Monday, July 28, 2008

Picking Winners... not so easy.

In reading a recent OpenSourceCMS market survey by Water & Stone, I reflected on how we pick technology solutions to solve specific problems.

Around the same time a few years back, Jon Stahl, Ryan Ozimek, I and many others were trying to tackle the problem of how to provide small charities with effective technology... generally in the form of data (a CRM) and content (a CMS). We all agreed on the relevance of open source for its practical, rather than religious, benfits... cost, innovation, the potential to support niche markets.

There was no really effective CRM solution at the time, so I was involved in the ramp up of CiviCRM and Salesforce Foundation began donating licenses, so neither solution was really obvious. On the content management side, we went three different ways... Plone, Joomla and Drupal.

Here the interesting part. We were serving the same basic constituencies, we agreed on the same basic values being important, we had very similar mental models for how technology could support social change and charity operations.

In the end, we contributed to three different communities and effectively split the old Circuit Rider mind share (a subset of nonprofit technology assitance providers). Today, Jon is on the board of Plone, Ryan is on the board of Joomla, my old partner at CivicSpace is on the board of Drupal.

I have to wonder what all our (and others) deep comitment and significant invested energy and resources over the past few years might have accomplished if it had been invested in a single open source community. I have to be careful to not frame this as a "wouda, coulda, shoulda" question... the individual decisions that were made were fantastic. But since those decisions were about investing in a community rather than a vendor or piece of software, it is funny that the forces that drew us to the technology were far stronger than the forces that drew us together on the basis of our work in the same sector for the same constituents.

Technology is just a tool, so the mantra goes. Therefore, if you need to pound in a nail, you can use a hammer, a mallet or a rock and meet your mission. You'll probably talk to other mallet users and compare notes. Every once in awhile people will switch from mallets to hammers.

It is very clear to me that technology solutions come and go. The charity sector has no strategic vision of technology, nor will it ever... not many charities hire a CIO to think the big thoughts. And there doesn't seem to be the potential in the charity technology community to craft a community of action like there is in Drupal community.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why.


Ryan said...

Very insightful post David, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Some people in our circles have heard my point of view on this topic: that competition between projects and software (especially OSS), not just collaboration between them, helps provide the best outcomes in terms of large scale software for the NPO community. While I unfortunately don't have the empirical data to prove my point (N-TEN, want to sponsor a study?), I do have the same nagging question deep in the back of my mind that you have David. If the folks leading the NPO effort in the Joomla, Drupal, and Plone worlds came together and tried to build a superior CMS for the sector, would we have been more successful as a community?

To me, the competition that we at PICnet face from our competitors in this wonderful marketplace has pushed us to innovate, helped lead our OSS communities well beyond our own market, and drove costs down (i.e. CivicSpace and Non-Profit Soapbox) to help small and growing NPOs.

While the CMS debate will continue on forever, I think it would be useful for someone to figure out a way to measure the net social benefit of these systems to the larger market. If we've succeeded, even in competition, to move the community forward in terms of technology adoption and more effective utilization of tools that help enable mission achievement, I'd call that a success.

Could we have been more successful by deeper collaborations? Maybe. However, we might have also risked missing out on some cool innovations that were bred by a need to lower costs and provide higher quality services.

At any rate, this is a great posting, and I'm eager to hear more from others.

Ryan Ozimek

Peter Campbell said...

If the three of you had all worked for the same group, the outcome would have been almost as impressive as the bickering over platform choices, I'm sure! As sure as I am that the result would have been something custom in Ruby on Rails. ;-)

I take a little issue with the closing comment about NPO's never treating software strategically. As an assessment of the current situation, it's relatively valid, but the status of the NPO's relationship with technology has changed/is changing and all historical implications point to it going forward and growing up.

Non-profits aren't stuck in a rut as much as they're out of sync with for-profit corporate standards. Ten years ago, there weren't a lot of CIO's period. While my title at the nonprofit I work for isn't CIO, I bet you'd look at what I do and agree that I'm 9/10ths of one.

What I see is that the NPTech leadership - largely represented by NTEN, and supported by Idealware, Techsoup, Aspiration, and many others, including, of course, Picnet, OneNW and, earlier, Civicspace, has really coalesced in the last few years. we're providing a roadmap. And the Chronicle and NPTimes, broader, more traditional outlets, are spreading the words and philosophy.
I'm thrilled to have a chapter written on non-profit specific strategical technology planning in NTEN's upcoming book.

In your current role, I can easily imagine your frustration - you're trying to sell SaaS to people who think it's a Danish airline or something. You're ahead of our time, David. We'll get there. ;-)