I found out recently that I’m partially deaf in my left ear. I have been for some years apparently but had no idea. More recently, I’d been barking at my family: ‘Would everyone simply STOP MUMBLING!’
Then one day I noticed they were in a conversation, and I could not decipher a single word. They could hear each other fine. I was the one having the problem.
There was a gap of several weeks between the audiologist report and the delivery of a hearing aid. During that time, workarounds saved me; little things we did at home to accommodate this challenge and get things done. For instance, everyone took great care to ensure they were never talking to me with my back turned. We bought an external speaker for the TV. I leaned in with my right ear when I wanted to hear someone I could not see (think: Zoom call when people are off camera).
The list goes on and on. It worked but took a lot of unnecessary effort.
When the hearing aid was placed on my ear the first time, I nearly wept. It was a pure miracle for me to hear with such ease. I could hear everything. Not just the words you might say, but lots of other details that make life interesting: birds singing as the sun rises, the sound of fallen leaves crunching under my feet, the soft pads of my dog’s feet touching the floor as he comes to find me, my child breathing softly as she slept. And of course, every word of every conversation around me. My workarounds fell to the wayside, and I went about the business of life.
Now the truth is, I got used to my workarounds. They took shape slowly over time. It was only when I experienced the alternative that I realized, without the solution of a hearing aid being implemented, I might have just kept clinging to the workarounds that were familiar to me. Luckily, one significant dose of technology and everything just started working like it is supposed to.
Child welfare systems are facing a similar sort of challenge in their journey to new technology. Most states are preparing to build a Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System, often just called CCWIS. In a nutshell, the vision is to replace outdated case management systems with modern technology that can respond to the needs of today. This will mean a transition from 25-year-old technology and 100-year-old paper processes to something new that can help solve pressing problems in the field.
Just like I did, child welfare developed a myriad of workarounds to force our old tech to work for us — clunky ways we solve problems when things don’t work. An informal agreement about places to record critical information by using fields not designed for that purpose. Clicking through a decision-making tool after we have already decided, because it’s out of order as to the natural way our processes unfold. Forgoing computers entirely and keeping information in paper records because it is too hard to enter it into our systems. And on and on and on.
I understand why. We have been relying on these workarounds for so long that we are very used to them. We’ll need some diligence to notice all the workarounds we hold so dear — the things that got us through the day because it enabled us to limp along. It may be hard to feel safe without them.
But if we don’t step into this future willing to let them go, we will simply design new solutions that are exactly like the tech we use now. It does not have to be this way: Accenture and other firms are passionately working to build new solutions for states.
In designing for CCWIS, we must notice when the discussion drifts into developing new technology that resembles what we use now — familiar, recognizable, “like we do it today.” We’ll get more done if we frame our current technology as a pile of workarounds and design new tech instead of it. We don’t have to limp along anymore.
The miracle of technology that could free us from workarounds is due to land in child welfare soon. Let’s release our attachment to the way we do things now and imagine what it would be like if things just worked.