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Investing in Alternative Solutions for Delivering Technology




Feb 16, 2001


Daniel Ben-Horin

On this topic, let me add these comments, also a result of groupthink, here at CompuMentor:

This from Dr. Mark Liu, our Program Director:

A problem that I have with ASPs-as-THE-solution is that, in the current situation, they are only a partial, incremental solution.

The main reason that I think that ASPs are an incremental solution is because they typically, today, address only a part of the problem. To illustrate:

In a typical NPO office, staffers use a range of applications:

1) Everyone uses desktop productivity tools like word processing.

2) Everyone uses standard, centralized productivity tools like email, file sharing, shared printers and internet access.

3) Selected staff use different centralized applications, e.g., fund-raising, accounting, client management.

People envision ASPs which support 1 or more of these functions.

a) Microsoft is working on Web-based versions of Office. Until we have really, really high bandwidth, I think this will be a problematic solution. Who wants to wait for Word to download from the Internet.

b) ASPs are offering web-based file storage. ASPs, like Yahoo, offer web-based email. Some of this stuff may work okay, but bandwidth is an issue, especially for web-based file storage.

c) Centerbeam and Everdream offer desktops packaged with support. This takes care of desktop productivity well, but they probably limit / control the software you can load on your desktop, so you're not getting all the power and flexibility of the desktop.

d) People expect application vendors to port their applications to the Web, e.g., RaisersEdge over the web or QuickBooks over the web. Alternatively, new web-based vendors will arise. Each of these might well be good solutions for a single application.

Now, one of the main supposed advantages of ASPs is that you need less IT expertise in your agency. But your agency currently needs a lot of different kinds of IT expertise, including:

i) CIO to plan and manage the IT infrastructure

ii) desktop support (sysadmin, helpdesk)

iii) support of centralized productivity tools and the LAN (netadmin)

iv) tech support of specialized applications

v) enduser training and support for standard productivity tools

vi) enduser training and support for specialized applications

In a small or medium sized NPO, you have a fraction of an IT person to a few IT people. These different expertise are spread across these few people, as well as across the various end-users.

I think that if you examine each type of solution (a-d), you will find it addresses each of the expertise areas (i-vi) differently, having strong impact on 1 or more and no impact on others. In addition, given the performance and loss of control issues, the net positives are not fantastic, e.g., you don't get a 100% improvement, maybe you get a 10-20% improvement. Since the agency needs all of 1-3 and i-vi, any single improvement from a-d only improves the overall picture incrementally.

So if you ask the question - Is an internet-based email service a better solution than an in-house email solution, the answer might very well be yes, it's 20% better. This is good enough of an improvement to recommend it. Similarly for any other specific solution, e.g., for a fund-raising application. But when you ask "Would [an Internet Technology Resource Center] help these organizations to overcome problems like the complexity of technology and the difficulty of recruiting and retraining talented IT personnel?" I think the expectations are overblown. For example, you wouldn't ask that question of "an off-the shelf fund-raising package".

On the other side, (i.e., I'll argue against myself here), I think you could argue that ASPs will decrease the overall level of technical expertise needed at an agency. The agency needs

A) CIO level IT management and planning skills

B) deep technical skills for network administration

C) lesser technical skills for helpdesk and sysadmin

D) general end-user skills in various applications.

ASPs will help the most with B). C) and D) are probably less difficult for an agency to get. A) is pretty lacking, and not helped by ASPs. So I guess this is a good thing, but not a complete solution. (But to be clear, I'm not insisting that ASPs have to provide a complete solution.)

I guess this all adds up to this. Agencies have a lot of different needs. ASPs may be a good solution to addressing a subset of these needs. Therefore, we should promote the development of ASPs in the areas that they are most effective. But, ASPs do not address bigger, more pervasive issues (like lack of IT management skills, under budgeting of IT, and broad but shallow end-user skill shortages). So we should not see ASPs as a panacea, but as one of many important tools to use.

***And this is from our Ex. Dir., Phil Ferrante-Roseberry:

The vision of an ASP driven world is a very compelling one. The prospect of organizations (particularly small/medium NPOs) freeing themselves of having to support a tech infrastructure other than a high-bandwidth Internet connection would be hugely liberating.

But at least in the near future (and perhaps for a substantially longer time) there are some stumbling blocks that make this little more than the incremental progress Mark talks about. Here are the blocks that I see:

1) Bandwidth: if you don't have it and can't get it, none of this matters to you. This is already on its way to resolving itself, and I can't imagine this being a big issue in 3 years. (Though remote regions may still have a harder time of it.)

2) The 'hostage customer' syndrome. There is there a real danger of ASPs holding their customers hostage, or worse yet, going belly-up and taking an organization's essential data with it. Presumably, this will become less of a factor as the industry develops working business models, goes through a couple shake-outs, matures, etc. That in itself could take a few years.

3) "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." - FDR. Customer confidence in ASPs has not yet been built, for good reason. (See 'hostage customer' syndrome.) A boom followed by a shakeout could poison the well of customer confidence for some time.

4) and I think this is the main problem, at least in terms of the big vision of npos shedding IT infrastructure... There are large parts of npo tech needs which may not lend themselves to an ASP solution. Mark rightly notes that porting Office to an ASP seems to be a solution in search of a problem. In fact, Microsoft pulled back on this very offering several months ago.

If the most generic applications don't lend themselves to an ASP, do more specific ones? I think the answer is "sometimes". For instance, the donor database issue seems to lend itself fairly well to an ASP model, and many companies are going after that low-hanging fruit. But the big problem that countless npo's encounter is in the area of client databases. We're still in the era of custom builds here, and I don't see how an ASP changes that. NPOs are extremely invested in tracking their clients their way, in part because there's no standardization among funders of the reporting info they want. For an ASP to really lift the technological yoke off an npo's back, it would have to offer a pretty much shrink-wrapped product, and client tracking doesn't yet lend itself to shrink-wrapping.

So, if it doesn't work for the most common applications (office apps) or the most customized (client databases) all that's left is select applications somewhere in-between. This is incremental progress, and as Mark notes, it's a good thing, but not a panacea. ASP development for nonprofits should be supported but not at the expense of broad-based development of a full suite of interventions.

***And I will add:

This boils down for me to framing the question correctly. The question isn't "Are ASPs the solution?" They are certainly part of a solution, no more or less. The better question is: "Are there ASP projects that are driven by specific nonprofit-sophisticated agencies who are competent not only to offer the right ASP products but can complete the loop by organizing the necessary training and support for their early adoptor nonprofit clients?" I think this is a longwinded way of saying what Jonathan Peizer said a while back. And I think the good news is as adumbrated by Jonathan and Vince Stehle. NPower is exactly the right agency to drive a pioneering ASP project--not because its ASP products are necessarily head and shoulders above all others (although, given NPower's track record, I have every hope they will be) but because NPower has a great track record of understanding nonprofits' needs fully and developing interventions, often on a collaborative basis, to address these needs. Thus we at CompuMentor expect NPower's Changeframe to provide the proper mix of ASP products and necessary support, and we hope they will find the necessary backing to push forward with major momentum.

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