. But it also represents the start of an exciting journey that will see the organization continually innovate using its new tools.
Throughout the process, VSA worked hard to build relationship with suppliers who not only understood the technology, but were also able to deliver the right balance of supplier and mentor. In the end, the two-year infrastructure and system transformation program was delivered for a total budget of $NZD 470,000. It was only 10 percent over the original budget signed off on by the board, despite a significantly expanded scope and VSA having to move out of its building because of earthquake damage.
With the success of VSA’s program of change, a number of other New Zealand not-for-profits (UNICEF New Zealand and Community Law of Aotearoa) have been emboldened to embark on similar projects utilizing a cloud solution and the implementation approach adopted by VSA.
For Deefholts the success of this work is a testament both to the vision of the VSA management team and their staff, but also to the fact that cloud services and configuration-based software solutions are now able to deliver what has long been promised. Ultimately, that means that even organizations with modest budgets can have great systems they are able to truly own, and with enabling technology that has the capacity to continue to meet their needs indefinitely.
Patrick Mannion is the founder and managing director of ClariTek, LLC, a hi-tech journalism and editorial services company. He has been analyzing and writing about engineering, technology, design and the electronics and software industries for over 25 years. If you have a story you would like profiled, contact him at [email protected].
The IT Innovators series of articles is underwritten by Microsoft, and is editorially independent.