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Social Services Software —
Custom-Designed or Off-the-Shelf?

By Lindsey Getz

As more social services offices begin to implement software programs to manage their cases and run their practices, one big decision that will arise is whether to buy software that is off-the-shelf or a package that is custom built. As with anything, there are pros and cons to each option that must be considered.

Doing the Research
Many social workers are not accustomed to working with software, let alone making big purchasing decisions on what package is best for a practice. A tremendous amount of research should be expected when deciding on any software package, says William J. Mee, president of SecureHIM, a boutique consulting firm that provides top-tier services in risk, governance, and compliance for health care and affiliated organizations.

“Social workers must educate themselves—a tricky but necessary process,” Mee says. “Whatever is ultimately chosen will be a major investment not only of dollars but time, training, and resources.”

The first research step toward deciding what package might be the best fit for your practice is looking at what your peers are doing, says Mike Meikle, CEO of the Hawkthorne Group and an IT consultant with experience in the human services sector.

“Look at other social services organizations that have successfully implemented off-the-shelf packages or have developed custom software,” Meikle says. “Belonging to peer groups can be very helpful for these kinds of discussions. That’s something social workers haven’t always been very involved with but I think that’s changing. It really helps to rely on others’ experiences when making these kinds of decisions.”

Some Pros and Cons
Obviously one of the biggest pluses to working with a custom developer and having software designed specifically for your needs is the customizability factor. The software can be created around your specifications. But Meikle says that the cost involved with custom software has the potential to become astronomical.

“I’ve seen custom development jobs become a time and material money pit,” he says. “I’ve seen companies put millions into a custom developer who is paid to write codes but not contractually obligated to finish it. You really have to be careful.”

Mee has also seen custom design projects become extremely costly and ultimately problematic. “The argument has been made that if an agency is large enough it may be more cost-effective to build or develop internally,” Mee says. “I don’t know if there are any solid statistics out there but it’s been my experience that the ‘success’ rate has been very dismal.”

Going the custom route can also create a sort of “eggs in one basket” scenario in which a lot is riding on that developer. “Say you find a developer who really understands your business practices and is able to develop a program that works perfectly for you,” says Peter Aiken, PhD, founding director of Data Blueprint, a data management consulting firm. “That’s all great. But say he hits the lottery and moves. Now who will maintain your system?”

Although there seems to be a stronger possibility for long-term support from a vendor, Aiken says it’s still not a given. “A vendor could go out of business and suddenly disappear,” he says. “There are no givens. But you should go with a situation where you feel you have the most support available. Even if the vendor isn’t available, an off-the-shelf option still gives you the opportunity to talk to others who have used it. Any good software program is going to have a community built up around it. As a rule of thumb, that’s something I’d look for in a program.”

Aiken says social workers should also ask, “How responsive is this company?” “That’s an important question when it comes to workflow,” he says. “If you have a need, are they going to be able to help in an efficient manner?”

“One of the biggest benefits of going with an off-the-shelf package is the support,” Meikle adds. “It may not be as customized as you want but that’s something you can address. But if the support isn’t there, you’re on your own.”

Bigger Concerns
Because social services has not been required to meet the same technological standards as other facets of health care, there has never been much of a demand to create software that meets the specific needs of this field. Therefore there is a bigger issue than off-the-shelf vs. custom built. The fact is that the “perfect” software for the social work field may not be out there right now and many offices are trying to make the best of what they have available. There are a lot of nuances that exist in this field that are quite different from the rest of the health care world and that makes the ideal software system complicated.

Because privacy and security are still major issues to those working in social services, Mee is concerned about what might happen as more agencies attempt to adopt software that may not be perfectly suited to handle social work. It is critical that social workers understand what implications software can have on the privacy and security of their clients’ records.

“A major concern is the misconception that if funding does not flow from the Feds that somehow it’s a ‘pass’ on HIPAA issues related to client data,” Mee says. “That’s just not the case. Protected health information, or PHI, extends to case workers just as it does anyone in the health care environment. My advice is to find a consultant that is not only knowledgeable of software design and implementation but also has a good understanding of privacy issues related to social services, privacy, and security.”

Mee says that the future likely holds increased concern with privacy and security issues in the social services field. “This will be compounded with demands for electronic records that are ‘meaningful,’” he adds. “Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there are only a few software solutions for social services that have been CCHIT [certification commission for healthcare information technology] certified.”

What Lies Ahead
Clearly the lack of variety in programs for social services is a big issue for social workers to address as they begin to consider the adoption of software within their practice. But Meikle says that a solution for software that serves this field may come in a hybrid form. In recent years, custom software development has become more “modular,” meaning that you can buy an off-the-shelf package but it has room for the development of code within modular blocks, Meikle says.

In layman’s terms, you can have the best of both worlds. “If an off-the-shelf product isn’t doing exactly what you need it to or it’s too plain-Jane for your purposes, then you can build it to better suit your needs,” Meikle says. “It’s not like starting from scratch. For instance, a report might already be in there but now you’re customizing it to fit your practice. This hybrid model is already becoming more popular.”

In the end, once it’s implemented, comes the time to really buckle down as an organization. “Whether it’s custom or off-the-shelf software, every organization needs dedicated folks that understand their existing business practices and that can assist with implementation,” Aiken says. “Beyond the flash and glamour that often comes with the sale of a new package is the actual implementation of that system—something that can have an enormous effect on workflow.”

You want to be prepared when that time comes, Aiken adds. “It’s not just about the package itself but about the people and the process that will be using it,” he says. “It’s a three-step process—the people, the process, and the technology. It works best when they’re all working together.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.