How Software Vendors Can Move from Research to Practice
I recently wrote a blog post for Markets for Good declaring my intention to put nFocus Solutions at the forefront of a new conversation about the role of software vendors in the social sector. Here, at Ideas nFocus, our own blog, I’m going to talk about some initial ideas about what I think that role is, and how it positions us, to create change.
For financial, legal, and mission-related reasons, most technology corporations get involved in the social sector through separate philanthropic arms – like the Salesforce.com Foundation – or through family foundations – like the Gates Foundation. The connection between the corporate work and the philanthropic work may be close – like making technology grants. But is often more distant – like volunteering staff time to serve at a food pantry.
Google is a rare example of a company that has tried to integrate its social sector work into its technology business. They’ve kept Google.org as a division of their for-profit business. However, according to articles in The New York Times and Stanford Social Innovation Review, even Google has run into issues trying to blend their focus on engineering solutions with the more human elements that define big social issues.
So why is this so hard for so many corporations? It’s because their core business model does not depend on meeting the needs of end users in the social sector. Google’s primary business is search. Salesforce’s is managing sales. Bill Gates recently described this gap in discussing the difference between “upstream” and “downstream” work in an article on Vox. He said that his time at Microsoft focused on the “upstream” work of engineering scalable business and consumer technologies, but his work at the Gates Foundation relies more on the “downstream” work of engaging social sector partners on the ground, like governments.
At nFocus, though, things are different. Our upstream and downstream work are both focused on creating social good. Our core customers and end users are youth and family service providers, public safety officials, and the armed forces. All of these people are dedicated to serving their communities and our country to create a better collective future. And we are accountable to those people. Our success as a company depends on helping them be successful at creating that future.
Because of this relationship, we get a different picture of our clients than most funders or “thought leaders.” Like those people, we have a broad view on the field due to our relationships with large numbers of human service organizations. Also like them, we try to document, predict, and support best practices. However, as anyone who has heard the saying, “Being a funder makes you 10% better looking and 50% funnier” can attest, sometimes those “best practices” don’t actually translate to “real practices.” For very good reasons, our clients are motivated to present their “best face” to funders and national thought leaders. But with us, they are motivated to give us their “real face,” because products that are designed for practices that aren’t actually happening are usually not that useful (or used).
What is unique about our position is that we can take a broad view on the work of our clients while being deeply integrated into the reality of their day-to-day business operations. Our interactions with human service providers do not happen through quarterly or annual reports. Our interface with clients is through products that are used in daily operations, all day long. As the people who design and build those key tools, we have the potential – and desire – to make those daily operations as productive, efficient, and maybe even enjoyable as possible. Our perspective goes beyond what our clients are doing, or even why – what we most care about is how they are doing it.
From this position, we see two things:
- Practitioners want to access learning and research. They are not ignorant of or resistant to the lessons of human services research. Many of our clients know that relationships with researchers can help them understand and improve their work. But without the resources to apply research to daily operations, they mostly turn to their data to justify their work and make the case for additional funding.
- Researchers need to understand practice better. Large scale experiments on interventions like mentoring are enlightening, and we fully support the recent wave of policy that has prioritized evidence-based practices. But often these research-driven interventions either don’t “get” or don’t address the on-the-ground realities that clients like ours face. For example, when your staff is spending 40% of their time trying to track down children who seem to move every week or so, and then who need help accessing basic needs like shelter and food once they do find them, it’s difficult to justify forcing them to stick to a regimented math tutoring script.
We are not the first people to notice the need for better partnerships to bridge the gap between research and practice. It has been, and continues to be, addressed by many leading thinkers, researchers, and practitioners (refer to the William T. Grant Foundation), and it is grappled with daily by people on the ground. From our position as a technology vendor in the social sector, integrated into daily operations, our goal is to build products that help bridge those gaps. We humbly recognize, though, that product innovations do not automatically translate into practice innovations. To really change the field for our clients and for the beneficiaries they serve, we need to support cultural shifts, as well.
We therefore invite researchers, practitioners, and others in the social sector to join us here at Ideas nFocus for a new take on bridging research and practice. Our blog will feature perspectives from our clients and relevant researchers on topics like: data integrity, outcomes measurement, implementation science and more. We want this blog to be a way to start a conversation between researchers and practitioners in the social sector that really focuses on implementation – the place where research and practice meet.
A conversation like this is only a small first step, though. We know that changing the work is not just about talk, but about building real relationships between real people, and then taking action together. While I’m sure the road there will have lots of unexpected bumps and turns, I’m excited to start here.