The profile of dementia in the UK has been raised in recent months by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Challenge On Dementia initiative which aims to deliver major improvements in dementia care and research by 2015.
One organisation that has been on the frontline of this challenge for a long time is the Alzheimer’s Society which has turned to Salesforce.com’s Platform in a bid to unify its localised efforts into a more effective national whole and to improve its client services delivery.
The society faces some tough challenges. More than 800,000 people in the UK currently have a form of dementia with half of that number diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. With dementia rates predicted to continue rising and the UK government’s policy of ‘personalisation’ – whereby individuals take control of their own mental health recovery options – there are significant pressures bearing down.
The society operates across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but in a localised way. “We have volunteers in 250 branches operating relatively autonomously. So we had 250 reporting sytems, mostly Excel but with some paper-based ones as well.” says Phil Shoesmith, Head of IT at the society. "We needed a system could standardise ways of reporting outcomes so we've got consistent ways across all locations and prepare us for personalisation.”
The charity needed to improve the way it tracked service delivery throughout the UK as well as gain greater insight into the kinds of people the charity supported, including demographic information that it could use for fundraising and campaigning purposes.
The wider personalisation agenda has also had the knock-on effect of transitioning the society from a B2B organisation to one that is increasingly a B2C operation.
To meet all of these challenges, Salesforce was selected as a strategic platform for future operations managed by a Computerised Record System (CRS) which has been built on the Force.com Platform as a Service offering using the Apex programming language.
This move has a while coming. Shoesmith says that the first exposure to Salesforce.com came back in 2008 as the Society was aware that action on a new client services system was going to have to be taken, but was just not entirely clear when this would take place.
A formal tender process eventually took place in spring 2011, as a result of which the charity ended up with a straight choice: Microsoft Dynamics or Salesforce.com. While the IT team were at the heart of this process, the society’s service delivery and business managers also played a major role, scoring both options.
Shoesmith says that the front line staff’s assessment of Salesforce.com’s ease of use was a determining factors in the final decision as one of the desired elements was to keep training needs to a minimum.
Cost was inevitably also a factor. Salesforce.com offers specific third sector pricing for charities and similar not-for-profit organisations – as does Microsoft – and this made the Salesforce.com proposition the most competitive on the table as well as the most popular.
The society did tread carefully when it came to using a solution from a US Cloud provider which still has no European, let alone UK, data centre. Issues of data protection had to be treated with great sensitivity given the nature of the organisation’s work, while there was also some concern about the wider perception of such a decision.
“With the EU and Safe Harbor guidelines, there was no legal reason why we couldn’t use Salesforce.com,” says Shoesmith. “But we did have some concerns about the political perceptions as it were. We spoke to the Information Commissioner’s Office and to the G-Cloud team at the Cabinet Office and they were both willing to say that if we’d done thorough due diligence then they’d feel we were looking in the right direction.”
It’s clear though that Shoesmith would like to see the Salesforce.com data centre in Europe that the company has stated for some time it will be setting up. (It’s apparently down to two potential hosting partners now, although this seems to have been the case for a while. But with public sector Cloud activity in the UK hotting up, presumably there is increasing urgency to come to a conclusion.)
The society also did some polling of its client base to test the mood of its target constituencies. “We wanted to be very careful when it came to consent,” explains Shoesmith. “We are dealing with vulnerable adults and we needed to be sure that they were comfortable with us using a US provider. We also separated out fund-raising consent from data consent.”
With an eye to the personalisation agenda, the new systems allows individual 'service user' tracking. Customised assessment forms have been developed that enable staff to record every individuals’ needs and state of being at any one time.
The system began to go live a month ago, but will not be live nationally until next year. There has been a massive data import task to move 100,000 patient records over from the fragmented systems and into Salesforce.com while there is a need to provide some training to local staff and volunteers despite the systems ease of use.
"The Cloud model is particularly suited to charities and the third sector where budgets are tight and we can’t afford data centres and so on,” concludes Shoesmith. “Third sector organisations also tend to have relatively straightforward requirements. From day one, we’ve been clear that we’re buying a tool set and we try to use the native Salesforce.com look and feel as far as we can.”