Upgrade your organisation with an online management information system

Information lies at the heart of most third sector organisations. Data.

Endless amounts of data, really, about everything from service delivery, end users and an organisation’s interactions with them, through funders, donors and promotional campaigns, to core business documents covering organisational strategy and operations.

In most organisations this information is completely decentralised, split across reams of spreadsheets and small database applications like Access, not to mention paper-based records.

The result is highly inefficient with much of the data being duplicated in various places and, with little or no connection between the various data ‘silos’, it becomes extremely costly and time consuming to manage the information and generate useful reports. Truth be told, reporting ends up being avoided except when strictly necessary, usually at a funder’s behest: timely ‘dashboard’ style updates for managers and staff are out of the question!

The enterprise solution to such a mess is of course the management information system (MIS), a centralised database application that is specifically tailored to meet an organisation’s unique needs.

A good MIS ensures that all information is stored in one place only and that the data is properly organised so that all meaningful relationships between the information can be reflected in useful and easy-to-generate reports and dashboards.

Traditionally, the deployment of such an MIS meant calling in a specialised database developer over the course of many months and the outlay of tens of thousands of pounds.

That’s all changed now, however, as one of the most successful areas of the new ‘cloud computing’ (online software as a service) era is specifically the provision of easily customised and affordable online management information systems.

There are plenty of options to choose from, but two of the leading solutions are Salesforce CRM and Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Salesforce is the leading cloud computing provider which has revolutionised the business application marketplace over the last decade, while Dynamics 2011 is the first version of Microsoft’s popular CRM product to be available as a hosted software solution.

In addition to bringing all the benefits of centralised information system, these online MIS systems have these advantages over their on-premise cousins:

  • there is no costly hardware or software to purchase, only a monthly subscription fee per user, with the option of cancelling at any time
  • they can be used on any internet connected device (PC or Mac, desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone)
  • they can be used by staff outside the office, either working from home or from remote offices (such as points of service delivery, rather than the organisational HQ)
  • ongoing upgrades are deployed automatically without fuss

Gone too are the expensive development fees and longterm tie-in associated with a proprietary database application project. In their place the much more affordable cost of customising and configuring the application to suit the data and workflow of a given organisation: some of this configuration work and ongoing system maintenance can even be done by any IT savvy staff, savings thousands in support costs over time.

Online providers like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics not only offer enterprise-class customer relationship management (CRM) and service delivery solutions built into their products, but they also function as a complete development platform, allowing you to build and deploy completely customised applications to suit your needs. These new applications can be shared with other users through active ‘app exchange’ maketplaces for the respective products.

Both options are attractive to third sector organisations. Through the Salesforce Foundation, 10 enterprise-level accounts are provided free of charge to qualifying not-for-profit organisations (that’s a value in excess of £12K per year), with additional accounts heavily discounted. Microsoft also offers substantial discounts on Dynamics CRM to not-for-profit organisations as it does across the range of its business products.

With such a low cost of entry, there should be no obstacle to any not-for-profit organisation upgrading to and reaping the many benefits of an online management information system.

Avec offers cloud computing-based management information system development on the Salesforce platform through its Avec Online division.