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Executive decisions

IT | John Tate | 29 May 2008

Charities have to change their approach to IT, argues John Tate.

How would you spend £12.7bn? You could give around one quarter of the UK population £1,000 each. Or you could allocate this sum to the NHS programme for IT. Given its unenviable track record with large IT projects some readers may have been surprised when they heard that the government embarked on this program in 2002 with the objective of completing the project by 2010. Surely the powers to be must have learnt from their mistakes of the past and realised that a project of this scale is fraught with danger? Surely they would make sure that it worked this time?

So it was with a sense of de-ja-vu that Computer Weekly reported last month that there has been a significant delay to the project. The main software was reported as running four years behind schedule and may not be fully rolled out until 2015 or even later. This is according to a report published last month by the National Audit Office. Computer Weekly went on to comment that “the latest National Audit Office report could not be clearer. The £12.7bn national programme for IT in the National Health Service is in crisis. The report shows that key systems are late and show little or no sign of ever being produced in any useful form.” Maybe one day we will see the benefit of this investment but what a shame to let this go so badly wrong.

Last month I lectured again to students on the Cass Business School postgraduate course in charity management. As always the group was lively, well informed and passionate about improving the work done by their organisations in the charity sector. We discussed emerging technologies and the areas where they would benefit from this. As one might expect the group came up with a range of ideas based on the internet – from e-procurement/requisitioning systems through to organisation wide contact management applications.

Having looked at where technology is going and some real life examples of IT Executive decisions projects that the students were involved with, we turned to the thorny subject of change management. The group agreed that effective management of change is crucial for any IT project. While the group I lectured to were up for change they expressed concerns about whether their colleagues were as enthusiastic. Recognising that you only get benefit from IT investment if you change the way you work is a crucial issue.

I remember talking to a group of around 100 finance/IT managers and professionals in the NHS sector shortly before the NHS programme for IT kicked off. Virtually all of them felt they had not been consulted adequately on the project and that it stood very little chance of success. One of the attendees spent time trying to get doctors to fill forms in correctly and legibly. Her view was that if doctors could/would not fill a form in manually there was little chance of them keying in information to a computer system. The basics were not right at the start of the project.

The Cass students gave a number of reasons for resistance to change including fear of the unknown, shortage of time and resource and a lack of buy-in from senior management. Interestingly last month’s Charity Finance IT survey showed that the percentage of chief executives closely involved with IT decisions has dropped to the lowest level in the last four years – with over 20 per cent having no involvement in the process. It may come as no surprise therefore to see that the percentage of charities outsourcing parts of their IT operation increased last year. In part, one assumes, so that the headache of dealing with technology is passed to someone else.

The students agreed that many people work in the sector to improve the world but have a preference for improving someone else’s world, rather than their own. This can translate in a willingness to help others change but a reluctance to apply this to their own jobs and the way they work. This might explain why chief executives are backing away from IT.

Changing the way we work in our organisations may not be as appealing as working with our beneficiaries to change their lives. However, both have to be done if we want to have world class charities.

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John Tate

John Tate is a qualified accountant and entrepreneur. He is a columnist for Charity Finance, a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School's Centre for Charity Effectiveness and Trustee of Eduserv. He also non executive chair of Civil Society Media.

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