Humanitarian relief organizations have always relied on a healthy dose of creative problem-solving to provide IT to workers and volunteers out in the field, and in this respect, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is no exception.
When war or political unrest forces people to flee their homes, NRC personnel are often the first on the scene to offer help and support. In 2017, NRC assisted around 8.7 million refugees in some 30 countries worldwide, providing food, shelter, education and so on to displaced people.
But according to Pietro Galli, CIO at NRC, non-profit technology leaders like himself increasingly need to think beyond simply giving relief workers in difficult environments access to key data and applications. That remains extremely important, of course - but these leaders also need to think about how technology might be used to build and deliver entirely new digital services for beneficiaries. Says Galli:
Technology is, of course, vital for an organization like ours, making us more efficient and enabling us to reach people at scale, faster - but that’s just the start. Now we are looking to technology to augment what we do in very new and exciting ways.
Digitized versus digital
Elsewhere in the non-profit sector, others are thinking the same way. More specifically, they are recognising that there is a distinct difference between being ‘digitized’ and ‘digital’, according to a recent blog post by Lauren Woodman, CEO of NetHope, a US-based consortium of 50-plus global nonprofits, which includes NRC’s Galli on its board of directors.
Being digitized, Woodman explains, focuses on the operational backbone of an organization, andon using technology to make data standardized and more accessible; transactions more secure; and operations more transparent. In other words, it’s work that began for many private and public sector organizations in the 1990s, with the deployment of ERP and then CRM systems, and which continues today. Being digital, by contrast, is quite different, she says. Digital organizations use technology to develop new value propositions or develop new services, products and offerings. Putting this in a non-profit context, she writes:
Rather than just providing vaccines to children, an organization might also provide recommendations for nutrition or preventative services and remind mothers via text messaging, for example. In developing clean water solutions, an organization might also incorporate sensor technology, to ensure sustainable access for entire communities.
The road ahead
At NRC, much has already been achieved on the digitalization front. In recent years, Galli has pursued a cloud-first strategy and NRC uses Microsoft Office 365 for personal productivity apps, Salesforce for CRM, and Workplace by Facebook as its internal social media platform. Its deployment of cloud-based identity management capabilities from Okta, meanwhile, ties all this together, by providing NRC employees with single sign-on capabilities.
NRC is also partnering with Okta on a new initiative, which involves integrating VMware’s Workspace ONE product for mobile device management with Okta. This will enable Galli and his team to see devices are being utilized in the field, grant access to applications to employees on new devices and impose controls over what combinations of users, devices and applications should be granted authorization. Now, it’s time to think ahead and, in particular, about becoming an even more digital organization, rather than a merely digitized one. Says Galli:
We have done a lot of work to ensure that we have the right infrastructure, the right platforms, the right cloud-first strategy and this continues to be a vital part of my role. It involves working on partnerships with technology companies and tackling issues of cybersecurity and data privacy. But my role today is also to lead on a digital transformation of the organization, which for me, is about delivering digital experiences for beneficiaries and that’s just starting. But this is how I see the future, more and more.
A particularly significant step in this direction, he says, was last year’s launch of a digitally focused unit in Berlin, the NRC D Team:
The D Team is intended to help drive the transformation, to be a catalyst, and we’ve been hiring people from the private sector, mostly. These are people that have different skill sets and mindsets, when it comes to digital innovation, than we would normally find within NRC, because these things have not necessarily been ‘bread-and-butter’ for an organization like ours. It’s not really what we’ve focused on for the last 70 years.
Already, NRC has notched up some significant achievements on this journey, as examples from its more recent annual report make clear. It has piloted online learning using tablets at refugee camps in Greece, enabling young displaced people to continue their education. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it has distributed e-voucher cards to families, so that they can buy essential food and supplies from market traders equipped with scanners on their smartphones. In Somalia, it is distributing funds to refugees located in far-flung areas via mobile cash transfers. Says Galli:
Our technology backbone continues to be important, of course, but it’s transforming our core business, not just the back end, where we need to put our greatest energies, so that NRC can be even more effective in helping displaced people to rebuild their lives.