Moldova, the Country of the recent “Twitter Revolution” is often referred to as the poorest country in Europe.  I am spending the week back in Chisinau, the capital city, where I have been several times over the past few years.  There Keystone Human Services International  has a small office and a staff of about ten people who are supporting several projects.

I am here with two colleagues from the US to implement Social Solution’s  newly acquired software TOTAL: Record, and despite the language differences (Romanian is spoken in Moldova) and despite the differences in human service systems models, I am delighted to report that the implementation is going very well.  As I mentioned in earlier posts, leadership is very important, and in accordance with that reality, I have travelled here with the CEO of Keystone Human Services International.  As in all implementations, that makes all the difference.

Strictly as an aside. Social Solutions refers to TOTAL:Record as “financial performance management” software for human services organizations.  In another post I’ll write about how they are seriously under-estimating the software product they acquired, but I’ll save that for tomorrow, I promise.  Suffice it to say that we are implementing it in Moldova, where medicaid reimbursement rules are not a driving factor. to say the least!

We are deep in the detailed struggles of all implementations—-how to define fields, activities, costs, etc.  It is the task of turning diffuse programmatic activities of helping people achieve full active lives in the community (rather than in institutions) into the bits and bytes of reportable data—-ie.  information.  I love this stuff!

This is a particularly fun project to be on—I am not usually so deep in the details of our software implementations anymore.  This one, though, will serve as a model and an inreplaceable information source for what we hope will be many more projects, so I am bringing in the most experienced staff and the most talented software application experst we have—under my watchful eye.  It’s good to be reminded how important valid and reliable information regarding human services can be; and good to be reminded of how rare it is.  I feel privileged to be doing this work.

Like many other organizations, the company I work for, Keystone Human Services, is exploring the use of social networking to expand  support of our mission.  Our approach to human services is community-centric. and our mission is to create opportunities and support people in becoming active contributing members of the community.  Until a few short years ago, everyone at Keystone understood the word “community” to mean the physical community—a neighborhood community, a school community, a faith community, a business . . . you get the idea.

Our understanding of community has definitely changed.  This blog is beginning to be a community;  Keystone has active groups on Facebook and other social networking sites; and, we are beginning to blog about our newest organization Keystone Autisn Services.  The past few months have been very exciting and encouraging as I watch the organization begin to engage with the questions that this change in approach brings.

We’re dividing our efforts as follows:  Blogging and microblogging/Social Networking/Online fundraising/friendraising/ and Cause Related Marketing.

Our bloggers and microbloggers are tweeting and blogging about special events like Pawsabilities, which benefits our service dog agency, about new service offerings, like the Adult Community Autism Program, and about volunteer opportunities.  On Facebook we have groups for our agencies and specialty areas, and causes for our services that rely on philanthropy to keep going.  We use Just Means to connect our message with other socially conscious business and non-profits, and we are embracing new opportunities to speak directly with our stakeholders.

We know we are in the early stages of understanding what these new ways of communicating mean to our organization and to the delivery of human services, but I do wish we were encountering more evidence that  other human services organizations  are trying these tools. 

Let me know your thoughts.  Is your organization choosing integration of these tools or are you firewalling to keep your focus on your traditional services? 

Looking forward to hearing your responses.

 9 RULES FOR PREVENTING PROJECT MELTDOWN 

 

1.  Know what the project is supposed to accomplish.  This may seem obvious, but, trust me, people often have very different ideas about the goals, and then have very different yardsticks for measuring success.  Get everyone on the same page.

2.  Get the team together.  When I say in #1 that everyone needs to be on the same page, make sure you know who “everyone” is.  Name names.  Set aside a specific space for the team to meet regularly, and make sure they have the resources to complete their assignments.

3.  Name a steering committee.  Every project has more than one stakeholder, and each primary stakeholder needs a presence on a project steering committee.  The steering committee is there as a backstop to keep the project from veering off-course—don’t let it get bogged down in decisions that the project team should be making.  Keep it focused on strategic issues and on smoothing the path for the team.  The steering committee is the place for decisions and questions that the project team can’t answer or solve on their own.

4.  Keep the steering committee as small and as senior as possible.   Whenever possible, the CEO should lead the steering committee.  That way, in the unlikely event that the steering committee can’t reach a decision by consensus, the CEO is there to make the call.  Needless to say, once the decision has been made and communicated to the team, all steering committee members should support it.

5.  Set realistic deadlines.  Projects that have unrealistically tight deadlines often lead to burnout and staff turnover.  Conversely, deadlines that are too loose or too far in the future lead to a lack of project focus.  These are the projects most at risk of never reaching completion.

6.  Celebrate success along the way.  IT projects are hard, and in human services organizations we usually don’t relieve the team members of their other full-time responsibilities.  Remember to thank them and to celebrate the victories.

7.  Work through the challenges.  There will inevitable be surprises and challenges along the way.  Keep a level head, be flexible, and don’t panic.  There is always a strategy to success.

8.  Be attuned to the natural rhythm of projects.  They start with enthusiasm, quickly move to steady state, and then, critically, move to a period of anxiety as the deadline or “go-live” date approaches.  Be sensitive to where your team is on the time-line and support them appropriately.  Be cautious when they are exuberant; be a cheering section during the steady-state period; be attentive and encouraging during the anxious times; and, celebrate with them when the project succeeds.

9.  Align the project with the strategic and operational goals of the company.  Your team needs to know that all of their hard work moves the organization forward in an important way.  Remind them that even if they are working on implementing a work-flow project in the human resources department, it has an impact on the lives of the people served in your agency.

I’m blogging today from the PAR conference in Harrisburg PA.  PAR is a professional organization for Pennsylvania providers of services for people with intellectual disabilities and for people with autism.

Pennsylvania, like many other States, is revising the way it authorizes and reimburses for services, and the provider community, in some instances, is struggling to keep up.  Many human services organizations in this State simply haven’t needed to invest in systems until now; they could rely on the paper-based systems they had always used.  This creates an opportunity for all human services providers.

The opportunity lies in numbers.  If a large number of providers all need software tools at the same time, me have market leverage with the software companies.  As I written before, there is much room for improvement in offerings of our traditional IT vendors.  So, if you are one of the providers beginning your search for a software solution, I urge you to talk to your professional organization at the state or national level.  And if you are a professional organization, I urge you to prepare to guide your members through this process, and to demand improved performance from your tech vendors.  This may be the best opportunity we ever have!

  All successful technology implementation projects start with the CEO or Executive Director.  In many Human Services organizations (HSO’s), that will come as news to the CEO, and in some cases, it’s news to the IT Director (if there is one.)  But it’s an important guideline that often is the difference between success and failure.

I’ve been talking with a nonprofit HSO CEO for several months as we worked together on a local effort.  His organization is stuck in technology project, and his agency is not alone.  I could be writing about at least ten different organizations I work with, and many of you will recognize the problem.  Too many nonprofits have been there. 

The agency has been trying to implement new software for over a year, and are still in the early stages of the project.  The CEO honestly believes it’s the vendor’s fault, because that’s what his IT staff is telling him.  He’s very frustrated and even angry at times, because he did so many things right.  He set the right tone–one of efficiency gains, and cash flow improvement, he helped select a forward-thinking vendor, and he empowered his people to go make it happen.  He was very supportive every step of the way, and then he stepped back to watch the progress.

So, what went wrong?

What he did do, was great.  What he didn’t do, though, helped sink the project.  He didn’t stay involved.  He didn’t ask for routine updates on the status.  He didn’t establish a mechanism for resolving internal disputes about process improvement.  He CEO let change-averse technicians undermine the project, and he’s relying on them to explain why it’s a year behind schedule.  Not surprisingly, they blame the software company. 

CEO’s must stay engaged in technology implementations.  They don’t need to attend every meeting, or stay on top of the thousands of details, but they need to stay interested.   The CEO sends a thousand signals every day about what’s important to the company, and what’s important is what s/he is talking about and asking about.  The standard project management tool of keeping the “executive sponsor” fully informed and engaged, is critical to keeping a project on track.  That’s why the software company is not blameless here either—they clearly didn’t do a good job with expectation setting, with communication, with project management or with change management.   They didn’t even get the fit/gap analysis right.

 With leadership from the two CEO’s, both from the HSO and the software company, the situation can still be turned around.   Two wiser, more successful organizations will be the result.

Success starts at the top.

It’s happened again.  It happens with alarming regularity.  A funder, this time a State with whom we contract, has partnered with a technology company to provide us with everything we need to manage our business, and at the same time give the State the regulatory oversight information they need.  Um, thanks, but no thanks. 

If only it were that easy.  This is not the first State we have encountered to fundamentally misunderstand what it takes to run a human services organization.  They honestly believe that if they develop or buy a system and then require us to use it, we will be grateful.  We should be especially grateful, according to this line of thinking, if they negotiate a reduced license fee for the providers, and host the application themselves.  Then, as I have heard more times than I care to count, and always with a signature combination of earnestness and excitement,  “All you’ll need is a browser!”

No; all we really need is a spec.  Tell us exactly what information you need, and we’ll send it to you in an outgoing feed.  The typical response to that is, “Oh, don’t worry about that.  You can report out of our system, and get whatever information you want.” 

This is where I supress a heavy sigh.  How can they really not know that we need a cross-border understanding of what is going on inside our organization?  I spent time in government, and yet I managed to remember that businesses, nonprofit or not, still need to pay their employees, to produce financial statements, to bill funders and clients, to track fixed assets, and to understand their business process–whatever it is.   It’s really not that hard a concept to grasp.

And yet, as much as I would like to say “no thanks,” I can’t.  So, we are left with the terribly inefficient and frustrating process of duplicate data entry.  We track the information in our own system, and then we put it in the systems that the State (in this case) requires.  We enter it for ourselves first, and then for them.  We do this dance in multiple States and service lines.   If they could only understand that their benevolence is costing them and us real money that could be used for services, maybe they would change.  Maybe not.

Regardless, it doesn’t seem to be in the cards.  There are still too many human services organizations that believe the state’s approach is the right one, and that have no data of their own about their own organization.  These agencies still haven’t learned the power of using information to move their agency forward, and are stuck in a  client-like relationship with the funder.  One day they will learn that they have made a painful trade-off.  As we work together to move the people we support out of “client” relationships with the myriad of agencies in their lives, we need to move our organizations too.

Earlier this week I had dinner with George Pashel, the CEO of Esteam,  a Pittsburgh technology company focused on human services.  I was talking about the need for innovation in human services and the need to think in new ways about technology and information, when he challenged my premise.  Imagine!

He asserted that what the industry needs is less innovation and more standardization. 

Interesting.  I think he deliberately narrowed my use of the word “innovate” to make his point, but his point was worth making, nonetheless.  What he sees is an industry, a market sector, a “vertical” that is very un-self-aware (even the technology people in this field are frustrated therapists) with practitioners who don’t even have a common language to describe what they do. 

For example, if he responds to an RFP from an early intervention provider, that provider could have a very different “line of business” depending on the Country, State, County etc they are operating in.  That is unheard of in health care.  Neurosurgery is not different in California than it is in New York or in London.  Health care has HL7.  Human Services has a tower of babel controlled by competing funders and regulators.

His point is well taken.  It goes right back to the argument that Human Services needs to move to evidence-based practices.  That would then lead to more standardization.  He’s right to point out that the current situation makes for very challenging terrain for software companies, and vastly increases the liklihood that vendors and customers will completely misunderstand each other.

Ironically, though, I think it still points to the need for innovation.  We are increasingly strangled by conflicting regulatory requirements, unfunded mandates, unreasonable expectations, and outdated service delivery models.  I think we will need quite a bit of innovation and leadership before we can get to standardization.