Blog Post

Why the Immigrant and Refugee-serving sector needs an AlphaPlus to help support our hybrid service delivery evolution and work

By: Marco Campana
November 30, 2022

Imagine, an organization that provides support and solutions made up of peers who understand you, your work, and your sector? It's the right solution for any and all non-profits:

"Is there a device or technology setup that can help bridge the gap between participants who want to gather in person and those who want to connect online? When Jennine Agnew-Kata was grappling with this question in April 2022, she turned to AlphaPlus for guidance...

'I brought my initial research to Alan Cherwinski, executive director of AlphaPlus, to find out whether his team had experience, thoughts or opinions about the right equipment for hybrid delivery,' says Jennine. “We worked together to explore what I was trying to accomplish, narrow down the options and consider the technical specifications and price points...

Jennine suggests contacting AlphaPlus before investing in technology: 'It’s worth reaching out to AlphaPlus to get an equipment audit or learn how to use what’s available at your agency to meet your needs. Talking with someone with a sense of the bigger picture helped me know I was moving in the right direction. It’s like accessing expert colleagues who know technology.'

You know what? We had the origins of something like this over 20 years ago in the Immigrant and Refugee-serving sector in Ontario

“In the 1997-98 fiscal year, the Ontario Administration of Settlement and Integration Services, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC-OASIS) bought and installed computers and local area networks (LANs) at agencies offering CIC-funded programs. Agencies with ISAP, HOST and LINC program funding were the first to receive computers. Over the next four years, the Computerization Project expanded to include the new SEPT/SWIS, JSW and NIC programs. Centralized technical support was provided, as well as training for staff. Development of the Settlement.org web-site and a sector Extranet were additional elements of the broader Computerization Project.”

We were probably the first fully wired and connected non-profit sector in the country. And we and our funders blew it. But, we can learn from what we learned back then, and implement now. The experiences and recommendations are incredibly similar. We should be actively looking back to look forward.

Let’s look back at what we’ve learned. First, from the Evaluation of the OASIS Computerization Project - Final Report (2002).

“At present, there is no individual dedicated to managing the complexities of technology and technical support to settlement agencies across Ontario, and agencies do not have the resources to each have an I.T. specialist. An I.T. Consultant should be hired to address and coordinate certain key technology issues centrally – and provide reliable, knowledgeable guidance to agencies as they move towards managing their own technology resources.

We suggest that this I.T. Consultant be based at OCASI and have key accountabilities to two user groups in the settlement community: Technical Liaisons and technology directors in each of the ISAP/HOST (see Recommendation 4.3). In addition, LINC agencies should be served either by the same consultant or by another located in the LINC system. In the latter case, the consultants should ensure that they are not duplicating services to the sector. The I.T. Consultant’s performance should be evaluated against the satisfaction and feedback of the user groups” 

There are 2 pieces here. One is the IT Consultant, which is somewhat the role that AlphaPlus plays. I’ll explore that first. The other is the Technical Liaison (TL) role, which I’ll explore next.

IT Consultant role

One of the first tasks for the I.T. Consultant to address is ensuring that agencies have the capacity to make (and restore) regular offsite backups of data. This is one of the key performance expectations as part of the per-workstation funding structure (see Recommendation 4.1.5). The I.T. Consultant, working with TLs across the system, could develop possible approaches that agencies can adopt. One approach might be that agency staff save all of their files onto a central server instead of their personal workstations. Every night, that server should be backed up automatically onto the Internet using a secure and redundant service that saves multiple versions of the files. Backups should be tested regularly to ensure the data can be easily restored. As most agencies will require outside help to set this up initially, the I.T. Consultant and TLs could identify potential reputable outside contractors who provide this service.

“The IT Consultant serving ISAP/HOST programs, is not meant to be a one-person call centre, dealing with small-scale technical support issues. Rather his/her role is to identify technology resources that would have the most impact for agencies in the sector and serve as a resource for good technology management.

Other key tasks for the I.T. Consultant – all tied to the expectations of the per-workstation funding approach and the needs of agencies – would include: 

  • A directory of recommended email, Internet, software and technical support providers throughout Ontario. These providers would be nominated by agencies, or identified on the basis of performance criteria. For example, email services could be recommended based on uptime, virus and spam filtering, flexibility, etc. Annual updates to the directory should be based on results of ongoing monitoring and feedback from agencies.
  • Instruction to agencies on how to hire, track, monitor and deal with technical support providers. This might include examples of Service Level Agreement(s) and a framework for developing a technology plan (see samples in Technical Documents).
  • Identification of issues to consider and potential providers of hardware and software (e.g. MS Office at charity prices) for agencies to purchase. 
  • Establishing mechanisms, tools and processes for tracking, identifying and escalating technical issues from Technical Liaisons across the sector.”

That IT Consultant role? That’s the sector AlphaPlus.

The Technical Liasion (TL)

Each agency should manage its own technology services, using a coordinated approach that is directed by a designated staff person or external vendor As the transition to agency control and management of technology services begins, an individual must be designated in each agency to direct this process within the agency itself. This should be the responsibility of a senior manager, though certain functions may be delegated to a Technical Liaison or outsourced to a vendor.

This designated technology manager does not need to perform any technology tasks or responsibilities – they only need to ensure that performance expectations for technology contracts are met, and act accordingly if they are not met. The importance of involving a senior manager cannot be overestimated according to research on managing outsourced relationships. 

There should be a number of supports to this individual, notably the I.T. Consultant based at OCASI, performance standards and expectations, resource directory of email, Internet and technical support resources in Ontario, and Settlement.org. Some agencies are already capable of managing their own information technology, and already have I.T. staff. Most agencies are struggling with the complexities of handling all of the things that can go wrong, and would need significant supports in order to take over full responsibility for technology. Agencies should consider outsourcing functions that can be more efficiently provided by offsite services such as email, web hosting, and increasingly, network management.”

More:

“Technical support should comprise several levels, including Technical Liaisons, and should enable agencies to integrate support throughout their organizations.

Full-time on-site professional technical support is far too expensive for most agencies, and it is clear from industry experience and the agencies’ comments that most general users will not be able to learn how to trouble-shoot computer problems even with phone support and online help. Motivated Technical Liaisons would be able to learn how to run diagnostic programs and basic trouble-shooting with minimal training. They would then be able to call in professional support when necessary.

In some cases, agencies have high turnover with the TL position, or TLs may not be available. It is important that agencies are able to use an approach that works for their own technology support needs. If agencies can figure out how to use other staffing and support models without a TL, they should be free to experiment with them. However, there should always be a designated person in the agency who can make decisions regarding technology problems, even if it is to call in a paid technical support professional (see Section 4.3 above).

The TL is the first-line of problem-solving when something goes wrong. All agency staff should know that if they are still having computer problems after they have rebooted the computer, they should call the TL. The TL should then have a simple but effective and systematic way of diagnosing and dealing with the problem. 

TLs should also be supported by clear guidelines regarding critical issues such as data backup. Currently, in many agencies, there is no clear and enforced system. Individual staff may copy their most important data onto floppy disks when they think of it. A simple process improvement would be to urge staff to save all data on a central server. (Unfortunately, these kinds of urgings tend to be ignored.) A more rigorous process would back up data automatically, and remove the pressure on the TL to enforce unpopular processes.

Building in processes and policies takes time and will evolve as the agencies learn to manage technology better. As noted above in previous recommendations and in referenced materials (see Footnote 41 and 42), monitoring and performance tracking at the agency level is essential for improvement to take place.”

Is the Technical Liaison model sufficient? Only if properly resourced.

In most cases the TL was a staff person (Settlement practitioner, admin staff, etc.) who happened to also have technical capacity whose job was modified to allocate some of their time away from direct client service to technical support. Their role was supported by an external tech support organization who they could escalate a technical problem to. If this is sounding familiar, it’s what the Digital Navigator role has become for some folks in some organizations, at least during the pandemic. 

I worked at an Immigrant and Refugee-serving organization during this time, one that did not have IT staff, in a smaller centre. The model that worked very well for us was to share the TL staffer among a number of local organizations. They essentially floated, spending some time each week at each agency, being on call when needed. It worked exceptionally well and provided us all with needed expertise and support without having IT staff that our size and budget didn’t allow for from our funders.

What’s the benefit? Think of it like you’re own sector Geek Squad. Like AlphaPlus, a group of peers who also know technology. They understand you, your tech, your services, your organizational culture, and how to help you in all of that context. Much like the Digital Navigator today.

Twenty years ago, we already knew some important truths. From the Managing in a Computerized Environment - MICE-2 Final Report (2002).

“In Phase I of the Computerization Project, agency Technical Liaisons (TLs) handled basic problem solving. If they needed help, they contacted the central support centre. This system worked fairly well early in the project, in the absence of other alternatives. However TL work has become increasingly time-consuming as more equipment is installed, as applications diversify, and as equipment gets older. Thus the agency TL has less time for his or her regular job activity, which is client service in most cases. This puts a strain on human resources, particularly in agencies that have only a handful of staff members. It also creates dissonance because, for all agencies, service to clients is the top priority. Where this situation has become untenable, agencies with the resources to do so have moved away from relying exclusively on this model of technical support. Some have volunteers with technical knowledge; a few are able to pay for external technical support on an as-needed or part-time basis. However, for most agencies now struggling with the centralized support model, neither of these is a reasonable option.”

All this has happened before, and all this will happen again

Not surprisingly findings 20 years ago echo what we recommend today, which “emphasized this message to the funder: 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.”

And just because I just can never stop talking about this, we knew then what we continue to talk about today and everyone finally realized during the pandemic: “Most managers say that IT 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.”

And CRMs? Yeah, sure, that too: “participants recognize that database applications to record client services are powerful tools for agency management and program planning. They also say that developing such applications within the sector would be a proactive response to funder-designed, funder-imposed and uncoordinated recording systems.”

Dive into these useful grounding documents for more:

Evaluation of the OASIS Computerization Project - Final Report (2002)
In 1997, Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s Ontario Administration of Settlement and Integration Services (OASIS) initiated a Computerization Project to build the capacity of funded agencies. This report provides an evaluation of options for future support.    

Managing in a Computerized Environment - MICE-2 Final Report (2002)
OCASI’s MICE-2 project provided an opportunity for managers of CIC-funded agencies in Ontario to share their perspectives on technology in the sector through on-line discussions and at a conference in St. Catharines on June 12 and 13, 2002    

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