5 Tips for More Successful Tech Pilots in Senior Living

The 21st Century Senior Living Community is a series brought to you by CDW, a provider of technology solutions and services focused exclusively on serving the healthcare marketplace. The series takes a clear-eyed look at how leading providers and their partners are creating the next generation of senior living communities by raising the bar on services, design, and technology.

When senior living providers take a chance on new technology, it’s common to start small. A pilot can ensure that new tech is a good fit before making a big investment—but too often, a promising innovation ends up in “pilot purgatory,” trapped in a testing phase that was not well planned or smartly executed.

One tech company to emerge on the senior housing scene, K4Connect, has compiled a track record of pilots that move forward and achieve scale. Founded by Scott Moody, one of the creators of Apple’s TouchID technology—K4Connect is a platform that integrates various “smart technologies” that senior living residents and professionals can use to communicate with each other and control their environment. For instance, it offers video messaging applications so residents can communicate with family members, home automation features like thermostat control, and analytics related to resident wellness and satisfaction.

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“Right now, virtually all our pilots have turned into orders,” Moody told Senior Housing News.

In April, Blacksburg, Virginia-based HHHunt announced it would be rolling out K4Connect throughout its Spring Arbor Senior Living communities in Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. This month, Masonic Villages, a nonprofit provider based in Pennsylvania, announced it is scaling the K4 platform across its five campuses, which together serve more than 2,700 residents. This follows a successful pilot at Masonic Village at Elizabethtown in Pennsylvania, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) on a 1,400-acre campus.

K4 also is working with Carlsbad, California-based Kisco Senior Living, and has about 11 other pilots underway, according to Moody.

He and Masonic Villages CEO Joseph E. Murphy recently spoke with Senior Housing News, offering some insight into what makes for a tech pilot that results in a larger implementation. Here are five tips:

1. Identify the need.

There are numerous new technologies that hold allure for senior living providers, so chasing after the shiny new penny can be tempting. To avoid this, an operator should identify its needs first, then seek a technology that can deliver.

For Masonic Villages, identifying a need began with listening to its residents. Over the course of several years, they communicated excitement about how technology could improve their lives, specifically in better controlling their living spaces and communicating with family and loved ones living in distant locations, as well as with fellow residents and staff in the senior living community, Murphy said.

After exploring various options, Masonic Villages identified K4 as a solution that potentially could meet these evolving resident expectations.

2. Set a pilot timeline, choose diverse participants. 

Setting a hard deadline is one basic step in preventing a never-ending test phase. Masonic Villages determined that 100 days would be sufficient, and most K4Connect customers have opted for a similar three-month timeline, Moody said. In the case of Masonic Villages, the pilot took place April through June of 2016.

Another key to a successful pilot is in the testing group. The Masonic Villages pilot involved about 50 residents; some were tech-savvy, and some were on the other end of the spectrum.

“We wanted to have a normal spread of individuals,” Murphy said. “We had one or two people who were really computer illiterate. They didn’t have a computer or want one, and we were encouraging them to take on this opportunity. For me, it was important because we’re going to see that in the rest of our campuses.”

3. Look for an engaged tech partner.

K4Connect prides itself on being an engaged partner in both pilots and full deployments.

“We go in and do the complete install, we train the residents and staff,” Moody said. “In most cases, operators do not have IT staff at the community level. Who’s going to manage [new tech], put it together? We do that.”

K4Connect is more well-resourced than many tech startups, having raised about $8 million in capital, and with a team of about 40 people. But even if a tech vendor doesn’t have the firepower to take on all the training and provide around-the-clock hands-on support, being responsive during the pilot phase can make a big difference.

“What was good for me and impressed our residents was that two weeks into the test time period, there was a version update, where some of their input was already integrated and functioned,” Murphy said.

4. Use multiple methods to gain stakeholder buy-in.

It’s no secret that getting widespread support from all stakeholders—from C-suite leaders to community-level workers to residents—is needed to successfully implement new technology.

On the resident side, it goes back to picking a test group wisely, Murphy said.

“If I stand up and tell residents, you’ll like it, that’s part of my job, but if they have a peer resident who says I was hesitant, but I did [the pilot], and these are the things that are neat, that [will excite] so many people to get on board,” he said. “They’re hearing from their peers, and not just those who are into all sorts of computer applications.”

As for garnering staff support, thinking on two levels could be effective—demonstrate how the new technology will make their specific jobs easier or allow them to perform better, and also explain how the new tech supports the organization’s culture and mission.

For instance, maintenance teams at Masonic Villages appreciated that the new tech would allow them to identify and resolve problems—say, with the HVAC system—before residents noticed anything awry, or before the issues became urgent at the most inconvenient time.

The company culture is focused on listening to residents and staying current with technology, so another effective way of gaining support was by explaining how K4Connect’s platform was responding to resident needs and would help Masonic Villages keep integrating new applications in the future.

5. Define goals for success, but accept a measure of risk.

It’s basic business: Scaling up a pilot only makes sense if the technology has proven that it will bring bottom-line benefits.

Recognizing this, K4Connect generates reports touching on about 30 areas where the technology has the potential to demonstrate return on investment, Moody said. These include savings on utilities through smarter environmental controls, reduced printing costs due to digitization of communications channels, and staff efficiencies as workers are freed up from performing certain tasks that become automated.

A specific goal that Masonic Villages had was gauging the level of resident interest in the various available features and components of the platform. Murphy was encouraged to see that even the less tech-savvy users demonstrated a growing interest in a wide array of functions.

Masonic Villages takes a conservative approach when determining whether new technology demonstrates enough of an ROI to scale up, but once the decision is made, it seeks to maximize the value that it can get from the implementation.

“If someone says they can help me produce X, I’ll do my cost-benefit evaluations on that. But if it’s a 5, I’ll be looking at how I can get it to an 8 or 9 or 10,” Murphy said. “We are conservatie in our evaluation as to, can we do this? The answer is yes. Now, we’re looking at having the maximum outcome on that.”

For instance, the company’s chief facilities officer is now looking at every possible way that the tech can enable more efficient energy use. As for what that will translate to in terms of savings, Murphy is not prepared to give a hard number. However, his team has done the due diligence, and he’s “highly confident” that in a year, he will have that number to provide.

Still, there is some measure of risk involved in going big on a new technology, and accepting that risk is necessary in order to move a technology from pilot to enterprise system.

“Any time you do something new, there’s always a certain risk factor,” Murphy said. “But if you never do anything because of slight risk factors, you’ll never accomplish anything of any significance.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

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