This week we’re talking to Moira Edwards.
We talked about:
• how technology supports the work of nonprofits and associations.
• Moira explains the three levels of IT infrastructure that leaders need to consider and how an organization typically would apportion the budget to support those three levels
• the concept of the peace time and the war time CEOs come into play as organizations manage the quick shifts forced onto them by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moira Edwards is the President of Ellipsis Partners and focuses on the impact of technology on organizational strategy. As head of Ellipsis Partners, she helps associations and non-profits make smart technology decisions to create member value and support critical business operations.
Carol: Welcome Moira. It's great to have you on the podcast
Carol: Just to get us started, tell folks a little bit about what drew you into the work that you do, and how you got to where you are now.
Moira: You know what gets scary as you get older? How much this spans decades rather than years; but I’ve always been an analyst of some sort, right out of college my first jobs were about finding problems and digging into them to find sometimes a software solution, sometimes a statistical model as a solution. Actually, the first job I had in the U.S. after I came here from Ireland, I was at the Federal Aviation Administration and I worked on the Land and Hold Short Operations Program. So what's fascinating about that is if you imagine any air course that has multiple runways, some of them intersect and the Land and Hold Short Program was that the larger aircraft would use the entire length of one runway and the middle of smaller complex Sesnas and things would land on a different runway and hold short of the intersecting runway. So what I did was I gathered all of the stopping distances for the little tiny aircraft and calculated what length of runway they would need in order to stop and safely land and hold short.
After that, I went to work for my first association and that was providing help-desk support to people who are using members who are using software that the association has actually developed. During that time is when it became really clear to me that technology is about people really, and truly. For our members to get value from the technology that we offered, it had to not just work for them, but it had to work for everyone involved in delivering it. So the developers have to say, ‘yeah, that software works’ and the people who offered support and the people who did the training and the people who mocked this, everybody all have to say; ‘yeah, that works well.’ We have this concept of an elegant solution that, when we were developing a new iteration of the software, we didn't want it to be like this old Victorian house with staircases to nowhere and lots of additions cobbled on that. We want it to be this really elegant, seamless solution that people could use. So I think I still do that.
I still try to help associations and nonprofits make really good decisions about technology and understanding what everybody wants to do. The members of staff, understanding the systems, fitting it with the organizations and their strategies and their capabilities, and making sure that the technology would work for the future and bringing it all together into a decision and a solution that everybody goes: ‘yes.’ You can almost hear the CyberKnife. Everybody goes, yeah, that works. So that's what I do. It's been an evolution along that path for 30 years and I get to do what I love. I consider myself so fortunate.
Carol: Well, I love your analogy of the old Victorian house versus the modern house with the essential elements really there, because I find that not just in technology and the technology infrastructure that organizations need to do their work well, but also in so many things that nonprofits do, they end up adding. It's like this Victorian house that's had lots of different additions built to it and no one ever stopped to say, ‘what are we actually going to get rid of and stop doing, before we add something new on,’ and I've gone over this, she's talked to me about those staircases to know where they’re forgetting to take it into a dead end in the software or in the process. It's very choppy and I think that sense of bringing it all together and understanding how the technology supports the overall goal, and also keeping up with technology because it changes, and if you don't change with it, to some extent you do that cost and stagnate and are kind-of trapped by it. So it's about recognizing all these cool new things coming out and figuring out how to use them. For many organizations, I would guess that some kind of technology investment is going to be one of their biggest investments in terms of infrastructure, some of their bigger projects, when you're helping leaders think about and move through one of those projects, what are some of the key things that they need to keep in mind?
Moira: When we think about how leaders use technology or work with technology. Sometimes I think it's really scary for many of those in a leadership position. I mean, in many ways, technology is as essential to achieving their vision as people as money. Right. It's just one of the things you've got to factor in. I think that for many leaders, they're thinking ‘I have this vision, I need to take a risk and I should, but I don't know how to use technology to do that.’ So one of the things we do is try and make this a little easier to understand.
We divide technology into three levels and the foundation, the basic level is technology is operations. So this is all about, ‘do things work? Can I send an email? Can I open a document and work on this? Do I have a laptop? Do I have a secure connection? Do I have the basic skills to run the organization and to do my work.’ that technology is operations, it’s foundational. It's about keeping the lights on and that's where your managed services provider is an absolute godsend, because this is very much a foundational operational support that you get from your managed services provider. There are certainly things you can outsource and, as a leader, you don't have to pay as much attention to it. Apart from the security aspects, you just need to make sure your managed service provider, the people who provide your desktop support, who would be your call center? They would probably provide your email solutions, they're probably the people who have put your servers out into the cloud. They're the people who crawl under desks and figure out what's going on under there. These days, most organizations do not have a server in a closet in the office anymore. They have a managed services provider who's taken over all of that for them, and it's great. As Reggie Henry says, no association or nonprofit should have a server on premise anymore. It should all be out in the cloud and managed by people who do this for a living. You can outsource a lot of technology operations these days.
The next level, if you're a leader and you're trying to think about the next level up is technology as service. At this level, you're serving your staff. Do they have the software they need to do their jobs in terms of running membership and offering events and doing learning. These would be where your enterprise-level systems come in, your AMS, your LMS, and you're also serving your members. Can they come to your website and do what they need to do easily and efficiently or is everybody doing a work-around, do you remember having to call in to get something done? Do your staff keep having to export things to Excel in order to get things done? If that's the case, then your technology as a service is maybe not working so well, but you can conceptualize that. Okay, I'm serving people and again, this is important to do, and you need to invest money in us because this is what makes you different to your members. This is why they come to you rather than any other organization, this is how they know they experience it as good service.
Carol: You used a couple acronyms and I just want to make sure people know what they are. AMS and LMS.
Moira: AMS is an “Association Management System.” So that's going to be a membership database, and it's also going to be the place where you run your e-commerce, maybe you run your login for your website. It's a pretty central ERP - enterprise, relationship, platform.
Carol: If an organization isn't an association, what would that typically be called for a non-association, nonprofit, that'd be IT customer-relation management or CRM, or some kind of donor relation management system something like that, and who you're serving as well, so that central database that holds all your essential information about the people you serve, the people you work with.
Moira: Exactly, that core operational database. You want to get that right, the elements of your learning management system. If you're offering any learning to your members, to your constituents, you might have a learning management system (LMS). Again, how do they experience your organization? Whether your LMS is smooth, easy to log into, easy to access, easy to see where you are in their learning progress, then they're going to have a positive experience with your organization.
So when we think about leadership having a vision moving forward, that really comes into that top level, which is [that] technology is innovation. So if you think about [it], we've got a foundational level of technologies [and] operations, making things work with a middle level of technology, a service really making things smooth and work[ing] well.
Technology is innovation where we sometimes think about taking risks, because here's where you might develop your own software to offer to members. Here's where you might really use design thinking to figure out what they need and how you can solve their problems. So at this technology's innovation level, you're really thinking about how you could serve your members or your constituents, your donors, your grantees in ways that they have not taught you that serves them before. That's where maybe there's some risk, but it's a smaller investment that perhaps might be 10% of your IT budget and it's also where you experiment, where you use the agile methodology or fail fast to go out. You try out something new, you get some feedback and you do a more interwoven approach to technology development so that each individual experiment is not a huge risk. That's how, as a leader, you can think about technology in different ways and decide where to devote your attention, where to devote your budget. Does that make sense?
Carol: Makes a lot of sense. When I did some research a couple years ago, just looking at how associations were approaching innovation, I saw when at most it was interesting and that most organizations really saw the field as not very innovative, but saw their own organization as very innovative and one of the three top projects that folks mentioned, that when [asked] what innovative thing are you doing now? Most often it had to do with technology, and then the other one that was kind of related, was doing some type of learning online. We're recording this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of organizations are having to make a quick shift in terms of how they're working, how they're delivering services. Technology is undergirding everything that's able to move forward, but all those assumptions that you talked about in terms of those three tiers are coming into play in terms of, if an organization has never had a culture around remote work or any of those things, or not had the the technology to support it makes that shift particularly hard. I'm observing lots of steep learning curves with people in terms of different technologies that some of us have been using for a long time, but for others are brand new. So what would you say can help organizations as they're kind of confronted with this sudden shift that's happening right now?
Moira: Well, one of the things that you and I have talked about is how do you stay strategic? How do you keep yourself focused on the long-term when you're surrounded by short-term chaos and stress? I think that's a useful lens through which to see this because we are so frantic and I know [that] at times I'm panicked by it, everything that we're trying to deal with.
I'm going to point back to a blog post that was written by a guy called Ben Horowitz in 2014 but HBR, Harvard Business Review had picked it up and talked a bit about it around then. It's this concept of there being a war-time CEO and a peace-time CEO, and I know separate to whatever has ever been done. That's been used in the media right now at the time.
What's really useful about this concept is that a peacetime CEO is the transformation leader that we've all come to admire and established as the norm in leadership thinking. We are developing goals, we are creating strategic plans, and we're moving the organization forward in a very thoughtful, collaborative way with lots of emotional intelligence. That's your peace-time, transformational CEO. In contrast, the war time CEO is autocratic, decisive, commanding, and makes decisions. In fact, it can also be just the person we need in a time of crisis. The idea though, in this post is that we actually as leaders, need to be able to move between the two styles. So those of us that are running organizations and having to make that transition to a different way of working extremely quickly, we're out there being decisive right in the face of all of this movement, our events being canceled, having to change our revenue projections, having to readjust our budgets.
So we're being wartime CEOs and managing and responding and getting things done. I think what I would say to anyone in this position is that we need to craft ourselves a little piece of peacetime in the middle of all of that. So for me, that means just spending the time that I used to spend commuting sitting with some coffee, watching the morning sunrise, and letting some of this busyness subside and reading, maybe some interesting books, or just journaling out some thoughts about new directions, new ways to take advantage of what's happening and capitalize on what's changing rather than being overwhelmed by us.
So I think putting that little bit of peace in the morning has been very helpful, and turning off the news for that hour as well so that I'm not tracking the numbers of cases and infections as we are every morning. Another thing that I'm doing and I'm seeing others doing is carving out some time for learning for me and for my staff, because there's travel that I'm not doing, there are meetings I'm not going to because of the stay-at-home orders. So there are gaps of time in my schedule that I didn’t know were going to be there and using that time for some learning is a way to crack my brain open and keep us open.
When a part of me is just responding, and somebody can be reactive during a time of rapid change. Another thing I'm doing, or I'm starting to do, I would say is so I'm having a lot more check-ins with people like I'm at home and people I haven't talked to in months, we're suddenly having zoom calls and phone calls and people say, ‘how are you and what are you doing, and how are you coping?’ So in some ways we're having the same conversations over and over, but these are great opportunities to ask interesting questions of all these people. So sometimes I'll say to them, ‘so what has surprised you about the past few weeks that you didn't think would happen,’ or I might say ‘what has changed in your life that you think will not change back when this is all over’ or I might say, ‘what do you think the new normal would be like for you, for your organization, for the world?’ Having those conversations is also another way to keep my brain from just getting stuck in a reactive mode and thinking, keeping a vision of the future, and that could be a very different future coming up and thinking about how then we can, how are we going to act in that new chair, right?
Carol: Yeah, for me, it's been when I'm noticing myself getting hyped up where I used to be able to sit and read a book for hours. I haven't been able to do that in the last month. So it's much more, tapping into [a] meditative movement, so yoga and walking outside and talking to people while I'm walking outside and taking bike rides and all the things we're still allowed to do to just keep all of that energy moving through my body, to stay grounded.
I love those questions that you're asking. So I'm curious for you, what have you been surprised by in the last couple of weeks and what do you see as the new normal?
Moira: I think the thing that has surprised me is that this feels different to my normal way of working from home, and I think the element here is one around choice, and I think that's going to be an interesting conversation for us, in the coming weeks and months is around choice. First of all, when I work from home, I choose to, [and] now I'm somewhat forced. So that's got a different feel to us, but also what I notice is that when I'm in an office and I have my door open and people come and talk with me, I have very little choice in that matter. I mean, I can maybe close my door if I want no disruptions, I can keep it closed all the time when I'm onsite with organizations and I'm part of the office environment.
At first, I love it. I love the chance to chat to everyone, then after awhile, I realized that I don't have as much control over my schedule as they do. [Now] I'm working from home, and I think in this environment where we're all working remotely, people are going to have a lot more control over their workday because you're going to have to book time on their calendars and maybe you're going to use a tool like Slack or even a text to send them a quick question. They can answer that from anywhere.
I think we are going to come to expect more and more control and choice about when we work and how we work. I don't think that's a bad thing because I think one of the things that we find problematic about the workplace is the distraction where there's the distraction from the open offices and the noise around you, or the distraction of people dropping by, or whatever it is. I think having more control over when I focus on when I'm just available to be disrupted, it's actually great. I think people are going to push back against going into an environment where they can be so easily disrupted.
Carol: At the same time, one thing that I think people miss from when you're working remotely all the time is that sense of the serendipitous bumping into somebody, having a conversation at the water cooler, walking down the stairs that the fact that some companies have now built common stairs to force people to actually walk up and down and interact with each other. So I'm curious what you're seeing in terms of how people are building in some of that as they do remote work and how they might think about it if they haven't yet.
Moira: So I did a section for ASC, the technology conference many years ago, actually at this stage maybe six years ago, and it was about managing virtual workers and the remote workforce. When we did a survey of nonprofit folx and we found that the thing that mitigated a drop in creativity was relationships. If the organization found a way to foster relationships, then people found a way to be creative and have casual conversations. So maybe it doesn't work. Like when I think about Melissa Meyer and bringing everybody back into Yahoo, it's a huge organization. So maybe it's harder than larger organizations, but certainly in smaller organizations. There are ways to foster those relationships.
Yesterday, I was doing an online session and afterwards we had a virtual happy hour. So these are very common during the pandemic. Now people are gathering on zoom and having some sort of virtual coffee hour, a happier, conversational time. It was so powerful. I think it depends how many people are on screen. We have six or seven people at one time and it was. As good a conversation as I have ever had sitting around a table, chatting with people. I felt connected. Some of these people I knew relatively well, others not so well. I felt like I knew everyone in that conversation better afterwards. I would feel much more comfortable now whether it's picking up a phone, shooting a quick email, or using something like a sign to send them a good question because I feel like I know them better and I know how they would respond. So I think that's the thing to focus on in the long-term is building relationships and that comfort with each other so we can have those casual interactions with whatever means there is. Does that make sense?
Carol: Totally makes sense. I'm thinking of a parallel situation. I'm a member of a congregation and of course our services have gone online and we've had virtual or - I actually don't like the word virtual cause it's real, it's just online. Online coffee hours through Zoom, and what I've loved about it is that after everyone's in there and you've got the 50 people or even more on screen, they've randomly assigned us into small groups. So I've talked to people that I would never talk to in Coffee Hour. If it's a new person, great, it's easy to go say hello to them; but if that person's been a member for a long time, and you've never gotten around to actually saying hello. This is the easy way to actually get to know [them].
So it's been a great thing and a wonderful equalizer and community builder. It's been amazing.
Moira: Absolutely, and my meditation class has gone online now. That is so lovely to see a screen full of like 40 people on video with their eyes closed. That is supremely vulnerable,
it really is, it's lovely. What's so interesting, I was talking with the teacher and I was telling her what a great job she's doing. She's like, ‘yeah, I didn't know I would enjoy it so much.’ She is absolutely able to be present and really talk personally with us, whether it's a group or one on one with individual people during the session in a way that I didn't think was possible using an online medium. So I agree with you completely. Relationships and connection are very possible using technology today.
Carol: Yeah. I have had to immediately move to facilitating a number of long, multi-hour sessions from an in-person that were going to be an in-person and now moving them online, and for the one that was going to be a day long, I cut it in half. Because I just don't believe that you should inflict an eight-hour Zoom meeting on anybody. We had a really, really productive conversation and then the first group, they were a lot of people who didn't really know each other well, and just taking the time to - [and] we would have done this in person regardless, but taking the time to check in and then being able to use the small groups to move them around and you're really able to do so much with today's technology.
So wanting to shift into, again in this environment, a lot of organizations, their first reaction was to cancel all their events. How can, as they think a little longer term, like you're saying, keep that, while you're reacting, taking a moment to pause and taking that longer view, how might they approach actually moving some of those events online, especially if this goes on longer than initially anticipated.
Moira: I think it's a combination of being intentional and experimental. The intentional part is stopping and thinking a bit about what is important about your online event. So we worked with one organization where the most important thing, funnily enough, were the coffee breaks, because their attendees did not get a chance typically to meet, they kind-of came from two different fields. So the sessions were great. They would talk about the meat of the science that they were talking about, but the coffee breaks is where they would have the conversations. It's like these relationships we'll be talking about. So when they go online, what's really important to them is a way for people to chat. So breakout rooms and Zooms are our ideal for that. So understanding what are the critical things that make your event unique? Why do people come to your events? Having some focus groups, taking some time to gather requirements from your attendees, your members, your constituents from your staff, and can understand at least five high-level things about what you want to do, but you can then go and look at different platforms. Whether it's Zoom or video, you use your Learning Management System, cause they have a lot of interesting features, or maybe you go to one of the conference-capturing platforms with lots of different ways that you can do this, and you make sure that what you're choosing will support those critical needs. Then the experimental side is to really be open with your members and maybe you do an actual experiment, if you can, to try it out.
Maybe you think of it as a practice run, but the people will really accept what you're doing. If you're upfront, I've got the fact that this is an experiment rather than delivering value. So maybe there might be, either a no-fee or a reduced-fee, if you can swing it, because if you charge the full amount, he was going to expect the sole value. So how can you make this experimental, can you try a plea event with one of your committees? It's a real event, but we are planning to learn from it and by calling it an experiment you set expectations lower, people give you buy-in because they're willing to contribute to the success of this experiment. I’ve found that some sort of pilot or experimental SES really helps before you do the full offering, because don't forget you've gotten really good at doing your in-person events. You've had so many chances to perfect that, you have to go back and approach this with a fresh mind.
Carol: Yeah, and I think you might actually find that through those experiments, you learn some interesting things that you want to keep doing, even in the future or that there might be all sorts of unexpected benefits from going online. Not to say that face-to-face events won't happen again in the future, they certainly will, but I think the impact might be that things have to meet a much higher threshold to warrant a face-to-face event than they did before this, because people will realize that it is possible to do a lot of what we've traditionally done in face-to-face events online, and in some ways there's the pet peeve I've always had with conferences is the coffee hour, if you can figure out how you can reiterate that,
but I've often questioned, why did I bother getting on a plane to go and sit and listen to panels where there was no interaction, if you're not doing anything to facilitate, any kind of experiential learning and not to say that that's not possible online, it is also with planning, but if you're not doing that in your conferences, there's never been a reason for anyone to fly, except for all the extra things that happen in between all the things that you plan. It'll be interesting to see the longer-term impact.
Moira: That's so interesting because the great thing about a conference is [that] you meet people you would not have met. Otherwise you form relationships with people or you strengthen relationships because you're sitting, you're eating, you're drinking, you're having experiences together and you're sharing knowledge and experiences and time with people.
When we do surveys for our clients and they talk about ‘why do you join,’ the top reasons are often the information, the resources, the education. So people are definitely there for the topic and the speakers, but what makes them come back is the experience. And that experience is from how they felt and who they chatted with on the coffee hour and what that led to when they came back. I think you're absolutely right.
Carol: And so, with those experiments of trying to do some of this online, I think being really intentional, as you said, about what those main things that people are looking for are and how might we, not necessarily replicate, I mean, it's not going to be replicating, it's going to be different, but how do we foster those same or similar experiences, as people come together.
Moira: Right, because your online event is not just about putting a speaker or a panel in front of you, it's the interaction afterwards. So the educational session that we had yesterday, for AWTC - the Association for Women Technology Champions - which is this nonprofit that I'm on the board of. We had a speaker, she gave an amazing presentation sharing slides, then when the slides were over, but we stopped the screen share.
So the screen was full of the videos of the participants. We had a conversation, which was amazing, like a really good question-and-answer, give-and-take, back-and-forth. Then you went into a happy hour for anybody who was left, which is even more connective and informative. So we can share [and] we can make this technology support that, which is important within our virtual events.
Carol: Yeah, and same as before, it's always a tool, right. It's a tool to get other objectives done. So what I heard you saying before was [that] it's so key to figure out what those objectives are, what those requirements are. And maybe it provides an opportunity if you're going to be doing this differently, to have a different kind of engagement beforehand with members that you might not have had in a long time, if you've been doing a similar event year after year, to dig into what it is that they really need and what they’re looking for. What do they need now that's different?
Moira: This provides a huge opportunity and many of our constituents would have been resistant to some of the online technology, but now they're sitting at home, they're using zoom for their work calls, they are using zoom to have birthday celebrations with their kids and grandkids. So suddenly they've realized that this isn't that hard, or maybe the tools have actually come a long way towards not making it hard anymore. So there's less resistance. I think that we will experience our constituents going online because they now know what it's like.
Carol: So many people are familiar with the term early adopter and it's from - and I'm forgetting the guy's name, but I'll put it in the show notes - the innovation curve and part of the innovation curve. There’s a big gap between the early adopters and the early majority and something like this just pushes a lot of people over that chasm suddenly. It goes back to your original thing of choice of, in this instance, there's no choice around working from home. If you have the kind of job that's possible to do working from home, so then to use all these technologies that they may have said, ‘oh, I don't want to learn that.’ Or ‘that would never work,’ or ‘I could never facilitate that way.’ Or, ‘I could never have a meeting that way, it would never be the same.’ Suddenly it's like, ‘okay, well, are you just not going to ever talk to anyone again?’ Probably not.
So, seeing as we're coming to the end here, I like to play a little bit of a game at the end. I have a box of icebreaker questions, so I've chosen three and I'm going to ask you one of them. So, if you could meet any historical figure, who would you choose and why?
Moira: Oh, wow. I’ll tell you that sometimes these icebreaker questions, I find them difficult ‘cause I need about a second or two to think about them. Because a number of images of people have come to mind. I would have to say that it would be the Buddha. That would be the historical seeker I would love to meet because, of all of the different people in history who have changed history, given us great insights, I think the Buddha is probably going to be the calmest one. I would just like to experience that. I'd just like to be close to that and see what that felt like. I don't even know that I would necessarily talk to him, I would just like to see what radiates from that.
Carol: Just bathe in that calm, open presence as the enlightenment. Yeah, I’ve been doing more meditations recently and did one recently that talked about imagining that very calming presence, whether it's a relative, or an ancestor, or a spiritual figure. Then at the end being reminded, well you imagined that, so you have it within you. I thought that was a really interesting way to think about it.
Moira: That is, yeah, that's really nice.
Carol: So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you, what's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Moira: Absolutely. I was sitting here today and I'm looking out my window. So from the little world that I'm occupying right now, which is my home, one of the things I'm excited about others are the leaves coming on the trees. And the days are getting longer because, in this world, in some ways we're stuck in place. It's lovely to look out the window and see spring and growth and life continue. So that makes me very happy and excited for the rest of the year.
From a work perspective, there are some experiments we want to try within Ellipse’s partners. As we look at the world and we're trying to keep ourselves open about how to do things differently in this changed environment. We're looking to try some experiments to connect people together, to share knowledge, because I really see that working. So that's a little exciting. We're figuring out what that will look like and creating new ideas is always fun.
I mentioned the AWTC - the Association for Women Technology Champions. I am so excited by that group. It's a group that formed, some of us had just met on a regular basis to talk about technology and life. So I'm one of the founders, but now we have expanded that and we want to bring the knowledge, the connection, the insights to the greater group of women who are working to promote and advance technology in their nonprofit organization.
We just became officially incorporated. We're going to file now for our 501C3 status.
Moira: We will now have the foundation too, the paperwork, the credentials to actually offer more education, more connection, more ability to advance women in the technology community and that's very exciting.
Carol: Awesome. Well, how can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Moira: Sure, the nonprofit that I talked about, AWTC, our website is awtc.tech. We use a cool ending, so I'd love you to check that out for us, for Ellipsis partners, our website is ellipsispartners.com E-L-L-I-P-S-I-S Partners dot com. Since I'm Moira Edwards, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and would welcome a connection with any of your listeners, it would be lovely to chat further, about anything we talked about today.
Carol: All right, well thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming on. I enjoyed our conversation.
Moira: I did too. Thanks, Carol.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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