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Careful planning will be a big help

September 1, 2008
by Juliette Palmer and Alex Attinson
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HELP USA prepared for its new software implementation even before selecting a vendor

Case management software implementation is a common cause of anxiety among behavioral healthcare administrators. After all, the implementation process has many potential pitfalls. But the agency that plans its implementation, manages it well, and sets clear and realistic goals for using the software can experience an effective and dread-free implementation. The potential benefits of a carefully planned, closely managed software implementation are tremendous, particularly when the software's strengths complement the agency's strengths.

There is no single formula for a successful software implementation. However, the successful experience of one agency can be used as a model. One such agency is HELP USA, a national not-for-profit based in New York City with programs also on Long Island; Westchester County, New York; Buffalo; Philadelphia; Las Vegas; and Houston. With an approximately $70 million budget, HELP has 810 staff members who provide case management, employment, education, mentoring, day care, after-school, and medical programs, as well as housing and support services, to homeless individuals and families. The agency's size and service variety could have made for a rocky case management software implementation. Instead, by setting smart goals and carefully managing the process, HELP successfully implemented case management software.

Planning and goal setting

HELP began its implementation process even before selecting software by setting simple, clear-cut goals. Its major objective was to implement software that would manage the records of all of its clients and programs, replacing several other systems developed over the years. HELP also wanted the software to assist it with meeting its funders' reporting requirements and achieving better quality assurance and compliance. In addition, a secondary goal was to make the software the single source for HELP's executive tracking system, which provides senior leaders with quick and easy access to agency-wide data.

A team-based approach

HELP worked toward these major goals with measured expectations and a team-based approach. John Kolp, HELP's director of information systems, assembled seasoned managers into a core implementation team to set milestones and plan the basics leading up to the software's introduction. Once the software was selected (Foothold Technology's AWARDS software), the core team was expanded to include program-based and direct-service staff.

Kolp credits the implementation team's persistence for the rollout's success, noting that the focused and committed group's role extends beyond the software's initial introduction: “They meet once a month and as we add functionality, the group continues to make decisions. They are responsible for going back to their programs and saying, ‘We have to do this and change that.’ It's a user group; they share what they found out, what obstacles they've run into, and it's become institutionalized.”

Another HELP institution is the “roundtable” portion of the implementation team's meetings, during which representatives from each site share among themselves and with senior managers their experiences rolling out and using the software. This creates a continuous feedback loop among those entering the information and those using it to make organizational decisions. HELP also employs a “circular meeting” concept—taking suggestions from all agency levels and then making immediate agency-wide decisions.

Asking for help

HELP made an additional investment in the implementation's success by appointing a consultant (Michelle Nevius) to oversee project management details. The consultant became the agency's software “expert,” managing startup configuration activities, such as assigning user access and permissions, and helping the agency standardize its use of the software across all of its programs. The consultant developed customized training as well as policy and procedure documentation, provided internal help desk assistance to the entire agency, and monitored the data's quality.

Ongoing success

Once their initial rollout goals have been accomplished, agencies often lose their forward momentum and use their software only for basic functions, neglecting the tools that contribute to broader organizational management. At this point, internal training deficiencies and poor project management can stagnate the implementation process. The software may be implemented but not with the depth and breadth originally intended.

HELP avoided these pitfalls by continuously rolling out new features and functionalities after its first-year milestone (full implementation at its New York City sites) had been met this past spring. By the beginning of the second year, HELP also was using the software for property maintenance tracking and incident reporting, and the agency relied on the data to feed its own performance analysis tool to report key indicators to the executive team.

One fundamental lesson from HELP's experience is that implementations are not finite events. Because of not-for-profits' dynamic nature, they must choose flexible software. However, adapting to a new system and continuously setting new goals are equally important. Thus, as the vendor continues to roll out new functionalities, HELP already has the structure to integrate these into its system.