When your tech tools just aren’t working for you any more

Barbara Paes
Cathy Richards

Don’t be stuck!

In our work supporting civil society organisations, we see how changes around tech and data can be a potential source of stress — things like rolling out a new email server or adopting a new tool can generate some uneasiness and frustration.

We’ve also worked with organisations that sometimes feel “stuck” in their internal tech infrastructures — feeling like because they’ve been working with a particular process or tool for a long time, it’s easier just to “stick with it”, or, even after identifying a tech tool is not quite right for them, having a hard time knowing how to move on from it.  

But social justice organisations are constantly transforming (as are the contexts in which they work!): Teams and internal structures change, organisational goals evolve, and ways of working adapt over time.

Sticking with the same tech and data practices that aren’t really working for an organisation can slow work down and potentially create vulnerabilities. 

In the changing landscape of digital technology, there are often external circumstances that impact our tools and require us to reassess their suitability. Cost increases, ownership changes, and the potential for obsolescence can throw a wrench in any well planned infrastructure system.

It is fundamental for social justice organisations’ tech and data practices to be adaptable to context and open to change.

In this resource, we’re sharing some thoughts that we hope inspire more organisations to  nurture a culture of adaptability within their digital infrastructure.

In other words, it’s ok to pause, rethink your internal infrastructure, and move towards something different — especially if the ways previous tech choices have become inappropriate for where you are now.

We’ll talk about some of the factors that can lead to tool transitions, such as changes that could happen to your organisation and the context in which you’re organising, creating a different set of needs from digital tools; and changes to the landscape of digital technologies, like the tools and platforms you’re using for your work, making you re-assess whether they’re still a fit for you.

We also share some tips on how to know if change is needed in your digital infrastructure and guidance on what to look at when choosing new tools.

Contexts change (and your systems might need change): Digital resilience

In our work supporting civil society organisations, we have witnessed how, in light of the many overlapping crises and instability our societies are facing, they are often being pushed to expand their ability to tweak, adjust, and change their strategies and their work, including internal digital infrastructures. 

And that isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do. 

Instability is the new landscape of social struggle

Movement Generation

It’s hard to find the time and resources to stop what you’re doing and re-assess why and how a tech tool isn’t quite working for you, especially when you’re working on urgent and pressing issues (like climate advocacy or fighting for justice for marginalised communities!). On top of that, adapting to a new tool can be a difficult process. 

But being prepared to move to a new tool if needed is one way civil society organisations can exercise intentional adaptation (the idea of changing something to fit a specific situation, and doing it in ways that resonate with your aims and purposes) and digital resilience, by adopting infrastructures that respond to the ever-changing needs and contexts.

Digital Resilience

We see digital resilience as a set of practices that support the ability of an organisation to protect itself from – and respond to – digital security threats, to ensure the wellbeing of its members/individuals, and to adopt infrastructures that respond to the ever-changing needs and contexts of the organisation and its members.

How do you know if a tool still fits your needs? 

Chances are you probably already know (or at least have some strong hunches about) which parts of your digital infrastructure aren’t working internally. In our experience, our partners can almost always identify the ways tech tools or processes aren’t really strengthening their work. 

Below, we’re sharing some questions that you and your team could ask yourselves to reflect on whether or not your organisation has outgrown the tech you use:

  • What was the main reason we chose the tools we work with? How have our needs evolved or changed since adopting these tools? Could there be other platforms out there that are more aligned with our needs? 
  • Have the politics and values (privacy settings, data handling techniques, etc) behind the tools we use changed dramatically since we started using it? Are the tools still aligned with our own mission and values?
  • What are the resources required? What are the costs of using the tools we use? Can we still afford to keep them (now and over time)? What about ease of use? How tech-savvy are you or your team? How does this tool fit with our technical know-how and skillset? Is it still useful and manageable?

The ways you use tech and data should help you achieve your core mission, support your team with their workflows, it (ideally) should be aligned with your values, and it should be accountable to the communities you work with.

And if, in the process of reflecting about your tech and data, you reach the conclusion that those things aren’t happening (or that they could be improved), it’s an indication that you might need to make some changes!

When it’s the tool that changes 

The need to reassess the suitability of a tool may also come from changes that take place with the platforms themselves – including the companies that run the tools, their business models, or the community that maintains the tool. Here are a few ways this can happen: 

💸 Cost increases: All platforms run on a business model. At times, when the model is no longer sustainable, providers often increase the cost of the service. This may include: removing free plans, moving certain features from lower to higher cost plans, or just outright increasing the cost of service. This new pricing structure is often not budgeted for and can become financially burdensome for organisations.

📜 Ownership changes: Many of the platforms we use are developed by private entities with a mandate to maximise shareholder value. Many times, that value is derived from sales to other entities. A change in ownership often goes hand in hand with a change in leadership and therefore a new product vision. Sometimes this new vision results in changes to how the platform functions or questions around user data privacy

💀 Tools become defunct: Developers may stop maintaining platforms for numerous reasons. In many cases, the lack of continued funding results in a platform being closed down. This funding may come from foundations, investors or from paying customers but in the end it means there isn’t enough funding to maintain operations. In other cases, developers may stop working on a platform due to the lack of interest from users. If there isn’t a market, it doesn’t make sense to continue to invest resources into the platform.

When evaluating tools, really look at the tool’s future 

At The Engine Room, we look at many factors before selecting a new platform. However, there are five in particular that we focus on to decrease the probability of having to move in the future. 

💰 Financial Sustainability: The financial sustainability of a company developing a tool relies on various factors, including who they collaborate with and receive funding from, as well as the soundness of their business model. These elements play a crucial role in determining the long-term viability and success of the company. In most cases, most tools that claim to be free don’t remain that way forever. Eventually, funds begin to run out and the cost of running the platform outpaces the revenue coming in. 

🕰️ Longevity and Track Record: A tool’s longevity and the stability of the company behind it can provide valuable insights into its reliability and ongoing support. Companies that have been in the market for an extended period (3 – 5 years) are often more likely to offer mature features, better customer support, and regular updates. Research the company’s history, read customer reviews, and consult industry reports to understand the sustainability of the tool in the long term.

🧩 Interoperability: Interoperability and the risk of vendor lock-in are important considerations when evaluating a tool. The ability of a tool to seamlessly integrate with other tools in your infrastructure opens the doors not just to more efficient workflows but also to being able to export your data for use on alternative platforms. If a tool makes it difficult or impossible to integrate or simply export your data in a common data (file?) type, this may mean that you are locked in to only using that tool.

👥 Community and Support: Understanding the kind of community and support around a tool can be vital. Open-source tools often have robust communities that can offer valuable insights and troubleshooting tips. Additionally, check if the company behind the tool is responsive and has a reputation for effective customer support. This can be particularly beneficial for troubleshooting and future tool enhancements.

🤝 Ethical Considerations: Consider the company’s stance on issues such as data privacy, inclusivity, and social responsibility. These factors can often be indicators of how aligned the tool is with your organisation’s values. For example, a company that prioritises data security can be a more reliable choice for sensitive projects.

Some tips on how to make moving to another tool less painful …

Over the years, we’ve experienced or supported numerous tool migrations. While in many cases the migration is triggered by an internal desire to change tools, in many others the trigger is completely out of the users’ hands.

Our takeaways from these unplanned migrations include:

  • Keep backups: Ensure that there are backups of your data at all times: Making the time to regularly backup your data means that when the time comes to change tools there is one less thing for your team to worry about. Relatedly, be prepared to move at any moment! 
  • Manage expectations: It is crucial not to underestimate the financial and time costs involved in moving to a new platform. 
  • Make time for training and onboarding: To help people get on board with using a new tech tool, it’s important to explain how this new tool will be useful, and to include key individuals (who will regularly use the tool) in the decision-making. If you are introducing a number of tools, it’s a good idea to bring them in gradually, starting with the easier ones. This way, people can build up their skills and get comfortable with one tool before moving on to the next.
  • Listen to the team:  Listening to what your team thinks about a new tool and letting them try it out can make everyone more comfortable with using it. Having a go-to person for help can boost confidence, because everyone knows who to ask for guidance. This hands-on approach helps people learn better and makes them more likely to adopt new tech successfully.

We hope this helps you  move on successfully from a tool that’s not working for you, to one that does!

Strengthening our digital resilience isn’t necessarily a neat, linear path. It involves a lot of experimentation and feedback loops (and then some more experimentation!). 

Our team is always available to support organisations who are figuring out how to use tech in ways that resonate with their organisational values, in ways that are sustainable for their org and strengthen their core work. Find out how to get in touch!