When you work in a service-related industry, focusing only on ROI isn't always the best to measure a project's success , says Scott Ranson, vice president and CIO at Brookdale Senior Living.
"Sometimes you just have to go out on a limb for what you know is the right thing," he says. "Connected Living was one of those things: We're making a difference in folks' lives every single day. It's hard to put a price tag on that."
With a capacity to house 69,000 seniors nationwide, Brookdale is one of the largest owners and operators of senior living communities in the U.S. Its facilities encompass independent living, assisted living, Alzheimer's and dementia care, and skilled nursing centers.
Sara Terry, vice president of Optimum Life at Brookdale, says the company is always looking for new ways its residents can live more meaningful lives.
Senior Living Meets Social Media
In 2009, at an industry conference, Ranson was introduced to Connected Living, a social networking startup for senior citizens. Acknowledging the rise of social media and the impact it's had on others, Brookdale considered bringing this technology to its senior citizen residents.
Because Connected Living was a young company, Ranson worked with it for more than a year both to further develop the product with the specific features and enhancements Brookdale wanted and to negotiate a contract. At the end of 2010, Brookdale piloted Connected Living in a handful of its Chicago communities.
The pilot, which lasted a year, was a basic implementation with little capital investment, Ranson says. They looked for underutilized rooms in Brookdale's community areas and set up a few desks with computers. They made "ambassadors" available to seniors who wanted to learn about computers and taught them how to use the dashboard.
The Connected Living platform, which is cloud-based, features an interface with access to the Internet, email, video chat, photos, a library, games and a social networking component. Residents fill out a profile with information about their family, hobbies and interests. Family members, too, can securely log in to keep in touch.
Looking for Lasting Social Engagement
The metrics most important to Ranson and his team during the pilot centered around customer satisfaction and participation.
"We wanted to know not only that people liked it, but that they still liked it two, six or eight months after rolling it out," he says. "We're presented with a lot of ideas from vendors and we have to be specific about the ones we try. Brookdale is a people-to-people business, so it's about how customers and their families adapt to the technology, which tells us if it's good."
After the year-long pilot, Ranson presented Brookdale's executive board with the results, and the board was impressed. Ranson got the go-ahead to expand the Connected Living project, which included a $9.5 million investment in enterprise wireless and the construction of new Internet cafes, which vary from $8,000 to $12,000 depending on size. Ranson says the costs are shared by Brookdale customers and the company itself.
"We wanted to completely transform the spaces into what you'd see at a place like Starbucks," Ranson says. To build hype, they'd put out color swatches so residents could see the color of the new furniture and watch its progress.
The Internet cafes include touch-screens, Hewlett-Packard computers, overhead projectors, webcams and printers. The openings of new Internet cafes are a big deal, too: Each has a ribbon-cutting ceremony that residents and their families attend, complete with a celebration after.
Today there are between 4,000 and 5,000 Brookdale seniors in 45 communities using Connected Living and the Internet café spaces, and the company plans to roll out more this year. One key to the program's success, Ranson says, are the ambassadors.
"If we had gone into these communities and put the computers in a corner, no one would have used them," Ranson says. "The ambassadors all wear blue shirts, kind of like the Geek Squad, and help seniors who have gravitated toward learning about it. Some of our seniors have even become ambassadors themselves."
Terry says that seeking out "resident champions" was also key to boost adoption.
"You don't go to senior citizens and ask them, 'Who wants to learn about computers?' Instead, it's, 'Who do you want to connect with and how?'" she says. "Do you want to see pictures of your granddaughter? Find the farm on Google Earth that you grew up on? Once older adults get comfortable, they think they're swimming in the same ocean as their grandchildren. They feel proud."
Introducing senior citizens to technology has been life-changing for them, Ranson says. "There are residents who have lived in the same building that didn't know someone on the fifth floor was a World War II veteran. You see residents Skyping with their grandkids for the first time, and recapping their childhood by posting memoirs online. It's empowering for them," he says.
IT Thinking Goes Beyond Sales and Savings
Stepping outside the corporate box and trying something new—regardless of its ROI—has been an important lesson, Ranson says.
"When you put a business case and ROI together you either want it to save money or generate more sales. This was more about doing the right thing so the folks that live with us can live a more fulfilling life in their twilight years," he says. "Sometimes you have to roll the dice and this has certainly paid off in spades for Brookdale and Connected Living, but mostly for the customers who live with us."
Kristin Burnham covers consumer technology, social networking, social business and enterprise collaboration for CIO.com. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kmburnham. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org