Data analytics maturity: Don’t leave people and culture out of the equation

Do a search on “analytics maturity model” and you’ll get a lot of results that focus on pure technical capability. The typical progression starts with understanding the past, to making probabilistic statements about the future, to determining how to actually influence outcomes. This is one valid measure of maturity, but as a model for Advancement it is incomplete.

The progression runs like this:

  1. Descriptive analytics (reporting and business intelligence that answers “What happened? What is happening?”), advancing through …
  2. Predictive analytics (forecasting or predictive modeling that answers “What will happen? Who is most likely to do ‘x’ in future?”), and reaching a pinnacle at …
  3. Prescriptive analytics (answering the questions “Why did ‘x’ happen” and “How can we make ‘y’ happen?”).

As a result of investments in people, skills, and tools, our shop is proficient in descriptive and predictive analytics. Aside from potential one-off projects, though, we do not aspire to tackle the peaks of prescriptive analytics.

Prescriptive analytics seems more suited to mechanistic systems producing massive amounts of data, not social systems made of complex human behaviour producing relatively small amounts of data.

We might go there someday, but getting crazy sophisticated with analytics is not today’s goal. The goal is to consistently use data to inform decision-making. The tool could be machine learning, or it could be basic bar charts.

Some maturity models are better than others. Find one that addresses the people and process dimension, that enables you to assess the maturity of your culture of decision-making across the whole organization.

The problem with passion

The advertisement posted above the heads of my fellow bus commuters read, “Follow your passion.” The ad was for a career college. We hear that phrase all the time, follow your passion. The poster caused me to reflect on its implication. Which is, I think, that everyone has a “passion,” that we know what it is, and that success lies in acting on what we know.

As if one’s passion is a door with a sign on it that you simply open and walk through.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience, as I have, of sitting in a staff meeting wondering what the hell’s wrong with you. You looked around the room and thought, “Jeez, all these people seem so into it.” You wonder if you belong there.

A wise colleague once warned me against the mistake of “comparing your insides with everyone else’s outsides.” People in a meeting show their carefully curated outsides. That does not make them fakes. It makes them just like you.

It pains me that anyone is unhappy and restless because they think they’re lacking the critical ingredient of passion. Some people burn with an inner fire driving them to great things; the rest of us are fuelled by a steadier flame, something less dramatic, less ephemeral.

In place of passion we need a grounding of care. When you are responsible for something that matters, when for this stretch of time that thing depends on you and your team, an ethic of care begins to build and strengthen. You grow into it, and it in turn makes you grow.

In caring we achieve the inner harmony that brings joy at work. But this requires discovery, and discovery requires time, and time requires patience. It’s very different from the notion of a passion stamped on your soul for which there’s one matching purpose out there in the world. That’s a tall order leading to anxiety and frustration.

No one should take career advice from me. But I’ve gone outside the comfort zone of my supposed passions many times, and there I have found a universe of things I’ve come to care about deeply.

The future of AI is not what you think

The website Talk to Transformer lets you to play with a new machine learning model that has been trained to write complete sentences. You type a snippet of text, hit “Go,” and artificial intelligence takes over, riffing off the sentence you’ve entered to generate grammatically-correct text in response.

Think of Gmail (and now Outlook) and its suggestions for how to respond, only way more sophisticated. The model, a neural net called GPT-2, has been trained on a massive corpus of texts to enable it to write a plausible follow-up.

I’ve been having some fun with it. In fact, GPT-2 has written the last sentence of every paragraph in this blog post that follows. Does it write better than me? Maybe. Does it write better than any editor I’ve ever encountered?

It’s a neat trick. And that’s the problem. It’s just a trick. Impressive as it might be, the machine does one thing: it predicts the next word, based on statistical probabilities. It can’t sustain a thought, it can’t reason, it can’t conceptualize. And when the next word doesn’t come, you can’t hold onto a question or an idea. It stays very much in the present.

The current state of AI is prediction without understanding. The current state of AI has not yet reached a state where the machine can achieve the level of human understanding necessary to properly and successfully interact with its target. We believe there is more than enough room for improvement in this area.

Developments in AI, impressive as they are, will soon hit a dead end if we continue to regard intelligence as a computational problem. Thinking and feeling are not math. Pattern detection and prediction will take us only so far and neither will approach the capability of a human. Just as computer programs cannot be downloaded into human brains, human minds cannot be re-programmed and deep learning will not be able to solve very complex problems.

We have hold of the wrong metaphor. The brain is not a computer. We are focused on the neuron when the real magic is the connection between neurons. The brain is physical stuff, but it is immaterial relationships between material neurons that give rise to consciousness. The interval between two musical notes is not physical, it’s a relationship – the immaterial soul of music. The neurons we are targeting here are the ones that connect us to the spiritual universe, not the one that tells your tv remote which channel to turn on.

The big challenges and the big opportunities are not the property of the first discipline that comes to mind. The next big break in AI, or climate change, or economic inequality, or space exploration, will depend as much on the humanities as science. They are outside the realm of the current discipline. I’m looking for the broken pieces. The area where I have some hope for both the humanities and the sciences is in education.

That’s why universities are the most exciting places to work today. Where else will we discover the better metaphor, unlock the invisible music between two pitches? The university in this painting is a child learning to use a spoon, a child of a like mind on a quest to find the best spoon. The youth’s quest has driven the material into form, coloured with a painterly sense of pathos.

Oh wow – okay.

Philosophy and physics: The future belongs to institutions that combine unlike disciplines to ignite such sparks the world has never seen.

Collaboration rules

Operations groups like to make rules. It’s our superpower. I guess this comes from our awareness of how laws, regulations, and university policy apply to the business. We have to develop internal guidelines to clarify grey areas and ensure compliance, so rules are a tool we’re familiar with. And maybe we reach for that tool too often.

Rules are necessary to prevent serious risk: to the security of personal information, to institutional reputation, to charitable status. (Other useful “rules” are actually standards; think of counting guidelines, which don’t target behaviour but ensure consistency, transparency, and credibility for fundraising reporting.)

Rules are less useful when the risks are operational – those times when doing something out of the ordinary puts us at risk of being inefficient. This new thing creates manual work, or it means some data that could be useful to the business is not created or used, or causes some disorder or uncertainty by straying outside of established process.

Efficiency is a worthwhile goal only when you’re doing the right things. If a new thing is the right thing to do, there should be allowance for short-term inefficiency and uncertainty. The size of the opportunity determines how much disruption is okay.

When an opportunity arises and a decision must be made, the best approach is to collaborate and consider the unique circumstances. (Barring legal, reputational or other serious risk.) Operations should advise on internal risk and be given due consideration. If there are short-term risks that don’t cancel out the benefits, and there’s a path to return to equilibrium, then it makes sense to mitigate the risk and press on.

This works when Operations is integrated with the front line, is fully aware of organizational goals, and is considered a credible partner. If Operations is just a back-office service desk disconnected from strategy, then you can create all the rules you like. Good luck with that.

To mess with a quote borrowed from Émile Durkheim: When there is a culture of collaboration, rules are unnecessary; when the culture is lacking, rules are unenforceable.

Operations maturity and innovation

What says “Operations” to you? For many, it’s all about planning, process, documentation, compliance, standardization, optimization, and efficiency. Good, solid stuff, and not in any way sexy.

What about “innovation”? Innovation seems to be about chaotic change, fluidity, rule-breaking, risk-taking, creativity, and disruption. Rebels on motorcycles!

This sets the stage for tension, because innovation typically touches on technology, digital platforms, data, and applications – projects that demand IT and technical expertise. Led by the wrong team, such projects are subject to high risk and failure. Yet led by traditional Ops, they might also not be very innovative.

I think Operations maturity must be characterized by seeking a middle way in partnership (and fruitful tension) with the more innovative elements of the Advancement organization.

  • Traditional Operations plans, then executes. Innovation executes, then iterates. A mature partnership pilots, learns, then executes.
  • Traditional Ops avoids risks. Innovation takes risks. The mature partnership identifies risks and mitigates them.
  • Traditional Ops insists on process and procedure. Innovation doesn’t have time. The mature partnership finds ways to continuously improve.
  • Traditional Ops seeks to optimize. Innovation prioritizes impact. The mature partnership figures out the right thing to do, and then figures out how to do it right.

Traditional Ops is reactive. Innovation is proactive. That contrast disappears in the mature partnership that has both sides working from a common strategy.

Is your CRM implementation a success? Only if you raise more money

Our department launched a new customer relationship management (CRM) system this fall, following a 20-month implementation. We finished on time and under budget. Our data migrated successfully and is probably cleaner than it’s ever been. We developed or improved many business processes in order to leverage the power of the new tool. We’ll be able to track activity like never before. There are some lingering issues, which we’ll deal with eventually.

But was it a success?

An oft-quoted statistic has it that about one-third of all CRM projects fail. This stat is based on an average of a dozen analyst reports which have come up with failure rates ranging from 18% to 69%. (1)

Even at the low end of that wide range, CRM projects are clearly risky. Many go off the rails in terms of time, budget, front-line adoption, and promised functionality that never materializes.

So yes, our implementation was a success in that it avoided the problems that have felled so many others. Our implementation is a technical success. Whether it is an actual success is too early to say.

Such a large investment must lead to revenue growth. Our CRM must enable us to raise more money, and facilitate alignment of private support with the public mission. CRM is a tool for the development team to embrace and use effectively, it’s a tool to integrate early-stage engagement with development. It is not a tool for merely carrying out administrative tasks and reporting on them.

When CRM implementations are measured against this higher bar, the average failure rate is probably much higher than one-third. (2)

If you have not yet started down the path of finding your CRM solution, your first step will be to define your goals and must-haves. I suggest you put revenue growth and alignment with mission right at the top. Everything else flows from there.


  1. What to do when your CRM project fails,” CIO Magazine, September 18, 2017
  2. Why CRM Projects Fail and How to Make Them More Successful,” Harvard Business Review, December 20, 2018

People are not their job descriptions

We attract and retain volunteers and donors when we connect their talents and interests to societal needs – when we satisfy their desire for meaning and personal growth. Why should it be different for the people we hire and work with?

Something changes during the course of a team member’s first months on the job. They are the same multifaceted person who was so appealing during the hiring process. But in the eyes of the organization they often become increasingly defined by their current role. Even as we get to know their personality, we forget about the less evident aspects of their skills and experience. This may be especially true of operations staff doing technical and clerical work.

Previous work experience, languages spoken, degrees and certifications earned, volunteer activities – do we remember these things, and do we provide ways for people to use them at work?

Who’s got a marketing degree? Who speaks Mandarin? Who’s volunteered for a homeless shelter? We could seek their advice on a project or program, or ask them to serve on a cross-functional team. Such opportunities to engage might be available to a broader range of team members than rewards, recognition, or promotion.

I have made this error, overlooking the curriculum vitae – literally the “course of (one’s) life” – for the mere sliver of a whole person that is a team member’s job description. How to be more deliberate about this is something I am still thinking about.

Early thoughts toward an Advancement Operations maturity model

A maturity model provides a qualitative assessment of where your group sits in relation to some ideal pinnacle of evolution. I suppose the people who come up with these models are business school academics and committees of senior professionals. I’m not aware that anyone’s developed such a thing for the field of Advancement Operations, so allow me to pretend to be smarter than I am – and propose one.

When I do a search on “operations maturity model,” the two dominant themes I see in the results are IT and process. IT is wide of the mark for us. “Process” is closer.

Yet a process focus is still too limited. In process-based models, maturity entails evolving from ad-hoc activities to development of repeatable processes, on up through levels of better definition of processes until one reaches the top level, where processes are optimized.

This is an industrial definition of maturity, where the ultimate goal for operations is efficiency. In a mission-driven organization, efficiency is desirable, but not as desirable as the overall effectiveness of the organization. We can be efficient at doing the wrong things.

Advancement isn’t a factory. Advancement needs all teams, including the so-called back office, to help separate the right things from the wrong things. That’s strategy. The maturity model must take into account a capacity to be involved at a strategic level.

Process is fine, but we must have the people. That’s the missing ingredient.

So here we go – my stab at a four-level Advancement Operations Maturity Model:

Level 1: People are task-driven order-takers with basic skills. Processes are ad hoc and undocumented. Service is by ticket, first-in-first-out, with limited sense of relative importance. The team is characterized by inertia, exhibiting blind adherence to customary practices that are misconstrued as rules.

Level 2: Some skilled problem-solvers have been brought on. The team has developed an ethos of customer service and increased responsiveness to needs, with some prioritization. Still largely reactive, driven by frontline requests, sometimes lacking context. Increased documentation and standardization of processes.

Level 3: Operations staff are tactical partners, involved early on in Advancement initiatives, not just in the final execution. Engagement and fundraising objectives to be achieved are known, leading to more creative solutions. Process improvement is embraced as an ongoing imperative.

Level 4: Operations is a strategic partner, with involvement in shaping Advancement direction. The team’s thinking is forward-looking, characterized by proactive identification of opportunities, leading Advancement in new directions. The team has a comprehensive view of the organization. Ops knows where it fits in advancing the institutional mission.

Note that efficiency increases as the team moves up the ladder, but simple efficiency is overtaken by flexibility. Some things are too important to routinize. The ability to tell the difference is a matter of judgment, which is a property of high-quality, well-developed, empowered people.

As well, as we climb the levels, people’s view rises to take in more and more of the road ahead. We use this metaphor a lot when talking about BI and analytics maturity, but as we’ve seen, teams such as Gift Compliance can be forward-looking.

Level 1 teams are order-takers, which does not imply that Level 4 teams are order-givers. An ethos of responsive customer service, once gained, should be retained. Ops can be a strategic partner while still primarily playing a support role.

The difference is in outlook, an evolution from understanding the WHAT to understanding and embracing the WHY.

Writing for work: When to keep it to yourself

Writing about your profession and sharing it with others is one of the best ways to develop your thinking, grow professionally, and connect with likeminded others.

What it’s not for is sending coded messages to your colleagues. No one who works with you should have to wonder, “Is she talking to me?” Or worse, “Is he talking about me?”

Before I hit ‘publish’ I ask myself: Would I say this to a teammate, or in a meeting? I might not have actually said it – but would I?

I try to keep what I write on evenings and weekends consistent with what I say in the office. As a consequence, my file of draft posts contains thousands of words that will never see the light of day. Useful for working out my thoughts, but that’s all.

If you need to get something off your chest, save it for your diary.

Gift compliance and the “yes, we do that” advantage

When a request comes to your team to enable a giving arrangement that seems a bit exotic, is your response “Yes, we do that!” or is it “Uhhhh – is that legal?” Are you ready with a mechanism to make a business transaction happen, or will it take six months to wend its way through Legal and Finance because it’s something you’ve never done before?

Changes in tax regulation, succession in donors’ family businesses, financial and estate planning … these events open up opportunities to work with donors with ability to make significant gifts, if we’re ready. A charity sophisticated enough to work with donors and their advisors on creative giving strategies will attract money for their mission before it flees elsewhere.

It’s great if you’ve had the experience of taking six months to enable a novel gift arrangement. You’ve learned something new, and the next time will be that much easier. But can we get out ahead of some of these opportunities?

There’s an element of competitive advantage: You want to be known in your donor community as a charity that can do things, and do them quickly.

This is not about fundraisers promising donors the moon and then politicking it through gift administration and compliance. (Which can work but is just as likely to lead to frustration, embarrassment, or worse.) It’s actually the opposite: It’s about developing the processes and mechanisms now in order to make those infrequent but high-value complex gifts possible later.

Development naturally leads the way in this area, and Operations is the key partner. But we can be proactive as well. Staff in gift administration and compliance can explore emerging approaches to enable future opportunities, working with internal and external experts in legal and finance.

New ways come with new risks. Taking the initiative gives us the luxury of time to deal with them.