A CMS or Client Management System (also called a CRM or Client Relationship Management system or Case Management System) are key tools for delivering and improving social services. They are also big business, and can be quite costly to invest in. We know social organisations that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and for larger organisations, millions of dollars on these IT database systems. They are significant investments for cash-strapped social organisations. Yet they don’t always deliver good value.
We advise clients not to rush into buying a CMS, but to first spend time designing your data ecosystem. The key to getting the most out of your IT providers is to develop a detailed, mapped set of metrics and to be clear how you will use this data for better decision making. This forms part of your functional brief to the CMS provider, but it also reduces duplication and the need to re-work your system when you need to make changes down the track.
Here are our top six principles to consider before investing in a new CMS:
1. Start with the end in mind
We run what we call ‘End State’ workshops that help organisations get laser-focused on the social mission and organisational goals. As you identify what your organisation is trying to achieve, the workshop helps you identify the data you’ll need to achieve your key goals. This then enables you to decide what outputs (reports, IT dashboards) you need to generate these metrics. The End State process is an acquired skill because you have to balance frontline and client needs, quality of data, validated metrics as well and organisational and operational considerations.
2. Trim the data tree
Best practice in metrics design is to only collect the data you actually use - this is both efficient and it reduces collection burden on program participants and staff. These trees can get out of control - we’ve known some organisations to have more than 500 metrics they collect from clients! For example, you might prioritise collecting data that helps a frontline worker make a needs assessment. This data could also help executives make decisions about how and where to allocate resources, or what to do about low performance, or about which tenders to apply for. By identifying how you will use the data, you can reduce data collection and get rid of metrics that are of low value.
3. Develop metrics on ‘what success looks like’
A good social impact data system is clear about how the social mission will be measured. This can be both the social outcomes you want to achieve, as well as operational or financial goals. For example, one organisation we know was clear that to succeed in the disability sector they would need to grow by 50% in the next few years. This is a clear growth goal that can be tracked as part of strategic plans. Where there are multiple teams or organisations working together, define what success looks like at each step of a participant’s journey and document that in your agreements.
4. Take the entire organisation on a data journey
The social sector has sometimes had a love-hate relationship with data, especially where data collection is imposed externally. When data is collected but not used by the organisation, it can feel like a wasted effort. In contrast, we find that developing timely, practical and relevant data dashboards for frontline staff is often met with enthusiasm when it helps someone do their job better. Part of the data ‘cultural’ journey is to show frontline staff in particular how data visualisation can be useful even before you brief the CMS provider. We developed a dashboard for one client that allowed frontline staff to see on one page all the relevant needs and risks data for a client. The staff found that very useful in tailoring the services to individuals and groups to improve the participant experience.
5. Use the opportunity to improve
One of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen with a new CMS investment is to just implement the existing or old metrics into the new system without question. You don’t just want a smoother or more modern way to collect the old information - a new CMS is an opportunity to improve the metrics you collect and how you use them. Get the quality, research and service experts in your organisation to push the envelope on what should be collected, employing the latest thinking on best tools and measures. We have a robust process for continuous quality improvement that incorporates service and operational improvements.
6. Make IT serve your metrics strategy
Your CMS needs to be subservient to your needs, not the other way around. The clearer you are about what data you need and how you will use, analyse and visualise your data, the more confident you will be in defining your functional requirements. It’s worth remembering that data systems sit in a complex world and it may not be possible to build the perfect system from scratch. There are integrations with government data systems, and also legacy systems that you might have to keep using in parallel. Best practice in data security is to have a clear reason about why you need to collect certain data. Your End State work and metric map will give you those justifications if you have done the hard thinking about what to collect and how to use it.
We know that for many social organisations, this is headache-producing. Navigating CMS and IT can feel like speaking another language, and it can be stressful, especially when you know you need to adapt your processes and systems. These principles are a starting point for making that process easier. Stay tuned for more features about ways to consider, use and identify data. And please get in touch if you’d like a free chat with us about how we can help.