How Front Porch Created a Culture of Innovation in a Senior Living Business

Technology and innovation are double-edged swords in the senior living industry. Adopt something new too quickly, and you could be left holding the pieces if it fails. On the other hand, those who are too slow to embrace new ways of doing things could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in a hurry.

But, there is good news. Some players within the senior living industry are starting to figure out how to create a quality innovation culture, including Front Porch. The nonprofit has made a name for itself through the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, and successful tech pilots — including a recent one involving Amazon’s Echo device. Glendale, California-based Front Porch operates 10 continuing care retirement communities, as well as affordable housing, active adult and memory care offerings.

Kari Olson, chief innovation and technology officer for Front Porch

Senior Housing News recently caught up with Kari Olson, Front Porch’s chief innovation and technology officer, to trace the roots of the company’s innovation culture, and to learn about some of the emerging tech trends providers should pay attention to.

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SHN: Give me a snapshot of how Front Porch works with new technology today.

Olson: Front Porch has a unique approach to innovation. First and foremost, we focus on building an innovative culture in our organization, and we use that as platform to jump into specific innovation work. Through our Humanly Possible culture, we’re asking our workforce to live, lead and teach eight actions that we believe will make us more innovative people and an overall innovative organization.

That is a very structured process. It involves incentives for executives, it involves education and workshops for executives, online innovation training for six weeks. It involves two-hour workshops for our workforce every year that include a focus on innovation. It includes action learning projects for our entire workforce every year. And then a variety of pilots and experiments that happen throughout the organization.

Within that framework, we also have a small group of people devoted to being the innovation accelerator, and that is the team from the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing. Through them, we reach way outside of Front Porch, to universities, to thought leaders, and most importantly to startups, and we identify solutions that we think might meet needs that we’re seeing in our work with staff and residents today. We then pilot — very careful, structured pilots — new ideas and technologies. We try to learn from them, figure out what the best adoption model is, and one that would create sustained use. And we’ve been very successful in doing that.

Once we’ve done that, we’re then able to scale to our organization pretty rapidly and successfully.

In addition to your role as chief innovation and technology officer, you are also president of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing. Talk to me about how that innovation center first came together.

I’ve been leading technology for Front Porch for 20 years, and at the time, I really felt like there would be a huge pipeline of work for business technology, but that we really needed a way to start focusing on the opportunity of helping the people we serve live well, and put tech in their hands and in the hands of their caregivers. I felt like that was a uniquely different approach than what we were doing with business technology. So, I asked if we could contemplate this. I was working with the co-CEOs of Front Porch at the time. And we started bouncing around ideas about how we could do this.

What we settled on was a virtual center of excellence that could work across all of Front Porch, both our market-rate retirement communities and our affordable housing properties, and to start to pilot and experiment with these new technologies that were starting to arrive on the scene. And do it in a way that says to everyone at Front Porch, hey, we don’t know the answers, and what we’re doing here is asking the questions and collecting data and being open to figuring it out, and we want to do that in a collaborative way with our residents, staff, the ecosystem that’s emerging around this.

What we did at first was … we followed the funding. We were fortunate in receiving some grants that allowed us to do great work. We won some awards for that. But it wasn’t having as much of an impact across our organization as we hoped. So, while it was great, the adoption was kind of slow. It really led me to the conclusion that what we also needed to do, in addition to putting this innovation engine in, was to really work on our innovation culture. That’s why we shifted to building Humanly Possible and launching it. The two together have been our secret sauce for creating change and transformation in Front Porch.

What year was this?

We started the Center for Innovation in 2009, and we didn’t launch Humanly Possible until 2014.

How does Front Porch stay current in its search for new technology?

First and foremost, Front Porch has always invested in technology and seen it as key to achieving its mission and strategy. We’re fortunate in that Front Porch understands that the investment in it is an ongoing thing. We’re able to update the technology and constantly change. We’re also resourced with an innovation team and IT team that can help us adopt those technologies.

But we have the same challenges as every other senior living provider and every other business. It’s always hard to stay up to date with technology and reinvest. It’s an ongoing conversation about what’s affordable today, what’s the right and fiscally responsible choice to make, and we struggle with that as a group. But we understand that we have to keep making investments, and Front Porch has consistently done so.

Does Front Porch have a line item in its budget for technology, as some other senior living providers have discussed?

Absolutely. Every year, we develop capital budgets at the community level and at the corporate level, specifically just for IT. And it’s separate from the general capital budgets that every entity has. And the reason for that is, we need to strategically plan what were investing in, we need to align the organization and resources to execute those investments. And we need to make sure that nothing is left out.

We’re very careful. We go through an annual process — we’re actually going through it right now — where we look across the organization at what equipment needs to be obsoleted, what new things we need to plan for in the upcoming year. We estimate those. And so, we’re very intentional about building them into the budget. Once it’s there, you can get the work done.

What are some of the challenges you encounter along the way in fostering this innovative culture?

Especially in this emerging space in technology that’s not business technology, where you’re going toward the cutting edge, we get exposed to all kinds of opportunities. One really key thing we do that I think would benefit everyone is, we always start with the need. It’s really easy to get lost in the shiny object and the new thing and the new toy. Our approach is always that technology is just a tool that helps us achieve an end, it’s not a point itself. We have to be very focused on what the need is and what the problem is we’re trying to solve. That’s the first part.

The second part is, especially in the Center for Innovation, we’re focused really on piloting and saying upfront that we’re interested in this, but we’re not going to go big on it until we’ve actually piloted it, tested it, and really figured out how it works to meet the needs, and how it works within Front Porch.

For that reason, we’re making small bets upfront that we’re able to learn what we need, know what’s right for us, and then scale it effectively, which also helps us with cost control.

What sort of specific goals do you set with regard to innovation? And how do you benchmark your progress along the way?

It’s different for every project, but if you talk to some of our tech partners, it’s something they really appreciate. Each time we go to solve a problem, one of the things we do upfront is decide what success looks like. We decide before the project starts, we’re going to be measuring for these things, and this is how we’re going to measure for these things. We write it into a pilot plan, a memorandum of understanding. And then we measure and evaluate at the end. So, in the Alexa pilot, we were looking at resident feelings of how Alexa impacted their feelings of independence. How Alexa impacted their feelings of connection or address loneliness.

We also look at usability. How easy it is to adopt. Both from the perspective of an older adult using the technology, but also staff supporting the technology. So, it varies, but as you can see, we’re pretty specific as to how we measure the outcomes.

You mentioned the Alexa pilot. How is that working out for Front Porch these days?

Our interest in Alexa kind of happened in a beautiful way. When Alexa was released, the Center for Innovation and Wellbeing team started playing with Alexa. At the same time, we had a group of residents at one of our communities in Carlsbad also feeling very excited and passionate about Alexa, and started exploring. Both groups mutually came to the idea that we really should be intentional about this, there’s some power in this, we can see how it would meet needs. What we agreed was to be really intentional. It was only a six-month pilot that we did. Two phases, each phase three months. We decided to answer very specific questions about how Alexa could help people live well.

We were specifically focused on whether it could support independence, and also how it can alleviate problems of social isolation and loneliness. When we work in structured pilots to very specifically collect data on these things, at the end we’re in a really strong position to evaluate the outcomes and tell a really impactful story.

What we do with that data that helps our organization move faster is, we share it internally. We come out of pilots with best practices, education approaches, adoption approaches, all of which make us much stronger and faster with how we scale this in the organization.

We’ve scaled Alexa this year to five other communities. We have three more coming online before the end of the year. We continue to fine-tune our approach. It’s been very successful and very impactful for residents.

To play devil’s advocate, some providers might say, well, we’d rather focus on caring for our residents first, and worry about the technology part later. Generally, why is it important for senior living providers to embrace new technology as it comes along, and not when it’s reached a tipping point?

I love that you just said that, because it is about caring for residents first. It is about the service we provide residents. From that lens, technology then becomes a critical tool in how we do that in the best way, and the most cost-effective way. They have to be considered together. It’s not a one-two decision anymore.

Because they’re integrated, our position has been and remains, start with the need, really ask, what are we trying to do for the people we serve and what is the best way possible? And then, what are the tools we can use, including technology, that can help us get there?

When it comes to innovation and technology, how is the senior living industry doing as a whole?

I think we’re on our way. I think we still have a long way to go. The thing I’m most excited about is, I see a lot of organizations starting to think deeply about how they work on their innovation culture. I think a light bulb has gone on that’s really needed in order to take these investments that organizations are starting to make in solutions, and really achieve the impact that they were hoping for when they made the investments. That gives me tremendous hope.

The great thing about senior living is the very caring people who work in it. They’re very passionate about how we can do our very best to take care of the people we serve. And engaging the workforce, engaging the residents, in co-creating using these technologies in the best way possible, is where we’re finally going to hit pay dirt. And I’m excited about that.

What’s on the forefront of senior living technology today? Any trends or any specific innovation topics that we should be paying attention to, in your opinion?

We should all be paying attention to voice-first. We should be looking at voice-first as a platform for how we engage older adults. It’s incredibly empowering and impactful, and we have to adopt it quickly and thoughtfully and with older adults to create the biggest impact.

I think what I would call the emerging category of engagement technologies is really critical. By that, I mean solutions that really bring people together and strengthen relationships, and help people manage and mitigate isolation. It’s a broad bucket of solutions that I think is super important.

And ultimately, big data and AI are starting to make their way into senior living, and they stand the chance of being very powerful for us. When you think about scaling up to meet the needs of the large waves of people that are coming, we’re going to need to harness technology to do that in the best way possible and in a personalized way, and big data and AI offer us our best hope of doing that well.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Written by Tim Regan

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