Introduction: A Buyer’s Guide
About This Guide
There are many social work case management software systems to choose from. It can be hard to decide which one is the best fit for your organization.
With endless variety, options, and alternatives, it might be easy to pick one, but it is hard to pick the “right” one.
As a decision maker or leader of your organization’s software selection process, you want to mitigate the risk of selecting the “wrong” system so your organization can fully invest in the “right” system.
You can increase your chances of finding the “right” case management software by carrying out a disciplined selection process.
This guide walks through each step of an intentional software selection process, offering tips and best practices along the way.
We hope that you are able to use this guide to make a smart software purchasing decision and find the best social work case management software for your nonprofit organization
Who is this guide for?
This guide is for any staff member, volunteer, board member, or consultant at a nonprofit organization that is looking for new social work case management software.
The strategies and tactics in this guide will help you navigate the software selection process whether this is your first time finding new software or you’ve been through a software selection process before.
Who is Sidekick Solutions?
We help nonprofits of all sizes and types find, set up, and get the most from case management software. We are consultants and experts for one case management software platform: Apricot® software.
We are sharing this free guide as a resource to help you make a smart and informed software purchasing decision. We hope that you find it useful! Keep us in mind if you have questions about case management software.
Social Work Case Management Software, Is Your Nonprofit Ready?
- Social work case management software systems are designed to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency of a nonprofit’s programs, service delivery workflows, and client management processes.
- There are five reasons you might be ready for new social work case management software: inefficient data systems, strict funder requirements, internal curiosity in data, reporting gaps or missing data, and plans for program evaluation.
- If your organization isn't achieving maximum efficiency with paper forms, Excel spreadsheets, or a feature-deficient database, you might be ready for new social work software
- Before jumping into a Google search, contacting software vendors, or evaluating different software options, start your software selection process with an internal needs assessment.
- Clarify your requirements and vision for new software before you develop a shortlist of software options so that you know what to look for when you start your software search.
Social work case management software gives nonprofit organizations the opportunity to answer important questions about the effectiveness of their programs using data, empirical proof, and evidence.
But is your nonprofit organization ready to go from paper forms, Excel spreadsheets, or a legacy database to a modern case management software system?
What is social work case management software?
There are many social work case management software systems available to nonprofit organizations. Sidekick Solutions supports and consults on Social Solutions Apricot™ software.
Social work case management software systems are designed to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency of a nonprofit’s programs, service delivery workflows, and client management processes.
Because nonprofit programs and services vary by organization, most case management software systems come with a generic structure out-of-the-box. The generic structure is then customized to match your organization’s methods, procedures, and workflows
Although case management software systems are highly customizable and are built to match your organization’s specific requirements, they are generally adopted by nonprofit organizations to:
- Streamline client intake so staff can spend more time on service delivery
- Manage client queues and reduce potential for clients to slip through the cracks
- Improve data entry and data quality of all program data collection points
- Use data and analytics to improve program design, service delivery, and program outcomes
- Be smarter with highly accessible reports that display critical operational information
- Offer greater control over service quality and staff management
- Proactively address data quality, service delivery, and operational challenges before they become major issues
- Use data to prove the value of your programming to funders (both private and public)
- Organize data logically and provide greater access to data across the entire organization
Five reasons to look for new case management software
In our experience, there are five common reasons nonprofit organizations look for new case management software. Each reason generally produces the urgency to change from the status quo (the current way of managing program and service data) to a new and modern case management software platform.
1. Too much paper and too many data systems
Too much paper or too many data systems can lead to a variety of inefficiencies.
First, managing program and service delivery on paper limits your organization’s ability to manage data and generate reports from that data. Paper-based records can also be difficult to organize and are often less secure than electronic records.
Second, having too many systems (paper, Excel, multiple databases, other software) can make reports inaccurate, or there may be gaps in your data. Aggregating data from disparate systems and paper-based records is time consuming, cumbersome, and it drains organizational resources and staff energy.
Consolidating disparate data systems and paper-based records into a central database is one reason your organization might be ready for new case management software.
2. Funder requirements and compliance
Funder reporting, data, and compliance requirements are one of the top reasons nonprofit organizations invest in new case management software.
- If you do not have the proper record-management and reporting systems in place prior to applying for funding, you may not comply with the requirements of a funding application.
- If you do receive funding and do not have the proper record-management and reporting systems in place, you may spend a significant amount of time on manual reporting and manual compliance tasks.
It is easier to comply with funder requirements pre-funding and post-funding with a singular software system that houses program, service, and outcome data. Funder requirements and compliance reinforce the need for a capable record-management and reporting system..
3. Management’s curiosity and direct service staff members’ curiosity in data
Do management and your direct service staff ask important questions that cannot be answered with the current systems that you have in place? Are important questions about program and service performance met with answers like “that’s a great question,” but aren’t ever addressed or resolved?
Managers need data and information to effectively allocate resources, keep the organization on track toward its goals, and address challenges and roadblocks before they become major issues. Provide management the data and information they need if they begin using data to inform and validate their decisions. Data-driven management is a sign of good organizational health.
Direct service staff members’ curiosity about performance and data are also positive indicators of organizational health. A member of your team that is curious about data is a sign that they are buying into the organization’s goals and potentially even interested in continuous program improvement. It is important to fill their appetite for performance data and maintain their buy-in.
If your management team and direct service staff members are curious about program or service performance and how data can offer proof of positive or negative results, it may be time to consider a case management software system that can match their interests and answer their questions.
4. Reporting gaps and missing data
Gaps in reporting and missing data are normally caused by too many paper forms and paper-based processes as well as having too many data systems. Reporting gaps and missing data are also symptoms of poor data quality.
Poor data quality is a combination of inaccurate data entry, no data entry, lack of staff reporting proficiency, and the inability of your current data systems to report on collected data. Reporting gaps and missing data can negatively impact decision making if poor data quality becomes a systematic problem.
To solve this challenge, you need a data management and record-management system that can help you manage data quality. Most modern case management software systems can be customized with data quality reports, data entry workflows, rules and logic, and triggers to proactively keep important data clean.
5. Planning for program evaluation
Implementing a nonprofit case management software system prior to an evaluation will help you to set up the systems, processes, procedures, protocols, and methods needed to facilitate a program evaluation.
Having ownership and control of your data will make the transition into a program evaluation easier as well. Gaining experience with data management, reporting, and system administration will streamline the rigors of the data-driven processes in a program evaluation.
If your organization will be heading into a program evaluation soon or you’re planning to undergo a program evaluation in the future, now may be a good time to explore new case management software.
Ready to find new software? Start with an internal needs assessment
We often find that organizations are quick to jump into software research when they are ready to look for new software, but it is important to take a step back and focus inward on your own organization before jumping into a Google search, contacting software vendors, or evaluating different software options.
A little upfront preparation can go a long way toward selecting the best social work case management software for your organization.
Start your software selection process with an internal needs assessment. An assessment is a good place to start because:
- You can define what you want and don’t want and be specific about your desired software system;
- You can offer potential software vendors specific information on what you want, what you don’t want, and your overall expectations;
- You can form initial opinions and thoughts without other parties influencing your decision making process out of the gate; and
- You can confirm that the current challenges and current strengths of your existing system (or systems) are addressed in the new software.
An assessment gives your entire organization the opportunity to develop clear expectations, a specific purpose, and a singular goal for the software selection process.
Answer five assessment questions
Conduct a thorough needs assessment by answering each of the following five questions. Each question below uses the word “system” to represent software, Excel spreadsheets, or manual processes and procedures (like paper forms). Your existing system is the thing you use currently and the thing you hope to replace with new software.
- What are the challenges with the current system?
What don’t you like about your current system? List all of the pain points and inefficiencies of your current system(s). During the software evaluation process, find a software system that mitigates current challenges.
- What are the strengths of the current system?
What do you like about your current system? List all of the efficiencies and likes of your current system(s). During the software evaluation process, find a software system that empowers or replicates current strengths.
- What is our vision for the new software system?
In a perfect world, what do you want the new software system to look like? What will it manage for you? How will it integrate with your organization? How will it improve efficiency?It is important to describe the ultimate outcome you hope to achieve with new software, even if the vision is lofty. Visions will be constrained by budgets, time, and other resources. The remaining two questions in the needs assessment narrow your vision so it is reasonable and practical.
- What part of our vision for the new software system is “nice to have?”
What specific elements of your vision aren’t necessary in a new software system? “Nice to have” elements are secondary features or functions that won’t make or break your decision in the software selection process.The “nice to have” elements will make an impact on your return on investment in the new software, but they can be let go if budgets, time, and resources dictate that they be let go.
- What part of our vision for the new software system is “need to have?”
What specific elements of your vision are must-haves in a new software system? “Need to have” elements are primary features or functions that are so advantageous that they will drive the software evaluation and selection process.The “need to have” elements will dictate the decision to select a particular software system because they are the elements you need to improve efficiency and achieve a positive return on investment in new software.
Write down your answers
Write down your answers to each needs assessment question so you can use your notes during the software selection process. Your internal needs assessment will help you determine if the potential software systems you’re evaluating can empower your strengths, mitigate your challenges, enhance your opportunities, and help you achieve your vision.
Clarify your requirements for new software first
An internal needs assessment creates a benchmark that can be used to compare the potential software systems you’re evaluating to your organization’s wants, needs, and expectations. Since you are intimately familiar with your organization’s internal strengths, deficiencies, and processes, an assessment gives you a reference point to evaluate and ultimately select a new software system.
Even if you aren’t technologically proficient or you are overwhelmed by the software selection process, an assessment will prepare you for next steps.
With your internal needs assessment completed, you are ready to research potential software systems, contact software vendors, and compare multiple social work case management software systems side by side.
How to Shortlist Social Work Case Management Software Options
- A shortlist narrows your list of software options down to a manageable size so you can focus on just those options that are “qualified” for your organization.
- Think of a shortlist like the semifinals of an Olympic race. The athletes that win the semifinals qualify to compete in the finals. If an athlete doesn’t qualify in the semifinals, they are removed from the competition.
- Developing a shortlist is a five step process that includes research and high-level reviews of software options in an initial “long list.”
- Look for seven key features when you are reviewing software options for your shortlist: control of data, customizable structure, reporting and analytics, electronic data records, workflow tools, staff management and monitoring tools, and a defined roadmap for success.
- As a rule, select between three to five, but always more than two, software options for your shortlist.
When searching for new social work case management software, it is important to leave no stone unturned. Cast a wide net to get a full view of the software market, any relevant trends, and all available software options. Don’t miss the “right” software with a search that is too narrow or too restrictive. Instead, develop a long list of software options first, and then narrow your long list to a shortlist of software options.
Five steps to develop a shortlist of software options
1. What are we looking for?
You are looking for social work case management software.
This may seem obvious, but identifying what you are looking for is actually more important than you might think. Answering this question frames your search so you know where to look for available software options.
- Identify the type of software you’re looking for using your own words.
- Write a narrative description of that type of software using your own words.
The description doesn’t need to be perfect and should be less than one page.
We are looking for social work case management software that will track client profiles, services provided to those clients, and assessments of their progress. The software should be used by other organizations like us that provide a spectrum of child, youth, and family services. The case management software should be workflow driven so that staff can follow the design of our program in the software itself and successfully interact with our clients based on our procedures. The software should be web-based and accessible on laptops and tablets. We are looking for core features like scheduling, user notifications, email integration, easy-to-use, user access restrictions, ad hoc reporting, and dashboards. We are also looking for software that is secure and a vendor that will sign a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) for HIPAA compliance.
Your description will identify keywords and phrases that can be used to find software options. You will be better equipped to search for software options if your description is specific.
At this point, jump into a web browser and search for the type of software you described. Use specific keywords and phrases from your description in your search.
Start building a long list of software options by writing down software options that you find in your search. Do not filter software options at this point. Write down all options that you find (unless they obviously don’t match your description).
Other relevant keywords to consider in your initial software search.
- Social work software
- Domestic violence social work case management software
- Nonprofit case management software
- Human services software
- Case management software social services
- Social services case management software
- Nonprofit client management software
- Case management software for nonprofits
- Case management software for human services
- Software for human services organizations
- Social services software
2. Broaden the view even wider
The goal of this process is to provide a broad view of all available software options so that you can make an informed software purchasing decision. A broad search will make sure that nothing is missed along the way, eliminating any regret or hesitation in your final software selection.
Continue to add to your long list of options. While the keywords and phrases used to describe the type of software you’re looking for in Step 1 are solid, they may not be perfect terms for your search.
If you’re not able to search using the right keywords, you might miss a software option that could be a perfect fit for your nonprofit.
Do some research to define supplementary terms that might enhance your long list of options. Here are four ways to bolster your search.
- Peers – Ask peer organizations what software they use. Also ask them if they know of any other software options that are available. Recommendations from other organizations that are actually using software are great validation for your long list of options.
- Search – Complete an online search with a term from your description and then take a look at the bottom of the search page in a section called “Related Searches” (available with a Google search). The related searches section offers additional terms that closely match your original search query. Use these additional terms to broaden your search.
- Industry resources and publications – Research sites like NTEN, Idealware, TechSoup, Capterra, SoftwareAdvice and others. These sites list available software options by software type and offer additional resources for selecting new software.
- Software reviews – Search for online reviews. While sites like Capterra and SoftwareAdvice aggregate reviews in one place, social networks like Quora and even Twitter are great places to search as well.
Do not evaluate the options you find during this initial search. Simply write them down in your long list. You’ll narrow your long list in subsequent steps.
3. Initial impressions and reviews
Now that you have a long list of options, which may include five, ten, or even more viable social work software options, conduct high-level reviews of each system.
A high-level review is light on detail but should provide enough information to qualify a software option for your shortlist.
Evaluate high-level topics like:
- Key features and functions that interest you
- Online reviews and testimonials
- Clarity of the software vendor’s website and marketing materials
- Overall impression and opinion of the software vendor
- Ease of finding the software vendor online (was it easy to find or was it difficult)
Add notes next to each software option in your long list during this high-level review. Add relevant excerpts from reviews you find online or details about key features that caught your attention. You will reference these high-level notes when you make selections for your shortlist.
4. Select a shortlist of options
Using the high-level reviews you completed for each software option in your long list, narrow down your long list to three to five systems that you feel are best suited for your organization.
We recommend three to five options (at least more than two) so you can objectively compare multiple options side by side in the next phase of the software selection process.
You can use the following test to qualify software options for your shortlist.
Based on what I’ve seen so far, is this a software option I want to learn more about? At a minimum, do I want to see a demo of this software option before deciding whether or not it is a good fit for my organization?
- If yes, add it to your shortlist.
- If no, omit it from your shortlist
Because you are completing high-level reviews of your long list, impressions of each software system may not be one-hundred percent objective. The qualifications for your shortlist shouldn’t be overly restrictive. The goal is to filter out any software options where it is obvious that they are not good fits. It is fine to act on some subjective feelings and gut reactions during the shortlist process.
5. Complete Steps 1-4 again to confirm the outcome of your initial shortlist
Ultimately you will complete an in-depth evaluation of each software option in your shortlist, but circle back through the shortlist process one more time.
Using the shortlist you just developed, start with Step 1 and complete Steps 1-4 again.
Now that you have some perspective on the available options and what to look for, going back through the process again will confirm that you didn’t miss anything the first time around. In addition, you can validate any judgments you made about your initial shortlist.
What features are most important for a shortlist?
As you’re reviewing your long list of options, you might be thinking…
- How will I make initial judgments on software options without knowing what to look for?
- What software features and functionalities should I consider for my shortlist?
Each social work software system has advantages and disadvantages, as well as different features and functionalities, but any software option should help you to:
- Spend less time on paperwork and processes so you can spend more time delivering services to clients;
- Improve service delivery with performance management systems that leverage data reporting and analytics; and
- Use data to demonstrate the impact that you are making so you can increase funding opportunities and grow your organization.
In addition to those broad, overarching goals, there are seven key features to consider as you develop your shortlist.
1. Control of data
You will want full access to own, manage, and organize your data in the software. Full access to your data includes the ability to export, update or modify, delete or archive, and create data without limits.
Your organization’s data requirements may evolve over time. Changing requirements will require updates to the structure and format of your software and the underlying database in the software. Control over your data provides flexibility so you can scale the software up or down over time.
Four common database features give you ultimate control over your data.
- Mass Create – the ability to create new records in batch or import data via formatted spreadsheets (Excel or CSV).
- Mass Edit – the ability to edit existing records in batch where each record will be edited differently.
- Mass Update> – the ability to edit existing records in batch where all records are updated the same.
- Mass Delete – the ability to delete or archive existing records in batch.
Some software options don’t offer full access to all of these features. Not having one of these features isn’t a make or break scenario. If a software option is limited by one of these features, define the workarounds for that software option and make note of those workarounds before placing it on your shortlist.
2. Customizable database structure
Your organization has unique characteristics that set it apart from other organizations. A template social work database will require customization to match your unique data management and workflow requirements.
Customizing the database structure of social work software will occur in two places.
- Objects or Records – Data objects or records are the primary data tracking mechanism in social work software. A client, service, assessment, and referral are all records. Each record is separate from other record types. The ability to create custom data objects is helpful if you want to expand the database with heavy customization and various record types.
- Fields – Fields exist on a data object or record. The object contains fields that characterize that object and classify it for reports. Fields come in many shapes and sizes. There are text fields, selection fields, and numeric fields among others. Creating custom objects isn’t a requirement for social work software, but creating custom fields is. You will build the database to meet your data collection requirements using custom fields.
Look for database software with unlimited custom field development. Then also look for a variety of custom field options. The style of data in a field will dictate how you can report on that field, so make sure the field types match your reporting requirements.
3. Reporting and analytics
Reporting adds significant value to social work software, so it is important to confirm that you can generate the reports you need from each software option.
Reporting and analytics platforms will vary widely from software system to software system, but differentiate between two types of reports.
- Standard reports are pre-built reports that come with the software out of the box. This type of report isn’t required in order for a software to be on the shortlist. Standard reports are nice to have, but custom reporting is most important.
- Ad hoc reports on the other hand are run on-demand using custom reporting and analytics tools. Changing report requirements and new questions that need to be answered with data make ad hoc reporting a necessity. Even if the software comes with standard reports, make sure that you can run ad hoc reports using the system’s reporting and analytics tools.
Program and service data often requires custom reporting and analytics in order to generate meaningful insight. Capable reporting and analytics tools are need-to-have features in any software option on your shortlist.
As a side note, you may also want to quickly assess how much a particular software option relies on Excel for reporting and data analytics. How much data analysis can happen in the software itself and how much must be done outside the software in a tool like Excel? Using Excel as a reporting and analytics tool isn’t a negative for a particular software option, but it is important to differentiate between the ability to “export data” from the software and the ability to “report and analyze data” in the software when reviewing your long list of software options.
4. Electronic data records (to reduce paperwork and streamline internal processes)
Time is a valuable asset to nonprofits that provide social services. Because time is a scarce resource, it is important to use time effectively. Case management software should help your organization get the most from this precious resource by reducing data entry time, organizing information in a logical way, and making information easy to find and access.
Case managers, social workers, and direct service staff often drown in paperwork. Your case management software should reduce this burden, freeing up their time to focus on their primary job: serving clients.
Here are a few areas where any software option on your long list should streamline internal processes, paperwork, procedures, and compliance:
- Accepting incoming referrals from community partners or other agencies
- Approving new clients prior to enrollment in your program
- Checking in with clients during an active service workflow
- Exiting or unenrolling a client from your program
- Switching a case manager assignment or responsibility
- Identifying and notifying case managers when clients require more attention or services
- Submitting referrals from your program to community partners or other agencies
- Looking up the history of a client that was previously enrolled in your program
- Entering daily logs or notes about interactions with a client
- Accessing an active caseload list or list of upcoming tasks
All social work software stores information as electronic records, so “electronic data records” as a feature won’t help you qualify software options for your shortlist. Instead, look at how electronic data records are entered into the system, how they are organized once they are entered, and how a user finds and accesses those records.
Based on the scenarios above:
- Does it seem like data is easy to enter?
- Does it seem like data is organized in a logical way?
- Does it seem like data is easy to find and access?>
If a software option on your long list doesn’t reduce paperwork, streamline internal processes, and save time, it shouldn’t make your shortlist.
5. Workflow tools (to standardize service quality and service delivery)
The “right” nonprofit case management software system should be a program director and operations manager’s best friend because it standardizes operational procedures.
Standard procedures ensure high service quality and consistent service delivery.
For example the software should help your organization:
- Manage client queues and reduce the potential for clients to slip through the cracks
- Improve data entry and data quality of all program data collection
- Use data and analytics to improve program design and service delivery
- Keep staff organized, on track, and on schedule, while being efficient and effective>
- Set expected procedures for service delivery that can be benchmarked and measured
- Systematize routine procedures like referrals, intake, enrollment, and exit
- Audit actions and tasks where standard procedures aren’t fully developed
- Navigate users through service delivery workflows to manage service quality
Social work software standardizes service delivery with four common features. Although these features vary from system to system, expect some form of these features.
- Workflows – Enforce data entry steps and drive users through a pre-defined path for service delivery. Software should navigate users through common processes like intake, enrollment, specific services, and exit so there is no ambiguity in the steps of the process.
- Requirements – Set data entry requirements so users cannot continue in the software without completing specific tasks. Force users to complete specific fields (questions), forms, or workflows based on the conditions of their data entry task.
- Logic and Conditionality – Dynamically update the software to match the workflow of a particular user. Logic and conditionality can take users down different paths depending on their specific data entry or service task. Use branches, if/then logic, and rules to walk users through a pre-defined path.
- Data standards – Build data standards directly into a user workflow. Create objective data entry like dropdowns, checkboxes, or even dynamic fields that cross-reference other data in the database. As opposed to text-based data entry, social service case management software should store data that is largely discrete and highly uniform so you can measure and accurately report on outputs, outcomes, and impact.
6. Resource management tools (to manage and monitor staff resources)
Program directors, operations managers, and service group leaders’ roles are to maximize staff resources with the goal of getting the best possible service for clients. But those roles are blind to potential issues and challenges without information.
Social work software can provide managers the information they need to proactively address data quality, service delivery, and operational challenges before they become major issues.
Look for software options that give managers the ability to monitor performance across your programs and services, making sure that clients are on track, staff members have adequate workloads, and that service quality is high.
Here are four styles of reports or dashboards that you should be able to create in any social work software system on your shortlist.
- Operational Benchmarks – Set up operational reports for caseloads, client queues, and status dashboards. Identify important operational metrics that will help you track daily or weekly performance and build those reports in your case management software.
- Process Monitoring – Develop reports that monitor workflow processes from start to finish. Managers can jump into a client engagement when a challenge is identified rather than sitting on the sidelines.
- Data Quality Reviews – Build data quality reports and develop data quality reviews. Review data quality regularly and make changes when errors are found. This will keep your data clean and reports accurate.
- Resource Management – Implement reports that monitor active workloads and benchmark those workloads to standards for each staff member. Managers can then react to overloaded or underloaded staff by increasing or decreasing their workload.
Social work software should empower your organization to implement these solutions and in total help you maximize staff time and effort. If a software option doesn’t appear to do this, it shouldn’t make your shortlist.
7. Roadmap for Success
The last item to look for isn’t a technological feature or tool.
Look for a roadmap for success. A roadmap for success should answer the following questions.
- What do the best users of this software do to sustain the software?
- What is recommended within the first six months of using the software?
- What are the best practices for implementation, training, and ongoing administration?
- What challenges do users encounter with the software?
Knowing what others do to be successful may contribute to your organization’s success with the software.
Keep in mind that you don’t need a full picture during this phase of your software selection process, but knowing that there are resources to help you be successful with the software are critical to any option on your shortlist.
Next Step: Evaluate each shortlist option using a standard set of criteria
Now that you’ve created a shortlist and cycled through the process to confirm that the shortlist includes the best available options for you organization, it’s now time to evaluate each software option in-depth.
An in-depth evaluation will compare the software options on your shortlist side by side using a standard set of criteria so you can make an informed and objective software purchasing decision.
How to Select the Best Social Work Case Management Software
- Evaluate each software option on your shortlist using a standard set of evaluation criteria, which will make it easier to objectively compare multiple options side by side.
- Download our free software evaluation guide and worksheet for a step-by-step process to evaluate each software option on your shortlist.
- For further reading, download a guide on choosing performance management software by The Urban Institute and the Consumer’s Guide to Case Management Software by Idealware.
- Asking questions is the best way to learn during your software selection process. Ask questions of both customer references and the software vendor.
- During your interviews with the software vendor it is important to ask specific questions about the software license terms and conditions including: length of term, price increases, data ownership and confidentiality, warranties and guarantees, and payment terms.
- Select the best software for your organization by objectively comparing each option side by side. Choose the option that is the best fit in the most categories of your evaluation.
If you are looking for new social work case management software, navigating the market to find the best option for your organization can be a daunting task. New case management software is a major investment for your organization, but more importantly it is an opportunity to transform the way you deliver services and improve program performance.
How do you find new case management software that is the “right” fit for your organization?
Once you have a shortlist of options, evaluate each option using a standard set of criteria and then compare your options side by side.
Evaluate each shortlist option using a standard set of criteria
To start, we recommend downloading our free software evaluation guide and worksheet. The guide outlines our recommended step-by-step process for objectively evaluating each software option in your shortlist side by side.
Other resources for evaluating new social work software
In addition to our software evaluation and comparison worksheet, you can also explore the web for more resources on selecting the best social work case management software.
Navigating Performance Management Software Options
by The Urban Institute
The Urban Institute Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center published a whitepaper titled Navigating Performance Management Software Options: A Guide to Choosing Nonprofit Performance Management Software. Written by Simone Zhang and Mary K. Winkler, the paper provides a glimpse into the case management software landscape and suggests some things to think about when selecting new software.
While the paper states that it isn’t a direct comparison of available software options in the market, it does highlight some features and characteristics of six software systems. We (Sidekick Solutions) are consultants for one of those software platforms, Social Solutions Apricot™ software.
Even though the social work case management software landscape will change, the Urban Institute paper contains timeless information that can help your organization prepare for, find, select, and sustain new case management software.
Here is what you can expect when you download the whitepaper from the Urban Institute.
- What’s the difference between case management and CRM? – This is a common question from organizations searching for new case management software, and the whitepaper provides a great answer. CRM stands for constituent relationship management. CRM systems are different than specialized case management software systems that track social service and human service programs. It is worth noting these differences when evaluating multiple software options.
- When to start looking for software? – How will you know when it is the right time to look for new case management software? Organizational indicators include leadership buy-in, outgrowing existing data systems, solid program models, and budget capacity.
- What to do before you contact vendors? – We highly recommend every organization get their “ducks in a row” before contacting software vendors. The authors of the whitepaper agree and recommend every organization conduct a needs assessment prior to “investigating options.”
- How to evaluate different options? – Every software platform is different, so evaluating them side-by-side can be challenging. The whitepaper does a great job of boiling down the complexities of case management software into four categories: system costs, entering data into the system, extracting data from the system, and special considerations. In addition, they describe how different software vendors (they looked at six software systems) approach each category.
A Consumer’s Guide to Case Management Systems
Idealware is a nonprofit technology research and advocacy organization that helps nonprofits make smart technology decisions by publishing high-quality and highly-researched content. They published a guide on selecting social work case management software in April 2015. That guide is titled, A Consumer’s Guide to Case Management Systems.
The Idealware guide provides in-depth comparisons of five nonprofit case management software options. The guide is a third-party perspective on the software selection process and may confirm or disprove conclusions you make in your software evaluations.
Here is what you can expect when you download the guide from Idealware.
- What types of systems are available? – A quick overview of the styles of systems you will find during a software search. Styles include hosted versus installed, Salesforce applications versus standalone software, and custom-built systems. This is a good introduction to the foundational concepts of social work software.
- What these systems do (typically)? – This section of the guide focuses exclusively on use cases for case management software, including client tracking, household tracking, managing case workflows, scheduling, and more.
- Recommendations of potential options and how to choose – This section is particularly useful as a baseline for your final software selection. Review this section to determine which of the software solutions Idealware reviewed is a good fit for your organization. Keep in mind that this may not be a perfect interpretation of the “right” fit, but it is a place to start.
- In-depth reviews of five software options – The majority of the guide is devoted to reviews of five nonprofit case management software systems. If one of the systems they reviewed is on your shortlist, read the section of the guide pertaining to that option and determine if your conclusions about that software are accurate.
Five Unconventional Ways to Evaluate Social Work Software
by Sidekick Solutions
If you want more ways to evaluate multiple software options, download our free guide below on unconventional ways to evaluate new social work software. This guide offers five unique approaches to evaluating multiple software options and how each way can positively impact your software selection process.
Ask the right questions
When you go into a software search, selection, and evaluation process, you are learning along the way. You may not be an expert in social work case management software, but you need to gather as much information as you can.
One of the best ways to learn is to ask questions, but you want to ask the “right” questions.
Vendor interviews and interviews with customers that currently use the software (references) are the two most important components of a software evaluation. A software vendor and an existing user will often have different opinions about the software. The contrast between the two perspectives might show you something you don’t expect.
Questions to ask references
Talk to existing customers. They will give you honest feedback on the software. Their feedback will be based on real-life experiences.
Most references provided by the software vendor will be customers that are exceedingly happy with the software. Software vendors will rarely use references that are unhappy with the software. This shouldn’t deter you from contacting references though.
Have a list of questions ready for each conversation and be ready to dig for the feedback you need.
- What do you like most about the software?
- What do you like the least about the software?
- What would you do differently if you started over again?
- Did the software match the expectations you had going in?
- Were you caught off-guard by anything with the software (“gotcha” moments)?
- If the vendor offered other software products, would you purchase them?
- What other software did you evaluate in your process?
- In your peer groups, have you heard of any software that might be comparable?
- What is your top feature or benefit with the software?
- How did you fund and implement the software?
- Overall, how would you rate the software?
Try to speak with at least three different existing customers for each software option on your shortlist. Take notes from your call and record key takeaways.
Questions to ask software vendors
Your relationship with the company that owns and supports a particular software system (a software vendor) is important. As a result, you should ask targeted questions that help you to understand their viability as a company, the quality of their software product, and how they view themselves as a vendor in the social work software market. How they respond to your questions might impact your evaluation of their software.
- How is our data protected and secured?
- How long has the software been available for purchase in market?
- How long have you been working for the company (sales or account manager)?
- How often do you release new features for the software?
- Do you have other customers that are similar to our organization?
- What is your current customer count for the software?
- What is the first year retention rate of customers that purchase the software?
- What are some reasons why your company will continue for the next five years?
In addition to the software vendor questions above, be specific about the terms and conditions of the software contract. There are five things to pay attention to with respect to the legal side of your software purchasing decision. Carefully review each topic with the software vendor.
What to look for in the software terms and conditions
The terms and conditions of a nonprofit database software license are important legal statements, yet we often skim them and move onto the signature page. They are boring, necessary, tedious, and unavoidable. Here are five things to pay attention to.
1. Length of the term
The length of term of a software license agreement identifies how long the conditions of the agreement are enforced. Keep in mind that some of the conditions of the agreement may last longer than the length of the term.
Identify survivable terms and make sure they are agreeable to your organization.
The lengths of software license terms vary widely. Some terms are month to month, others are one year, and some extend up to three years or even longer. The appropriate length of a license term depends on what is agreeable to your organization.
Determining the appropriate term length for your organization may depend on a number of factors.
- How long you plan to stay with the software.
- If you feel like better software products may be available to you in the near future.
- Your perspective on sunk costs and the cost to switch to different software.
- The strategic planning timelines you use at your organization (e.g. six months, one year, three years, etc.).
- Any discounts offered by the software vendor on the software price for extending the length of the term.
2. Price increases
Software vendors can and often do raise their prices. Therefore, it is important to know when your software vendor can raise prices and by how much they can raise the price.
You need to know how much you are expected to pay and when. If the conditions of that expectation change suddenly and drastically without your knowledge, you could be in a difficult position.
The timing of price increases varies from software vendor to software vendor with some allowing for increases at the end of each term and others allowing annual increases regardless of the term.
The amount of increase also varies, but don’t be shocked to see potential increases of 15-20% in your software license agreement. Many are much lower, if they even include a provision for price increases (some don’t increase pricing and stay with a “grandfathered” pricing approach).
3. Confidentiality, privacy, and data ownership
Confidentiality and privacy of your data are standard with all software vendors, but you should still check the fine print on any clause about data protection and security.
The most important aspect of a software license agreement is data ownership.
- Who owns the data when you put data into the database software?
- If you ever have to leave the software vendor for any reason, are you able to take your data with you?
You should own your data and you should be able to take your data with you if you ever need to leave the software.
If HIPAA compliance is something you are concerned about, ask the software vendor if they have a standard Business Associate Agreement (BAA) or if they will sign one of yours.
4. Warranties and guarantees
You should expect a level of quality with the software.
Here are some levels of quality you should watch out for in a software license agreement.
- Commitments for uptime of the software if it is a hosted platform>
- Levels of support and method of support (e.g. chat, phone, email)
- Response times for technical issues or bugs
- Expectations on the quality and rollout of updates, upgrades, or software enhancements
5. Payment terms
Payment terms determine when you must pay and how much you must pay for the software. This condition sets your budget for the software so you can plan for future payments.
Occasionally there will be options. Ask the software vendor if there are options to pay upfront, monthly, quarterly, or even semi-annually. How you pay and how much you pay for the software may also depend on the length of term of the license agreement.
Also ask about options for the method of payment. Most software vendors will require a credit card or ACH transfer for payment so the process is automatic, but the timing of those payments might be flexible. If you need to plan your payments as a part of your annual budget, be sure to ask the vendor about your options.
Compare software options side by side and align with internal evaluation outcomes
With completed evaluations of each software option on your shortlist, you can compare software options side by side and make an informed purchasing decision for you organization.
The decision making process is unique for every organization. Comparing your software options will require some subjective interpretation because not everything in your software evaluations will line up in a 1-to-1, “apples-to-apples” format, but you should start to see where the benefits of one software system are greater than the others.
The solution with the most alignment to your goals and expectations, is often the software system that is best for your organization.
Select the best social work case management software
Sometimes the hardest part of the software selection process is making a final decision. Up and until this point in the process, you gathered information and analyzed options, but you weren’t required to make any tough decisions.
While opportunities of new social work software are substantial, making the wrong choice can be costly.
You can rest assured that if you follow a well-thought-out software selection process and software evaluation plan, you will be equipped to make a smart purchasing decision with a software system that is the best fit for your organization.
The Business Case for New Social Work Case Management Software
- A “business case” is a tool you can use to pitch new social work software to your organization’s decision makers.
- A business case tells a story about the journey you’ve taken to make an informed decision on new software, builds trust with your decision makers, and validates your software recommendation with evidence.
- The format of a business case will vary depending on your requirements, but some of the important elements include: a solid introduction stating why we are selecting new software, describing your process to date, providing reasons for your recommendation, and outlining the costs versus the benefits of your recommendation.
- The delivery of your business case will also depend on your requirements, but you should consider the formatting, timing, delivery, style, tone, and setting prior to presenting to your decision makers.
You’ve selected a new social work case management software system using an intentional software selection and evaluation process, but you still need to convince your Executive Director, Board of Directors, or a department manager. Draft a business case that explains why the software you selected is the best fit for your organization.
What is a business case and why do you need one?
A “business case” is a tool you can use to pitch new social work software to your organization’s decision makers. Your business case will recommend the best software to your decision makers and support that recommendation with evidence as to why that software is the best choice.
A business case will:
- Tell a story that details the journey you’ve taken to make an informed recommendation for new software;
- Build trust with your decision makers so when you make your recommendation, they will trust that the software you selected is the right one; and
- Back up and validate your recommendation with logic, evidence, and rationale based on an internal needs assessment and your research on potential software options.
Drafting a business case
The perspectives of decision makers vary from organization to organization. Some decision makers want to be involved in every decision, getting their hands in the process and probing for details, while others are more hands off, wanting only the high-level details that contributed to your recommendation.
Use this outline in this article as a template for your own business case, adding or subtracting content to match the needs of your decision makers.
1. Answer the question, “Why are we here?”
Why is your organization searching for new nonprofit case management software? Look at your internal needs assessment for inspiration and narrow down the reasons to a single catalyst.
Write down the catalyst as a one or two sentence statement or a short bullet list. This should be a brief introduction.
Create a statement that is powerful, immediate, and creates a strong sense of urgency for your decision makers.
2. Describe the selection process to date and the remaining steps
List the steps you’ve taken in your process so far and the steps that you still need to complete.
Your goal is to demonstrate that you’ve completed or are in the process of completing an intentional and well-thought-out software selection process.
Build their trust in you and your process so their trust will carry over into your recommendation for new software.
3. Highlights of the internal needs assessment
List the strengths and limitations of your current data management system, and also identify the components of your vision for a future software system.
The highlights of your internal needs assessment should paint the picture for why your current system is inadequate, as proof for why you are evaluating new software options.
4. List of software options
List the software options you’ve evaluated (i.e. your shortlist). We recommend listing the software options only.
Do not add details for each software option to your business case. Although you may choose to review the details of each software option with your decision makers, be careful. Adding too much detail in this section of your business case can open the door for decision makers to make judgments that are contradictory to your final recommendation, even though your decision makers are making that judgment with limited information (compared to you).
The goal of this list is to demonstrate that you evaluated multiple options and that your recommendation is based on objective evaluation criteria across multiple options. This shortlist should prove that you approached the software selection process from an unbiased perspective.
5. Recommendation for new software
It may feel too early to be providing a recommendation, but go ahead and drop your recommendation here. You will provide evidence to support this recommendation later in the business case.
Presenting a recommendation upfront shows confidence and removes any ambiguity that decision makers may be feeling up and until this point. Stating your recommendation early also focuses your decision makers on the recommended software option.
6. Reasons for the recommendation
Decision makers want to know why you are making a specific recommendation. Most want to know how the recommendation impacts the organization’s bottom line, but before you get there, compare the outcomes of your needs assessment to the features, functionalities, and capabilities of your recommended software system.
Create a matrix for the three sections of your internal needs assessment: challenges, strengths, and vision. Identify a challenge, strength, or vision element and then define how the recommended software system will solve that challenge, promote an existing strength, or achieve your vision.
Challenge Solution List an existing challenge from your needs assessment… Identify how the recommended software option solves this challenge… Strength Solution List an existing strength from your needs assessment… Identify how the recommended software option promotes or enhances this strength… Vision Solution List a component of your vision for a future system from your needs assessment… Identify how the recommended software option achieves this component of your visions…
Create as many comparisons as are needed to validate your recommendation for new software (i.e. write out multiple challenges and strengths plus their associated solutions).
7. Costs of new software
Decision makers want to know that the investment made in the new software will yield positive results for the organization.
Start with costs. All software systems generally have the same categories of costs. You can use the following list of costs as a template for your own business case.
Ask the software vendor, your references, or a trusted software consultant about each cost category. Fill in the blanks of your business case with their feedback.
- Cost of software – The cost of the software is the cash outlay for the software license. The total cost of the software may include multiple costs that occur at different times. For example, there may be activation costs, ongoing or recurring costs, and annual costs. Also keep in mind that the first year and second year cost of the software may be different.
- Cost to implement – The cost to implement the software may not come from the software vendor. It may come from an independent consultant or implementation specialist. The cost to implement the software is the one-time fee to get up and running with the software.
- Time to implement – The time it takes to set up and integrate new software with your organization is a cost. You will take time away from the everyday responsibilities of some staff members in order to implement new software. Translate the time to implement into a cost by multiplying the number of hours to implement the software times the hourly wages (or equivalent) of the staff members that will be involved with the implementation project.
- Cost to maintain – Maintenance is a cost that is often left out of budget planning for new case management software. Be sure to include both maintenance costs and maintenance time. The cost to maintain the software includes ongoing training, support, consulting, report development, and any other costs to keep your software in top form year in and year out.
- Time to maintain – The time to maintain the software includes database maintenance, data quality reviews, report development, user support, and potentially time corresponding with the software vendor or a consultant. You can also translate maintenance time into a cost by multiplying the number of hours to maintain the software times the hourly wages (or equivalent) of the staff members responsible for system maintenance.
- Stress, focus, and energy – Implementing, managing, and sustaining social work software takes time and costs money, but it also impacts the emotional energy of the organization. Database software can put pressure on the culture of your organization and may divert attention and focus from existing tasks.
8. Benefits of new software
The benefits of nonprofit database software are also fairly common among all software systems. You can use the following list of benefits to complete your business case.
As with the costs of new software, ask the software vendor, your references, or a trusted software consultant about each cost category. Fill in the blanks of your business case with their feedback.
- Save time – Time is a cost. Completing a task that requires one hour of time costs your organization the hourly rate of the person completing the task (even if that person is salaried, there is still an effective hourly rate for that person). Time is a resource, and it is a scarce resource. Saving time saves money. There is a direct financial savings if new case management software saves five hours of work a week (twenty hours of work per month) compared to the status quo.
- Be more effective with time – Time is also an opportunity. The opportunity of time is less tangible than time as a cost, but the opportunity of time can compound the return of a software investment. If a software platform saves five hours of work a week, what can you do with those additional five hours of time? The benefits of the time savings are compounded because you can now spend the saved time on tasks that are more valuable to the organization.
- Increase revenue and decrease costs – Increasing revenues and decreasing costs are the two benefits that are the easiest to understand and quantify. They apply directly to the “bottom line” of your organization. The financial performance of the organization will improve if new software generates more revenue than the status quo. It will also improve if it decreases expenses. These two measures correlate to direct cash inflows and outflows.
- Make smarter decisions – An investment in case management software with strong reporting capabilities can help your organization make smarter decisions. Data shows trends and progress. Data shows what works and what doesn’t work. When used the right way, data can “light the way” toward performance improvement and growth.
- Improve the performance of your work – Social work software can also help your organization do its work better. This means it will help you achieve your business objectives, whatever they are. You might want to serve more program participants, streamline service delivery, increase funding for specific programs, or spend less time on routine, low-value tasks. Investments in new software should positively impact those measurements whether they are quantitative or qualitative. If the software system is a positive variable in your organization’s growth equation, then the software generates a return on investment.
9. The bottom line
The decision to purchase new software is easy when it is clear that the return generated from the software is greater than the cost to purchase and maintain it. Define the value of new software using return on investment (ROI) analysis.
Outputs/Inputs = Benefits/Costs = ROI
ROI compares the positive outcomes of an investment to the cost of the investment. The outputs and inputs of an ROI calculation can be monetary, time-based, or qualitative.
ROI will be positive when the benefits outweigh the costs and negative when the costs outweigh the benefits.
Software ROI calculations are rarely as simple as the definition listed above. ROI calculations will vary from organization to organization and ROI doesn’t need to be purely mathematical either. A simple pro and con list (an intangible method) can be just as powerful when comparing costs to benefits (pros must outweigh the cons for a positive return).
Your organization’s needs determine the complexity of an ROI analysis. If your Board wants a formal report, then a financial ROI model may be needed. If you need a quick assessment, then a back of the envelope pro and con list might suffice.
10. Restatement of your recommendation
Summarize the evidence that supports your recommendation, as described throughout the business case. This restatement doesn’t need to be long. It should be like the period at the end of a sentence, closing your business case with a recommendation for a new software system.
Delivering a business case
How you deliver a business case for new social work case management software is as important as the content contained within the business case itself.
The formatting, style, and setting should all be taken into account when considering how to best present a business case. Present at the wrong time or in the wrong way and your proposal may be dead on arrival. Present in the right way and you can persuade your decision makers to invest in the software system you recommend.
Here are some things to consider:
- Formatting – Determine the style of your business case: PowerPoint, written report, or formal presentation.
- Timing – Identify the best time to present the business case: end or beginning of a fiscal year or after major events.
- Delivery – Decide on the best way to deliver the business case: presentation or documentation. Also, does the business case need to be documented as an internal organizational policy or for the Board’s benefit?
- Style – Align the style of the business case with the needs of your decision makers. Make the business case formal or informal based on your relationship with them.
- Tone – Apply the correct tone to your business case. Should you be formal or casual? Should the tone be forceful and direct or provide openings for group discussion? Match your tone, whether written or oral, to your audience.
- Setting – Identify where to present the business case. Should you book a meeting or board room? Is this something that can be done in a decision maker’s office? Choose a setting where you are comfortable and where you think your decision makers will feel comfortable as well.
Getting Started with New Social Work Case Management Software
- Wins are the steps you can take early on with new software to get the ball rolling toward full user adoption, complete integration with your organization, and maximum utilization of the software system's functionalities.
- Examples of early wins include: set up a monthly user forum, draft software user guides, implement data quality reviews, clean up operational workflows, and develop recurring operational reports.
- Although implementation projects will vary depending on the social work software you select, there are five considerations to make before you get started with new software: assign a project manager, define data migration requirements, outline standard operating procedures and processes, define training plans, and look plan beyond implementation.
- Match your enthusiasm for the implementation process with realistic expectations of the implementation outcome. If you can align organizational enthusiasm with realistic expectations, you have the best chance to sustain organizational buy-in for the new software.
You purchased a new social work case management software system and you’re ready to start using it, but you need to go through implementation first. Implementation integrates the new software into your organization’s workflows, processes, and procedures. In some cases, social work software implementation even builds the new software to match your organization’s requirements and specifications.
The goal of implementation is to successfully launch the new software and use it effectively after implementation is complete. Lead your organization through a successful software implementation by achieving some “wins” right out of the gate.
Why look for early wins with new software?
To be clear, there are no shortcuts to a successful new software implementation. Wins with new software don’t imply that implementation will be easy, quick, or painless. Wins are substantive victories with new software and require substantive investments of time and energy.
Wins are the steps you can take early on to get the ball rolling toward full user adoption of the software, complete integration with your organization’s workflows, and maximum utilization of the software system’s functionalities.
Win #1 – Set up an internal monthly user forum
Full user adoption drives success with new software. You have the best chance to sustain the new software after the implementation is complete if users full adopt the new software.
Users fully adopt the software when they have a place they can:
- Ask questions and get answers;
- Provide feedback on their experience with the software; and
- Get involved with other users that are excited about the new software.
A monthly user forum supports all of these outcomes.
A user forum is an internal group of software users at your organization. Users share ideas, ask questions, and learn from other users in the forum.
A monthly forum can be as simple as a recurring meeting where users meet one-on-one or as sophisticated as an online forum where users collaborate virtually.
A monthly user forum is a win because it is easy to set up and manage, engages users in group dialogue, and creates a direct link between users, their peers, and your organization’s database administrator.
Win #2 – Draft software user guides
Most new social work case management software systems are platforms. They come out of the box with a generic structure. The implementation process builds a custom database on top of the generic structure to match your organization’s requirements. As a result, your organization will need documentation on your unique database structure.
User guides are step-by-step instructions for custom tasks and workflows in your social work software. Most user guides cover “how to” topics like how to enter a new client, how to enroll a client in a program, and how to run a report on active caseloads among other topics.
Custom user guides are an immediate benefit to users, which makes them a win for your new software.
- Increase the speed of user adoption
- Increase user data entry and navigation efficiency
- Improve the data health and report accuracy
- Reduce the amount of questions about data entry and navigation
- Empower users answer their questions themselves
Win #3 – Implement data quality reviews
Save your organization time, money, and stress by investing in preventative maintenance for your new software system. Invest in data quality reviews as one component of your preventative maintenance plan.
Data quality reviews check the accuracy of your users’ data entry. Here are some best practices to consider.
- Complete data quality reviews on a set and consistent schedule.
- Review where inconsistent data entry or data quality weaknesses are common.
- Focus on data quality where data entry will affect operational reporting.
- Invest meaningful time in data quality on a monthly basis (at a minimum).
- Develop user guides and manuals for data quality procedures.
- Retrain users and provide user support where data entry is weak or inconsistent.
Data quality reviews are a win because they keep your case management database clean and healthy. If you implement them early, you can stay ahead of potential data quality challenges before they negatively impact your new software system.
Win #4 – Clean up operational workflows
Implementation of new case management software is an opportunity to streamline, clean up, and redesign operational workflows.
Workflows that you might want to clean up include:
- How to accept incoming referrals from community partners or other agencies.
- How to approve new clients prior to enrollment in your program.
- How to check in with clients during an active service workflow.
- How to unenroll or exit a client from your program.
- How to flag clients that require more attention or services.
- How to submit referrals from your program to community partners or other agencies.
How to schedule client appointments or register clients for classes or workshops.
- How end users ask questions of your database administrator.
This list of workflows may not match your list perfectly, but every organization has internal processes and procedures that are similar.
Take a look at your workflows during implementation and ask:
- What workflows or processes are the most challenging to our users?
- What improvements can we make to internal workflows?
- Can the new software streamline a process that is slow or inefficient?
Cleaning up operational workflows isn’t necessarily software related, but it can save time and reduce stress, which can lead to more time with clients, less time on paperwork, and better services delivered to your clients.
Win #5 – Develop recurring operational reports
Reporting is likely a major reason you purchased new social work case management software, yet we often see organizations wait to develop reports until after well after the implementation is complete. A major win for new case management software is to develop reports as soon as possible. The sooner you can see your data in a meaningful way, the better.
Start by building a manageable set of recurring operational reports. Operational reports are those reports you need to manage the workflow of your program. These reports are used day-to-day to move clients through your services, assign work to staff members, and show completion of important tasks.
Organizations that get into reporting quickly use data to make smarter decisions and deliver more effective programs and services.
New software wins overcome implementation challenges
New social work case management software implementation isn’t easy. No matter how perfect the process, there will always be little bumps during implementation.
Wins like these, when taken in total, can overcome implementation challenges by reinforcing user adoption of the software, integrating the software into your organization’s operations, and maximizing the software system’s key features. In addition, wins lay the groundwork for sustaining the software long after implementation is complete.
Five more things to consider before social work software implementation
In addition to early wins, you can set up your new software for success with a focused implementation project plan. Here are five things to consider when designing an implementation project plan for new social work case management software.
1. Who will manage the implementation project?
Determine the project manager for implementation up front. The project manager can be either an internal staff member or an external consultant.
While an internal staff member may be the right choice as project manager, there are three reasons to consider an external consultant.
- Complexity – Most social work case management software systems are sophisticated and complex. Because these systems are complex, it is a tall order for an internal staff member to implement a software system they know nothing about. Hiring a consultant offers the immediate expertise you need to overcome the complexities of your new software system.
- Expertise – It is difficult to manage an implementation project and learn a new software system at the same time, but that is exactly what you are asking an internal staff member to do if they are project manager. An external consultant will already know the software and can combine that knowledge with their role as implementation project manager.
- Experience – An external consultant also brings something internal staff cannot offer. An external consultant brings experience. A consultant has the experience to effectively translate your needs into features, functions, and solutions in the software. They can also draw on their past experiences with other implementation projects to deliver you the best possible outcome.
Weigh the pros, cons, benefits, and costs of both internal and external options. Pick the best option for your implementation project, but review all options up front.
2. What data will be migrated to the new software (if any)?
Data migrations are intensive projects. The intensity is a combination of mapping data between two different data systems and needing a high level of accuracy for the migration.
Develop a data migration plan that prioritizes your data before the start of implementation. Migrate data that is relevant, and consider archiving data that isn’t relevant to your new system.
Remember that your new social work software system will inherit the data quality challenges of your existing data management system if the data migration isn’t done properly.
Answer these questions before a data migration.
- What are our organization’s strategic goals?
- What data is relevant to our goals (i.e. what data do we need to track)?
- Do we have historical data that is relevant to our goals?
- If we have historical data, why is it needed in our new system?
- How will we get our historical data from our old system to our new system?
- What is the priority of our existing data in a proposed data migration (least to most important)?
3. What features and processes are most important?
We recommend a balanced approach to implementation that starts with the basics and focuses on processes (not necessarily features).
- Start with the basics – While your new social work software system may have all of the features in the world, that doesn’t mean you should implement every feature day one. Instead of taking your software from zero to sixty in a flash, implement the core features that will help you be most effective at your work. In the short-term this may mean that you don’t get to use the full value of the software, but starting with the basics will sharpen your use of the software, simplify the learning process for users, keep the organization focused on what matters, and make the implementation process easier.
- Focus on processes – Process is the “how” of software implementation and design. Processes are how your organization will interact with the software, how the software will affect your users’ work, and how the software will be managed day-to-day. Processes link your people to the software. Processes like data quality reviews, reporting schedules, training plans, and daily task workflows all contribute to the health of the software after implementation is complete.
If your organization focuses on the basics and develops processes for how your organization will engage with the software in its daily work, you have a great opportunity to continuously improve and evolve your software over time.
4. How much and what type of training is needed?
The number one investment you can make during implementation is in your people. Staff knowledge is critical to sustaining your new software. An adequate training program that is well thought out and matches the learning styles of your staff will increase user adoption.
Training can be seen as an easy place to cut if you are looking to save time and money on the implementation project. This is the last place you should cut. Always plan for more training, not less.
Training is a key contributor to user adoption because it provides users the opportunity to learn, ask questions, and engage in the implementation project.
5. What is needed for post-go-live?
Implementation is complete. It feels like the roadmap to success is set because you were strategic and intentional with your implementation project. While a successful implementation process can lead to success long term, it isn’t the only contributing factor.
The time sixty and ninety days after the implementation is complete is also important because a very interesting thing happens, you start using the software. Your users get their feet wet in the software and pain-points, challenges, and questions come up. You will also find that features and functionality you thought were important during implementation aren’t important, or features and functionality you thought were unimportant turn out to be critical. The software may even need modifications or changes after gathering feedback from users during this time.
All of this means that even with the best vision and the best strategic intention during implementation, you can’t think of everything.
Here are some things you can do to support the software immediately after implementation.
- If you hire a consultant or expert during implementation, make sure to keep them on board for some time after implementation is complete.
- Be ultra-sensitive to user feedback during the first weeks and month after implementation. Listen carefully and address each concern with your full attention.
- Be ready to re-draw the map if needed. If the software needs to change, be open to those changes. Just because you built the software a certain way doesn’t mean it should stay that way.
Match excitement with realistic expectations
The excitement for new social work software can be high, and the excitement can include feelings of anxiety, nerves, and fears. It is important to match your enthusiasm for the implementation with realistic expectations of what can and should happen during implementation.
There will be hurdles. There will be challenges. All of this should be tempered with realistic expectations of what the software system can be for your organization and how the software system will help your organization save time, improve service workflows, and increase the overall efficiency of your social work program.
If you can match your organization’s excitement for the new software with realistic expectations, you have the best chance to get staff buy-in for the software and integrate the software with your organization’s operations.