March 29, 2023

Using futures thinking to develop technology strategies for mission-based organisations


Mission-based or not-for-profit organisations are uniquely challenged when compared to more traditional corporate or government organisations. The lack of financial resources, dependence on donor or government funding, attracting and retaining talent and meeting changing regulatory requirements are all difficult hurdles that take precious attention away from achieving their purpose.

With many organisations looking to digital transformation and enablement to drive down costs and increase growth, too often are these initiatives focused on fixing today’s problem. The deployment of technology is expensive and takes time. This is even more true with NFP and mission based organisations with limited resources – so it is paramount to plan well ahead of today’s needs.

Here are some ideas where futures thinking can help.

Anticipate emerging trends and technologies to identify new opportunities:

Anticipating trends and technologies is a crucial aspect of using futures thinking. By exploring different possible futures, organisations can identify emerging trends and technologies that may impact their operations and the communities they serve. Here are some key activities:

  • Conducting environmental scanning: One way to anticipate emerging trends and technologies is to conduct environmental scanning, which involves monitoring the external environment for trends and changes that may impact the organisation. This can include tracking changes in social, economic, political, and technological factors.
  • Engaging with stakeholders: Another way to anticipate emerging trends and technologies is to engage with stakeholders, including clients, partners, and community members. By soliciting input from these stakeholders, organisations can gain insights into emerging needs and trends, as well as identify potential opportunities for innovation.
  • Conducting scenario planning: Scenario planning is a process that involves developing and exploring different possible futures for an organisation. By developing scenarios that explore different technological trends and changes, organisations can identify potential opportunities and threats, as well as develop strategies to address them.
  • Building flexibility into technology strategies: Anticipating emerging trends and technologies requires building flexibility into technology strategies. This means developing strategies that can adapt to changing circumstances and emerging technologies, rather than being tied to specific technologies or approaches.
  • User-centred design: Futures thinking can also involve engaging with stakeholders and end-users to understand their needs and preferences. By doing this, organisations can identify opportunities for technology innovation that are aligned with their mission and values.
  • Collaborative innovation: Finally, futures thinking can involve engaging with other organisations and stakeholders to co-create innovative solutions to social challenges. By working collaboratively, organisations can pool their expertise and resources to identify and develop new opportunities for technology innovation.

Anticipating emerging trends and technologies is a critical aspect of using futures thinking to develop technology strategies for mission-based organisations. By staying ahead of the curve and identifying emerging trends and technologies, these organisations can position themselves to leverage new opportunities and technologies to achieve their mission and create positive social impact.

Build resilience:

By exploring different potential scenarios, organisations can develop strategies to build resilience and prepare for unexpected challenges. Developing a technology strategy that prioritises resilience can help mission-based organisations prepare for future challenges and uncertainties.

Here are some ways that mission-based organisations can build resilience into their technology strategies:

  • Identify potential threats and vulnerabilities: This is one of the first steps. Mission-based organisations should consider a range of scenarios, from natural disasters to cyber-attacks, and develop strategies to mitigate the risks.
  • Develop contingency plans: Mission-based organisations should update their contingency plans that outline how they will respond to unexpected events or disruptions that are more exposed to technology interruptions. This can include backup systems, emergency procedures, and communication protocols.
  • Foster a culture of adaptability: A culture of adaptability is essential for building resilience. Mission-based organisations should encourage employees to be open to change and willing to adapt to new technologies or approaches.
  • Invest in robust technology infrastructure: A strong technology infrastructure can help mission-based organisations withstand unexpected events or disruptions. This can include investing in backup systems, cloud-based solutions, and cybersecurity measures.
  • Collaborate with other organisations: Collaborating with other organisations can help mission-based organisations build resilience by sharing knowledge, resources, and expertise. This can include partnering with other organisations to develop joint contingency plans or share best practices.

By featuring resilience in their technology strategies, mission-based organisations can prepare for a range of potential scenarios using futures thinking and ensure that they can continue to achieve their mission even in the face of unexpected events or disruptions.

Foster collaboration:

Futures thinking can be used to facilitate collaboration between different organisations or stakeholders. By engaging in scenario planning and visioning exercises, organisations can identify shared priorities and opportunities for joint action with partners sharing the burden of costs. With future challenges for funding, collaboration will become a critical component of any successful organisation, and this is especially true for mission-based organisations that are working to make a positive impact on society. Think about things like:

  • Build a shared vision for the future: By engaging in futures thinking exercises with stakeholders, mission-based organisations can build a shared vision for the future. This can help to align different stakeholders around a common goal and provide a framework for developing technology strategies that support the organisation's mission.
  • Identify shared priorities: Collaboration can help to identify shared priorities among different stakeholders. For example, by engaging with beneficiaries, donors, and other stakeholders, organisations can identify areas where technology can be used to address emerging social needs.
  • Leverage complementary expertise: Collaboration can help mission-based organisations leverage complementary expertise from different stakeholders. By working with technology companies, universities, and other partners, organisations can access a broader range of skills and knowledge to inform their technology strategies.
  • Foster innovation: Collaboration can foster innovation by bringing together different perspectives and ideas. By creating opportunities for brainstorming and ideation, organisations can generate new ideas for how technology can be used to achieve their mission.
  • Build partnerships and networks: Collaboration can help to build partnerships and networks that can support the organisation's mission over the long term. By engaging with different stakeholders, organisations can build relationships that can provide ongoing support and resources for their technology strategies.

The potential for collaboration is a unique advantage that not-for-profit and mission-based organisations have over traditional corporate organisations. Technology can play a key role in enabling this collaboration to happen while preserving privacy and regulatory commitments.

Engage stakeholders:

Futures thinking can be used to engage stakeholders in discussions about the future of the organisation and its mission. This can help build buy-in and support for new initiatives and ensure that the organisation's technology and innovation strategies align with its mission and values. This also helps engage critical mid and senior level managers who are the engine-room of these organisations and essential to retain.

Here are some ways that mission-based organisations can engage stakeholders in the technology strategy development process:

  • Identify stakeholders: The first step in engaging stakeholders is to identify the key individuals and groups who have a stake in the organisation's technology strategy. This may include staff members, board members, donors, volunteers, program participants, and community partners.
  • Define the engagement process: Once stakeholders have been identified, the organisation should define the engagement process. This may involve holding focus groups, conducting surveys, organising workshops, or conducting one-on-one interviews. The process should be designed to encourage open and honest communication, and to allow stakeholders to share their perspectives and ideas.
  • Share the results: After engaging with stakeholders, the organisation should share the results of the engagement process. This may include sharing a summary of key findings and recommendations, a report, video or even developing tangible artefacts or prototypes that help stakeholders truly feel what the future might bring
  • Incorporate stakeholder feedback: Once stakeholder feedback has been gathered and shared, the organisation should use it to inform its technology strategy. This may involve making changes to the strategy based on stakeholder input, or prioritizing certain initiatives that are of particular importance to stakeholders.
  • Maintain ongoing communication: Finally, it is important for mission-based organisations to maintain communication with stakeholders throughout the technology strategy development process. This may involve holding regular meetings, providing progress updates, or soliciting feedback on an ongoing basis.

By involving stakeholders in the process, organisations can ensure that their technology strategies are aligned with their mission and values, and that they have the support and resources needed to implement these strategies successfully. Without sufficient engagement, organisations risk adoption and realisation of their business goals through resistance to change. Worse, organisations can end up building the wrong thing because they did not engage with their stakeholders sufficiently.

The value of futures thinking for not-for-profit or mission based organisations

Mission-based organisations face unique challenges when developing technology strategies. The limited financial resources, dependence on donor or government funding, challenge of finding and retaining talent, and the need to balance social mission with financial sustainability are all difficult issues to address. To help make sense of it all, organisations can use futures thinking to develop technology strategies that are forward-looking and aligned with their mission and values.

Fundamentally, when it comes to futures thinking for not-for-profit or mission-based organisations, it’s all about engaging stakeholders. It is unlikely that many of these organisations are going to be developing new innovative technologies that do not exist yet. Rather, the innovation these types of organisations should pursue is how to apply technologies invented elsewhere to their community. The “last mile” is often spoke about when referring to technology diffusion and it is here where mission-based organisations can have the biggest impact.

To understand this “last mile”, mission-based organisations need to understand their clients, their support networks, their staff and the environment they are all working within, now and in the future. Futures thinking provides the approach and framework for this understanding.

Ultimately, by using futures thinking and engaging stakeholders, mission-based organisations can develop technology strategies that help them achieve their mission and make a positive impact on society.

Photo by Julia M Cameron:

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