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Posted Monday, December 14, 2020 by Cale Bryan

How to Mitigate Risk, Maximize Results with New Human Services Technology

Technology for health and human services has gone from a nice to have to a must have. Agencies want to modernize their technology to manage the ripple effects of COVID-19, but struggle to figure out how. Revenue hits. Budget cuts. Furloughs. All of these make it increasingly difficult for agencies to fund new projects.

The good news? Getting new tools in place is not only possible but can be done in a way that provides both quick results and footing for better outcomes in the future. It just takes a bit of strategic planning, creative thinking, and business savvy.

There are several ways human services organizations can dip their toes in the water before committing to a long-term investment. Our technology toolkit for human services compares three common options that can help agencies mitigate risk while laying the foundation for long-term success: feasibility studies, technology consultations, and phased project implementations.

 

FEASIBILITY
STUDY

TECHNOLOGY
CONSULTATION

PHASED PROJECT
APPROACH

WHAT
IS IT?

Testing the technical, economical, and operational viability of a potential solution to inform your decision. Analyzing current technology and processes to provide recommendations, consultation on the best path to modernization. Implementing a small-scale project amongst a targeted group of users to work through roadblocks of a solution prior to a full roll out.

PROS

  • Establishes realistic expectations, success measures
  • Provides data to support your ROI/business case
  • More informed decisions
  • Allows your agency to set its own pace, budget
  • Potential to reduce spending if some recommendations can be done on your own
  • Provides a blueprint for agency and county/state leadership to plan and budget for
  • Limits unforseen issues to a small group of staff and prevents problems from escalating
  • Provides a solid plan for moving forward once the first phase is successful
  • Creates an opportunity to gauge how clients will react to the technology

CONS

  • Can take months to execute
  • May overlook practical problems that won't become apparent until the solution is in place
  • Problems could worsen the longer you maintain the status quo
  • Risk losing momentum if you aren't prepared to act on recommendations as soon as the plan is delivered
  • Complicates funding, justification, and approval processes
  • Results can be misleading if the project isn't set up appropriately

Amid the budgetary crisis resulting from COVID-19, many agencies have begun to see the appeal of a phased project approach—similar to a pilot project or proof of concept—where they incrementally implement a solution over time, starting with a small-scale project and limited group of users.

Others who aren’t quite sure exactly what their agency needs are taking a more consultive approach and partnering with third-party experts to provide recommendations on the best way to move forward.

As the chart above indicates, there are several benefits if you choose to go either of these routes:

  • Make more informed decisions before rolling out a solution agencywide.
  • Work through IT roadblocks and prevent potential problems from escalating.
  • Avoid overwhelming workers by changing too much, too soon.
  • Reduce the likelihood of surprises down the road, such as costly change orders.
  • Quickly demonstrate value before making a larger investment.
  • Provide a blueprint for agency and state/county leadership to plan and budget for.

divider-footerPhased Pilot Implementation in Action: Northwoods & Ventura County Human Services Agency

Ventura County Human Services Agency (HSA) partnered with Northwoods to take a version of this approach when implementing our child welfare solution, Traverse®.

Ventura County HSA leadership knew that easing staff into a big change would increase the likelihood of full user adoption, so they chose to start off with a small pilot project tailored to a specific division within Children & Family Services (CFS) who could benefit from the new tool right away. Assuming certain pre-determined success criteria were met, they planned to fully roll out the solution to the rest of CFS staff.

2020-Ventura County, Melissa Livingston“We knew that long-term success would hinge on incremental deployment and being able to work through potential issues on a smaller scale before rolling anything out to the rest of the group,” said Melissa Livingston, director, Ventura County HSA. “Determining how we would measure success early on was key when it came to deciding if we wanted to expand to more divisions.”

Ventura County HSA staff and leadership have provided feedback throughout the first phase of the project to ensure the solution continues to evolve with their needs. At the same time, Northwoods’ child welfare experts have helped the agency demonstrate value and set themselves up for meaningful change at a larger scale.

“Digital case files and processes are key to increasing efficiency and streamlining access to critical case information in child welfare,” said Livingston. “We validated through our pilot project that advancing child welfare services delivery requires ready access to systematized case data and determined that dedicating resources to a full-scale project would be a strategic investment.”

Now, as agencies continue to telework and caseworkers need to access information from anywhere, Ventura County HSA is rolling out Traverse to the rest of CFS.

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Technology Consulting in Action: Northwoods & Hubbard County Department of Social Services

Hubbard County Department of Social Services (DSS) engaged Northwoods to review and analyze the current state of their existing technology and processes. The second component of their consultation was a report that recapped key challenges and provided a series of recommendations to optimize and increase efficiency (through new or existing technology), as well as a roadmap for implementing them.

Brian Ophus, social services director at Hubbard County DSS, recognized that allowing Northwoods’ consulting experts to see the agency’s existing tools and processes in action would lead to more informed recommendations to holistically improve operations. He also trusted in Northwoods’ technology and industry knowledge to lead them in the right direction.

2020-Hubbard County, Brian Ophus“We have two IT people for the entire county. I don’t want to put more pressure on them when I know Northwoods is able to handle it,” said Ophus. “I have confidence in the Northwoods team and their knowledgebase. They know how things work, they know the technology, and they know what we need.”

Hubbard has already begun putting various pieces of their plan in action. First, they provided a centralized document management system anyone in the agency can access. Now, they’re rolling out Traverse to adult social services and child protection social workers to provide greater insight into cases. Later, they’ll centralize the agency’s calendar and implement additional work management tools to streamline communication and collaboration between programs.

The approach is paying off. “This solution will help us perform as a public agency better than we were before," said Ophus. "When you’re dealing with human lives and hardships, relieving stress and making things easier for the community is really what it comes down to. That’s the whole point of technology.”

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Tailoring These Approaches to Your Human Services Agency

If your agency is interested in pursuing any of these types of projects—because of budgetary reasons, limited resources, or as part of your strategy to ensure user adoption—we recommend the following steps to get started:

  1. Have a solid problem statement and measurable project goals. Explain the problem you’re trying to solve, the key factors that contribute to it, and the ripple effect it’s causing, including real-world scenarios and statistics if possible. Tie your goals for the project back to your problem statement and be able to explain how you’ll measure if you successfully meet them.
  2. Prioritize readiness. Analyze your agency’s readiness in terms of technical infrastructure, business processes, and culture to identify the key actions you’ll need to take to manage and sustain change. By considering these factors up front, you’ll be able to move faster and have a higher quality implementation that generates quick results.
  3. Remove the risk factor. Survey your staff to understand what types of technology they’re comfortable using, what they struggle with, and how they view solutions they’ve been given in the past. The goal is to identify the potential barriers you’ll have to overcome, ranging from user fatigue with new technology to resistance to change.
  4. Build a meaningful partnership. Look for a technology partner who wants to help your organization grow over time, not a run-of-the-mill vendor who will move on as soon as your initial transaction is complete. The right partner will have spent time learning your agency’s problems and processes to configure their solutions around your specific needs. That way, they’ll be able to get you up and running quickly and provide the long-term support you need.
  5. Set yourself up for continued success. Find out what resources a vendor provides to ensure high user adoption during the first phase of the project, as well as how they’ll help you identify areas for growth over time. Ideally, your partner will help you establish a clear vision and roadmap for the future.

Reach out if you’re interested in exploring your options or visit our website to learn more.

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Cale-Bryan-2018

Cale Bryan, business development manager, has spent the past nine years working with agencies across California, Colorado, and the western United States on technology transformation projects. Cale partners with agencies to help them identify solutions that positively impact their workforce and communities and drive meaningful results.

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