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Using Data to Inspire and Empower Your Frontline Staff

Posted in: Blog
By: Amy Miesen

“I’m tired of everyone telling me that data should drive my work! What about my 20 years expertise in this field?”

I’ve heard variations of this sentiment many times. As a leader in a large human services organization, I know that data management played a vital part in driving our nonprofit’s mission forward and in managing outcomes. I would passionately proclaim all of the benefits of capturing and using data to anyone I could corner. Admittedly, this was not always a popular point of view. I remember one particular discussion with a colleague who threw up her hands and exclaimed, “I got into this profession to help people, not count them!”

Image of 2 fists bumping in partnership, 1 represents data

Such a division between data teams and frontline practitioners is not uncommon. However, nonprofits that want to learn from and use their data to push successful outcomes cannot regulate data use to the realms of analysts and managers. All team members must be fluent in the use of data. Data tells us the “what,” but we need experience and brainpower to get to the “why” behind the data to harness it’s full potential.

Staff-driven Data or Data-driven Staff?

One method of learning from our data is to use these measurements to start conversations with direct service teams in an effort to develop a deeper understanding of the work. What is the behavior behind the data? What is the context of the metric? Team members on the front lines are often best placed to connect the dots between behavior and data. The key is to change the service delivery team’s relationship with data.

With this goal in mind it is crucial to design case management systems, so that they are viewed as a helpful partner that enhances and informs the service provision, inspiring new ideas for service delivery innovations based on learnings.

Professionals don’t want to feel like backseat passengers being driven by data. When they are at the wheel, providing information only after the fact to tell them how fast they are going and in which direction is much less helpful. Systems can be designed to get relevant information in front of direct service staff as they perform their work in a way that informs the service delivery.

The magic happens when we get the right information in front of practitioners as they do their work –not after–as this is when the data can be combined with experience and insights to promote data-informed decisions.


Common Pitfalls to User Adoption

Experience has shown that data is a powerful tool for creating positive change in our communities; this change is exactly what nonprofit practitioners are working to achieve. So what are some of common pitfalls to user adoption of case management systems among frontline staff?

Pitfall #1: Data collection is a barrier to a practitioner’s work.

In the nonprofit field, everyone understands the need for reporting metrics to funders. However, for some, data collection is viewed only as a means to report back to funders. Collecting the information required to populate these reports can feel like an extra chore to busy practitioners who have full case loads. This perspective contributes to the view that the effort is taking time away from the “real job” of helping people.

Direct service team members are focused on the people whom they serve. They may express concern that we will lose sight of the individual who will be viewed as a number instead of a person. There may also be concern that if services are solely driven by data, then the practitioners will be forced into “one size fits all” and will lose their ability to use their professional discernment as they help their clients.

Pitfall #2: Data is not readily available as the services are being provided.

There are several reasons that data may not be easily accessed by direct service staff. In some cases, the analysis and review of the data is reported upwards, but not shared with the practitioner. Another challenge is that data is often siloed, so team members may only see part of the full picture. There is also frequently a time lag between when services are provided and when the data is entered which. Although this delay can be acceptable when compiling periodic reports, it means it isn’t available to contribute to and help inform service delivery in real-time. In fact, many may only interact with the systems after the service has been provided, which perpetuates the feeling that data use is for someone else in the organization and only indirectly affects their work as a means to maintain funding.

Pitfall #3: Data use isn’t meaningful to the practitioner.

Of course, nonprofit professionals understand the need for collecting data. But for many, there is a disconnect between what the data is used for and how practitioners do their day-to-day work. Talking with direct service staff across the country, I am always amazed at how much information they store in their heads (or on paper… or in spreadsheets… or on a post-it note stuck to the corner of their computer.) Everything from what motivates each of their clients to remembering when they need to reach out to them again to which date the next assessment should take place. Key pieces of service delivery such as these are often not part of the data being tracked for reporting purposes. And, as a result, they are not captured in the organization’s case management system.

On top of this, there may not be a formal way of circling back with frontline staff about how data trends are tying back to their work. Without the feedback loop, the information being collected cannot be combined with the experiences and insights of those providing the services and used as a tool for learning and improving service delivery.

From Pitfalls to Partner

So, how do we develop case management systems that act as a partner for frontline teams? Ensure that the system is both easy to access and use, and that it provides information that is relevant and recent. This means we must thoughtfully envision how the practitioner will interact with the system.

  1. Look for ways to help practitioners quickly IDENTIFY tasks that need to be completed in order to free up brainpower for other things. Example: Automate task reminders
  2. Get information in front of practitioners to help INFORM service delivery. Example: Prominently display client status towards goal completion.
  3. Create feedback loops that INSPIRE discussions and generate ideas to learn from the data to improve our work. Example: Prototype testing ideas for service delivery improvements

At Exponent Partners, we take the approach of learning about why the nonprofits we work with are measuring something, as well as capturing what they are measuring. Starting at the enterprise level, we seek to understand the organization’s strategic goals and business drivers. After that, we engage all levels of the organization with a strong focus on working with frontline practitioners to understand how they do their work.

Our holistic approach allows us to partner with the different teams within the organization to design customized systems that aid them as they perform their work, in addition to reporting on what they have accomplished. Using the Salesforce platform gives Exponent Case Management (ECM) the flexibility to tailor the views to each user’s work, and to show them the information that matters most to them.

We see ECM as a transformational Case Management System that is at it’s best when used by frontline staff as they perform their daily work.

This approach creates an immediate feedback loop and ensures that everyone has the information in front of them as they are working in impactful ways with their clients. With this key data at their fingertips, team members can not only provide data-informed services, but also use data to inspire new ideas and innovations.