Actually, software is eating the world

In 2011, Marc Andreessen wrote a now famous op ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he coined the phrase “software is eating the world”. In the piece, Andreessen argues that, “…we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy.” He goes on to cite examples such as: Amazon over Borders, Netflix over Blockbuster, iTunes and Pandora over traditional record labels, and so forth.
Throughout society, software is becoming the foundation for economic and organizational life. It is even becoming the foundation for our political life.  The top controversies of 2013 were both fundamentally issues with software: and the NSA.
Software continues to eat the world. Witness the recent enthusiasm for wearables at CES. The tech sector is now focused on deploying software to any and every object imaginable: from watches to refrigerators, from cars to door locks. Google, arguably the largest software company in the world, made up for its absence at CES by acquiring smart thermostat company Nest for $3 billion and unveiling a contact lens that can monitor blood sugar levels.
Software is eating my thermostat. Software is eating my contact lens.

What about my nonprofit?

Nonprofits are not exempt from this massive ongoing shift. The most effective nonprofits are increasingly data driven; from email to files, from accounting packages to fundraising systems. These software solutions all help store and manage information.
In his “Battle of the Box” post, Ben Thompson asks the question, “What is an enterprise if not a collection of people and the data they jointly create and consume? Data belongs to the organization, and by definition requires collaboration.”
Because software has become so fundamental, selecting and investing in the right system becomes vitally important for the success of any organization. And not all software is created equal, as anyone who has switched the system they are using can attest.
How do most nonprofits select their software solutions? Is it given top priority by the organization? Is it included as part of the strategic plan? Is it reviewed on a regular basis?

“Software selection”

Even in optimal situations, “software selection”, as it is often called, can involve little more than a bullet list of requirements with a smattering of possible packages spread out in a matrix. It is time for all organizations (and I’m fully including myself into this group) to get more intentional about identifying and deploying software solutions in a thoughtful manner.
Over the course of 2014 I will be writing extensively on various topics related to the theme of software selection. My goal is not to provide a blueprint of a process, or share insights, as much as to spur thinking about the many dimensions involved in software selection, deployment and usage within nonprofit organizations.

Microsoft adrift

We can start our analysis either at the the top (as in the largest, most venerable software company) or at the bottom (as in the software that runs the operating system for nearly all desktop computers). It doesn’t matter actually; it’s the same company. Microsoft’s strategy for the last 20 years has been totalizing. As Bill Gates famously said in 1980, his goal was “a computer on every desk and in every home”…running Microsoft software, of course.
And for nearly two decades, selecting software and the platform that would support it has been a relatively simple matter. The obvious choice, the only choice, with its market dominance, has been Microsoft. You could rest assured that if you deployed a Microsoft Windows machine, your staff would generally (more or less) know how to use it, and it would support (almost) any applications you might need.
This is not so true any longer. In fact, Microsoft has been severely shaken. With its lame duck CEO, Steve Ballmer, on the way out and no new CEO yet selected, Microsoft is adrift strategically. Given its vast financial war chest and market dominance, Microsoft can probably drift aimlessly for several years, but the longer it takes to clarify its strategy, the worse its situation will become.
This is not an academic matter for business professionals or tech investors. Because most nonprofits are heavily invested in both Microsoft technology, as well as Microsoft’s generous charity pricing program, the future direction of Microsoft will have a direct impact on many nonprofit organizations…not to mention business and organization as a whole.

Design ascendant

As Microsoft stumbles, innumerable software companies are rushing to take its place. Operating systems, email clients, and productivity tools abound. Not only are we entering something of a golden age for variety in the world of software, we are also entering a golden age for software design.
It is probably (mostly) incorrect to say that we are moving from the Age of Microsoft to the Age of Apple, but there is some truth to it. Apple is the most valuable company on the planet and its fundamental ethos of design has replaced Microsoft’s ethos of horizontal dominance and integration through consolidation.
Design is essential to the use of software. Well designed software can improve usability, adoption and efficiency. Poorly designed software can make any organization (and especially its IT department) miserable.
Design is a professional discipline. Unfortunately, many IT professionals rely on “gut feeling” to help assess what constitutes good or bad design in software. Some familiarity with basic design principles will become essential.

More to come

I hope you join me on this journey as I wrestle with the implications of software ascendancy on the success of nonprofit organizations.  I look forward to your comments and feedback as well.