A Hundred Stories, One Voice: Autism New Zealand’s Digital Journey

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

Supporting and advocating for autistic New Zealanders and their whānau is an incredibly important mission – but one that needs real co-ordination. Autism New Zealand turned to technology to envision a single point of truth with every client interaction housed in one place, enabling them to know their clients better, generate insights that could improve services and responsiveness, and empower them to be stronger advocates for neurodiverse communities. And with Delta Insights’ powerful (but simple) solution based on Microsoft’s Dynamics 365, it’s doing more for the autistic and autism community than ever before.

Hands up if you find some (or all) of these things a challenge: engaging with education in a traditional setting; small talk with strangers; articulating your feelings; relaxing in a new environment. Every single human on the planet is different, with different needs, comfort levels and ways of seeing the world.

And for around one in 54 people, any of these things and many more might be particularly challenging. Autism New Zealand is a not-for-profit organisation working alongside Aotearoa’s neurodiverse communities and their friends and whānau to provide support and information about autism.

Its people, located at 16 branches around the country, conduct outreach in schools and workplaces, deliver courses, help shape disability policies and develop plans to support families, connecting clients to various services such as residential care or classroom support. It also advocates for individuals in trouble at school or in the justice system, where insights around their behaviours and motivations might be useful.

But for a long time, Autism New Zealand relied on clients to reach out whenever they needed help or advice. Information about each person and their previous interactions with the organisation was restricted to spreadsheets or case managers’ notebooks, which didn’t enable the team to track their progress or their journey to obtain funding they might be eligible for.

With more than 50,000 contacts each year, that also led to errors and slow decision-making, something that frustrated staff. Like most in the not-for-profit sector, they were passionate about delivering the best customer service levels they possibly could, and technology was getting in the way.

Callers also had to tell their story over and over again as they spoke to someone new, recreating the shame or embarrassment people often have about sharing negative stories.

“We wanted to be a proactive organisation, so people only had to tell their story once, not 100 different times. Then the next time we’re in contact, we know exactly what’s going on. It makes our clients feel like we know who they are and we care what’s happening in their lives,” explains Dane Dougan, Chief Executive of Autism New Zealand.

“We also wanted to pre-empt that conversation by contacting them at important touchpoints in their journey. For example, if the client was about to go from primary school to secondary education, we wanted some way to know so we could reach out and ask what we could do to smooth that journey. How cool would it be if an organisation like Autism New Zealand called you six months before your child went to school and asked if you’d thought about X or Y?”

Unfortunately, Autism New Zealand’s IT system was designed for fundraising, not for client management. It needed a way to empower its people to deliver vital services to their clients, and provide the best experience possible for the autistic community.

Creating change out of the box

Microsoft Dynamics 365 specialist Delta Insights saw that Dynamics 365 was the perfect fit for a new case management system. Not only would it do everything Dane and his team dreamed of, it was cost-effective, accessible anywhere and also completely intuitive to use – and wouldn’t require a lot of precious time to set up.

Chief Executive Dalia Raphael and her team were quick to manage the challenges of a dispersed workforce with very little time to learn a new platform, and limited budgets.

“While not-for-profit organisations are experts in their core business, implementing the wrong technology can be an expensive lesson and this is where the team at Delta Insights comes in. In the not-for-profit sector, you need to be really considered about where you spend your budget, because you know every cent saved is a cent that could go towards supporting people in the community,” Dalia says.

She and her team worked with Autism New Zealand to identify exactly what was needed, which features of the new Dynamics platform were critical, which could add value and which were just nice to have, to ensure the budget was spent on just the right things. Already an out-of-the-box solution, Dynamics 365 was set up in a way to enable quick and easy changes that wouldn’t add further cost.

Power BI was included to enable data and performance to be analysed, creating useful insights for the Autism New Zealand team to hone its services. The case management platform was also integrated with Azure Cloud Services, so family members using the organisation’s public-facing websites could easily engage and track the progression of their cases in various ways.

Sharing stories, joining the dots

It’s hardly surprising that the solution was recognised at the 2021 Microsoft New Zealand Partner Awards.

“I feel extremely lucky to be part of a network that is truly dedicated to making the lives of New Zealanders better, whether it’s in the workplace, in care, or in society in general. Delta Insights is an example of an organisation that has made it a priority to support the not-for-profit sector, demonstrating how technology can change lives,” says Matt Bostwick, Partner Director at Microsoft New Zealand.

The organisation’s 16 branches now have a single dashboard so key office support staff can see exactly what’s happening on each case. Clients and family members no longer have to explain their situation multiple times. And now, a part-time worker who may not be working again for a few days can flag urgent cases to support people in other areas, so nothing gets held up in the system.

It’s a much more cohesive, nationalised service. The team can even set up automated alerts when cases require follow-up, or when people haven’t been contacted for a while. It’s been a real time-saver for the Autism New Zealand crew, who can now quickly be assigned leads and requests submitted via their website without a manual process.

Dane is particularly excited that instead of waiting for reports to be collated well after events have occurred, any issues can be immediately flagged and dealt with. With the insights now at their fingertips, the organisation has recently noticed that enquiries about anxiety in schools have risen across the country. The team is now creating dedicated resources and programmes targeted at that – creating near real-time solutions for something they might not have identified for months, back when their information was trapped in notebooks.

Meanwhile, the system is set up to flag important milestones along customers’ journeys, so Autism New Zealand can proactively reach out to support every step of the way. Dynamics 365’s Customer Voice feature even conducts surveys at the end of each service delivery, creating automated reports so Autism New Zealand can easily make further strategic decisions that will improve their services in the future.

A stronger voice for whānau

In fact, the future is already under construction. Clients are being empowered as much as staff. New self-service portal Autism Connect, complete with its own booking system, has been integrated with the Dynamics 365 system so clients will soon be able to sign up to courses using their own personal login, and track the progress of cases. Autism New Zealand is now looking at providing learning tools via the platform.

In essence, Delta and Autism New Zealand have created a roadmap for future services, including greater use of data and analytics tools. And with greater ability to create reports with Power BI, and greater visibility of outcomes, Autism New Zealand is better able to demonstrate the impact of its work, strengthening its capacity to advocate and fundraise on behalf of its clients.

“If we can create this picture about what we should be doing in the community, we can be much better advocates,” Dane says. “It’s going to completely change the way we support people. Now we can be proactive as an organisation, know our customers’ stories and know how other government services are working for them as well.”