When Modernizing Your Agency’s OMS, It’s Best to Remember the Law of Gravity

Picture two men standing in a park across the street from a ten story building. They watch as a young boy prepares to throw a bright red, aerodynamic object, round at one end with a shaft and feathers at the other, as far as possible into the park beyond. One of the two observers is convinced that the object, if thrown properly and with enough force, will fly. The other, a physics buff, is certain it will not. The boy gives a mighty heave and the object soars overhead, silently tracing an impressive arc high over the heads of the two men and deep into the park across the street. For a time, it would appear that the well-designed object had defied Newton’s Law of Gravity and achieved flight. Until, of course, it crashed hard into the park beyond. Undaunted, the boy retrieves the object and launches it again and again, occasionally from taller buildings nearby, only to achieve exactly the same result – a beautifully arced flight terminating with an inevitable crunch into the ground below. Newton wins every time.

When it comes to technology, Newton’s Law of Gravity and other universal rules can be harder to identify. It’s especially difficult when smooth-as-silk marketing and sales efforts try to lure you into long-term commitments with one-sided benefits. For the corrections CIO, one of those universal rules should be, “When planning a comprehensive OMS modernization, understand the risks and limitations of the CRM-based approach.” Stated more plainly, be aware that a customer relationship management-based approach to offender management has never been successful, anywhere in the world. You simply cannot build a scalable, mission-critical OMS from a CRM platform – it’s as true as Newton’s Law of Gravity.

I’m not opposed to CRM technology. Indeed, CRM applications have been delivering value to enterprises across numerous industry verticals for nearly two decades. By aggregating customer interaction data from multiple systems across the organization, such as website visits, online and in-store purchases, product preferences, and service history, it is possible to gain comprehensive views of an individual customer and customer populations. That leads to improved segmentation, more automated and accurately targeted sales efforts, and improved business performance. Whether it’s via a multi-tenanted application such as Salesforce, or a flexible CRM tool kit for building vertical-specific applications, there’s no doubt that the enterprise has benefitted from taking a customer-centric approach to manage and grow the business.

For large, complex corrections operations, it is tempting to look at the CRM approach from a high-level and imagine that it can be tailored to meet the agency’s broad information needs. After all, the many business processes that the agency undertakes are generally offender-centric. The ability to aggregate all offender information in one place and make it visible to any corrections officer as and when it’s required is a compelling concept, especially when so many offender management environments are running on outdated mainframe environments. One CRM vendor has gone so far as to suggest that an offender population is essentially no different than a customer population, except for the increased level of scrutiny.

That said, why not use a CRM platform to modernize your offender information requirements? Leveraging a CRM infrastructure is frequently billed as a fast, efficient way to build precisely those views of offender information that every agency needs. As it turns out, more than one agency has gone beyond imagining such a solution and spent millions of dollars to try to build a modern OMS on a CRM platform. Unfortunately, success has been elusive for every agency that has tried. Money and time have been wasted, and jobs have been lost.

There are many logical and recurring reasons why the CRM approach has never worked, despite numerous agencies in multiple countries placing multi-million dollar bets to try. Here are some of the primary reasons that the CRM approach hasn’t been able to defy gravity:

  1. The architecture is wrong. The CRM approach assumes a process- and task-driven approach to the requirements for offender management, and it has a business rules engine at its core. It’s a logical approach if all information requirements are seen as steps in a sequential process. Unfortunately for a large, complex corrections operation, the reality is quite different.True, repeatable business processes define the majority of operational activity for the agency. But given their size and scale, the massive daily demand for information does not follow a sequential process – rather, it is better viewed as a never-ending series of interdependent, concurrent processes. Across the agency – in both operational and back office settings – users with specific rights and permissions are constantly accessing discrete components of the offender’s profile. Some of the information activity is sequential, such as when an offender is initially admitted to a facility, but much of the information demand is non-sequential. Consider the impact of a change in status for a given offender, given his confirmed presence in a gang. That single change, which must be recorded in the OMS, has a direct and immediate impact on the activities he is allowed to do, the offenders with which he can and cannot associate, and the precautions the corrections officer must now take in his interactions with the offender. And the change must be reflected on a real time basis, as data integrity and accuracy are key aspects of the OMS – – the need for a secure, centralized environment, enabling information access at any moment, always accurate on a real-time basis. Failure to capture that one change in risk status and communicate it in real-time across the corrections enterprise can have disastrous consequences. The challenge for a rules-driven CRM approach is that these engines cannot cope with the necessary levels of concurrent access, response time and scalability that your mission-critical OMS requires.
  2. With CRM, it’s a ‘start from the ground up’ approach every time. It’s a reality that runs counter to the time-sensitive business pressures and budget constraints of the modern corrections agency. Instead, the OMS should come with a high degree of existing, purpose-built functionality out of the box, and deliver extensive modular and configurable capabilities.In addition to the complex business processes for a large agency, the underlying infrastructure for a mission-critical safety and security application is of equal importance. For example, the process of provisioning user rights and permissions, often for multiple roles; the ability to reliably audit every system transaction; the ease of integration with numerous other applications serving the operation – these are but a few of the essential considerations which are consistent across every corrections agency. It’s why the commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) approach to modern OMS environments, with their emphasis on configurability over customizability, have become the preferred option around the world. With the CRM approach, it is too tempting to see the ease of customization as an easy path to deriving greater value, not recognizing that the business processes in one agency are highly consistent with the processes in another. While time and dollars are being spent on customizing one process, the other important business processes cannot be addressed. The not-surprising result is that long before a comprehensive CRM-based solution can be delivered to the agency, executive patience has worn thin and budgets have dried up.
  3. Domain expertise matters. Without overstating it, when things go wrong in a correctional environment, lives are at risk and public safety can be compromised. It’s why well-defined, repeatable operational processes exist – to minimize the risk of bad things happening. And the OMS is an essential information asset in this risk minimization effort. It is critical that the vendor of the OMS have a strong, experienced-based understanding of the full gamut of operational processes and interdependencies, and the essential data elements associated with each of them. On this front, the peddlers of the CRM infrastructure approach simply cannot pass muster, and they cannot point to a single instance of having understood and delivered a scalable OMS for a complex correctional agency.

The typical corrections agency will modernize its OMS environment about every twelve to fifteen years. With that modernization effort comes numerous considerations – ability to handle data volumes, knowledge of corrections business processes, and impact to operational and back office staff across a broad enterprise. Most importantly, can the solution place the agency in a position to drive greater efficiency into operational performance and enable improved offender outcomes? Those are fundamental questions. The effort to modernize the OMS is often years in the planning and requirements gathering, and its initial price tag will be in the millions of dollars. In seeking a solution, avoiding a technology approach which attempts to defy the law of gravity will go a long way toward ensuring the success of the OMS investment, and delivering improved business value in the long-run.

© 2017 Abilis Solutions. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Eric Le Goff

Eric is a proven entrepreneur and technologist, and the visionary behind the Abilis strategy for the global corrections market. Based in Montreal, he oversees a growing company of more than 200 employees, and drives the primary business and technology direction for the company. Eric is well-known for his commitment to customer satisfaction and remains actively engaged with corrections leaders in all Abilis customer sites.

Eric is a frequent speaker and panelist at various regional and international corrections-oriented conferences, and is well recognized in the market for driving forward key investments in mobility, business intelligence and cloud-based computing for corrections. He holds a Master in Computer Science from EISTI (École international des sciences du traitement de l’information) in France. Eric is an active member in the World Presidents’ Organization – Young Presidents’ Organization and the International Corrections and Prisons Association.

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