The five minute CIO: Aoife Watters

28 Feb 2014

Aoife Watters, finance director at Depaul Ireland

Cross-border charity Depaul Ireland’s finance director Aoife Watters explains how IT is helping staff and volunteers spend more time helping the homeless, and how cloud CRM will improve transparency for donors and stakeholders.

Can you describe Depaul Ireland from an IT standpoint?

We’re obviously a cross-border charity: that’s a huge part of the IT dynamic. We deal with people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness; so there’s a preventative as well as a treatment aspect to our work. We have over 300 staff, and we’re growing dramatically, and there are 350 volunteers in the organisation, so certainly the IT requirements have become increasingly complex as we’ve grown.

Does the fact of being a charitable organisation change how you approach technology?

The IT approach has always been open-minded and innovative: we try to make sure the service users are at the core of what we do, and we’re not giving staff an IT infrastructure that restricts them. It’s not about spending more time at the computer. The IT is helping people to spend more time with the service user, so they’re doing what they do from a documentation point of view more efficiently.

We’re dealing with probably the most marginalised people in Dublin, Belfast, Dungannon and Derry.

In those four distinct areas, it’s really important that everybody is communicating with each other. This is where [technology consultancy] E-MIT Solutions have helped us introduce Google Apps as a large-scale project to connect all our centres. We have Google technology not just for email, but for instant messaging, and we use Google Hangouts significantly.

We’ve invested in hardware in all of the centres so people can link in, and have daily or weekly meetings and co-ordinate without travelling to and from each site. Before we introduced Google, I was probably up and down to Belfast three or four times a week. It’s allowed us to reduce the travelling, and if it’s an internal meeting, there’s no reason not to use Google Hangouts. Rather than having to leave the service and have staff covered, they can have a meeting in another room, and go back to work straight away.

What other kinds of technology are you using?

We just introduced or own intranet, using Google. For the number of staff that we have, it’s a huge endeavour. To encourage buy-in, we had each of the managers in each site come up with suggestions about what content and information it should have, policies and procedures, rotas: basic information to do their jobs, also bulletins and news stories, fundraising and social media links. It’s got the name of EPIC now, which stands for Excellent Platform for Internal Communication and it was named in a staff competition.

What’s the ratio of your time given over to working on the technology side compared to the finance and strategy side, and do you think this will change over time?

I think it’s changing over time; there was a time when we were talking about IT and the time spent on it, it was problem solving, troubleshooting – really just dealing with the basic IT that we had. The amount of time I’m spending on IT is going down, but we’re looking at bigger issues: decisions on our IT strategy, procurement projects around hardware and software. It’s really important that we continue to liaise with external partners because they’re the specialists in areas like security, or geosensing for our tablets.

The amount of time I’m spending on troubleshooting is diminished, because we contract out for that. We also have some internal skills: we have two or three people, who would have a remit on IT, where they can deal with some issues. It frees me up to look at the bigger projects.

I don’t think we’re putting out all the fires we used to be putting out. Another huge part of my work now over last year is working around policies and procedures for IT use. Unless that’s right, we can’t move forward: such as, how do you use social media, what’s appropriate hardware use? We’ve a new services package around mobile use.

Given that you’ve got a broad remit within the organisation, do you always try to look for technology to simplify as much as possible?

We’re not like a private business; at the risk of sounding twee, people are at the core of what we do. When I look at IT, it’s about enabling us to do what we do already. We’re reproducing best practice through an IT structure.

Over last year and half we’ve been developing a bespoke application through another partner. There’s a health and safety application, and an application looking at care and case management. It’s a new package that we’ve developed based on, so it’s large-scale CRM, and it’s also cloud-based. It recognises what we do in the projects, we ensure users’ health needs are being looked after. We have to collect a lot of statistics on them: gender, demographics, nature of addiction … there’s a collection of data, so if somebody comes in to homelessness, we would like to know why.

All of this used to be logged through a combination of paper records and spreadsheets. This system will standardise it. Before, when we went to collect the data it was in arrears and there were lots of versions of the same data. Trying to get that data to report to our board or stakeholders was a nightmare.

Now our staff will have their tablet, and logging this data instantly and taking notes, and that’s getting uploaded so there’s instant statistical collection. So we can produce reports and there’s only one point of entry so there’s no manual keying in.

What benefits does this bring?

We can report for our funders, for our board, for our international parent company, so we can see at a glance what’s working and not working. That’s pretty amazing. It’s not fully embedded but it’s at the pilot stage. Records are hugely important from a transparency point of view but this is so much more efficient.

The next year is going to be hugely important to get it embedded. The use of champions in each site is important, and training is important. We were encouraged to develop champions in each of the 17 sites and they would then bring on the others, so there’s always someone to answer questions.

Will you need to train your staff to use this?

Formal training often goes over people’s heads. They seem to absorb only part of it and it’s only when sitting down and using the technology that you have practical questions. So, building up of internal expertise is really important, and that was a technique we learned from E-MIT in the Google adoption.

To achieve buy-in, we did a demo for each of the staff groups and held a competition among staff to name it. OTIS stands for Online Toolkit Integrated system (our custom-built CRM system for projects).

That’s why it was really important to introduce EPIC the intranet, in this way, as well. We’re trying to set up mini videos to put up on the site – a mini training centre, where you do videos with a screenshot and voiceover. We have a very limited budget, as we’re a charity, so we try and use the skills we have in-house efficiently, so people can self-direct and help themselves as much as possible in the day-to-day use of technology.

Cloud is touted as being less expensive than in-house IT. What has your experience been?

We have two offices for admin, in Dublin and Belfast, and they hold our internal functions for HR, management, and support. We haven’t been able to escape the physical service in those two offices. There are certain applications we still need to hold on premise: finance, payroll and HR. It’s about reducing reliance on a server rather than eliminating it – but I think it’s inevitable down the line.

Right now we’re using a kind of hybrid approach. We’re certainly adopting cloud for a lot of our services, and that’s certainly saved us money on storage costs. But we use Sage for accounts and we do need to have a physical server, and there’s a security issue around putting payroll in the cloud. For us, it’s not so much that the applications are reduced in costs, it’s the value add: it’s the time that people have not had to travel, or saving basic communication costs. I can do a Google Hangout and it’s free. So we’re almost seeing a one-to-one saving on our phone bills, and sending staff from Dublin up to Belfast is hugely expensive. I think we’ll reap more savings as time goes on.

You work a lot with external technology providers – what’s the approach here?

As a charity, we’re never going to be able to justify an IT department with IT professionals, so the only way we can tap into that added-value layer is around outsourcing. E-MIT may come in with solutions around service user access to applications, or looking at more controls

They tend to be once-off projects and once they’re in place, it tends to work like clockwork.

Working with partners also allows us to keep abreast of what’s going on in the IT world. We’re currently using E-MIT to finalise IT strategy: it’s a much more planned approach, and it allows us to budget properly because we have planned renewals of hardware and software. It’s a much clearer line of sight. Another IT consultancy, Enclude, is working with us on the Salesforce project.

What are some of the big trends in the charity sector right now, and how are you using technology to address them?

There’s pressing issues for us around outcome measurements: being able to demonstrate the outcomes we deliver as a charity. Another expression is impact measurement; it’s around being able to measure our impact and what we’re doing.

Social return on investment is about putting data behind that and being able to tell a whole picture about what we do. It’s important for the public because of the climate that’s around at the moment. It’s to show we exist and we offer incredible value for money, and to show social returns to the public and the Government – for example, we can save money on A&E or for policing.

It’s being able to produce the data that the funders need, and justify why there’s private and statutory money coming to us. We’re doing some pretty amazing work and doing it more effectively than if it was to go back in-house to the Government. The IT that we use allows us to be transparent about our finances, our work. I think most charities do amazing work, but I’m not sure we’re as amazing at painting the picture and telling the story.

The only other trend that’s very important is service user participation, to get involved and develop their life skills, and IT is a big part of that. There isn’t a service user going into the employment market who won’t be in a better place if they have IT skills.

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Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic