Friday, April 24, 2009

Improving Land Trusts Through Technology

Land Trusts have survived and thrived for decades without the use of technology. Consider the following reasons why the old practices may no longer meet today’s organizational needs of Land Trusts:
#1 Longevity: Land Trusts must be able to retain records, knowledge, and information for decades to come. The responsibility for good housekeeping has become even more important as abuses of conservation easements take place. Use of current Information Technology can ensure that the sum total of knowledge, information, and records is retained indefinitely, can be accessed instantaneously, and is able to withstand court and legal challenges.
#2 Scale: The number, size, and complexity of deals handled by a land trust have all been increasing along with the size, geography, and biology of the spaces that land trusts strive to preserve. Whereas in the past, a single person may have been able to see an acquisition deal through from start to finish, today a single transaction may involve dozens of people scattered across the country. Collaboration technology can help land trusts stay agile and focused on their key competencies as they scale in numbers of employees, transaction complexity, and geographical dispersion.
#3 Consistency: One of the recurring principles throughout the Land Trust Alliance (LTA) standards is the concept of consistency of activities and processes. Insuring that a transaction or a contract has been reviewed by the appropriate people every time consistently and repeatably provides countless benefits such as increased efficiency, efficacy, and accountability. Business Process Technology can help to automate, support, and improve existing processes.

The three topics listed above are just a few areas where technology is enhancing our ability to further and better achieve each organization’s mission.

Land Trusts' needs to store and retain contracts and other information for long periods of time is not commonly seen in most organizations. Financial institutions, for instance, often only need to keep records for a few years after an owner's account is no longer active. Even hospitals and doctors only keep records for the lifetime of a patient. Land Trusts, on the other hand, must maintain their records in perpetuity. Yes - paper has the capability to survive long periods of time, depending on its quality and the quality of ink with which it was printed. Still, paper records are cumbersome to manage and store, while still being vulnerable to accidents and disasters. Anyone who has spent time searching through old paper records knows about the patience required to find relevant information. And nearly everyone can relate to having lost paper-based information personally and professionally. Bringing paper-based documents into electronic format is a great way to insure longevity.

Once information has been made electronic, another benefit is its increased accessibility and other enhanced capabilities. Specifically, the ability to search, share, discuss, and capture knowledge around information that was obscured before at the very least due to inconvenience of accessing it. The conversion process from paper to electronic format often captures information that would have been lost, such as the genesis for why a term may be standard. But once the conversion is complete, the increased accessibility leads to significantly increased collaboration and further capture of knowledge.

As Land Trusts are growing and expanding, technology is a necessity. In the same way that phone and email have become ubiquitous business tools, so too have the internet and internet-based collaboration tools. Centralizing information in a web-accessible repository, such as ConservationTrack, allows staff and volunteers to access information from any place where there is a computer. This type of access can allow staff members to spend more time on the land and expand the pool of specialists who can contribute to a project. For one land trust in particular, this allowed specialists from hundreds of miles away to actively participate in a land acquisition deal. For another, it helped field staff to avoid lengthy trips back to the home office just so they could access baseline information for monitoring. When specialists spend less time searching for information and more time reviewing and collaborating with it, the resulting efficiency is nothing short of spectacular in allowing Land Trusts to grow and manage larger and more complex portfolios of lands.

Throughout the LTA standards the two terms, - consistent and repeatable, - are a common theme. Standardization and process automation were among the first real-life usage scenarios for computers and computer technology outside of academic pursuits. The same needs continue to be the most common drivers for use of Information Technology today. Business process automation and support, when implemented correctly, provide numerous benefits. As an example, in one organization, automating the business process around fund raising allowed people across different offices to efficiently and effectively manage receipts and track donations. In another organization, automation of a deal management process provided greater visibility into various projects, leading to greater understanding of the road blocks and issues within a given deal. Although technology alone cannot create this transformation, technology along with user adoption can have powerful impacts on visibility, consistency, efficiency, and efficacy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Welcome to Essential Connection

Welcome to the first edition of Essential Connection. Conservation is connected by a community of committed and talented individuals and organizations. It has been our privilege to help support a number of conservation organizations as they enable their conservation initiatives with technology solutions. Through our close collaboration with Land Trusts, such as The Nature Conservancy and Marin Agricultural Land Trust, we have learned that technology can enable better conservation and address a number of the challenges faced by conservation organizations.
We hope to use this forum to share knowledge and expect that future editions of the newsletter will write themselves as we have used wiki and blog technology to allow for open collaboration, communication and support.

All the Best, Tom