Blog Post

Checking our assumptions about technology and sector collaboration

I’ve found that when it comes to technology and our sector we make far too many assumptions based on anecdote rather than data. Of course, our work should be guided by both. I’m a big believer in qualitative and quantitative feedback and data. But we should be using both when we’re coming to conclusions that guide our move to a hybrid service delivery model.

Participant pulse check

In a recent session with front line and management representatives from Peel-Halton regions I decided to check some assumptions to see where folks are at. But I also wanted to get a sense of how organizations were doing when it comes to the shift to hybrid. I got this idea and scale of possible answers from consulting group The Moment, early in the pandemic, when they were asking this question about how folks were doing during the pandemic. I’ve found it useful to ask, as a way to check-in, a simple pulse check among participants. 

In this session I asked: How do you feel your organization is doing when it comes to transitioning to a hybrid service delivery model?

They could choose from:

Surviving - Getting by; doing what we need to, using digital tools; focused on short-term goals; talking about remote work, Newcomer involvement

Striving - Planning & talking about how work is changing; medium-term goals; planning remote work, how Newcomers can be involved in service design

Thriving - Hit our stride, hybrid service strategy; long-term goals; implementing remote work strategy, Newcomers involved in service planning

As you see below, most are in the middle, which is more or less where I would expect us to be at this point. But it’s significant that 4 out of 28 answered that they feel their organization is just surviving. It’s also significant that 4 are thriving. We have much to learn from both of these groups about why things are not working, as much as why they are.

Bar graph answering question of how participants feel their org is doing as they move to hybrid service delivery

Checking our assumptions

As I mentioned above, I feel in sessions and conversations that too much discussion is focused on anecdote. They usually start with something like “in my experience” that is then generalized out to all Newcomers. It’s always been a problem and even dangerous to do this in human services, whether the focus is on technology or something else. And when we know, for a fact, that most Newcomers don’t actually access formal community services, generalizing “my experience” in serving Newcomers means we’re actually neglecting a significant group who we are not reaching or serving. Is your experience important? Absolutely. Is it valid? That should always be challenged and checked.

So, I also crafted some questions to check on participants’ assumptions and knowledge of some of these areas. I have no idea how scientific or valid this might be, but I wanted to find out not only how true or false they thought these statements are, but also how certain or uncertain they were in their opinion! 

Perhaps the most interesting thing (well, to me anyway) is how diverse participants’ opinions were. I think that is really interesting and something we should continue to explore with everyone in our sector.

I’ll explain it all in the video below and then provide my data and evidence to show whether these statements are true or false, but here is where 29 people landed on 7 specific statements.

Myth and assumption busting image graphing results of participant input

In the video I dive into the nuance and diversity of how they all actually ranked the statements. I think it's pretty cool!

Here are the questions I asked and information to help answer them.

We have the communities of practice or places to get / share information in our sector

True.

We have a lot of them, actually. Communities of Practice I'm aware of:

There are many, many WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram, WeChat and other groups where sector folks interact as well.

Every front line worker is a Digital Navigator / Champion, it's part of all our jobs now

True.

While it’s evolving, it’s going to become part of everyone’s job description to some degree. There are two models we can build on and learn from. U.S.-based Digital Navigators, and UK-based Digital Champions

We want to and will share, collaborate, network, and learn together if we just had the space for it

True-ish.

Like I mentioned above, we have a lot of Communities of Practice in our sector. But are they working? I haven’t seen any solid evaluations of the existing and emerging Communities of Practice, but this presentation from 2015 is useful. You should definitely watch the entire presentation because it is insightful and provides a useful historical path of sector work on developing (attempting to develop) Communities of Practice, but I’ve queued up the video to where Dave Montague (formerly of OCASI) outlines why they haven’t tended to work in our sector:

Have we learned anything since then? Yes and No. Where engagement is high is exactly where Dave said it has been. In the National Newcomer Navigation Network you’ll see comments and discussion in their webinar recordings. In the CAMH Immigrant and Refugee Mental Health Project Community you’ll see comments and discussion from participants while they’re engaged in the facilitated courses, and then drops off outside of active facilitation. It seems Dave was right…

Agencies should wait for regional, provincial, and national networks to lead us

Definitely false.

As we saw above, some organizations are thriving. Others are just surviving. We have much to learn and extract from their experiences to help guide each other. That information must come from the local perspective. Then it can be scaled up. No national model or plan or strategy comes from a vacuum. It comes from understanding and building off of the local experiences of Immigrant and Refugee-serving organizations. Needs & wants as well as experience & successes. 

Agencies should lead, convene, advocate, as well as work with those groups who can extend their voices up the sector hierarchy to national networks and funder ears. But there is already much to learn by convening and leading locally.

I think Local Immigration Partnerships that already convene at the regional level can play a key role here. I had this conversation with IRCC in 2020 and wrote about it:

What could a sector Knowledge Mobilization approach look like (I may have gone off the rails here with them, it’s a huge thing for me). I suggested, yes, use SettleNet.org, but don’t forget that provinces, provincial umbrella groups, LIPs all have their own jurisdictions and local situations (settlement is, of course, local), but how could what they are doing, learning, reporting on, researching, etc., also be moved up into a national consciousness? I suggested much could be done here and it would be incredibly valuable. Just look at the richness of what happens in some LIPs, on their websites, but mostly stays there, unknown to a broader audience that could benefit from it.

It’s not just about building tools and sites like SettleNet.org, but moving the sector culture to sharing without fear or competition, as well as the reality that Knowledge Mobilization takes intentional effort, resources and time.

Help agencies be better at using feedback and data they get to make decisions. Embed a research approach in each community, perhaps through Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs), to create a national base of knowledge IRCC and its funded agencies could tap into to distill and prepare for technology trends in a more planned way than is currently the case. Data collection/data quality and consistency/accurate and timely reporting/data utilization is something that truly needs to be modernized. We need agency, regional and national level dashboards that are easy to use and provide a basis for evidence informed planning and evaluation at the agency and regional levels. It is critical and has to be part of the story we are telling.

Professional development is hard to access

Both true and false.

Hard to know about sometimes. Hard to know what the right mix of learning is, especially looking forward. Sometimes hard to pay for. But there are plenty of professional development options right within our sector itself. Sector-specific professional development programs/projects:

There are also increasingly lower cost and affordable, sometimes free, micro learning opportunities and credentials. 

  • Online for free - YouTube is the how-to home of the internet.
  • Product training from technology companies themselves. Increasingly the technology you use has robust support sites, event online academies and learning centres. Make sure you access them - Zoom, MS Teams, WhatsApp, Gmail, Google Meet, GoTo Meeting, WhatsApp Business. A good overall starting point that looks at technology being used in the sector and provides useful how-to videos as well as links to product information, support, and learning sites is Frontline Tech for Settlement Practitioners.
  • Webinars and webinar recordings
  • Lunch and learn with colleagues sharing something they’ve learned. Go old school and organize it, whether it's in person or online!
  • Microcourses are increasingly affordable places where you can learn something specific for free or low cost. Maybe you don't need that entire program or certificate. Maybe you just really need to figure our Excel. - Start with your library, where you can currently access LinkedIn Learning for free with your library card, also this nonprofit specific site Nonprofitready.org. Increasingly, we're seeing microlearning badges and credentials. They've even started making their way into our college and university systems because they're potential money makers, so you know it's a trend that is going mainstream.

There are also online paid nonprofit-specific sources such as TechSoup, NTEN, TechImpact.

Hybrid service delivery is either/or - in person or digital/online

False.

It’s both/and, meaning we’re working towards a no wrong door approach where Newcomers have choice to shift between both online and in-person, whenever they want, and will be able to access the same level of services and support regardless of their choice and how they want to flow between the digital and in-person spaces.

That is how the sector is moving forward, with an understanding that hybrid means both in-person and online/remote, with choice and accessed baked in.

Newcomers are more digitally literate that you are

True.

Yeah. They are. I’ve been talking and writing about this for many years. The data and evidence is clear.

Is it also nuanced? Yes.

Is there also a digital divide among Newcomers? Yes.

The word that perhaps best describes both service provider and Newcomer perspectives on hybrid service delivery and digital inclusion is nuance. Building on the idea that hybrid service delivery is both in-person and online/remote is also the idea that it is both more accessible and can create access confusion.

There is no black and white, either/or when it comes to hybrid service delivery. It is both/and. For example, hybrid services are both convenient and a hardship. Remote services are more accessible for Newcomers with family, work, and other commitments that make it difficult to access services. They can also be difficult for Newcomers with young children or other distractions in their home which makes it difficult to find private space or space to focus on a class or session. Some service providers have seen increases in client participation and numbers online. Others have seen decreases. 

It has been challenging for women experiencing domestic violence to get help online when their partners control the technology. Getting them to in-person services increases safety and access to services. On the other hand, for women experiencing harassment, stalking, and violence outside the home, being able to work and access services remotely while in their home has meant less anxiety and more safety.

Stories and scenarios like these illustrate the nuances of this both/and in-person and online/remote service delivery. They also punctuate the importance of getting the mix right, in a Newcomer-centric framework that ensures access to services for all in the ways that they want, need, and prefer it.

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