Appendix A: Technology Horizons

Smaller, faster, cheaper

As a reader of this book you deserve the authors' best guess at some of the future technologies which might be of importance to the not-for-profit sector.  We shall go out on a long limb and share with you some trends which we believe have some staying power and are worth bearing in mind when formulating an IT strategy for a not-for-profit organisation.

Before we start on some the wacky or esoteric technologies (although we’ll save some, such as quantum computing, for another book), we should encourage you to experiment where possible if you want to investigate new technologies.  Such experimentation is often within the means of not-for-profit organisations (or failing that, on the Santa wish list for not-for-profit people's children).   For instance, depending on your experimental or Santa budget, have you tried:

  • Personal digital assistants (say a Palm or Psion).
  • Speech recognition software.
  • A barcode scanner.
  • A digital camera.
  • A text scanner.
  • A pet robot.
  • A WAP phone.
  • Any other new or strange device? 

Why not?  Many of these “toys” can teach you a lot about the future or current limits of computing devices and at much less cost than a conference or a consultant.

New devices, new software and new technologies come out constantly.  Good sources of product announcements are the COMDEX exhibitions in the USA.  Other sources include a variety of e-magazines on the web.  On the other hand, technology doesn’t really change all that rapidly. Most of the technologies today had some proto-type in the 1960’s or 1970’s - for instance, pull-down menus, mouses, foldable computers, wearable computers, pliable computers, 35mm slide machines, scanners, 3D holographic imaging, handheld computers, voice recognition.  The Internet existed by 1970, when Al Gore was but a lad (one of the authors was using the Internet for work in 1976).   Announcements of the 21st century may not be novel but they do tend to be  “smaller, faster, cheaper”.  This puts technology that seemed futuristic a few years ago within the means of even smaller not-for-profit organisations today.

In short, the remarkable thing today is not new technology, but the ubiquity of computers and networks because they are more portable, much less expensive and do so much more.  At least as interesting are the complex dynamics and timing of technology take-up.  Why did the Internet not become a popular commercial and consumer tool until the late 1990’s?  Why did the personal computer succeed without networks and with limited storage and processor speed? The late night conversations on these subjects haven’t yet reached consensus, and there are many more similar questions.  What is clear is that just because a great technology exists doesn’t mean it will be successful.  Likewise, just because something is successful doesn’t mean it is a great technology.  Technology adoption appears to be inherently complex and bears more than a passing resemblance to fad and fashion.  Not-for-profit organisations should be careful not to spend money "riding a possible fad wave".  Conversely, not-for-profits should not be so slow to adopt technologies that they miss out on possible benefits for years.

E-nduring themes

Amidst all this confusion, admittedly fun and interesting, we believe that there are four enduring themes which are useful to keep in mind alongside “smaller, cheaper, faster” when contemplating the likely future of technologies for the not-for-profit sector.  These themes seem to underlie much past development:

  • Ever-widening world: in which computers have moved out from laboratories to companies to hobbyists to homes to devices to phone networks and have become more and more interconnected.
  • IT as a utility: in which people rapidly take for granted yesterday’s exciting technology and by tomorrow will demand, even insist, that it perform flawlessly.
  • Relationship management: time and again the winners of commercial technology battles seem to be those who service client relationships successfully, not those with the best technology;
  • Human-machine interface advances: the biggest technology jumps are most evident in the interfaces between people and machines. 

Ever-widening world 

This world is one in which computers and networks are ubiquitous.  Not just a computer and internet connection in every home and office, but computers driving every appliance, every light bulb having an internet connection, computer-controlled bodily functions, injectible computers, neuron altering computers or computerised plants using photoluminescence to light footpaths.  In many ways this world is frightening.  One of the obvious social consequences is a lack of privacy and a heightened awareness of security.  Indeed some not-for-profit human rights organisations are turning their attention to these issues from a campaigning perspective (e.g. campaigning against lack of privacy). 

People are more and more aware of their increasing vulnerability.  Your every move can be tracked, if not by satellite then by credit card transactions, by CCTV, by digital car registration readers, by travelcard, by mobile phone, by internet connection, by telephone call, etc.  Some of the things to look out for socially are some intense debates on privacy, data ownership, data use and identity cards with many possible backlashes against the techno-philia.  As a not-for-profit organisation, the home management systems and increasing information can permit some interesting advances, e.g. better automated care in the home, patient-oriented epidemiological studies, improved emergency responses, pre-identification of troublesome issues or better activist deployment.

Two of the more interesting new technologies are wireless applications protocol (WAP) and Bluetooth.  WAP is basically the ability to connect to the internet or internet-style services over a mobile phone.  Bluetooth is a standard supported by a large number of consumer-device suppliers to permit all devices to communicate with each other easily using small, local networks constructed on-the-fly, for instance your mobile phone chatting to your Palm device talking to your office computer to update new addresses.  Both of these technologies have the capability of increasing the pervasiveness of computing and networks.  While these particular implementations of the technologies might not stand the test of time, and assuming costs come down to "consumer price levels", not-for-profit organisations can envisage being able to utilise these types of tools amongst their activists, field workers and/or volunteers.

IT as a utility

The Internet has already subverted some old information management techniques.  If you have been working with the Internet on demand for several years as the authors have (i.e. a cheap, rapid connection), you suddenly find that some old "working methods" are not needed.  Humour or joke books are unnecessary (reference sites and circulating e-mails flood you); searching for quotations is a doddle; the search engine is your encyclopaedia or you can directly access encyclopaedias online; if your hand-held dictionary or thesaurus is incomplete, better resources are online.  At first it is a bit strange when a guest or child asks for an explanation to jump online and find it, but it soon becomes normal.  These are just some simple examples of how IT is becoming a utility.

In the workplace we now find chief executives who arrive at their office and cannot start their day because the system is down and their automated diary is unavailable.  Businesses find when their e-mail server is blocked that their productivity tumbles, their suppliers become confused, their clients get angry.  But they didn’t even use the term e-mail a few years ago.  In many ways IT is becoming a utility for businesses and, a bit more slowly, homes.  Services such as online diaries have gone from being a slightly useful toy to becoming “mission critical”.

Some of the things to look out for include new commercial offerings which trade a bit of reduced functionality or leading-edge capability for a marked increase in reliability.  Increasingly, customers demand "five-nines" reliability, (99.999% availability of service).  Utility services already exist which provide offsite backup over the internet - hotstart backup sites, emergency e-mail changeover or automatic anti-virus configuration and setup.  You can expect to see all manner of redundant service provision - high availability ISPs, satellite network connections or rent-a-computer.  The ASP (application service provider) companies already provide IT as a utility in simple areas such as e-mail and diaries.  They emphasise that their focus on service far surpasses the ability of most internal systems providers.  “Eliminate the amateurs, use the professionals.”  You already see more focus on enforceable sanctions for poor service or insurance against some types of failures.   Pay-as-you-go services can be helpful to impecunious not-for-profit organisations with limited capital budgets and/or uncertainty as to the growth in activity they expect.  You might anticipate reduced costs and better services as time goes on.  We therefore predict that more not-for-profit organisations will be able to consider more comprehensive outsourcing of IT utilities as time goes on.  We have already detected this trend starting in our professional work with larger not-for-profit organisations.

Relationship management

B2C (business to consumer) companies may be risky investments, but they have achieved much in a short time.  B2C has proved that good customer service can be delivered online to demanding consumers.  This rapid development of relationship management has fed back into companies where the end-users of corporate systems can see that some of their consumer information technology services far exceed their corporate ones.  Customers, retail, corporate or even beneficiaries are becoming more demanding.  Organisations are responding, hence much of the current intensity surrounding customer relationship management (CRM) systems or citizen relationship management systems (CRM too).  Expect to see beneficiary (BRM) and donor (DRM) parallels soon.

Human-machine interface advances

Direct interfaces with people are still advancing and have room for tremendous improvement – speech recognition is a key area affecting the future success of mobile phones, WAP and Bluetooth.  There are still some new or early areas for interfaces such as holograms, smell, direct brain connections, wearable computers, internal computers and whole-body sensors.  In some ways the man-machine interface needs its greatest improvement at the data analysis level.  Floods of information are generating new statistical and computation techniques for handling very large datasets or transactions.  Even more interesting is the move to handling imprecise information such as the probability of being right about the identity of a person.  Expect to see much more emphasis on 3D visualisation of large data volumes – 3D images for health care and/or education, a financial landscape for your accounts or risk-based simulations of geo-political forces on environmental issues.

A difficult, practical information problem today is handling uncertainty both in data and in future projections.  Ways of helping people deal with imprecise or difficult information include intelligent agents (for instance, neural networks, Bayesian engines  or some of the new predictive hierarchical clustering approaches.  These technologies might enable sophisticated counselling assistance, interactive training, information provision, electronic negotiation aides etc.

E-normous potential

We opened with “smaller, cheaper, faster”.  Human demands for processing power drive manufacturers to look at ways of increasing processing power markedly.  Some direct advances are being made by organisations working on the enormous human proteome project, e.g. IBM’s Blue Gene.  Other interesting ideas include the use of spare computing time (most computers are idle most of the time) across large numbers of computers, e.g. SETI@home or folding@home.  This is, after all, not-for-profit use of spare computer time.  Can you envisage being able to persuade your supporters to donate computer time to support the computing needs of one of your not-for-profit organisation's activities?  There is a great deal of interest in such peer to peer computing, which essentially enables individuals to work together using the Internet as the medium.  Peer to peer technology has also found consumer applications, such as Napster and Gnuttella which help people to share intellectual property, such as music, across the web. 

Finally, although probably several years off, quantum computers have the potential to become instantaneous super-computers at the sub-atomic level.  Certainly smaller and infinitely faster, if not cheaper.  The most fascinating aspect of quantum computers should be their ability to break through many traditional problems which could not be solved even on the fastest imaginable traditional computer.  Many existing applications could use super-computers today (such as website personalisation) but there are also many problems (such as the “travelling fundraiser” problem – he or she needs to visit a certain number of cities; calculate the most efficient route) which are intractable when they hit real-world numbers.  Examples include real-time multi-model logistics, multi-flight-scheduling, some complex auctions, dynamic pricing and portfolio balancing.  While these applications might seem a long way away from your not-for-profit organisation's activities, many not-for-profits do grapple with analogous problems:

  • Logistics (e.g. optimising meals on wheels deliveries).
  • Multi-scheduling (e.g. care home rostering).
  • Auctions (could you get more from those donated gifts with IT to help you run your charity auctions?).
  • Dynamic pricing (charity mail order and/or shops).
  • Portfolio balancing (maximising returns and minimising risk of you not-for-profit's investments).

Technology horizons in brief

Don’t be afraid to try new technologies at the consumer level for fun - it can be a cost-effective way to experiment and learn.  Many of the enduring trends in technology are likely to have significant, beneficial effects on the not-for-profit sector.  Try to keep an eye on trends, so that once a technology that you fancy becomes small enough, fast enough and cheap enough for your not-for-profit organisation, you will be ready for it.  It can help not-for-profit organisations to use the financial services sector as a "crystal ball" for the not-for-profit sector - most technology that becomes ubiquitous in the trading room today will probably become ubiquitous in larger not-for-profit sector organisations within five years.  Five years is within the business strategy horizon of most not-for-profit organisations.