Selecting the right system for your organisation
Social services organisations are increasingly looking to understand how their activities and programmes support the clients, whānau and communities they work with. Irrespective of the type of services provided – support for families at vulnerable times, early intervention, prevention or social cohesion services – organisations are increasingly looking for software packages to help:
- measure the impact and outcomes they achieve
- give staff easy access to the information and tools they require
- understand and improve programmes and services
- easily report to funders.
These case management systems (also called client management systems) can, when implemented successfully, make a huge difference. It is much easier to understand the answers to questions such as “How much did we do?”, “How well did we do?” and “Is anyone better off?”. If the information about your services is stored electronically and can be easily reported on and analysed. However, successfully implementing these systems often requires a significant investment of both time and money. Given the range of different systems available, each with their own strengths, selecting the right system for your organisation is critical.
Security and privacy are also important considerations. Ask your vendor how they are protecting and securing your data, where the data is stored, how they back it up, if they have multiple backups in different physical locations and if they regularly test restore the backup data. You will also need to consider your country’s privacy legislation – you may not be permitted to store your client data overseas, so make sure you know how the principles affect you.
Each software package is priced differently: some have you pay a once-off fee, others are monthly, per user, per location etc. Find out if software upgrades are included in the cost of the product or, if not, what it costs to upgrade. Find out what it costs to add users in the future.
Talk to others in your sector about what they use and recommend. See if you can get a preview copy of the software so your staff can try it and report back on what they think. Ask whether the provider will train your staff.
If you already have data in an existing system, find out about the process of migrating it into the new system. It’s also worth asking about migrating data out, should you change to a different system in future. And find out whether the new system will integrate with other software you already use.
Implementing a CMS
The procedure for implementing a CMS is similar to that for introducing any new software or system:
- Know your budget – you’ll see a lot of flashy systems as you go searching for the right one, so don’t spend more than you can afford because you’re tempted by something glamorous.
- Know your requirements – what do you absolutely need the CMS to be able to do? What would you like it to do but can live without? What nice-to-have extras would you get if you could afford them? Find a system that matches as many of your requirements as possible without blowing your budget.
- Understand your current workflows and how jobs are done now – make sure you talk to the people who will be using the CMS. What do they need it to do? How do they work now and what could be done better? There's nothing worse than implementing a new CMS then realising some of your staff can no longer do their jobs.
- Assess integration – you will probably want your CMS to work with other systems you already have in place, such as HR systems, rostering and finance. Figure out how important that is to you and what you’re prepared to pay, because integration is often complex and expensive. Could you settle for a more manual interface between systems?
- Don’t choose the first system you see – once you know your budget and requirements, get together a list of systems and providers and assess them against what you want. Make a shortlist of three or so, then ask each of them to write a proposal for you. Ask for a test version of the software, and get the people who’ll be using it to try it out. Interview the providers and make sure you’re happy to work with them long-term. Ask others in the sector for references before you make your final decision.
- Put someone in charge – have a contact person in your organisation who can be dedicated to the project of selecting and implementing the new solution. Things will run more smoothly if it’s one person’s job to make sure they do.
- Understand ongoing costs – know what will happen with the system if government reporting requirements change, for example. Will you have to pay for upgrades or does your vendor cover the cost? If you need new functionality, will the vendor do it for free if it’s useful to others who use the system?
- Understand that change is hard – make sure staff who will be using the new program are onside from when you start gathering requirements through to when you start using the system. Involve them in the process, take their feedback seriously and make sure they’re comfortable once the new system is implemented.
- Build expertise – don’t just get one-off training for staff. Rather, have people in your organisation who are trained to be super-users and to thoroughly understand the system. These people are a point-of-contact for other staff who need ongoing training or who are having difficulties. They can also report back to the vendor on any problems.
When you should get professional help
You are strongly encouraged to consider professional advice throughout the process of acquiring a client case management system, particularly if you work with a complicated mix of services, processes or locations. Having someone who has been through the process before can make a huge difference, particularly at the early stages of the process, including:
- documenting the business processes – this may involve some redevelopment and standardisation of current processes
- documenting the requirements for the new system.
Unless your requirements are very simple, having someone experienced at selecting and implementing case management software (whether this be one of your staff, a contractor or an external advisor/consultant) is also useful when you’re shortlisting systems. If your new system is going to be complex to implement, you should also consider getting professional project management help for this stage of the process.
Remember that a case management system is only useful if it fits your organisation’s needs. It should make the jobs your already busy people do each day easier and more efficient, allowing you to focus on your core social service business. Every option will have its own strengths and feature mixes, and cost isn’t a guarantee of anything—especially since every social service organisation’s needs differ. But if you combine an honest evaluation of what you need with due diligence in comparing the available systems, you’ll find a system that will manage your processes more efficiently and help you communicate better with each other, funders and clients.