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Organizational Barriers to Using Web 2.0 Tools

Earlier this week I was reflecting on some of the challenges of technology stewardship in nonprofit and government agencies. I mentioned that I'd done training for a government client that blocked access to sites such as Google Mail and how this obviously impacts staff's ability to use many of the tools I talk about. (Fortunately the IT department had not been told to block access to Wetpaint or some of the online career assessment tools I used in my training or I would have had a big problem!)

Now I see that Bev Trayner had a similar experience:

"First I couldn't get Firefox to work. And second I couldn't download the new Google groups. These things can only be done by someone from the IT department I was told. So we phoned the IT department who agreed to send someone in two days to do it.  He spoke of difficulties and permissions and copyright - but agreed to do it as a special case for these people as they were involved in this particular project.

I had had a similar conversation with him about installing Skype a few days earlier (not in the office, but on a computer we were going to use in a hotel at a meeting) but had let the conversation ride .."

This reminded me of an e-mail conversation I've been having with a nonprofit user in Australia. She pointed out to me that while she sees that social media tools make it easier for non-technical types to integrate technology into their workflow, at the same time there's an ongoing organizational message that says "Leave the technology stuff to the IT department." 

I'm seeing a real tension developing between where various new tools are taking us and how organizations are responding. Most organizational cultures haven't caught up to technology and  institutional barriers are getting in the way of even experimenting with new technologies. A couple that I've been seeing:

  • The Tyranny of the Expert--IT has always been regarded as this very specialized, highly difficult to understand area of expertise. Partially this is because it has been difficult to understand and using many technologies did require a higher level of expertise. But as tools become easier and easier to use, reality is that non-technical people can certainly learn how to use what were once highly sophisticated technology tools. The problem is that there's a mysticism around technology that has developed and I'm not sure too many people within organizations are doing much to dispel this notion.

The problem with this tyranny of the expert is that it breeds user dependence. If I have to rely on someone else to figure out the technology for me, then I'm going to be helpless without that tech person around. I won't think about using tech unless the tech person (or my management) explicitly says I must because thinking about using technology isn't part of my job. It's someone else's. That's not true and I think it's a major barrier to doing work more efficiently and effectively.

  • Bureaucracy and Command and Control--Most government agencies and a large number of nonprofits are built upon a hierarchical, command and control organizational structure. This culture requires that people must go through endless layers of permissions to get anything accomplished. It is exactly the kind of environment that kills experimentation and innovation, two attributes that are critical in an organization that is looking to adopt new technological tools. Bureaucracy is about maintaining the status quo. Using new media is decidedly NOT about that.

I think there are others, but these are two that have been on my mind lately because they are so ubiquitous in my clients. I'd be curious to hear more about other experiences and perspectives in this arena. What do you see in your work?


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There may be other issues but I think you've hit the most basic two right on the head. An organization can't use tech tools without 1) the right internal policies, and 2) skills. I'll give you another mind-boggling example: At a large quasi-government organization I work with in a major American city, the IT department recently set their system to strip ALL Word documents from incoming e-mails, due to concerns about viruses. This went on for weeks. How were employees expected to do their jobs? A command-and-control structure combined with an IT attitude of "we know what's best for you" became a barrier to getting work done.

As discussed via email with you, our situation is less that we have an actual IT department to form a barrier, and more that the lack of knowledge/skills with staff that was preventing us from moving forward.

Therefore the culture was such that there was a gap that needed to be filled. We simply reached a point where someone who could see the potential came along, and presented it in such a way that we would be doing ourselves a disservice *not* to step forward!

Again, as I said to you, my experience and background as "the IT guy" is all self-taught, but perhaps that's the best way to go about it... proving to people how easy and useful the DIY culture/approach is?

Of course, we do have some technical support, via an IT firm who manage the programming side of things, and our on-site server. We've found a good fit with them, though, in that they are skilled at working with nonprofits and thus good at finding and configuring open source software for us when we need it. Though ours is the last word when it comes to how we want our security to work, over the past year or two their trust in me has improved greatly so that now we collaborate (as opposed to simply seeking solutions from them) on things on a lot more even playing field, and they allow me access to more of the tech side of things, because they know I'm keen on being able to handle the stuff I know myself :)

This is a big improvement in the way we run our IT, I feel, because (and this may be a generalisation!) in my experience IT techs are good at configuring and programming useful things, but when it comes to design and being user-friendly, they're not so good. By having some understanding of the way the technology/software works and what it's capable of, as well as the understanding of how it needs to interface with the visitor/author, we've been able to work much better with the IT firm - requesting specific software to install and configure in a particular way - and having the expertise in-house for them to trust us to make those calls.

So that gap between the IT dept building/installing tools, and the organisation's (perhaps sometimes slightly ephemeral) concepts of what they want the tool to do, is bridged by having knowledge enough of the tool *and* the drive behind it to choose the right one and configure its interface in order for it to function most effectively.

One of the things that differs with nonprofits in comparison to govt and business is that often there is a shortage of human resources, which leads to staff taking on a number of tasks and roles which may be outside their initial job description. This can lead to being over-stretched, sure, but it's also a pretty fertile opportunity for all the Time Magazine's "You"s to put their skills into action where they'll make a big difference, evolving the tech culture in nonprofits where there's a barrier in the form of an IT dept or just outdated understandings of what can be achieved with the resources available.


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