Blog Post

A chronology of technology and innovation research in the Canadian immigrant and refugee-serving sector

By: Marco Campana
January 29, 2020

I've been doing some recent research for interesting technology and innovation projects, having really interesting conversations with sector folks across the country, and reading some really interesting research reports. When it comes to looking at technology to serve clients in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector the conversation, and literature, spans almost two decades. Below is a chronology of these conversations and related literature.


The literature shows that use of technology in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector is not new. Nor are innovative uses of technology to serve clients new. The literature coming out of the sector indicates that agencies along with their main funder should collaborate on how this innovation can be harnessed consistently across the country:

"The immigrant and refugee-serving sector and CIC should initiate a joint project whose goal would be to establish technical parameters to guide settlement agencies and to promote coherence in ICT development and use. The goal would be to ensure that data from different agencies and locales could be easily integrated and aggregated; also, that ICT-enabled services could be freely exchanged” (Burstein & Qayyum 2014).

In 1997, IRCC (then CIC)'s Ontario regional office initiated a Computerization Project to build the capacity of agencies delivering its ISAP (Immigrant Settlement and Adaptation Services), HOST, and LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) programs. An evaluation report found that IRCC's investment “radically transformed the capacities of ISAP/HOST-funded agencies and enhanced LINC language training.” It's been interesting to see how, over time, LINC and ESL provider technology capacities have continued to grow nationally, while the Ontario investment did not spread across the country among IRCC funded agencies, or continue in Ontario (Kerr et al 2002).

In 2002, Executive Directors (ED) and senior managers of the agencies that were part of the Computerization Project were consulted to discuss the opportunities and challenges of managing in a computerized environment (MICE 2) and to provide recommendations to funders on future computerization priorities. A key recommendation to the funder resonates today: “if the agencies are to manage technology effectively in support of CIC-funded programs, their funding agreements must account for all of their technology expenses. This includes management time, a new level of administration, and new human resource requirements throughout the agency” (OCASI 2002).

The idea that the sector needs investments and capacity building (including new roles) in order to effectively harness the potential of technology and innovative ways to serve clients has been highlighted recently. I think it's useful to point out that the sector has been talking about it with their main funder for decades. It's not a new conversation.


These reports found that increased technology investment “allows their agencies to serve clients better. At this stage of computerization in the sector, this most often means they can access and process information faster. The prevailing view is that the essence of client services is still the human touch, and that computers are merely tools that influence how work is done, not what work is done or the outcomes.” Agencies called for flexibility in technology choices and capacity to ensure they could meet client confidentiality and information security. The forty-two recommendations made by ED's and senior managers include elements that are relevant in the current climate: decentralized IT training for the sector, decentralized, “just-in-time” IT training or coaching, a study of actual Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) in the sector based on minimum standards for hardware and software, alternative models of technical support and training, and consultation on agency capacity and readiness for decentralized IT management (Kerr et al 2002, OCASI 2002, Boydell et all 2013, Flagler-George & Lafreniere 2015).

In 2007, Nova Scotian settlement agencies collaborated with Nova Scotia Community College to research and successfully launch online ESL and labour market workshops (Mills & Legault, 2007). These have since grown into the Settlement Online Pre-Arrival (SOPA) system funded by IRCC

In 2010, researcher Meyer Burstein (you'll see his name come up a bunch around these themes of technology capacity and sector innovation) outlined a service provider innovations strategy that builds on what he suggested are unique sector strategic capacities, to jump start innovation and disseminate best practice information.

This included ideas about how technology could facilitate access to services for newcomers in smaller or more isolated settings where formal in-person services were not available:

“Newcomer volumes are, in many cases, too small for efficient operations and delivery specialization. Instead, there will need to be some combination of greater training of mainstream institutions to address newcomer needs coupled with itinerant and alternative, perhaps electronic, forms of service delivery. These will require sustained investments both in local capacity and in the capacities of settlement organizations in larger centres to export their services. A number of pilots are underway – such as delivering LINC by telephone or over the internet – but they have not yet been assessed. Along with improved local services, there will also need to be a stronger focus on engagement aimed at leveraging support and removing barriers to social and economic participation.”

He recommended “a pan‐Canadian review of agency best practices in delivering support to remote, underserviced locations. The study should explicitly target the use of itinerant services, new communication technologies, self‐instruction and third‐ party, contracted delivery.” (Burstein 2010, Flagler-George & Lafreniere 2015, Mills & Legault, 2007)

A 2012 report evaluated the innovation capacity and practices of immigrant and refugee-serving sector agencies, identifying significant barriers to sector innovation. The report recommended an annual innovation cycle to be implemented by the funder that would also increase knowledge sharing and transfer. Priorities could focus on target groups and services, geographic location, scale, and local infrastructure, in collaboration with IRCC. Both this study and an earlier companion report built on previous observations that action be taken based on a shared interest by governments and the sector to build agency capacity to analyze and innovate. (OCASI 2002, Burstein 2010, Burstein & Esses 2012)

By 2014, the Pathways to Prosperity project had convened the sector to discuss the Agency of the Future. The project recognized the emerging use and benefits of technology to serve clients and how the sector needed to change to harness the technology and innovation opportunity. The study provides a rich summary of examples of how the sector as incorporated technology in client services. For example, in Alberta, the provincial umbrella organization asserted that all agencies use ICT in their settlement and integration services (Burstein & Qayyum 2014)

A common theme in this body of research acknowledge challenges around individual agency capacity to adopt and integrate new technologies into client service and recommend this be addressed at the sector level (Kerr et al 2002, OCASI 2002, Burstein 2010, Burstein & Esses 2012, Mills & Legault 2007, Gay 2018)

At the same time reports acknowledge the potential for increased accessibility of services for newcomers, there is also recognition of sector discomfort with a shift in service modalities, primarily based on a fear of larger more techno-literate organizations displacing local agencies by providing online services (Burstein & Qayyum 2014)

Researchers recommend the sector act collectively, to share resources, protocols, promising practices and investments while funders provide the support necessary for such capacity building, including “research, knowledge dissemination, and experimentation with new technologies and new organizational arrangements” to promote consistent technology development, capacity building and rollout in services to clients. Once again, collaboration between the sector and its core funder, IRCC is recommended ( Kerr et al 2002, OCASI 2002, Burstein 2010, Burstein & Esses 2012, Mills & Legault 2007, Boydell et all 2013, Flagler-George & Lafreniere 2015, Gay 2018).

Digital capacity has been recognized as an ongoing issue in the sector ( Mills & Legault 2007, Open North 2017, Gay 2018). In a recent national survey of the digital capacity of Settlement organizations 92% of agencies surveyed rated digital capacity (tools, skills, training, infrastructure, applications, processes) as important to accomplish their mission and work (7 out of 10 or higher). At the same time, only 40% of agencies had a digital strategy (with 23% answering “don't know, hard to say”) (Open North 2017). This is not outside the norm for other nonprofit sectors and organizations, but does highlight a disconnect in agency capabilities and their expressed needs.

A recent environmental scan focused on establishing a national immigrant and refugee-serving sector Community of Practice included “a snapshot of current ICT practices, to gage levels and types of use within the sector.” (Gay 2018) As with other research findings (Karpman & Drisko 2016, Mishna et al 2015, Boydell et al 2013, Sage et al 2017, Goldkind et al 2016), the scan revealed a lack of technology planning competency across many agencies, a need for professional development in general communications and technical skills, questions about confidentiality and security, data overload, time and resource challenges, and the complexities of managing technology. It also revealed the existence of a number of existing online hubs and communities of practice already active in the sector, using technology. Practitioners are also looking for best practice and knowledge co-creating opportunities.

It is felt that funders do not set aside significant funding resources to technology planning or use by organizations they fund and can do more to support agencies.

In particular agencies identified funding support for digital capacity development and skills training for both front-line workers and agency leadership as priorities (Open North 2017, Goldkind et al 2016). It is also clear that agencies have struggled to make the technology case and to provide specific impacts of technology in service provision to funders. This is not a problem only in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector (Kleine 2010).

The 2017 national survey did not specifically ask about digital messaging other than use of text message/SMS, which it found 34.3% of agencies used to serve clients. The survey also asked about use of Facebook (53.5%), Twitter (35.2%) and Mobile Apps (14.3%) but it is not clear where digital messaging fits in sector use of these platforms. Other potential social media and digital messaging channels used to serve clients were not asked about (Open North 2017).

A 2018 recent survey found that text messaging (French 66.67%; English 50.69%) and WhatsApp (French 41.67%; English 23.61%) were communication tools front-line workers used to perform their work (Facebook Messenger rated almost as high as WhatsApp, although a specific percentage was not provided). “Video and audio conferencing apps such as Skype, GotoMeeting, Google Hangout, Zoom are all tools being used. Social media tools are also used to communicate as a way of direct messaging (Twitter DM, Facebook messenger, Instagram)” (Gay 2018).

A more recent report looking at the use of digital messaging tools in the sector found that digital messaging is a viable tool for direct client service delivery and is being used in that way by the Canadian immigrant and refugee-serving sector, agencies lack suitable policies and guidelines for technology use to serve clients, there is a lack of knowledge sharing and transfer of promising and successful practices within the sector around digital service delivery, and funders lack capacity to evaluate, manage and monitor technology requests from the sector. “It is clear that digital technology, including but also beyond digital messaging, is being used by agencies in direct client service delivery. It has brought increased client access to services and information, created service efficiencies and is an effective method of service delivery.” (Campana, unpublished).

Technology trends and advancements, such as cloud computing, social media and mobile technology and their increasing uptake in the nonprofit sector have implications for increasing service effectiveness and improved work processes. (Kwan & Rice 2014, Gay 2018)

Research that looked at technology to serve clients also reiterated findings from research on immigrant information behaviour and practices: “Immigrants seeking information are likely to be under stress, face multiple barriers, and may be unfamiliar with the Canadian system. Therefore, it is essential that the information provided to immigrants is clear, easy to understand, and easy to locate. Immigrants may also need to have access to information in their own language, located in an environment easy to navigate, and culturally friendly” (Sexsmith 2010, Jacot 2010, Mills & Legault 2007, Cortinois 2015). This research also recommend multi-modal communication and information provision, both when using technology and in-person services (Abujarour et al 2018, Veronis et al 2018, Jacot 2010, Esses & Medianu 2012).

As with previous research, these reports found information sources (and how newcomers weigh the credibility of competing sources), trust and pathways chosen to convey information to newcomers essential to the success of persuasion for newcomers to both access services and trust the information they receive (Dekker et al 2018, Veronis et al 2018, GSMA 2018, Alemasoom et al 2018, Latonero et al 2018, Cortinois 2015, Sexsmith 2010, ).

More recent research with Syrian refugees in the Netherlands confirms Caidi, and Esses & Medianu's summaries about how newcomers weigh source credibility, finding that “migrants prefer social media information that originates from existing social ties and information that is based on personal experiences” (Dekker et al 2018)

Importantly, research about the sector that has also reviewed research in other fields recommends strongly that decisions made about technology to serve clients be based on client and organizational needs, not the novelty or affordances of emerging technologies themselves (Burstein & Qayyum 2014).

The Settlement ESL/language learning sector has made greater strides with the integration of technology in language learning. However, recent findings suggest that they also suffer from capacity and technology infrastructure issues (Mcbride 2018). Echoing concerns within the immigrant and refugee-serving sector, the research cites a lack of resources and agency infrastructure, inadequate equipment and training, and the absence of cohesive strategies to integrate technology into services (Mills & Legault 2007).

Service providers and funders need to engage more actively and directly to raise awareness of the benefits and challenges of technology integration in direct client service provision, including flexible approaches to technology decision-making, implementation and iteration (Mcbride 2018, Mills & Legault 2007, Burstein & Qayyum 2014 ).

While a general focus of technology to serve clients is on innovation, researchers have found that service organizations are more adept and able to use technology initially in an iterative way, allowing them to perform traditional tasks more effectively, rather than focusing on innovation or new methods to serve clients ( Sage et al 2017, Goldkind et al 2016, Mills & Legault 2007).

This discussion of iteration vs innovation has not been explored in great detail. However, it comes up in both research and interviews when the theme of technology in service delivery innovation is considered. It is perhaps worth exploring the nuances of iteration and innovation with agencies directly, as use of the vague term innovation brings uncertainty.

For example, a report looking at the use of digital instant messaging in the sector found that “digital messaging is being used as another service channel, a service iteration, with a focus on making services more effective, efficient and accessible… Survey respondents indicate that one-on-one worker-client interactions using digital messaging help increase access to the worker, effectiveness and efficiency of communication with clients, and supplements face-to-face interactions. From interviews, focus groups and other practice work, digital messaging is used to supplement all the services and service interactions workers provide. As one manager put it ‘it's another tool in the toolbox.’” (Campana, unpublished)

Agencies could be better at using feedback and data they get to make decisions. A 2016 report found that settlement agencies “would welcome investments in data literacy programs (including open data principles, and technical skills and knowledge) for front-line organizations, as long as it doesn’t pull them away from service delivery.” (Open North 2016). Importantly, the report noted that “investments should be made to increase capacity, not try to do more with less.”

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