Tuesday, September 28, 2010

IT as a Kitchen

Kiva recently went through an internal transition to Google Apps from some other email systems. The experience of moving to Google Appps demonstrated how entrepreneurial Kiva is. It's worth a brief recount and some thanks to those that helped. It also clarified the role of IT in a non-profit for us, which I'll cover.

Moving to Google Apps

The decision process was painless. Kivans were solving problems with Google services on their own that our old mail systems could not. IT was already leaning towards a Google Apps move because Google Apps is a fairly open platform, with a growing collection of productivity tools. Google Apps is also inexpensive, a feature all non-profits appreciate! Without knowing it, all Kivans effectively made the final decision and set the timetable. IT called it. Management just got it.

A word on the transition - depending on your previous mail setup, moving to Google Apps can be a good bit of work.

We were aided by Google, whose support was absolutely outstanding, and by YippieMove, a small startup that can move mail from anywhere to anywhere better than anyone. They were absolutely fantastic partners and really helped Kiva. If you are moving to Google Apps, you should consult them. So thanks to Google, Yippiemove, Joe, Phu, Peter and Sam for helping make the transition happen.

After the move, we started introducing users to a critical but underused Google tool - groups. Kivans were immediately enthusiastic about their ability to control mail distribution with groups, something IT used to do. Less work for everyone. Our users extend this and other Google Apps functions as soon as they are introduced, if not before, including managing whole domains. They are entrepreneurs and empowerment helps them get stuff done. That's the upside of user innovation in IT. The downside of user innovation in IT is that a lot of work is generated.

IT ends up supporting one-off solutions, integrating them with the other systems, and moving them to new systems more frequently.

The complexity trade-off is something we are totally familiar with. It's analogous to supporting multiple client operating systems(Macs, PCs, Linux) in our infrastructure, which we also do. (our official position on the mac versus PC debates can be found here) The productivity gains were well worth the costs in this case. It is clearer than ever that we should have an eye toward user innovation in IT, as long as sensitive data is not put at undue risk.

The Role of IT in a Non-Profit

Lefkowitz suggests the analogy of IT as a Deli - a place where quick apps are made by IT - like sandwiches - while you wait. Need an app made? No problem! We'll have that for you today!

It would be awesome if IT just built cool things with new technology. Not that technical people are sensitive about their skills or anything...but we like to improve them and show them off. But that's not the right corny analogy.

Lefkowitz has the correct answer for a large company - perhaps one that outsources most IT operations. His remaining staff can run an IT Deli, and his users will be happy. Non-profits usually have to be a bit more entrepreneurial. The way *entrepreneurs* "build cool things" is way more complicated. They use the least money and the smallest possible team. The smallest useful IT team won't have time to build web apps for you, but they will give you the tools you need to solve problems yourself.

After the move to Google Apps, it's glaringly obvious that Kivans are entrepreneurs. They need a Kitchen to build their own solutions in, not a Deli. We're seeing kitchen tools everywhere.

If the IT department ever disappears at Kiva we can say, "Yeah, that kitchen we built was pretty cool. I'll betcha they're opening a Deli right now."