Non-profit IT Systems

Learn Wardley Mapping Live Chat

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I Guess I’m Starting an Advice Column?

And with that in mind, welcome to the inaugural edition of Ask Ben! I had a fantastic discussion about Wardley Mapping in the not-for-profit space through the live chat and I’m reproducing it here with permission.

Richard: Hi Ben, I work for a non-profit trade association for co-op and mutual insurance companies, I was recommended Wardley Mapping to map out the IT infrastructure but in addition to this have ended up with the task of mapping out our value chains for the target operating model that is currently being written. How would you approach mapping IT infrastructure, I guess the customers are the employees that use the IT systems? Do you have any examples of a mapped IT system?

The second question I have is I feel that because we are a non-profit and the way we operate is very “woolly” I’m finding it difficult to pin down how to map out the overall companies value chains. We are currently trying to provide a knowledge brokering service to our members where we match one companies competences with another’s problems, but there doesn’t seem to any particular process to this, if someone finds out through a conversation that a member has a problem then they will probably ask around the business if anyone knows another company that could help solve that problem, I guess most of this would sit in the left half of the map as it’s all bespoke, but it just seems a bit difficult to pin down a value chain. The other services we offer are conferences (pre-pandemic) where have session to disseminate knowledge and also networking, I feel like these are two different value prepositions in one, would you map these separately?

I always find when trying to analyze the organization it never fits into the analytical tools and concepts for capitalist based companies, it’s not like we are manufacturing a widget of some description and first buy materials to manufacture it, then sell it on to a customer, there never really appears to be a clear value chain like that. A great example is that some members pay their member fee out of solidarity for the co-op and mutual insurance industry.

As I’m sure you can tell I’ve got little experience at this and would really appreciate any advice or clarity you could give. I’m really hoping I can get a handle on how I can do this so I am put this tool in my arsenal.

I would also like to say a massive thanks for taking the time to put the video tutorials up on YouTube!

Ben: Hi Rick! Thanks for reaching out! Let’s start with users.

Any system is going to have all sorts of users, internal and external. In Wardley Mapping, when we say “users,” what we really mean is anybody who gets value of any kind from the system.

That opens up to a lot of potential ways to think about users for even the simplest of IT systems:

  • Existing end users
  • New end users
  • IT staff
  • Developers
  • Security and compliance folks
  • Executives
  • Any other stakeholders

For your first few maps, my advice is to focus on a user you find it easy and motivating to care about. Don’t boil the ocean by focusing on everyone at once… pick just one.

Erik Schön curated a bunch of maps here. A few of them are IT systems. Might be worth checking out!

Here’s an extremely oversimplified map I made to pitch an as-a-service offering of an open source software solution. Users were hiring systems administrators to hand-deploy and hand-configure it, which was ridiculously expensive.

So I thought… what if we just used platforms like Heroku instead, and built expertise around management? Then they could pay for a low cost subscription instead of a whole salary, which would open the solution up to institutions without big budgets. Even got a basic prototype working! Fun times.

As far as things being “woolly”… That’s normal. Think of making maps as paying down decision debt… so much has been left unintentionally designed in most orgs, so there’s a bit of a long “catch up” period where you have to figure out a) what people are doing now, while also figuring out b) what they ought to be doing instead.

The key is to make little bits of progress on that, everyday. Again, don’t try to boil the ocean. Just get a better understanding of area, little by little, and eventually that will provide enough of a stable “known” space that you can work outwards from there. Expand understanding and intentional design of the system little by little over time.

One trick Simon uses is to examine “transactions” — literally who is talking to whom, about what, when, and why. Then aggregate all that together to pay attention to patterns. If I were in your shoes, I’d try to interview the users and gather as many stories about how the work gets done as I can. Then you have data to work with as the basis for your map, instead of having to make it up from nothing.

If it feels like there’s no consistent process about how value gets delivered to users, you’re probably right. That’s normal for most organizations. And, that means there’s lots of opportunity to make things better.

And you’ll probably notice a theme here… make small maps. Map one value prop at a time. Map something, throw it away, then bring in a colleague and map it with them, throw it away, bring in another colleague, and repeat. (that’s both discovering how things work AND socializing how things work rolled into one). Mapping as a verb is more important than the map as a noun.

I generally agree about your assertion that organizations not motivated by profit are difficult to analyze through a capitalist lens. Wardley Mapping cares only about evolution… which is more biological than capitalist. It just so happens that “survival of the fittest blah blah blah” models capitalist economies somewhat well.

As a not-for-profit, the challenge is to survive. And in order to survive, you will depend on labor and resources that comes from outside the organization. Trying to do everything in your value chain yourself would be extreme and unlikely to succeed. For instance, you won’t write your own operating systems nor build your own computers. You won’t generate your own power. You will naturally depend on external players who are playing the profit game. So it’s not about working outside capitalism… it’s about acknowledging capitalism exists and then using careful discretion about whether, where, and how to participate.

Below is the value chain of how I think about it. You envision futures. In order to bring those about, you need to exist. In order for your to exist, you need to serve somebody (users). In order for them to be served, they need to receive some kind of value. And in order to enable that value, a ton of various dependencies need to come together, many of which you will orchestrate. And many of those dependencies will come from outside your organization’s four walls, so to speak.

This was a great set of questions, and thank you for asking them!

Now It’s Your Turn

Do you have questions about Wardley Mapping (or anything else) you’d like to pick my brain on? Just click that blue chat button in the bottom righthand corner of the screen. I look forward to hearing from you!

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