sam-vosLet’s face it, upgrading your information system is a stressful process that many organisations tend to avoid until it becomes obvious that their systems need to be upgraded. In this article, Sam Vos, director of Connect Consulting shares a few practical steps that non-profits can undertake to steer their organisations towards successful information management system implementation. Connect Consulting was founded in 2010 to help non-profit organisations implement Since inception, it has helped numerous organisations ranging from small non-profits to large global pharmaceutical companies to complete successful information management systems implementations.

Non-profits do some of the most important work in society today, yet the systems that they employ to drive their mission are often lagging behind the good work that they do.  Many realise this and would love to improve their information systems but we all know that when it comes to information system implementations, success can be difficult to achieve. Imagine the following scenario:

Two non-profits set out to buy any information system. After four months of work, one has an information system that completely answers all of the key questions they want to answer in their organisation. Their staff absolutely loves this system and use it every day. Information feels familiar and even the processes that are used to populate the system are familiar, the data is accommodated in a system that is much more robust than their previous attempts in Excel and Access and the new system prompts users at the right time to improve data integrity and timeous action. The new “bird’s eye view” vantage point that the information system gives, fuels many of the business decisions going forward. For this non-profit organisation, the information age has truly arrived!

The other non-profit however having spent just as much money and waited just as long, is not so lucky.  They are sitting with a collection of tables and forms and fields but nothing feels like it could be useful in helping them make priority decisions.  Staff hate the system and loathe to use it. Reports are ineffective and even though the system is new, many are already wishing they could change a fair chunk of it. The only thing stopping them from making these changes are that the thought of going back to consultants to spend more precious resources to make further modification is completely out of the question. In no time at all, staff resort to using spreadsheets, notebooks and other methods to record the work that they are doing and wish they’d never heard off this information system. The question is where did it all go wrong?

Sadly, the scenario plays itself out all too often. It is also not confined to non-profits either; even corporate clients sometimes spend precious money on information systems only to see the implementation under-deliver in a significant way.  So why do so many organisations get it wrong while others succeed?  The answer, we feel, is made up of a number of factors:

1. Systems thinking vs people thinking

Many organisations are comprised of employees that focus on programme work specifically. Their caring nature allows them to respond wisely to the hardships that their clients face and this is often the reason why they choose to work at non-profits. But effective non-profits should also have individuals who think about systems. What are the processes that deliver change or help clients? How do clients, cash and reputation come to us, get processed by us and leave us?  The more an organisation can articulate their processes, the easier it is to help them implement an information system. If this is not your forte, don’t panic. You should just be aware of it and then make sure that you find a consultant that can map your processes for you.

 2. Cash available

With typical system implementation costs ranging from R50 000 to R250 000 (and more!), many non-profits struggle to make that investment. Many fall into the trap of thinking that shopping around for the lowest price is the best way to get value for money. If not that, they are persuaded by consultants that offer to on-board 10 departments at once, i.e. they seek to get a good return on investment. Sadly price is not an indication of quality, (neither high prices nor low prices) so in the next section, we offer a few things to consider when you are looking for a consultant.  The good news is that funders are increasingly prepared to invest money into a system to ensure that their other investment in the organisation is well accounted for. When strained for cash, one strategy that many of our clients employ is to do a phased implementation. In year 1 they will bring all contacts and accounts into the system, then in year 2 they will upgrade the system of the fundraising department, in year 3 they will invest in the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) tracking etc.

 3) It’s not worth the effort / risk

With results as variable as our introduction highlights, I can understand why organisations feel like this. We would concur that many organisations can get away with a basic system for many years but we would argue that it is best to invest in a system as soon as possible even if it is a system made up of a series of Excel tables! To have a clear system, that actually tracks what makes a difference vs what does not is crucial to your growth and ability to persuade donors to invest in you.  Getting staff to use it from day one helps everyone to develop the discipline of recording service delivery. When you realise the shortcomings of Excel (e.g. freedom to see and change fields at random, lack of data integrity etc.) you can consider upgrading your system to more formal systems at that stage.

Additional Resource

Read Sam’s follow up to this article: Implementing an information system? Here’s what to look out for