December 2007

How Open Tools and Plug-and-Play Solutions Allow You to "Own" Your Future

by Leo D'Angelo, CTO, MPower Systems

In the late 1980s, I worked as a technologist for Fidelity Investments where I led a project to build out the company's new equity trading floor. It was a mammoth technological undertaking involving software, hardware and networking.

Up until that time most major investment bank trading floors had been all-in-one solutions from the same company that provided the software, hardware, etc. The process was usually excruciatingly painful, outrageously expensive and enormously disruptive to the core business of the investment banks. And, while the end result was integrated, it often lacked the specific features that brokers, managers or executives needed to be more effective at their jobs.

For Fidelity, we were tasked to build out a trading floor that would cause no disruption to the daily business of money managers and investment brokers (i.e., zero downtime), meet 90% of the core business requirements of each department involved in the trading floor, and give Fidelity the flexibility to "own" their future by being able to "plug-and-play" solutions for specific needs in any area — especially in as-yet-unforeseen areas of the investment banking business.

By selecting a flexible foundation and utilizing the promise of object-oriented (plug-and-play) technologies, we were successful in integrating the best features and functionality of multiple vendors to provide a highly integrated, infinitely scalable, world class best-of-breed trading platform. In the long-run, Fidelity has thrived with this "modular" model and has probably added or replaced 30% of the total floor solution over the last 15 years to meet new and changing needs of the business without ever having to go through a "fork-lift" change or a single minute of down-time.

So how does this project apply to the organizational and relationship challenges that you are trying to solve for your nonprofit organization? Just like any business, your organization implements software and technology solutions because you need to automate processes to make you more efficient in pursuing your organization's goals. It is vital to the continuity of your organization that accounting, constituent relationship management, and online tools are integrated. In the multi-relationship and multi-channel world we live in, you have to manage donors, customers, volunteers, subscribers, listeners, attendees and friends across direct mail, telephone, Web site, email, radio/TV, events and personal contact. You can't afford to have meaningful giving history about a major donor trapped in your online database while you are mailing a general event invitation through the U.S. postal service.

Integrated solutions: Tightly coupled and loosely coupled

Tightly coupled solutions tend to be "all-in-one" solutions that are built and owned by the same company, have strong integration and are "all-in-one" — or "all-or-nothing." These provide an integrated solution but they do not allow you to pick and choose the pieces of the solution and integrate them with other in-house, custom or best-of-breed solutions.

Loosely coupled solutions allow you to select the individual components that meet the specific needs of different areas of your organization and then integrate them to form an overall "best-of-breed" solution. When shopping for loosely coupled solutions, be careful to select solutions that have a history of integrating and use industry standard integration technologies. Best-of-breed solutions have deep functionality in each area of the organization, are easier to replace in a modular fashion depending on the changing needs of the organization, often cost less than an all-in-one solution, and put control in the hands of the organization, not the single vendor. These were all keys to the success I had with the trading floor at Fidelity.

MPower Systems' CRM (constituent relationship management) solution is very strong at multi-relationship and multi-channel communications, marketing and fundraising. A couple of years ago we evaluated whether or not we should build our own online tools — Web site content management, email marketing and ecommerce functionality — to be part of our solution. After understanding the deep needs of nonprofit organizations in these areas, we realized that it would be much wiser to stay focused on building out our core CRM functionality and partner with Convio to offer a best-of-breed solution.

The loosely coupled system: Greater than the sum of its parts

Over the last 15 years, I've seen why loosely coupled systems are preferable to tightly coupled solutions. The reasons are not simply about the individual product offerings but about the structure of the companies and their corporate cultures. Companies that are truly open are interested in solving the client's problems. They offer more ways to develop around their products by providing access to APIs, access to other clients and, in some cases, access to their data model. Companies whose business models are predicated upon solving the client's most pressing problems view the empowerment of their clients as beneficial even if it doesn't result in direct, immediate revenue. In essence, the integrated solution is greater than the sum of its parts.

How Open Tools and Plug-and-Play Solutions Allow You to "Own" Your Future | Convio