Asbury Communities CEO: Solve ‘Ball of Yarn’ Tech Problems to Drive Innovation

Asbury Communities has carved a reputation in the senior living industry as an innovator, particularly with regard to technology — a reputation that has been earned through much trial and error, as well as a willingness to admit failure.

Some of those failures informed how the operator separates technology into two distinct categories — evolution and revolution — and where it should direct its time, energy and financial resources moving forward. The Frederick, Maryland-based operator operates eight continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Asbury’s commitment to building a technology infrastructure has not wavered even though some innovations did not succeed, and that commitment proved beneficial to its coronavirus pandemic response plan, while less prepared providers scrambled for solutions.

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The most important lesson Asbury has learned: technology is not some cure-all for every one of an operator’s woes, and the commitment in money, time and effort is worth the reward, President and CEO Doug Leidig said Monday during his appearance on SHN TALKS.

“It’s been a big lesson for us. We thought we could just flip the switch, and that we could drive innovation and we could make everything in a profitable way. I will tell you: the time, energy and dollars it takes to build the right infrastructure in order to be innovative, whether it’s evolution or revolution, is so critical,” he said.

Distinguishing evolution from revolution

Since Leiding became CEO five years ago, Asbury has devoted effort to laying the foundation for its tech infrastructure. During that time, the company has learned a lot about what it had on hand to build around, and what it needs to bring in to better serve residents and staff in the future.

Leidig views evolution as taking the time to deeply assess operations and bring in the right strategic partners to craft a solution. Often, Leidig found that those partners were already on hand and Asbury did not need to buy some new solution when the existing platforms simply needed to be utilized better.

“You don’t always have to go out and buy something new. You can look at new software, but you realize that the existing software is something you can be utilizing,” he said.

The foundation for a solid tech infrastructure starts with things that executives in most industries, let alone senior housing, take for granted. When Asbury began assessing its tech platform and where it needed improvement, Leidig and the executive team realized that the company did not have a stable platform for email and phone communications. Front-line workers needing access to records and other resident data to do their day-to-day jobs did not have it.

“They’re not thinking robotics. They’re not thinking [artificial intelligence]. They’re focused on, ‘I can’t do my job.’ We have to build a stable infrastructure,” he said.
Operators that conduct a thorough inventory of the technology currently on hand compared to their needs are also executing smart cost controls. Sometimes, the “solutions” being pitched by some companies may not be necessary, and may actually complicate matters.

“So many of us in this industry have systems that are built over years. You’ve got some plugs going in here and you’ve got some new plugs going in over there. A few years later, you look at it like this ball of twine,” Leidig said.

One notable bit of innovation that arose from evolving Asbury’s tech platform was an associate app that was pitched at a “spark tank” presentation during one of the operator’s annual leadership development institute.

The app proved to be a hit with the company. Sixty-one percent of Asbury’s 2,400 associates downloaded the app. Over 308,000 messages were sent and received through the app, and the open rate for messages is 20% higher through the app over standard email. Associates have also taken the lead in suggesting tweaks to improve the app.

“That speaks to just the commitment of our associates,” Leidig said.

Not afraid of failure

Asbury looks at its tech experiments as opportunities to see what may work in the future as much as what can work now, and is not afraid to admit when an initiative does not achieve the desired results.

One of its highest profile failures was Pepper, an AI robot from SoftBank Robotics which the operator piloted in its dining operations through a partnership with senior living services provider Sodexo.

In theory, Pepper could learn to interact with residents and staff, which would allow it to work in resident-facing settings. The results, however, were not to Asbury’s satisfaction and the pilot was scrapped. In retrospect, Leidig views the Pepper pilot as an opportunity to learn how Asbury wants to leverage robotics and AI in its future operations, and leadership’s ability to honestly assess the program’s shortcomings will prove beneficial in future pilots.

“Technology and innovation is as much talking about your failures as it is your successes, and I’m not afraid to say that. We are going to fail … The challenge for me is making sure our organization doesn’t just get down on itself,” Leidig said.

The pandemic is highlighting where Asbury wants to shore up its tech platform moving forward, including utilizing robots to deliver food on some of its campuses. Some of the areas of focus are less eye-popping but important, such as telehealth and having the right combination of cloud-based software to allow for remote working environments.

Leidig singled out telehealth as an area that Asbury, and the industry at large, will be looking to improve.

“Covid-19 showed us that we have to go beyond just that communication with a doctor. You have to invest in medical grade networks. That’s a critical part of how we can address the next [crisis] or how we can continue to make ourselves better,” he said.

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