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.

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I’ve gotten some off-line feedback from CEOs on my last post, “it starts at the top.”  I’ve heard that many CEO’s want to use technology strategically, but they don’t know how to translate that into action.  

This post will be about the role of the CEO relative to technology.  The CEO needs to have the vision of what information and communication can do for their agency, and how it promotes the agency’s strategic vision.  If you’re a CEO and don’t already have that view of your agency, here’s how to get it.

Start first with your strategic vision for your organization, and with your mission statement.  For example, my organization, Keystone Human Services, has a mission statement that includes the following: Create opportunities for growth and meaningful life choices so that all people can be valued, contributing members of their community.  That mission statement is broad enough to encompass many areas of service, but is grounded in the idea of the individual and the community.

That means, then, that everything the organization does, including technology, either contributes toward achieving that mission, or it should be re-evaluated.  

Practically speaking, that means that whenever your company is looking for ways to use technology, link it back to the mission.  My organization made a commitment a long time ago that every employee needed an email address and needed access to the Internet.  Well before this was accepted practice, we moved forward with this vision, because our mission is community-based.  The “community” is not just the physical community we can touch, it is also the “virtual” community created on the web.  The mission guided us toward the practical technology action we needed to take.

Then the CEO, knowing that this direction would encounter some internal resistance, asked for monthly reports of how we were doing, started sending regular email updates to employees, and started using the tool he wanted others to use.  This led to the culture change we were looking for, and set the stage for the use of other tools.  We still have a long way to go, but our employees know where we are heading.

If you’re a CEO and your organization isn’t using technology as strategically as you would like, get together with your IT leader(s) and talk about what’s holding you back.  If you start at the top, keep it grounded in the mission, and use the tools you want others to use, then you’re on your way.

I had the good fortune to attend the Clinton Global Initiative Exchange in New York last week.  In contrast to the rest of the CGI gathering, which is by invitation and membership only, the Exchange portion is more open.  It is intended as an opportunity for the NGOs, Foundations, and social entrepreneurs to meet, exchange ideas, and connect resources to needs.  It was exciting and daunting to be in a room surrounded by people who are doing such amazing things.

There were people working on clean water and climate change issues.  The Global Fund for Children, Little Star, Going to School, Global Water Challenge, and The Alliance to End Hunger, among many others, were there.  Curriki, You Tube, Flip, and TechSoup  were there.  It was energizing to be around so many good ideas at one time.  Especially encouraging was seeing the technology companies showing up asking what they could do to help.

Going to work every day should be more like that.  At Keystone Human Services, every day there are literally thousands of people going to work to make a difference in someone individual’s life, and by extension, all our lives.  One difference is that we don’t celebrate it enough, we don’t encourage its celebration enough.  

You may have discerned by now that I am going back to my innovation theme.  At CGI the air was crackling with innovative ideas.  While it would admittedly be tiring to face that every day, I know that the people I work with are no less smart and no less committed, both on the technology side and the service delivery/operations side.  Today we can begin to re-create that spirit within our own agencies.  I’m going to start by proposing our own version of CGI—pulling together in one room people with good ideas, people with resources, and people who know how to connect.  Sure, it will be on a much smaller scale, but it will still be energizing and humbling.

Other ideas, anyone?

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.

I’m launching  a blog today to have a conversation about what it means to use technology in support of human services and human services organizations, how to do it well in the face of increasing US and EU (and others) regulation, how to do it effectively in support of an organization’s mission, and how to do it inclusively, so we create the communities we want to see.

The face of technology in human services has changed dramatically over the past few years.  We’ve begun to move away from the period of traditional niche technology providers with something of a captive market in their respective areas of dominance.  There were the usual players in behavioral/mental health, a different set of players in mental retardation/intellectual disabilities, another set in substance abuse, another in juvenile justice . . . you get the idea.  

As providers of wide ranging services, we struggled with the silo approach of the vendors, and with the legacy software being offered to us.  We saw the great strides being made in technology in other industries, and lamented that we were left working with 1970’s vintage tools.  Healthcare, which has often been viewed as a technology backwater, was a virtual juggernaut of innovation compared to human services.

As that situation changes and new vendors come into the marketplace, human services organizations are faced with new challenges and opportunities.  How do we take advantage of social networking to support our organizations and to help our organizations support the people we serve?  How do we pick a billing and clinical information systems vendor when the old usual suspects are fading away, but there doesn’t seem to be a new dominant player emerging yet?  How many technology vendors can this sector support with our excruciatingly thin margins and ever increasing workload?  what are the right tools to put in the hands of our business-office colleagues —  the tools that run our payroll systems, our accounting systems, and our asset management systems?

Every CIO has pressure to get the answers to these questions right, but in human services the pressure is more acute.  Organizational expectations are high, and resources are low.  Sure, that’s not new, and any CIO can relate to the mismatch between expectations and resources.   But in human services, in particular in nonprofit human services, organizations have to live with technology choices–good or bad—for a very long time.  

Please contribute to this conversation.  Let me know what you think about, what you worry about, and what challenges you’ve tackled or resolved.  I’m not just talking; I’m listening.