LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 06

Making Technology Planning Strategic

November 16, 2016 | by David Tobenkin

Recognizing the growing role of technology in the delivery of long-term services and supports, providers are elevating their technology plans into their strategic planning and budgeting processes.

While many aging services providers have struggled to devote sufficient attention to strategic planning and budgeting for their organizations’ technology needs, organizations are now elevating the issue to both realize the upside potential of implementing technological improvements through such planning and, perhaps as importantly, to avoid potential bad outcomes if they fail to plan adequately to address technology issues. LeadingAge’s Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST) offers a variety of resources that can help members learn from the experiences of others in implementing such strategies.

Providers are stepping up their technology budgeting and strategy efforts through actions such as the hiring of chief innovation officers, by designing stand-alone strategic plans for technology, by retaining key consultants, and conducting experiments with new technologies or approaches to technology to inform their efforts more generally.

Data collected from 183 users of CAST’s Strategic IT Planning Interactive Tool indicate that 56.7% of respondents’ strategic plans included a Technology/IT strategic plan, and nearly 48% said that they have conducted or updated their organization’s strategic plan in the past 2 to 3 years.

Another sign of the increased importance being placed upon technology is that in 2015, the second-most-added senior living position among care providers to help them stay competitive, as listed in the LeadingAge Ziegler 150, was chief information officer (CIO).

“Information Technology (IT) staffing has been on the rise among larger members for the past few years, but it seems that CAST’s message from the Strategic IT Planning initiative to elevate technology to the strategic level by having a CIO is resonating with, and being heeded by, our larger members,” says Majd Alwan, LeadingAge senior vice president of technology and executive director of CAST.

Technology Planning’s Special Challenges

Special attention to strategic IT planning may be all the more necessary because it poses some unique challenges that may seem in some ways counterintuitive from traditional planning assumptions.

One such challenge is that declining costs as a technology’s diffusion increases can make long-term budgets and planned IT expenditures—which Alwan characterizes as 5 years and beyond—highly inaccurate. It may in fact be better to budget such items as close as possible to their implementation, as decreasing costs may reduce stakeholder opposition, Alwan notes. A related issue is that intense creativity in many technological fields may mean that a new technology could change a company’s entire technology strategy, again making the timing and flexibility of technology planning initiatives, and revisiting them annually, paramount.

CAST reports, such as Strategic IT Planning Provider Case Studies 2015 and Strategic IT Planning Tools, offer a variety of lessons learned through IT planning efforts, interactive tools to benchmark the adequacy of existing IT efforts, and flowcharts to understand the process of strategic IT planning and where to incorporate it.

Starting Over With Technology

When Rhonda Bekkedahl, director of finance and IT at Channing House, Palo Alto, CA, joined the organization 5 years ago, many organizational administrative and data management functions were still being performed on paper and there was very limited wi-fi in the 11-story independent living building.

In March 2016, Channing House formally adopted a strategic technology plan that has been incorporated into its overall strategic plan. A less formal version of the strategic technology plan had already been guiding efforts to modernize and implement technology throughout the 50-year-old, 240-resident building. An initial phase of the project, completed in May 2016, included demolishing a floor and building 14 new independent living apartments and a wellness wing, and modernizing the first floor commons area and lobby. The latter included the addition of audio visual and assisted listening upgrades to the activity room with a hearing aid loop, and a conference room with video conference capabilities.

Other technology changes included replacing old analog cable with digital cable throughout the 2 floors and installation of wireless capabilities on a common wireless network. The strategic technology plan calls for similar modernizations throughout the building over the next 4 to 5 years, along with upgrades to the rest of the building such as fire alarms, fire sprinklers, HVAC upgrades, as well as similar upgrades to a smaller building with 53 skilled nursing and assisted living residents. The cost of the project is roughly $1.5 million for the technology upgrades alone, and $2 million total.

To implement its strategic plan, Channing House turned to a third party IT consultant, ProviNET Solutions, engaging it to develop a comprehensive strategic technology plan aimed at streamlining technology hardware, software applications, and technology support for the staff and residents. “ProviNET has been instrumental in facilitating this effort—I don’t know how we’d do it otherwise since we don’t have the internal talent to implement changes like this,” Bekkedahl says. ProviNET has also assisted Channing House in implementing a new enterprise management system to replace what Bekkedahl calls “a DOS-like system from the 1990s.”

Bekkedahl also supports the creation of a separate technology strategic plan, as opposed to simply adding to technology planning to an overall strategic document. “Without such a technology plan, you are just patch-working things together, such as a facilities director wanting entry fobs on all the doors but not realizing all the technological pieces to it,” she says.

An important part of selling technology and its costs to residents is improving communications with, and resident involvement in, technological planning and strategizing, says Bekkedahl. She notes that Channing House developed an internal tech squad staffed by resident-volunteers that serves as a resident help desk to address resident tech needs and that a 15-member resident technology committee participates in technology planning. Most of the volunteers spent their careers working in Silicon Valley technology companies.

When using consultants, there is a great advantage to using those that have significant experience in the aging services field, as they will be abreast of the range of particular technology options available to an organization, Alwan and Bekkedahl note. Some of these consultancies, in fact, have grown out of health or aging-services organizations. ProviNET started out as the internal IT department of Providence Life Services, which operates 11 senior living communities in the greater Chicago area. Even in cases of extensive IT strategy planning outsourcing, it is important that the organization nonetheless retain ultimate ownership of strategic IT planning and resulting projects, Bekkedahl notes.

Guiding Organizational Technology Efforts Through Experimentation

The importance of integrating technology into the experience of aging communities has led one large care provider to invest money to create a lab that evaluates new technologies and helps inform its overall technology strategy.

Minneapolis-based Augustana Care is using its new Learning Lab for Eldercare Technologies to test and demonstrate new technologies that help people stay in their homes as they grow older. This includes health tracking hardware and software that provides medication reminders or dispenses the correct daily dose; heart rate and sleep apnea monitors; and safety solutions such as shut-off devices for stoves, floors that detect footfalls, and video doorbells.

Funded by Augustana Care and grants, the Learning Lab is scheduled to open in November inside the Heritage Park Health and Wellness Center, operated by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. It will offer hands-on demonstrations of home health and safety technologies to help older adults maintain safe, independent lifestyles by educating them, their families, caregivers, and health care providers. Those who use the Learning Lab, staffed by Lab Coordinator Kate Ingalls-Maloney and designed with guidance from eldercare technology consultant Paul Wessel, will find a program space that includes a demonstration area where visitors can see and experience various safety technologies in a home-like setting.

The Learning Lab is a key part of the organization’s strategic technology planning efforts, says Augustana Care President and CEO Tim Tucker.

“We believe this program will provide a real breakthrough for those we serve and position Augustana Care as a leader in our field,” says Tucker, who says the Learning Lab has a $500,000, 2-year budget, including grants. “After all, where can a senior go to test this type of technology—the Apple Store?”

It is part of a larger strategic technology planning initiative, Tucker says. “We did a strategic planning process last year and our new strategic plan for the first time identified technology as an activity we wanted to focus on,” Tucker says. “We talked about having an ‘innovation officer’ but we decided to first use our Learning Lab as an innovation activity that helps our communities and helps us as an organization understand technology challenges, opportunities and our technology leadership needs.”

David Tobenkin is a freelance writer based in the greater Washington, D.C. area.