Like any 21st century industry, workforce development organizations should be looking at ways to leverage technology to improve results and lower costs. This is the first of a two-part series on technology, beginning with a look at database solutions.
A well-designed database information architecture helps an organization track contractual and regulatory outcomes. It also uncovers information patterns and trends. Data is about systems, and good data reflects how well a workforce system functions. Meaningful data about operational performance and effectiveness can influence how an organization uses its resources to better serve clients, staff and the community.
Additional database or enhanced database?
Not every workforce program needs a new information architecture — some programs operate successfully with two or three databases requiring daily data entry. The real question is: can the architecture in place produce meaningful informational reports about employee performance, contractual goals, and grant compliance with the database system on a real-time basis?
A database system that is user-friendly, adaptable, and that has functional reporting tools allows workforce practitioners to manage their programs and solve problems, leaving time to innovate solutions for other challenges as they arise.
Although switching to a new database information architecture requires streamlining multiple data collection systems and training staff to use unfamiliar tools and processes, the reasons for establishing a stronger information architecture justify the time and expense to do so. Consider that:
· A program’s data needs evolve throughout the contract period. As challenges arise and services need to be examined, you discover the need to correlate different pieces of data to gain a better picture of your actual service delivery model.
· A partnership or grant requires collecting a data element that is new for your organization and you have no immediate capability for capturing that information.
· With new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) regulations forthcoming, the types of data and the means for collecting it will evolve and challenge current systems. It is not that existing data collection tools cannot capture the information, but can it be quickly, efficiently and affordably updated to meet your program needs?
What does good information architecture look like?
Adaptable. Programs need to be able make database changes in real time without having to pay the hosting company a hefty fee for it. Whether to ramp up for WIOA or track a new metric with a partner organization, the ability to modify a database is directly connected to your program’s agility and success.
Incorporating data. While there may always be some element of double entering data, this activity can be mitigated if one database can export its baseline data on a regular basis. To merge data successfully, it is important for all data sources to use a “unique identifier” that all programs can agree on and attach to clients. This unique identifier ensures that combined information from different sources attaches to the same person despite similar names or incomplete information.
In-house “techie.” With customers’ increased access to the internet, new computing platforms and various apps, having a tech person or internal tech team is a must. This person or team must be proficient in using technology and have a thirst for the possibilities. Many database platforms (e.g., Salesforce, Zoho, Access) do not necessarily require someone to have programming language skills, allowing greater flexibility in who fills this role.
Reports and dashboards. Optimal database solutions should be able to sort and tally records and display program outcomes visually in the form of line and bar graphs, pie charts, lists and speedometers. Data presented visually are especially useful in staff meetings because they help employees with different learning styles to digest their own progress and that of the contract.
Fine-tuning. Fine-tuning a database takes time and patience. Much happens in the six to 12 months after the need for a database is identified to using it daily. A dedicated staff person should work closely with the team to ensure that the database is launched effectively and kept updated.
Grant Associates places nearly 20,000 workers in new jobs every year in five major U.S. cities. One of the largest populations we serve is public assistance recipients whose job retention must be tracked and confirmed as part of program performance measurement. Initially, client outreach was particularly complicated because our early database products were not capable of breaking down the data into manageable actions steps for staff.
When we switched to Salesforce in 2012, we finally had the tools we needed to streamline and simplify the client outreach process using the system’s dashboard feature. We created a 30-day retention dashboard that populates a daily list of customers due for engagement and then sorts and assigns those customers to a specific Career Advisor.
The dashboard updates itself in real time, so a client’s name is automatically removed from the list once an outcome is recorded. This offered greater control in making the connection between customers and Career Advisors and the tracking of goals, job placement and retention — ultimately, improving performance outcomes.
Program Directors have reported a significant impact — management teams no longer have to wait until the end of the week to see progress. They now have a daily visual meter that shows them the exact number of outcomes achieved.
In another of our workforce programs, the retention reports and real-time dashboard led to doubling the number of retention paystubs collected each month.
Grant Associates is driven to find solutions to our customers’ challenges and developing new ways to use data. We made a substantial upfront investment in Salesforce, and the results have far exceeded our expectations.