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The Value of Low-Tech Tools in the Digital Age

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, our daily consumption of information has reached a level equivalent to 174 newspapers every day, a dramatic increase from 30 years ago. It is no wonder, then, that we seek tools to effectively organize and retain this information and to increase efficiency.  No one can deny the contribution that technology has made to the efficiency and effectiveness of the grants profession (could we even survive without Excel?!). But let's not forget the sometimes subtle value that lower-tech tools can bring to our work, even in the digital age.

To explore this topic, I conducted an informal (a.k.a. unscientific) survey on Grant Zone to gain insight into how grant professionals are using whiteboards and what value they offer. It turns out that many grant professionals continue to rely on whiteboards even as the field increasingly adopts software packages and mobile applications to manage workflow. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they use whiteboards for one or more of the following purposes.
Quick Reference/Visual Cueing
Almost all respondents who use whiteboards reported using them as a quick reference, at-a-glance tool to provide a high-level overview of projects in their pipeline. Even when they track the same information electronically, respondents noted the value of having daily visual reminders available on the whiteboard. Professionals who used whiteboards in this way reported a number of benefits including workflow planning, prioritization, and staff motivation. Responses in this category cited benefits that accrued primarily to internal grants office operations.
It is also worth noting that a majority of respondents said that they do not use grant management software to aid in project planning or tracking. So, there is a chance that some grants offices use lower-tech tools out of necessity. However, many respondents use both, with distinct functions for each. Most often, the whiteboard provides a high-level overview, while the software accommodates detailed tracking. In other cases, the whiteboard is used for pre-award functions, while the software is used for post-award functions. In any case, the two tools are understood to reinforce rather than duplicate one another.
Organizational Awareness/Conversation Starters
Some whiteboard users reported benefits that extended beyond the grants office, most notably raising the profile of grants work among supervisors, executive staff, and other organizational stakeholders. Although these benefits are less likely to impact the day-to-day work of the grants office in the short term, they can influence the organizational culture by increasing awareness of the role and value of grants to the organization's mission.  This may be particularly applicable to organizations with young or undervalued grants offices. Or, in more practical terms, the whiteboard can function as a communication tool starting conversations with decision-makers or simply to let internal stakeholders know how much work the grants office is performing.
Brainstorming/Project Planning
When I posted the whiteboard survey, I expected a majority of respondents to report using it for brainstorming and project planning. Much to my surprise, this was the least frequently cited function. Perhaps grant professionals have found other brainstorming tools (analog or digital) that work for them. If not, you may want to check out this Grant News Weekly article, which explains an effective method for brainstorming with a whiteboard (
To be sure, I am a fan of grant management software and other high-tech tools that increase capacity to effectively manage ever-increasing grant portfolios, but let's not discount the value that low-tech tools can offer. Just because many of the benefits cited by survey respondents (motivation, organizational culture, etc.) are difficult to measure, doesn't mean they aren't worthwhile. 
What low-tech tools do you use in your work, and what value do they add?
Nikki Morrison, GPC, is the Grant Researcher/Writer at Northeast State Community College in Blountville, TN.  She has worked in grant development for community colleges for more than 12 years.