This post is a write-up of a talk I gave at the recent Mobile Web East Africa conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks to the team for inviting us to speak! Technology companies are in the business of changing habits. Creating a new tool, and getting people to use it consistently, means trying to change something about the way people get things done - moving from analogue to digital, from manual to automated, from one app to another, from Wordpress to Tumblr.
FrontlineSMS is no different. We're trying to make it easier to use simple text messages to do complex things. For FrontlineSMS to really work for an organization, we recognize that we have to see not one, but two changes take place.
First, organizations have to shiftfrom whatever technology or communications channel was in use before, to that plus SMS, or maybe just SMS. This is complex enough, requiring users to think through what is different about SMS than their previous solution - there may be privacy and data integrity concerns, there may be budgeting differences, staffing may need to change. We spend a lot of time talking with users and clients about these issues. Examples of actions that may arise from this type of change would be a new data protection policy, staff being issued additional phones for use just for work, or monitoring of a control group to ensure that use of SMS is not skewing data collection.
But second, and at least as important, is adoption and rollout of a new platform - the organizational change process inherent in starting to use FrontlineSMS. Dealing effectively with this challenge goes to the heart of the FrontlineSMS theory of change.
We believe that lasting change happens at project and team level. Solutions are best designed by the people who have the problem they address - and that people up and down the chain of authority have different problems. Wherever in this hierarchy the technology is aimed, change which does not effectively take root in teams will not germinate successfully. For technology to be picked up by an organization at large, it must make sense to the people who will be using it - and this may not be the same tool at different points in the hub-and-spoke system or the food chain. We need to design systems that deliver what different people need at their own level. Adoption of technology will be easier if it uses appropriately accessible hardware, affordable or cost-effective and easy to maintain; if the interface is simple to use and easy to pick up; and if control and use of the platform rests at the level of the problem it seeks to solve.* If teams can see how a tool helps them do their jobs, they are more likely to embrace it. Staff at ActionAid Kenya expanded their use of FrontlineSMS from communications with communities to chasing monitoring reports, once they saw how effective it could be to reach remote staff. US Embassy libraries all over the world downloaded FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with communities - but they did so separately. For us, the team is the node of change.
Critics of ICT for development (although this post applies at least as well to ICT in any field, including business) are keen to see technologies moving beyond endless pilots to rolling out at real 'scale'. An important understanding of scale, for us, isFrontlineSMS in use by many nodes at once - and in future, aggregated to a central node where data analysis, cost management, and process-shaping can be carried out. This is a fairly rare conception of scale, at least when it comes to SMS, where scale tends to be seen as vertical - many SMS sent to many people at once from one central node.
It's also a new way of dealing with SMS data, in particular - SMS is already in use informally by people in every profession, all over the world. Respecting this and giving teams a tool to manage it where they work just means formalizing what's already happening, and opening the door to aggregating that data and understanding it, later on.
To bring this back to adoption and rollout - our stated mission has long been lowering barriers to driving social change using mobile technologies. We know that building an easy-to-use, free or low-cost platform that uses last-mile technology is a lot of the battle - but we haven't completely cracked this yet. We still need to help users navigate a fragmented mobile market and figure out complex and confusing coverage and pricing models. But making technology palatable and easy to use without expensive reinforcement is a large part of the problem, solved.
Making SMS truly powerful for teams is applied technology at its purest - taking SMS, which has been around for over twenty years now, and making it easier to use. We think more people should take this approach, as we'll discuss in a forthcoming blog post. This is the missing link between taking the most widespread digital platform the world has ever seen, and turning it into a powerfully versatile, frontline business tool.
* SMS is great for this - it's everywhere (as the speaker from Thoughtworks, said, for maximum reach, use SMS). it's resilient, predictably costed, platform agnostic, and already in people's pockets.