Whatever the service they provide – support for families at vulnerable times, early intervention, prevention or social cohesion services – organisations are increasingly looking for software packages to help:
- measure the impact and outcomes they achieve
- give staff easy access to the information and tools they require
- understand and improve programmes and services
- easily report to funders.
These case management systems (also called client management systems, or CMSs) can, when implemented successfully, make a huge difference. It is much easier to understand the answers to questions such as ‘How much did we do?’, ‘How well did we do?’ and ‘Is anyone better off?’ if the information about your services is stored electronically and can be easily reported on and analysed. However, successfully implementing these systems often requires a significant investment of both time and money. Given the range of different systems available, each with their own strengths, selecting the right system for your organisation is critical.
Determine your requirements
To select the right system for your organisation, the first step is to determine your requirements: think about what you want your client management software to be able to do. What are the problems you want it to solve? List these requirements as well as questions you want answered to help you select a suitable system. Take a look at our requirements questionnaire.
Security & privacy
Security and privacy are also important considerations. Ask your vendor:
- How are they protecting and securing your data?
- Where is the data stored?
- How do they back it up?
- Do they have multiple backups in different physical locations?
- Do they regularly test restore the backup data?
Each software package is priced differently: some have you pay a once-off fee, others are monthly, per user, per location etc. Find out:
- are software upgrades included in the cost of the product?
- If not, what does it cost to upgrade?
- What does it cost to add users in the future?
Talk to others in your sector about what they use and recommend. See if you can get a preview copy of the software so your staff can try it and report back on what they think. Ask whether the provider will train your staff.
If you already have data in an existing system, find out about the process of migrating it into the new system. It’s also worth asking about migrating data out, should you change to a different system in future. And find out whether the new system will integrate with other software you already use.
Implementing a CMS
The procedure for implementing a CMS is similar to that for introducing any new software or system:
Your budget – you’ll see a lot of flashy systems as you go searching for the right one, so don’t spend more than you can afford because you’re tempted by something glamorous.
- Know your requirements – what do you absolutely need the CMS to be able to do? What would you like it to do but can live without? What nice-to-have extras would you get if you could afford them? Find a system that matches as many of your requirements as possible without blowing your budget.
- Understand your current workflows and how jobs are done now – make sure you talk to the people who will be using the CMS. What do they need it to do? How do they work now and what could be done better? There's nothing worse than implementing a new CMS then realising some of your staff can no longer do their jobs.
- Assess integration – you will probably want your CMS to work with other systems you already have in place, such as HR systems, rostering and finance. Figure out how important that is to you and what you’re prepared to pay, because integration is often complex and expensive. Could you settle for a more manual interface between systems?
- Don’t choose the first system you see – once you know your budget and requirements, get together a list of systems and providers and assess them against what you want. Make a shortlist of three or so, then ask each of them to write a proposal for you. Ask for a test version of the software, and get the people who’ll be using it to try it out. Interview the providers and make sure you’re happy to work with them long-term. Ask others in the sector for references before you make your final decision.
- Put someone in charge – have a contact person in your organisation who can be dedicated to the project of selecting and implementing the new solution. Things will run more smoothly if it’s one person’s job to make sure they do.
- Understand ongoing costs – know what will happen with the system if government reporting requirements change, for example. Will you have to pay for upgrades or does your vendor cover the cost? If you need new functionality, will the vendor do it for free if it’s useful to others who use the system?
- Understand that change is hard – make sure staff who will be using the new program are onside from when you start gathering requirements through to when you start using the system. Involve them in the process, take their feedback seriously and make sure they’re comfortable once the new system is implemented.
- Build expertise – don’t just get one-off training for staff. Rather, have people in your organisation who are trained to be super-users and to thoroughly understand the system. These people are a point-of-contact for other staff who need ongoing training or who are having difficulties. They can also report back to the vendor on any problems.
While organisations understandably want the new system up and running ASAP, rushing the selection and implementation of software is a recipe for disaster. Many organisations take more than a year to select and fully roll out a new CMS, but this depend significantly on your size and the complexity of your services/programs.
The rollout contains three distinct phases, with each taking around 3 months (with mentoring) to 6 months (without mentoring) to complete:
- System selection
- Go live
- Full rollout.
Rolling out the chosen solution across the business is a time-consuming process. The go-live phase requires customising the solution to the organisation, importing data and training the first set of users. There is also often a range of pilot rollouts to manage, mobile and tablet devices to update, and business processes to modify.
Once the system goes live, most organisations spend the best part of a year completing the rollout across all of their users and services. We have seen many organisations produce a great end-result by following a highly phased approach across the organisation. Utilising mentoring services will again help to shorten this process and maximise the likelihood of a successful rollout.
When you should get professional help
You are strongly encouraged to consider professional advice throughout the process of acquiring a client case management system, particularly if you work with a complicated mix of services, processes or locations. Having someone who has been through the process before can make a huge difference, particularly at the early stages of the process, including:
- documenting the business processes – this may involve some redevelopment and standardisation of current processes
- documenting the requirements for the new system.
Unless your requirements are very simple, having someone experienced at selecting and implementing case management software (whether this be one of your staff, a contractor or an external advisor/consultant) is also useful when you’re shortlisting systems. If your new system is going to be complex to implement, you should also consider getting professional project management help for this stage of the process.
Remember that a case management system is only useful if it fits your organisation’s needs. It should make the jobs your already busy people do each day easier and more efficient, allowing you to focus on your core social service business.
Every option will have its own strengths and feature mixes, and cost isn’t a guarantee of anything—especially since every social service organisation’s needs differ. But if you combine an honest evaluation of what you need with due diligence in comparing the available systems, you’ll find a system that will manage your processes more efficiently and help you communicate better with each other, funders and clients.
As you work through the process of gathering your requirements, selecting and implementing a new case management system (or any system for that matter), it’s easy for some steps to slip your mind. The resources below are templates, checklists and other handy guides to help you make sure you’ve covered all angles and considered all options. Not all of them will be useful to you - take a look through and pick and choose the ones that suit your organisation.
- Requirements questionnaire: a guide to questions you can ask stakeholders within an organisation when gathering requirements
- Budgeting for implementing a case management system: a checklist designed to help you think through the major elements of the budget in case management system projects, and could also be useful in other situations
- Checking references for a software vendor: lists questions you could ask when checking references for a system and/or vendor you are considering working with.
It isn’t easy to decide you’ll start managing your client information in a new way. It can take a lot of time to migrate client information and get comfortable with the software. It can also be expensive. But if you’ve decided it’s time, you should try and compare at least three software vendors to make sure they meet your business needs before you make your final decision.