Widening the Oases:
Why Digital Transformation is so Critical for Organizations involved in Serving Newcomers or Immigrants

“I am from there. I am from here.

I am not there, and I am not here.

I have two names, which meet and part,

and I have two languages.

I forget which of them I dream in.”

― Mahmoud Darwish

Newcomers to Canada face many challenges, including culture shock and a continuous, overwhelming learning curve. They are often grieving heavy losses and dealing with past trauma while struggling to rebuild their lives with depleted social and financial reserves. Due to circumstances beyond their control, they may arrive in Canada with nothing but hope for a better life. They want to succeed, to contribute, to take their place in their new society. Overcoming the obstacles inherent in building a new life can feel like a trek through a desert. A helping hand can feel like an oasis.

The organizations that serve newcomers work hard to provide these oases. They offer excellent programs to help immigrants learn our language and culture, navigate our health care and legal systems, heal from trauma, meet basic needs, obtain viable employment, and much more. With their help, thousands every year successfully navigate the difficult transition from stranger to fully engaged participant in Canadian society.

The Making of Deserts

However, in today’s business climate, many settlement organizations are struggling.

They must meet increased demands with diminished, or at best, static resources. Furthermore, funders are demanding higher levels of transparency. They want details on where their money is going and what impact it is having. This combination of

increased need, limited resources and higher donor expectations can leave helper agencies between a rock and a hard place. They do the best they can with the resources at hand. But that may not be enough.

Shields et al., 2016, in their review of Canadian settlement services, describe the situation like this:

“Non-profits in the settlement service field find themselves in a constant struggle between their accountability to their newcomer clients to represent their interests and deliver quality services versus their accountability to government funders in the context where non-profits are in a never-ending quest to secure the next short-term funding grant their organization depends on for survival. In the world of multiple accountabilities that non-profit service providers operate in, these organizations are compelled to engage in a continuous balancing act. The granting of public funding usually involves cumbersome managerial and accountancy activities that pull valuable personnel, capital and time resources away from actual program delivery, which often negatively impacts the agency’s service outcomes.”

In the scramble to do more with less, it’s easy for an organization to become insular. When each department struggles to meet overwhelming demands with scarce resources, there’s no time or energy to step back and look at the larger picture. Silos develop, both internally between departments, and externally with other agencies and services. Within an agency and a community, the atmosphere can become one of competition and separation, instead of cooperation and coordination. The result is that, while each department and agency offer a vital service, it does so in a vacuum. Each provides a worthy, yet limited, oasis for newcomers. However, immigrants end up struggling to cross desserts between departments and agencies to get all their needs met.

The result is that, as Carla Klassen states in her 2012 report on strengthening newcomer services in Hamilton, Ontario, “many newcomers described finding the lack of a ‘one-stop-shop’ model as confusing and did not have clear understandings of which services were being offered by which agencies, who was eligible, or even what services existed in the community.”

Fatima

To illustrate, let’s follow a fictional refugee, Fatima, through the system. To apply for an ESL or cultural literacy class, Fatima must answer numerous questions. Depending on circumstances, it may be painful for her to tell her story. She may even find it

embarrassing. It takes time, especially with the language barrier. The agency may need to bring in a translator, using up more precious resources. When Fatima needs some legal advice, she will have to go through another application process that takes the same amount of time and resources as it did the first time. She will repeat this exercise for every facet of support she wants to access, telling her story repeatedly. Even after all that effort, she may not end up with an optimal service plan. The interdepartmental and community silos that characterize the present system allow little intercommunication. The helpers she’s in touch with may not have up-to-date information on all the options available to her- from other agencies, or even within their organization.

This shortfall does not happen because of incompetence. Settlement agencies are full of skilled professionals doing the best they can. The reality is that when trying to do more with less, with the tools they have on hand, even the best agency and its most amazing employees can get caught up in fulfilling the demands of the moment and miss the big picture. The ensuing crisis management climate makes it a struggle to implement innovative solutions and find ways to provide services more effectively. A holistic, 360-degree approach to Fatima’s needs becomes an unrealistic dream instead of reality.

The making of Oases

Digital transformation is an innovative approach to data management that increases efficiency without straining resources by seamlessly integrating processes, data, technology, policies, and reporting into a coordinated system to improve service delivery. A well-designed data management system can be customized to the unique processes, needs and workflow of any agency. It will reduce the duplication of work effort and improve productivity.

With a streamlined intake process, our friend, Fatima, will only tell her story once. From this one point of intake, all departments and external partner agencies can access her data. This efficiency eliminates the need for redundancy, saving time and resources for other crucial agency activities. Conversely, information on programs in all departments and partnering organizations is widely available throughout the network. Users can match each of Fatima’s needs with the department or agency that is most capable of filling it.

Transparency is also easier to achieve. The data management system keeps records that present accurate and up-to-date performance information to stakeholders, funding agencies and donors.  This function simplifies government reporting and grant applications. The digital platform can also handle referrals, scheduling, event management, other reporting, service delivery, personal resource management, case notes management, privacy and security. The agency has freed-up resources to focus on the crucial work of helping newcomers settle into their new reality.

Too good to be true? Not anymore. Innovations in digital technology have made all this possible and affordable. Digital transformation requires effort and a willingness to embrace administrative and cultural change. The agency must be willing to examine its needs, strengths and weaknesses, and figure out how to best fit existing procedures and resources into a new data management system. However, the benefits are immense. When people like Fatima arrive in Canada with little but faith in our generosity and hope for the future, we can offer her more oases and much less desert on her journey of integration.

INVORG is now partnering with settlement agencies and implementing an innovative digital platform that improves collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing to enhance services and experience.

Cited Sources:

John Shields, Julie Drolet, Karla Valenzuela, “Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services and the Role of Non-profit Providers; A Crossnational Perspective on Trends, Issues and Evidence”, 2016, p. 16-19.

Klassen, Carla, Strengthening Newcomer Services: Final report to the community; “http://www.sprc.hamilton.on.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Strengthening-Newcomer-Services-Report-2012-FINAL3.pdf

About the Authors

Caroll

Carol Casey has a bachelor’s degree in Gerontology from Laurentian University and a Bachelor of Adult Education degree from Brock University. She has worked for many years as a nurse in community care. Newly retired, she is focusing on her writing and other creative endeavors, including video and internet course creation. She has published poems in multiple periodicals and anthologies.  

Joseph

Joseph founded INVORG focusing on client-centric service delivery platform for innovating local organizations, not-for-profits, home, and community support organizations and small to medium sized businesses. Joseph holds a Chief Information Officer Certification from Carnegie Melon University, USA and from the US General Services Administration. He is an IT veteran with over 20   years of leadership in technology, including four years as CTO for the City of London.

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