The Startup
Published in

The Startup

A steel sculpture at the IIT campus in Chicago, Illinois. It is industrial, yet human scale, almost like signposts indicating different directions.

The Power to Humanize Technology

Power and Enterprise Data Systems

“The problem” can have different — sometimes conflicting — definitions depending on the perspective.

A brushed steel wall, a round button, and a label that reads “Emergency Power.” I pressed the button but, alas, did not receive any emergency power that I am aware of.

The entire technology solution is a reflection of the actual power dynamics and decision-making within an organization.

  • Who sets the rules and norms for how data is captured, interpreted, reported on, stored and analyzed? Who feels safe challenging, questioning, raising the need for changes or identifying errors? Who is impacted but left out of the conversation?
  • How are people trained and supported in using their systems? Does everyone get appropriate resources or are some left out? Who decides what goes into the training and what is left out?
  • How are solutions designed and implemented? Whose perspectives are included and for which parts of the process? Whose needs or problem statements are being prioritized? Is open dialogue and design encouraged or is the process more controlled? Is the process transparent?

Business decisions are made and processes are defined by the people who have the power to decide and define. These decisions and definitions are then implemented and enforced through technology.

The CEO / Executive Director says “I can’t get timely data that helps me understand our financial performance in the context of the services we’re providing. How much more money do we have to raise to serve double the people? I have no idea and it’s terrifying.”
The Director of Development states the problem as “I know how much we’ve raised so far and what our targets are, but it’s really hard to get reliable data from program. This makes it hard to raise more funds, cultivate better relationships with our large donors or even tell our story and get the word out.”
The story from an individual donor is “It’s hard to see what my gift is doing. It’s hard to manage my gift — the amount, the timeline, the frequency. Things should be simpler.”
An institutional donor has different concerns: “We can only fund certain types of activities and programs. We need insight into how our funding is impacting the beneficiaries, and we define that impact in certain ways that don’t fully line up with this organization’s program delivery.”
The COO has concerns often shared by the CFO. “Our auditors like to trace fund use all the way down to the program activity level. But program staff operate on a different cycle than fundraising, which different again from our accounting process. It can be a nightmare to keep track of.”
The Program Director says that the problem is: “We have so many different programs and we’re always under-resourced. I feel like we get grants that demand stuff we don’t already track and we have to scramble to figure it all out, then scramble to provide whatever information the funder wants.”
From the program staff perspective: “I’m stretched so thin. I spend at least half of my time keying data into different databases, but I still need to serve the people who rely on me. Some of this stuff I have to ask feels pretty invasive so I either don’t ask or I wait until I have a better relationship with the client. I usually wind up working overtime to get it all done.”
A client of the program has this to say: “It’s like I have to prove I’m a deserving person every time I walk in the door, and I have to repeat my information over and over again. I’m the same person with the same story and I know these organizations all talk to each other. It always leaves me kind of upset, and most of this information I have to give them doesn’t change anything they’re doing for me. ”
The vendor’s story: “We have to provide high quality services to a large number of organizations while minimizing the risk of going out of business or allowing a data or privacy breech. We can only do that when the services we provide are relatively predictable, sustainable, and repeatable. We have to make decisions about what is going to be too expensive or failure-prone to implement, maintain, and support over time.”

It’s as if our entire discipline has forgotten that data must be input and used by large numbers of people before it can be transformed, analyzed, and consumed by executives, or is not terribly interested in how all that boring data entry stuff happens on the way to the shiny charts and graphs.

  • Which of these characters has the most authority to decide on a solution’s direction?
  • Who has the most influence? Are they the same person?
  • Who most influences whether the new system is adopted or struggles to get traction?
  • Who is managing the most risk — that is, who has the most legitimate need to control certain parts of the conversation?
  • Which of these roles have you seen at the table when creating technology solutions? Which are usually or always missing?

Changing power dynamics in enterprise tech — challenges and suggestions


  • Where have you used your power as a technologist to shape a solution that you’re proud of?
  • Do you believe anything should be done to change the ways power is reflected in your workplace technology? If so, what? If not, why not?
  • When you think about yourself as a consumer of government systems that you’re required to use, do you feel as if you own the data you provide or have any agency to affect change?
  • Are you a decision-maker who chooses or influences technology solutions at your organization? Does it make sense to think about line staff and clients when choosing technology? Would you be willing to give your time and attention to a vendor who tried to engage you in this conversation?
  • Are you a funder? What relative level of power do you see yourself having when technology considerations are being explored?
  • What else must we change to ensure the power structures that are reflected in our enterprise technology systems are transparent, equitable, and trusted?



Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +768K followers.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jenn Taylor

Operationalizationer — one who defines a fuzzy concept so it becomes clear, measurable, and empirically observable. Founder @