Automating, Syncing, and Integrating IT Services

This past week has been chock full of information technology (IT) upgrades for the non-profit board (alumni association of my graduate program) of which I am a leader.  For a bit of background, our current website platform has some technical limitations that cause extra time and effort to coordinate between committees in order to process membership requests, dues payments, and renewal reminders.  It almost makes me wonder whether a paper-and-mail process would be quicker–though I thought my stamp-licking days were over after undergrad!

Short of having the time, luck, and technical skills to transplant all the data and member profiles to a new system overnight, we are making 2014 the year to overhaul our online presence.  Yet, my patience is tested a bit too much having to wait months to fix some of the technical roadblocks and bottlenecks our current site so delightfully offers us.  In the meantime, I’ve made it my week’s purpose to upgrade and overhaul some other information-sharing and collaboration processes in order to keep us on track, informed, and able to make intelligent decisions.  Going beyond the content of one of our previous articles, here is a snapshot of a few ways we are taking advantage of IT to help us work together in a mostly virtual environment:

Automating

Now that we are rethinking how technology can serve our administrative needs (member join and renewal processes) and connect our constituents (social media), it could become cumbersome to update multiple databases with the same information when a member joins the association.  Instead, we’ve added an automated service provided by Zapier to help streamline moving data from our Google Drive contact list to our MailChimp email list.  Not only does this cut down double data entry, but it also reduces the risk of leaving off new members from our email list, which we use to distribute the organization’s newsletter.

How this works is, Zapier, along with other similar service providers, allow you to connect different web products together.  You can then ask Zapier to take action B when update A occurs.  For us, the action is to update the email list in MailChimp when a new record is added to our Google Drive spreadsheet.  Other actions and connections with many online tools are available, making it scalable and flexible as our needs change and grow over time.

Syncing

It is hard to express my deep gratitude to Google for creating Drive (formerly Docs) with its robust collaboration and online sharing capabilities.  Gone are the days (so long as I can help promote the use of Drive within my team) of sharing a document by email with 10 people, hoping each person downloads it with a unique name, edits it with track changes, and then reading 10+ versions of the same file unable to easily decipher which changes should be incorporated in the final document.  My head used to ache when documents would fail to open because the file name was the same as an already-open version, or having to take extra time to create a relay-style editing process, waiting for one person to make changes and then passing on to the next until everyone has had a turn.

Instead, we stay in sync with only one version of a Google Doc, which multiple people can edit online–even simultaneously.  With versioning controls and track changes built in, and a seamless way to view a final-draft version of the document, I praise this service highly!  We also have begun to use Google’s other online product, Hangouts, to sync with each other using video conferencing and document sharing so we can boost our productivity in a virtual team environment.

Another syncing method we use is the wise social-media service, HootSuite.  Using this product, we can connect and post the same message to multiple social-media accounts with one clicks.  This saves time and frustration, as we no longer need to log into each account separately and copy-paste the content one-by-one.

Integrating

Yes, I am about to applaud Google again.  With Gmail, I enjoy being able to include a Google Drive file into an email without actually attaching it.  Instead, a link is provided to the document, which can be set up so that the recipients can view only, make comments, or have full edit rights to the document.  Adding links within documents to other files makes it easier to integrate a fuller picture and make a more robust reader experience for my audience.

The association is looking to rebuild the way information and the user experience integrate with each other once we launch a new website on a better platform.  The goal is to include widgets–or plug-and-play tools–to allow systems to talk to each other and share information so that our users can have the documents, photos, videos, and other content at their fingertips without having to create multiple logins and accounts to access the services and content we want to provide.  Users familiar with WordPress will comment on the myriad pre-built widgets available to make almost limitless integrations with services such as–dare I say again–Google products, or MailChimp sign-up forms for newsletter campaigns, just to name a few.

As we begin to re-look at how we do business and investigate the tools out there that automate, sync-up, and integrate the specialized services that different companies provide, I look forward to building a user-friendly and comprehensive online presence for the association’s membership, as well as for its administrators.

What about You?

Leave a comment below about the IT products you use to simplify your online connection, or post a question about how to make your life easier using technology.

Special recognitions go to Dan, Ray, and Jay for tips you’ve shared with over the years!