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Lessons Learned

Plan for Technology

The Denver VS2000 project team soon realized how important it is to plan for technology rather than letting it evolve around donated equipment and systems. Development of information systems and acquisition of equipment are expensive, and precious grant dollars must be spent judiciously. These factors make it imperative that organizations first develop a technology plan so that information systems can be built appropriately and cost effectively. Many nonprofit technology assessment instruments and guides are available. A summary of the information they offer for developing a sound technology plan follows.

Input From End Users

First and foremost, a technology plan should include a mechanism for continuous input from end users, including victims. Initial information needed for automation and system requirements should come directly from end users through surveys, focus groups, and interviews. Once system development begins, end users should help review progress and offer suggestions at significant development stages. Involving end users consistently in system design will result in a product that meets their needs, enhances their performance, and benefits their clients. The introduction of new technology within an agency will present a less disruptive cultural change if the victim service providers have been participating in the creation and development of the new system they know will benefit them.

Staffing Plan

Developing technology is a complex process; defining staff roles, responsibilities, and lines of communication are very important. In the beginning, determine who will be responsible for software development and customization, project management, grant writing and budgeting, interfacing with end users, and system administration. Decide who is the best member of the team to communicate with end users and how that communication will be documented. Who is the best person to communicate end user needs to software developers? If the answers to your questions indicate two people, ask how their communication can be facilitated. Weekly status review meetings with all key players are important for meeting deadlines and managing complexities.

Needs Assessment

A thorough assessment of needs is critical to the success of a new technology project. Several organizations have developed technology assessment tools. The National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology has created a benchmarking tool that helps organizations assess both their use of technology and the prerequisites needed in planning for technology. One/Northwest Online Networking for the Environment has developed a valuable assessment worksheet. See Additional Resources at the end of this bulletin for contact information for these organizations.

Software Development Plan and Hardware Acquisition Plan

Make plans for developing and acquiring software and hardware at the beginning of the process following analysis of requirements. These plans will be revised as the project progresses and details of the system's design become clear.

Project Management

Information system development always benefits from the expertise of a capable project manager. For a successful outcome, it is important that all communications and decisions about system development go through one person with the knowledge and authority to oversee development. Consider several factors when selecting a project manager. The project manager must have broad knowledge of technology to oversee and coordinate activities from programming to procurement. The project manager must understand all phases of development well enough to spot problems and monitor corrective action. More important, the selected project manager must be able to bring together and communicate well with software developers, program funders, and end users.

For successful development and implementation of the system, the project manager must gain the trust of the end users, who in this case are victim service providers. The project manager must understand that victim service providers belong to a particular work culture and often consider their work more of a mission than a job. The project manager must take into account the unique differences of those who work in the victim services field. For example, corporate workers may experience the introduction of technology into their jobs as just another tool to master to get things done. In contrast, victim service providers are apt to see implications and voice various concerns and questions about the introduction of technology into their jobs. One concern is money. Victim service providers know funds are limited, so they want to be sure expenditures for technology do not shortchange services to victims. Another concern is victim safety. Victim service providers are extremely concerned about how technology may compromise the privacy, safety, and security of their clients. The project manager must address the concerns of the victim service providers in language they understand. Recognizing their passion for their work, the project manager can explain to victim service providers how the technology will allow them to provide more and better services to clients. Hearing their concerns about misspending limited funds, the project manager can explain how the financial investment in technology will return many times its value in terms of the organization's effectiveness and productivity in serving victims of crime. When explaining to victim service providers that the information about their clients is secure, the project manager needs to explain how secure the information is. Victim service providers know that secure client information will keep their victims safe, so they want reassurance that the system is secure. It is very important that the project manager understand the dynamics of victimization and appreciate the danger to domestic violence victims when perpetrators hack into computer systems and obtain victim information. Unlike typical computer hackers, violent offenders use the information they get to commit more violence, even murder.

How does a group or organization find this perfect project manager? One way is to invite the most skeptical participant in a technology project to help interview candidates for the position. Make sure other end users are involved as well. Ask questions about key issues and listen to the answers. The field of technology is growing very rapidly and so is the field of victim services. Many people want to use their expertise to help others. With some time and thoughtful effort, you can find the right project manager for your project.

To define the scope of work for a prospective project manager, consider the following tasks, which have been adapted from a "job description" developed by One/Northwest Online Networking for the Environment:

  • Conduct a formal assessment of the organization's current capabilities.

  • Evaluate existing equipment to determine if it can be upgraded to meet your needs.

  • Provide detailed upgrade recommendations.

  • Provide specific purchase recommendations for required new equipment.

  • Offer cost-effective solutions for the organization's technology needs.

  • Recommend ways the organization can use technology strategically to accomplish its mission.

System Administration and Maintenance

After such a large and complex information system is completed, everyone involved hopes to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor—a smooth, trouble-free system. Time for a reality check! Sooner or later, unforeseen operational problems will appear. Inevitably, end users will envision and demand enhancements. This is when maintenance contracts become very important. Generally costing between 10 to 20 percent of the cost of the entire system, a maintenance contract will deal with these issues. In the case of the VS2000 project, a maintenance contract could include the following:

  • Adding functions, such as capturing additional data.

  • Enhancing the system with new program components, such as the capability to write restitution checks to victims.

  • Adding agencies (users) to the ProviderNet, including customizing intake.

  • Upgrading the system to take advantage of new software releases, such as Windows NT or new browser versions.

The world of technology, including software applications, is constantly changing. A well-designed software application should meet the needs of its end users for 7 to 10 years, as long as those needs do not drastically change. However, enhancements and upgrades are sometimes necessary to take advantage of new technology or address newly defined needs.

For large and small technology initiatives, system administration and cost are important operational components. As the field of victim assistance attracts a broader and younger range of professionals who are already familiar with computer technology, our agencies will become more technology savvy. Sometimes system administration can be written into a qualified employee's job description, leading to exciting career opportunities inside or outside the victim assistance field. For a project the size of Denver VS2000, a full-time system administrator with significant network experience is necessary. Information system projects of all sizes need an administrator and a project manager who communicate well in lay terms and understand and respect the context in which victim assistance professionals work.

Buy Versus Build—Software

Three options are available when creating an information system—purchasing a prepackaged software application from a retailer, building a custom software application, or customizing an existing application using internal staff or a software development company. The first step in determining which option is best for your project is preparing a requirements specification for your software. This specification provides a checklist for evaluating existing software applications available for purchase from a retailer. If the software application does not meet the users' needs as defined in the requirements specification, and the software application cannot be modified to do so, then it is not a good option. The specification can then be used to determine the cost of building a custom software application by negotiating a contract with a software development company or consulting firm. Estimate each function within the specification for development and completion costs by the software development vendor. If the cost does not fit within the project budget, consider postponing some functions within the requirements specification for implementation at a later time.

Buy Versus Lease—Hardware

Today, buying and leasing are the two options available for the acquisition of computer equipment. Evaluate these options by considering several criteria. First, determine how long the computers will be used by the end user. Keep in mind that computer equipment and components change rapidly. Equipment purchased today is outdated in 1 to 2 years, sometimes sooner. If you expect the computers will be used for a long time before funding will be available to replace them, leasing is the better option because leasing contract terms often allow for equipment upgrading sooner than would occur if you had purchased the equipment. Does your budget allow for ongoing monthly costs? A lease option requires monthly lease payments. If your project cannot afford this monthly outlay of cash, then leasing is not an option for you despite the "length of use" criteria noted earlier.

If you choose the lease option, be sure the lease includes

  • Service and maintenance. Ongoing service and maintenance for the equipment should be part of the lease agreement. This type of lease can include onsite service, telephone support, and offsite service that requires shipping equipment. If onsite service is included, check for response time. How quickly can support personnel get to your site? If offsite service is included, negotiate for the availability of replacement equipment when needed to assure little to no interruption in operations during servicing.

  • Software upgrades. The lease agreement should include equipment upgrades with new software "patches" (to fix software problems) when available from the manufacturer of the preinstalled software. A software upgrade service agreement would automatically make available to the leaseholder any improvements to that software. The leaseholder may decide not to accept an upgrade, but upgrades should at least be offered.

  • End-of-lease option to replace equipment. Because computer equipment quickly becomes out of date, it is important that the lease agreement include the option to obtain replacement equipment at the end of the lease—not just the option to buy existing equipment.

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Using Technology To Enable Collaboration
August 2001
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