Posted Monday, March 11, 2013 by Rich Diers

Rolling Out Technology to Human Services Caseworkers: Part 1

Before You Start, Know Your Workforce

What does a socket wrench have to do with effectively rolling out technology to caseworkers?

Let me tell you a little story. When confronted with a bolt that needs to be loosened, my intelligent, resourceful wife always uses pliers. On the other hand, I always use a socket wrench.

Why do we try to accomplish the same task with two completely different tools?

When I was a kid, my dad coached me that the socket wrench is the best tool for this particular job. Unfortunately, my wife was never coached on this task. When I use the socket wrench, I feel skilled and have pride in my accomplishment because it’s the best tool for the job. However, my wife gets frustrated with the pliers. Although they can technically do the job, pliers are difficult to use for this particular task.

Now imagine if the task of loosening bolts was a necessary evil of her real job (read: compliance reporting for human services agencies). Yet, she had to painfully use pliers, every day, and several times each day, to loosen a bolt, even though bolt-loosening wasn’t her “real” job.

Like using a socket wrench for the bolt, we need to implement technology in human services agencies in a way that gives caseworkers the right tool and the right training. We need to coach them to use the tool effectively, instead of imposing a technological burden on caseworkers. Technology done right allows caseworker to focus their time and attention on their real social work job, which is to help people, strengthen families, and protect children.

To help agencies with this process, I offer this two-part blog series. This post, Part 1, outlines the crucial steps before and during training. Part 2 focuses on keeping the momentum going and caseworkers engaged long after training is over.

Know Your Workforce

Before even thinking about rolling out new technology, agencies must know their audience.

Everyone learns differently.

Everyone has different skills, fears, and motivations. And they all have various abilities to learn to learn new things. Take a minute to assess these things about your workforce.

Workers have a real job.

Technology is not their job and is too often considered to be a burden. Typically, technology is necessary to record activity to prove compliance and often doesn’t help the user perform duties or achieve personal goals (read: make a difference for clients). We need to introduce tools that help caseworkers accomplish their tasks, not hinder their productivity.

Technology can actually help.

If caseworkers can master technology, understand its capabilities, then apply the right tool for the right task, it will make their lives amazingly easier. For that to happen, technology must be designed with caseworkers in mind and built to specifically enable caseworkers to do their job and help their clients.

Train and Coach Workers

The goal when learning any new skill is mastery. There are five components to mastery:

  1. Training
  2. Coaching
  3. Cohorts
  4. Opportunity
  5. Time

Let’s look at the two biggest components, training and coaching, which incorporate cohorts, opportunity and time.


Caseworkers must understand the technical utility of a new tool. Answer these questions for them up front:

  1. Where is the tool located?
  2. How does it work?
  3. What are the limits of the tool?
  4. How does it compare to other tools?

Most importantly, don’t stop working toward mastery after technology is implemented. Usually training goes like this: Here’s some training, check out the fancy PowerPoint, “your system won’t look exactly like this so try to imagine”…, and then “see ya and good luck!”

That is not enough to inspire a desire to master any new technology. Coaching picks up where training leaves off.


Every good team needs good players, but also a phenomenal coach. Here’s how you set up your teams.

Head coach: Expert in the tool. Expert in the job.

The head coach’s job is to promote confidence and be encouraging to the team. (It also helps if the coach is likeable.)

The team:teamwork Seven cohorts. Seven workers who perform the same job, or have the same role. Seven is the sweet spot. Any more than seven, you risk the loss of connection and relationship building across the team members. Your goal is to keep current working groups together on a team to build a sense of community and true teamwork.

Before setting the teams, use a quick survey to determine the likely cheerleaders (“This technology will be a great help!”) from the hecklers (“This technology will never work and just make my job harder.”)

Some sample questions you can ask include:

  1. What kind, if any, personal technology do you use?
  2. Do you like to use technology?
  3. How do you prefer to generate your case notes?

Download a Caseworker Technology Adoption Sample Survey

The survey results will help you determine who should be trained first – the cheerleaders – within each team.

Now the stage is set for implementation. In “Part 2: Coach, Don’t Train,” I’ll outline an effective strategy to roll out technology in waves to give caseworkers the right tools to keep them engaged and excited about new technology.

Read “Rolling Technology out to Human Services Caseworkers, Part 2: Coach, Don’t Train”