Choose Your Own High-Tech Adventure

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You're implementing a new program, but you've hit a snag. You need to brainstorm with the development team, but they're in three offices across the state. Do you:

  • Send an e-mail to the group, and hope the answer you need appears somewhere in a series of reply-alls?
  • Schedule a conference call and hope everyone follows along on their own copies of the program plan?
  • Set up a videoconference, work together to outline your next steps, and watch your colleagues nod in agreement?

Your state legislature has just passed new requirements for foster parents, and 12,000 frontline workers in 64 counties need to get briefed on the changes. Do you:

  • Book a trainer for two weeks, and tell him or her to enjoy the upcoming tour of the state?
  • Select three regional locations, and ask workers to meet for mass trainings?
  • Bring the trainer to headquarters, broadcast the presentation as a webinar, and post the recording on your intranet?

Your six regional directors want a venue to discuss common problems and solutions. Do you:

  • Do nothing. You're not a regional director, so how can you help?
  • Remind them that past collaborations via e-mail or conference call seemed adequate?
  • Encourage them to think about all the available tools, including some of your favorites, like Groupsite, GoToMeeting, and Skype?

A computer headset and microphone allows Randolph Children's Home social worker Crystal Rublee to use voice recognition software, talk to distant colleagues in a videoconference, or ask questions during online training.

Taking advantage of new technology and adapting it to an agency's specific needs can be an adventure--exciting or intimidating at the beginning; smooth or rough along the way. But it's getting harder to make excuses for not joining the technological revolution. Even if travel budgets grow again in rosier economic times, there is a continuing emphasis on productivity and efficiency. Eliminating unnecessary "drive time" means employees can spend more time on their core responsibilities, serving families. This is especially true at multisite agencies, which often have staff spread over several hundred--or even thousand--miles.

For example, Saint Francis Community Services, a CWLA member agency based in Salina, Kansas, covers more than 81,000 square miles and 77 counties with statewide service. Their core service area encompasses some 45,000 square miles. "You can lose half a day easy, just driving to meetings," Mike Heidrick, head of St. Francis's information technology department, says. He thinks videoconferencing and other technology have cut travel time by 25-30%. CFO Melanie Owens explains that the agency's management teams meet via videoconference on a weekly basis, and will meet in person quarterly or monthly. "You can't get rid of all of your drive time," she notes, but says staff can't get enough of the technology. "We don't have enough bandwidth--everybody loves it."

The staff at the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) are just as enthusiastic, report William T. Gettman, executive deputy commissioner, and William Travis, deputy commissioner for information technology. They emphasize that giving employees high-tech options has improved their working lives by taking away the necessity of long drives to participate in meetings or trainings. "We're out there using technologies that promote effective and efficient services," Gettman explains. "We have many, many employees who are pushing us, who want to do more," Travis says.

Varied Forms

OCFS is already doing quite a lot. The basics--e-mail and cell phone technology--are still the foundation. "At the most simplistic level, e-mail is the best way to communicate 24 hours a day," Gettman says. Travis adds that executives have BlackBerrys to make constant access possible. And even when it's not mobile, the telephone is still a method of reaching more people. "We've been known to have conference calls with 200 people on them," Gettman admits.

But more and more, they're trying to rise to expectations in the Web 2.0 world. They have an in-house video studio where they can record trainings or statements from OCFS leadership, edit the video, and post it to their website. "I can literally right now go over and cut a tape," Gettman says. "We can have it on our website in an hour." Travis says they try to have their web videos "look and feel like a YouTube experience." For more formal or scheduled events, videoconferencing has the capacity to connect simultaneously with multiple locations--New York's social services system is state supervised and locally administered, with 7 regional offices and 58 local service districts--making it easier to ensure everyone is on the same page during meetings or trainings.

The videoconference system at St. Francis Community Services allows a connection with multiple sites at once.

OCFS is using other forms of technology to connect with people outside of their employees as well. "We were the first state agency in New York with our own Facebook page," Gettman boasts. OCFS has also found blogging to be helpful in reaching out; "We also use blogs in some of our lines of business, it's the best way to engage our stakeholders," Travis says. And in addition to putting information out, they've learned online media can be invaluable for bringing information in. Gettman notes that a recurring problem for child welfare is youth leaving their out-of-home placements. A caseworker searching for a missing client had the idea to look on the youth's Facebook page to see if he had made an update about his location. While Facebook is mostly a social network, "that's the way the client communicates with their friends and peers," Gettman explains. "There are some legitimate business reasons for using some of these Web 2.0 tools."

The staff at St. Francis echoes most of this from their perspective as a private agency. "Technology for us is kind of our lifeline, and it's becoming more and more that way," says Mike Dobson, head of management information systems for St. Francis. "I've been with the agency five years, and we've grown immensely in those five years.... Technology is something that we've been extremely aggressive with." Owens reports that all St. Francis workers carry cell phones, and the management team has BlackBerrys "so e-mail follows you wherever you go." She explains that area directors have multiple offices that they're responsible for, and they use videoconferencing for weekly meetings.

Heidrick says that videoconferencing is preferred to conference calls, where "a big piece is missing"; the visual component of a videoconference leads to more interaction. Dobson agrees: "Technology has really come in a full circle with your ability to interact face-to-face through those videoconferencing tools." He notes that it's not the only technological replacement he's seen: "E-mail has really picked up a lot of conversations that used to take place in business over the telephone."

Dobson has worked to build a custom client management system for St. Francis employees to retrieve and update case information on the network, and he and Heidrick are running a pilot program that would allow remote access to it. "What we're hoping to move into is the ability for staff to go and to meet with family members and clients and complete forms while they're in the field via a broadband network card," Dobson explains. "We feel that's really going to increase our efficiency."

New Capabilities

Efficiency isn't the only boon for St. Francis, however. The ease of connecting to staff spread across frontier and rural counties has meant an increase in collaboration--"There's a lot more meetings because it's easier to do," Heidrick says--and in expertise within that collaboration. Previously, logistics sometimes made it difficult to include staff in outlying areas in some discussions. However, now St. Francis is "able to include people that you might not have considered in previous years," Dobson says. "We're able to include anyone we feel [is] necessary." Sharon Ringler, vice president at St. Francis, represents the agency on CWLA's rural advisory committee, and she reports that others want to build on St. Francis's work. "They're very interested in how we are working with those in the rural areas," she says. "The state of Tennessee is watching carefully and they're trying to do something like this."

However, Dobson thinks part of St. Francis's success comes from the fact that it is a private agency, on a smaller scale than a state office. "We quite often get workers or staff at a variety of different levels from the state, and I've had a number of them reply to me specifically about our technology and our capabilities and the fact that they're able to retrieve so much more information--and information is power, right?--from our technology-based systems that they couldn't retrieve by our state's systems, because the state systems were limited," he says. "On a smaller platform, we're able to take our developers and work with our staff, determining what their needs are, and develop things much more quickly."

In New York, reaching frontier areas isn't as much of a challenge as the weather can be. "In the past we'd send out trainers in the ice and the snow," Gettman says. Even with cooperative weather, the size of the workforce alone forced consideration of an alternative way to deliver training; "When you're trying to train 23-24,000 people, the traditional face-to-face methods are no longer feasible," Gettman says. He says there is online training of some type scheduled every day during the workweek. Travis gives the example of implementation of the state automated child welfare information system, when they needed to train more than 20,000 workers. OCFS accomplished this through a "webinar on demand," publishing a schedule of live sessions, but also making the training available via a virtual classroom service from iLinc.

OCFS has also used videoconferencing as a tool during interviews for higher-level positions where managers from several parts of the state may be asked to weigh in on the decision. St. Francis also does a lot of online training, and recently found videoconferencing useful for discussion surrounding insurance benefits during open enrollment season.

In-Person Meetings

Although his agency does use some videoconferencing and a lot of online training, William Isemann, CEO of the private multistate agency KidsPeace, is a big proponent of face-to-face, personal interaction. "My job is being a very, very good communicator," he explains, and feels he can best communicate with both staff and other groups in person. Isemann says the personal connection is especially imperative for private agencies that raise funds: "You can't do that effectively by always using a video or a conference call or a computer screen."

Isemann, who's been CEO for about a year and a half, tries to stay on the road as much as he can despite cuts to the travel budget. "I do a number of town hall meetings throughout the year to talk about what's happening with KidsPeace," Isemann says. "I try to go out and have that contact with people.... I think people appreciate that."

The groups at St. Francis and OCFS agree that technology cannot totally replace personal contact. Although St. Francis is headquartered in Salina, Kansas, Dobson actually lives in and works from Austin, Texas. "I find it very beneficial to me to come back to Salina to interact with my staff as well as upper management," he says. Occasional in-person interactions "reinforce the relationships" he builds with colleagues. A significant amount of supervision at St. Francis is done via videoconferencing, the staff explains. Owens says the visual component "enhances communications and relationships a little easier than just picking up the telephone does," and Dobson agrees that reading body language can be especially important for a supervisor discussing performance issues with an employee.

Gettman and Travis emphasize that the technology isn't being used in a vacuum, but instead as another way to connect with people who have been working together and know each other already. "You have to remember a lot of these folks have relationships from past business dealings," Travis says. "How do you create the trust? I think a lot of our folks have been doing this business for quite a long time, and the trust and transparency exists." Gettman said experience has shown him the interaction is the same whether he's in the room with colleagues or connecting with them online. "I've had a videoconference for two and a half hours on Friday with people from New York City, and then on Monday I was in New York City with the same people," he explains, saying the dynamic was the same.

Lessons and Advice

"You've got to figure out what the work is, and then wrap the technology around it," Gettman states. "In some of our business needs, the telephone is the best tool." Agencies shouldn't jump into the newest technology just because it's the newest. "It's the business drivers, it's what the business needs," Travis agrees.

For St. Francis, this has meant not using some technology, Heidrick and Dobson explain. An example of this was waiting to see what was going to happen for handheld devices and personal digital assistants, which have since been overtaken by the development of smaller laptops. All this requires coordination and core leadership, Heidrick says. "We haven't had a lot of failures. We're an organization that does a lot from a central point." Dobson confirms that before they follow a high-tech trend, they have to see a real need for it. "We're constantly monitoring and evaluating technology as a whole, and then we just really listen to our staff," Dobson says. "We listen to our staff and what their needs are and how we can make things more efficient for them."

Dobson also points out that advice about technology can come from the same place nonprofits get advice about their direction--their board of directors. "Just as it's important for our boards to be comprised of individuals from financial backgrounds and social service backgrounds, I would go so far as to say that boards should be thinking of technology when they're looking at who comprises that board," Dobson says. He was recently advising an agency whose leaders "felt like they were being led down the wrong path" by IT contractors. "That was one of the things I recommended to them--have someone added to your board who has a strong IT background."

Even with good advice and careful planning, there will be occasional problems. Both agencies plan ahead for technical glitches, since they are bound to happen. St. Francis has at least 2 people offering real-time support from a help desk and 10 technicians across the state. OCFS has made sure someone from most of their locations has had special training so they can resolve issues onsite. "That investment is absolutely essential to success," Travis says. He adds that OCFS has taken the initiative to develop written protocols for conduct during videoconferences, like getting accustomed to a slight transmission delay, and learning not to speak over colleagues.

Then there's the stickier situation of private information being shared via public tools. "I think some of the attorneys in our business approach some of this social marketing, Web 2.0, advanced information sharing with a certain skepticism. They push us to be careful," Gettman admits. "We're willing to take measured risk for the benefit of our staff, clients, and the taxpayers," he says, fixing problems as they arise. OCFS has had their share of learning things the hard way, he notes, outlining an incident where a worker in the field was communicating with another worker via Facebook, posting confidential information to the site. "That obviously caused us a huge problem," Gettman says, but they've worked to make sure it won't happen again. Travis explains that on the technical side, this means internet filters. He said out of roughly 23,000 internet accounts for the child welfare portion of the agency, probably fewer than 50 would be allowed to directly access Facebook.

Still, those who have seen the possibilities that the technology offers say it's worth it. "We've heard the same types of pocketed resistance [from] some agencies that just don't seem to be able to make it," Travis says. "While clearly one has to exercise some caution, you've got to realize that there are new tools out there."

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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