Jim Sanders has been a lifelong client of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the $71-million-a-year non-profit enterprise he now heads, and since 1983, he has been totally blind.

But his life, Sanders says, is infinitely better today than it was even a few years ago, thanks largely

to information technology.

Indeed, for Sanders and for the CNIB, which is in the early stages of a massive business process re-engineering and technology upgrade project, calling information technology an “”enabling tool”” is an almost laughable understatement.

“”The digital age and computers made the exchange of information easier and more efficient for the sighted,”” Sanders says. “”For blind people, they made it possible.”” Digital technology, he says, is to the blind what Gutenberg’s press was to the sighted.

It’s not just the CNIB, though.

“”IT is becoming more and more important in all charities,”” says Eugene Cawthray, vice-chairman of the organization’s Ontario Board and an executive consultant with Toronto-based IT consulting firm Compass Management Consulting Ltd.

“”Charities, like other organizations, have a responsibility to be efficient with investors’ — or in this case donors’ — money,”” Cawthray says. “”Using information technology to drive internal efficiencies and productivity is just the right thing to do.””

But it’s clearly more than that for the CNIB, and for Sanders, the organization’s president and CEO.

Technologies developed or perfected in the last few years, such as JAWS screen reader software from Freedom Scientific, which reads computer text in amazingly life-like simulated voices, and the BrailleNote, an innovative Braille PDA from Pulse Note, have transformed his life, personally and professionally.

“”Blindness, once you get past the emotional aspects, is nothing more or less than the loss of 80 per cent of the information you normally receive through your eyes,”” he says. For the first time, Sanders has access to all the information he needs – without having to rely on others to read it to him.

“”Obviously, I could not do my job without these devices. I have a system at work, a system at home, I’m connected to e-mail, I carry a laptop, a cell phone, I’m always in touch with the office — it has changed the way I do everything.””

Now Sanders is presiding over a process that will eventually do the same for the CNIB, an 85-year-old organization that provides advice, guidance and services — especially information services — to the visually impaired.

“”We help clients live independent lives and find the dignity that comes with living independently,”” is how CNIB chief operating officer John Rankin sums up the organization’s mission.

Over the last couple of years, though, the CNIB, like most charities, has seen a sharp decline in funding from the non-government sources — individual and corporate donors, bingos, gaming, investments — that represent 78 per cent of its revenues.

At the same time, the CNIB is expecting a doubling of demand for services over the next 15 years as macular degeneration, a progressive and incurable form of visual impairment, begins to hit baby boomers.

“”We know we can’t double staff and revenues,”” Sanders says. In fact, recent funding shortfalls forced the CNIB to reduce head count by about five per cent, with Ontario and B.C. hardest hit. The organization now has 1,200 employees, 140 of them visually impaired.

The CNIB saw business process re-engineering, which it began two years ago, and better use of IT as the best ways to deal with the realities of its situation. The long-term project’s aim is simple: to reduce the time employees spend on administrative trivia so they can spend more time doing the real work of providing services to the visually impaired.

“”We think we can convert 78 backroom administrative positions to front-line service providers,”” Sanders says. “”It will add 150,000 hours of direct services a year.””

To start, the CNIB took its business apart, mapping every step in the way it provides service — especially the client intake procedure — and then redesigned the process from the ground up.

It was a necessary prelude to selecting and implementing new technology. As CIO Margaret McGrory says, “”You don’t want to pave the cowpath — you don’t want to put new technology on top of old processes. It prevents you from leveraging the full benefits of the technology.””

Just redesigning work processes and organizational structures netted some results before the CNIB implemented any technology.

For example, it reduced the number of district managers in Ontario to 11 from 21, some with responsibilities for multiple districts.

The first real fruit of the project — an overhauled and Web-enabled digital library to replace the old analog library of audio books and Braille texts — came last fall, thanks in large part to a donation from Microsoft Canada of $2.5 million in cash, products and software development services.

The library is one of the key resources the CNIB makes available to its clients.

“”The analogue technology and the audio cassettes themselves were on the verge of obsolescence,”” McGrory says. “”We needed to move away from that environment to protect our assets, which include 60,000 titles.””

That the CNIB would move to digital storage and delivery was a given. It developed a depository for digital content, and new, more efficient Web-based distribution and delivery systems.

In the past, clients called the library to order audio books — most created by CNIB volunteers — or Braille texts. The library sent them via snail mail,

on cassette in the case of the audio books. Clients returned them the same way. Cycle times ranged from three to four weeks.

Now clients can order online. The library sends audio books on CD, which clients don’t have to return — it’s cheaper to burn a new one. They also have the option of receiving audio books as streaming audio over the Internet. The library has reduced circulation staff to 11 from 15, they can process many more requests, and clients get materials within 36 hours.

While the new efficiency and the Web portals for children and adults designed as part of the library project have been a big hit, it’s early days for the digital library, Sanders cautions. Only 1,500 works have been converted to digital so far. The project, which aims to eventually double the library’s holdings, will cost $40 million.

One consequence of the digital library project — and the hiring of McGrory 18 months ago to be its executive director and the CNIB’s CIO — is a revamped and restructured IT department, with multiple new servers, a proper data centre and security and firewalls.

This paves the way for the next major IT initiative promising significant process and productivity benefits. The CNIB hopes to purchase and implement specialized customer relationship management software developed by Lighthouse International, a New York-based organization that provides similar services to CNIB.

The CRM system will centralize and automate client intake and eliminate massive data duplication.

The system will even use quasi-artificial intelligence to make some low-level decisions about which steps to take the client through. For example, it could automatically make an appointment for a vision test after the client answers an online questionnaire.

This won’t just make the CNIB more efficient, Sanders says, it will also improve client service.

“”It would take us weeks to get to that stage in the past,”” he notes.

Cawthray says the CNIB is doing everything right with IT. It developed a clear road map for where it wanted to go and now it’s systematically executing the plan. “”They just need time to pull it off,”” he says.

And funds.

“”Some of these projects are moving at the pace of our ability to fund them,”” Rankin admits. “”There’s no question what we want to do. Now we need the money to do it.

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