June 19, 2018

How BRAC Uses Field Data for Continuous Improvement

Elaine Chang

How BRAC Uses Field Data for Continuous Improvement

When BRAC, one of the world’s largest NGOs, tried to digitize its paper-based record system to improve decision making and provide continuous improvement for its Skills Development Programme (SDP) in Bangladesh, it hit a wall.

SDP enables disadvantaged women and men to have better jobs by improving their skills, their income and their workplaces. It focuses on apprenticeship and entrepreneurship based interventions for the informal economy, enterprise development in the light engineering sector and building a pool of skilled professionals for Bangladesh’s increasingly capital intensive formal sector. As of 2018, over 60,000 youth, business owners and migrants have been reached with the goal of reaching half a million over the next few years. To achieve that scale, SDP needs to analyze their operations and results in a smart way to encourage continuous improvement of the program. BRAC had built other MIS systems so the SDP team took those into consideration in building their solution.

”Management wasn’t using those systems to really drive their decisions,” said Eshrat Waris, the manager of the Skills Development Programme, during a recent TaroWorks webinar. “After studying, (it) became clear those systems were being built for donor reporting…(but) it’s not where the data flows from. The data flows from the field.”

continuous improvement

Image: Paper files BRAC used previously to store and manage field data. Source: BRAC

Hoping to make it easier to aggregate, analyze and act on large amounts of collected field data, Waris and her colleagues had also previously tried several data collection, analysis and decision-making approaches, including spreadsheets with macros. They discovered, however, that different versions of Excel in use by BRAC across the country created compatibility and performance issues.

The SDP team eventually turned to TaroWorks’ mobile field services management app and its offline Salesforce.com CRM to power a pilot project for 15 branches. The goal was to see if the use of mobile, digital tools could make data management more efficient and inform daily decisions to foster continuous improvement in operations.

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Embedding the Pilot into Operations

The new TaroWorks/Salesforce.com system was piloted for SDP’s Skills Training for Advancing Resources (STAR). STAR trains disadvantaged youth, especially women and people with disabilities, through on-the-job apprenticeships. The apprentices or learners are placed under a Master Craftsperson (MCP), who is an experienced shop owner or worker within a trade including tailoring, mobile phone servicing, refrigeration, aluminum fabrication and beauticians. Fifteen branches were selected for the pilot, which was run by a network of 2 Area Managers, 6 District Managers and 15 Programme Organizers. The front line field staff member, each Programme Organizer is responsible for an average of 56 learners. The 15 pilot branches had 1741 learners and 721 MCPs.

One of BRAC’s biggest challenges in using mobile technology and a cloud database to foster continuous improvement of apprenticeship program field operations was how these tools would meet the needs of the far-flung team of Programme Organizers.

“… it is a very much a field heavy operation and for us data was absolutely critical for understanding what was happening on the ground, to make decisions, to take decisions and to understand are we targeting the right people are we targeting the right trades,” said Waris during the webinar. “… we needed a technology where we were able to capture the data as things were happening in the field. We needed a real-time field operations management system and for us TaroWorks served that purpose.“

continuous improvement

Image: The Skills Development Programme includes training in pharmacy. Source: BRAC

When Waris and her colleagues designed the system pilot, they wanted to make sure that it would be successfully adopted, so these were some of the design principles they followed:

  • Design for the end-user: Because the priority was never to serve a donor, they focused on finding a tool and designing forms with the field end-user’s skills in mind. After all, if data lies in the field, they needed to design for the field.
  • Be rapid, be scrappy: They wanted to start piloting at the very beginning of a new apprentice cohort, making timing very tight. They recognized that you don’t need the perfect product to deploy, but rather a minimum viable product. Then, as you get feedback from users, continue to iterate and improve.
  • Be embedded with operations: Get to know the realities on the ground and make sure the technology complements day-to-day operations.

When it came time to assess whether the pilot was successful or not, Waris realized that it wasn’t any particular indicator that proved success, but rather that all the participants were speaking up and offering ideas for new forms and new analysis. The system was on its way to being adopted and encouraging continuous improvement of operations. As a result, BRAC scaled the system from 15 to 141 branches overnight.

Signs of Continuous Improvement

TaroWorks was used to create and administer mobile data collection surveys, digitize key elements of daily field management and identify trends or roadblocks through data visualization dashboards within Salesforce. As a result, BRAC was able to show continuous improvement in a number of areas including:

  • Optimizing Learner Placement: The Skills Development Programme has a mandate to recruit learners with disabilities for apprenticeships but the challenge was finding the right Master Craftspersons to train and mentor these program participants with special needs. Using its digitally collected data on learners and business mentors who trained them, BRAC ran a artificial neural network analysis to identify the type of trainer who would work best with this segment of the learner population. It turned out that business owners with eight or more years of business experience, who had reached a particular level in their own education and had trained at least seven prior apprentices, were an ideal match for learners with disabilities.
  • Gauging Learner Progress: Programme Organizers needed to assess the progress of learners they brought into the apprenticeship program but the organizers didn’t have a trainer’s subject expertise with which to gauge learner performance. BRAC created guidance in its mobile app which characterized, for example, the correct way to cut a garment for people being trained as tailor apprentices. Programme Organizers then watched the apprentice at work and gave them a grade in the app based on how their work compared to the outlined standard. This methodology gave BRAC insight into which learners might be falling behind in their training and would benefit from additional support. BRAC will now be able to “…triangulate this information with our placement information to see how well our curriculum is enabling our learners to get higher paid jobs,” said Skills Development Programme manager Waris.
  • Assessing Field Staff Performance: Comparing 2017 to 2018 data, BRAC spotted a significant drop in the amount of information being edited by field managers using a mobile survey to help select learners for the apprenticeship program. Upon further investigation, BRAC discovered the managers were not doing enough independent validation of prior work done by the Programme Organizers to evaluate and recommend candidates for the SDP. So BRAC then asked managers to provide a digital signature attesting that they’d done the validation, which in turn increased recorded editing time.  As a check against those results, BRAC tweaked the survey further by using the term “approval” rather than “selection” when asking managers to sign off on the learner candidate picked by their subordinate. As a result, survey editing time decreased but was still higher than first measured, indicating managers were focusing more attention on validation thereby advancing continuous improvement efforts.

continuous improvement

Image: TaroWorks being used on a smartphone at a learner’s house. Source: BRAC

Looking back on these and other examples of how TaroWorks and Salesforce technology helped produce and analyze data leading to continuous improvement of the program, Waris said:

“This is the impact we saw from our operations side  – how we are using the data at every level to drive the data back into the operation design and really improve our productivity and our efficiency and our effectiveness as much as possible.”

Continuous Improvement: Lessons Learned

With the mobile technology pilot program completed, BRAC learned important lessons, which helped it expand TaroWorks and Salesforce use across all of its field operations in Bangladesh.

  • Design for the field not for the donor. BRAC held a design workshop with field teams to elicit suggestions for new product features and functionality that would meet their needs. Then, rather than “aim for perfection,” versions of BRAC’s TaroWorks data collection forms and other features or functionality were rolled out as if they were minimum viable products, allowing the organization to win the trust of field staff by making changes as feedback came in from users.
  • Be embedded with field operations. At first, “We decided to read the operational manual and build our data model accordingly,” said Waris, who came to realize that, “There is the operation model and then there is reality.” For example, field surveys they thought would be done sequentially as outlined in the operations manual were actually conducted simultaneously in real-world conditions, an insight gained from observing work in the field.
  • Technology is the easy part. It didn’t take long to learn how to build a data collection and analysis system or to use Salesforce and TaroWorks, said Waris. The hardest part of the process was what she called “behavioral change” or getting people to accept and trust any system, which shifted their efforts from a paper-based approach to a digital platform.
  • Be patient, behavioral change takes time.  Regional Managers who had been working for BRAC for more than 25 years had not touched a smartphone or a laptop when they were asked to use mobile and cloud-based technology, said Waris. Now, with training, those same people are building out customized data reports in Salesforce having developed a sense of ownership and independence.

continuous improvement

 Image: BRAC team members during a TaroWorks training session. Source: BRAC

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About the author...

Elaine Chang

Elaine Chang

Director, Market Development and Customer Success

Elaine’s background in marketing research and data analytics has shaped her goal of helping organizations use insights from better data to create positive change in communities. She has a BS in Marketing and Finance from New York University, and an MBA from the University of Michigan. Elaine is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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