From the Gilbert Center in an excellent article entitled “ Asking the Wrong Questions: Challenging Technocentrism in Nonprofit Technology Planning”:

In every domain in life, the questions we ask shape the responses we get. Our questions reveal our frame of reference and impose that frame on our answers. As a result, much is revealed by examining the assumptions, the reasoning, and the logic models of our questions.

I believe that most practitioners of nonprofit technology planning are asking the wrong questions. Because their questions are largely about technology, the results of these questions are answers dominated by the logic of technology itself, rather than by the mission or methods of the organization.

Many observers will agree that common complaints about technology projects – resistance to change, long sales cycles, inappropriate technology, unexpected costs, unused tools – are often the inevitable result of this technocentric planning. The only way to unravel this problem is to go to the source and challenge the questions we ask.[…]

What Should Planners Ask? It’s useful to look at other domains for inspiration about what the right questions might be. Although a proper examination would involve a much larger set of domains, for our purposes today, let’s look at eye doctors and shoe sales-people.

Eye doctors don’t determine how to correct your vision by looking at what kind of glasses you have been wearing recently. They evaluate your vision directly and possibly they investigate some lifestyle or workstyle issues, such as the typical distance of objects that you need to see. Even though your current glasses might reveal something about your eyesight, they don’t use that as a form of assessment. Eye doctors rely on questions about eyes and about seeing, not questions about eyeglasses.

Shoes sales folk don’t do an inventory of your shoes in order to sell you a new pair. Even though it’s true that such an inventory might help them sell to you, even people with such a solid sales agenda focus instead on other things. They measure your feet, for example. They investigate your walking habits and contexts. They watch you walk. Shoe sales folks rely on questions about feet, fashion, and walking (or running or standing), not questions about shoes.

From these two examples, we can start to learn what kinds of questions planners should be asking. In both of these cases, the questions that allow the professional to offer the right technology are not technological questions. Instead, they ask questions about behavior and context. The behavioral questions are often goal directed and look at practices which, though they will likely be served by the technology, are not about the technology. The context questions, being both personal and practical, give the professional an understanding of the systems into which the technology will be introduced. Those systems include other technologies, but are in no way limited by them.

What Are Nonprofit Techies Asking?

[…] I started with the TechAtlas Basic Interactive Technology Assessment & Technology Project Recommendations. To their credit, TechAtlas asks you to describe your organization’s mission. They promise to include that mission statements at the top of the documents produced. Unfortunately, there is very little in TechAtlas that actually tries to connect the technology plan to that mission, other than technology vision statement. Instead, the Basic Assessment asks about hardware, networks, virus protection, backups, databases, email, the Web, the Internet, training, and software.

What’s missing? It doesn’t ask about communication practices, business processes, stakeholder relationships, or anything else that might actually lead to meaningful requirements. The questions of the Basic Assessment provide a classic example of the determinism inherent in technocentric inquiry. In essence, each question takes the form of “Are you doing ______ (insert tech we think is good)?” If the answer is no, then the recommendations are more or less “Well, you should!”

The title for this post comes from our RFP for organizations requesting the support of the Digital Arts Service Corps; it is an effective bellwether for overall project success.