Technology and the voluntary sector: Don’t (always) believe the hype

Gareth Lloyd is a research officer at NCVO. He works to extract information and guidance for the voluntary sector from a Nesta-funded Innovation project. He is also working on the European Commission funded project REVEAL to develop multilingual self-assessment and training materials for the voluntary sector.

One of the most important questions for voluntary sector organisations of all sizes is how their work can be supported by technology. We have talked before about how the sector needs to identify technology that is replicable and has low barriers to uptake, but we have also recently carried out a research project with Tata Consultacy Services on this issue, which involved an evidence review, mapping exercise and workshop with voluntary sector experts.

Here’s a brief overview of what we learned, including the different challenges for large and small organisations; as well as those that apply to everyone.

Grand ambitions

First, our work looked at the attraction – and possible dangers of – investing in new and largely unproven technologies. We have seen the voluntary sector undergo fleeting love affairs with new and exciting types of technology, such as big data, crowdfunding and bitcoin; and we go through periods of hearing about technologies that have the potential to change the way that the sector works.

One current example is virtual reality: we hear about many organisations, including those from the voluntary sector being excited about the potential of this incredible technology that will let us reach beneficiaries and funders in new ways. But there are organisations who’ve invested millions in creating these immersive experiences, who are now finding that the mass consumer uptake of virtual reality isn’t happening. The implication is that these applications of technology are not only risky in financial terms, but also disproportionately difficult to replicate more widely.

Baby steps

For smaller organisations these grand, ambitious projects often aren’t an option. The day-to-day reality for many organisations is that there is not only no money for these projects, but little existing use of technology: this might mean no infrastructure, no IT staff, and use of paper-based systems and records. But even at this level, organisations can fall into the same trap as the bigger ones who may invest in a new technology-led project that’s aimed at revolutionising their day to day work, but in practice only manages to eat through funds and irritate staff members. In such cases, organisations benefit by focusing on changes that are small, relevant, affordable, and meaningful.

Defining problems and choosing solutions

For all the challenges mentioned so far, the underlying issue is the same: a mismatch between the problem to be solved and the solution implemented. The answer is to focus on the problem that you’re trying to solve, whether approaching it as a technology issue or not, and then look at the ways that technology can help you. For example, Jointly – the app developed by Carers UK to enable conversation between groups of carers – stands out as a problem that could have been addressed without use of technology, but was eventually enhanced by it.

But organisations also have to ensure that the technology used to solve those problems is cost effective, time effective, and appropriate for them in terms of where they are starting from. If the solution you choose is tying you up in knots, maybe it isn’t a solution at all.

Our research came up with some high level principles that organisations can use to avoid these problems, and try to ensure that adopting technology transforms the day-to-day activities of organisations while minimising disruption.

Consider mature technologies first

We found that more mature technologies seemed to be more replicable and have fewer barriers to uptake. When we say ‘mature’ technologies, it’s partly to do with them having been around longer, but equally that they’re cheaper, work on generic hardware or platforms, better supported, and have been used for a wider variety of tasks. Immature technologies are generally newer, and usually perceived as an ambitious new way to solve problems or get ahead of the competition, but they’re also less supported, dependent on specialised hardware and need more skills to implement.

In our report we talk about game creation as an example of a technology that started as immature, but matured over time. In the early days, creating and distributing even a simple game was limited to those with high levels of technical knowledge and specialist equipment. Today, equivalent games can be created in a matter of hours on generic, free software.

Think iterations, rather than discrete projects

Participants at our workshop talked about how the discrete project model doesn’t quite work when trying to embed technology at an organisation. That is, rather than these projects having straightforward planning and implementation phases, they need to be introduced iteratively, as an ongoing process of deployment, evaluation and redesign. Introducing technology in this way minimises risk, helps to ensure that the solution fits the problem, and ensures that it is tailored to the needs of the people who will use it on a day to day basis.

If you are interested in this research you can read the executive summary here, the full slide deck here, or find details of the Spark Salon event where it was launched here. We’re interested to hear how you have enhanced – or perhaps even disrupted – your day to day work by adopting technology; please tell us in the comments.

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