Integration without Disintegration

By Dan Barney, Barney & Associates

The concept of creating an integrated information management environment has been around since before the Commodore 64, circa 1982. No one wants to manage the same information multiple times. Schools work through admissions, registrar, philanthropy and finance. The costs of inefficiency are obvious, well-known and frequently discussed.

The tools now exist where even relatively small shops can strive to develop an integrated office. The issue is, as with so much in life, one of planning and preparation. As consultants we have worked with organizations striving to dis-integrate, because the integration implementation relied heavily on a preconceived notion to “plug it in and watch the magic work.” Sometimes unplugging may be the correct course of action, if clearly identified use cases cannot be agreed upon. If common ground can be reached at a cross roads, then a poor implementation will likely take more time and expense to correct than a well thought out initial integration.

So. What is the point?

When considering broad use system integration by discipline and role, an organization must bring all interested parties to the table to clearly define how information will be managed. Organizational stakeholders (students, board, donors, staff, etc.) should be at the center of each conversation as if occupying a seat at the table. This is a process which lives and which must be nurtured.

What are the rules? Where, if necessary, are the departmental boundaries? Who does what — and when? How are disputes resolved? At what point should we actively facilitate divergent needs? For example, Fundraising wants very formal names and addresses for the gala invitation mailing but Admissions is more familiar and prefers postal-compliant address entries. Finance does not want to book verbal pledges — or those below a specific monetary threshold — as revenue, but fundraising needs to track these commitments for both logistics and relationship management.

In any integrated environment, there are aspects of the system exclusively owned and managed by distinct staff, departments, roles. These parts, modules, objects often continue to behave very well as they resemble an operation with decentralized and “best in class” dedicated solutions. The common areas are where things get messy like the faculty lounge or dormitory community room. The challenge is to artfully manage the things which make one’s needs unique while capitalizing on the efficiency of integration and the opportunity to elevate the broader organization to the highest common denominator.

These types of processes can benefit greatly from a third-party moderator who can work with staff to separate the substance from the noise. It is not unusual for lines to be drawn in the sand which greatly hinder the evolution and eventual implementation of an integration simply out of resistance to change or in consideration of a perceived legacy. There may also be creative methods for expanding the use of a system to more completely meet the needs of the organization which cannot be seen by staff experts in focused aspects of an information management system.

Whether you consider bringing in an outside expert or not, be sure to ask the questions presented here. Consider ways to elevate the perception of your organization in the eyes of its stakeholders. Listen to the people who live the data every day and keep the interests of your students, parents, donors, vendors, etc. at the center of each discussion and decision.

Dan Barney is a seasoned consultant specializing in nonprofit information management. His firm, Barney & Associates, was founded in 2002. To learn more, contact Dan directly at dan@barneyacs.com or visit www.barneyacs.com.