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The Art of Strategic Partnerships, the Collaborative Advantage

November 04, 2022
Amber Bardon and Ken Arneson

Episode 2 of Raising Tech is all about the art and the science behind building strategic partnerships in technology. As today’s guest, Ken Arneson, CEO of Evergreen Retirement Community, puts it, “as the world becomes increasingly more complicated, the ability to figure it all out on your own, becomes increasingly more difficult, this has directly led to the need for more partnerships”.

Join Amber Bardon and Ken Arneson as they unpack how a technology partnership can advance your organization’s growth, increase your credibility in the market and with resident stakeholders, how to identify the exact outcomes you are looking to achieve through a partnership and finally, how to evaluate if a partner is the right culture fit for your organization. This episode is full of tactical steps and key questions providers can use today to begin taking the first steps towards a game-changing partnership.

Raising Tech is powered by Parasol Alliance, The Strategic Planning & Full-Service IT Partner exclusively serving Senior Living Communities.

Amber: Welcome everybody to Raising Tech Podcast, Episode 2: Strategic Partnerships. I'm Amber Bardon, host of this podcast and I have with me today, Ken Arneson, the CEO of Evergreen Retirement Community. Our podcast topic today is Strategic Partnerships and the collaborative advantage of strategic partnerships specifically in technology. I am so excited to have Ken Arneson with me today. Ken Arneson has a long and a very interesting history in the senior living industry. He is also a founding member of Parasol Alliance and also a board member. Ken, you have such a rich history of working in the business. I believe you've been the CEO of Evergreen for about 25 years or so. Can you tell me a little bit about how did you get into this industry and how long have you been working in this field?


Ken: Well, I've actually been very fortunate to be in the field around 34 years and my career started while I was in college and I worked as a housekeeper at a local skilled nursing facility, wanting to look at growing in the field. I talked with the administrator and developed an administrator in training program. I was a receptionist, I was an aide and worked my way up through quality management into the for-profit sector and was very blessed to come to Evergreen and very proud to be the CEO of the organization.


Amber: Wow. And Ken, one of the things I want to share with our listeners is the first time I met you, I always remember this about you. So, you were introduced to myself as well as another provider at the same time. And one of the things I remember that you said to the other provider in the room is you said, “if there's anything you want to try in senior living ask me first because I've already done it.” And that's one of the things that I love about working with you and having you on our board is because you have such an innovative mind and you're so open to new ideas and trying new things. And I think that you, you know, that's something that ha you have brought so much value in with different partnerships that you've tried and different ideas that you've tried. Can you tell us a little bit about your approach to partnership and collaboration and why that's so important?


Ken: One of the main reasons it's so important is as a single site, you know, just to term single site, it applies that you're trying to do as much as possible on your own. And the realization is the world is getting more complicated, whether it's your smartphone, vehicles, it doesn't seem to matter what it is you work with, the world's complicated and the ability to figure it out on your own is going to be a challenge.


I was taught at a very early age from my grandfather that a wise individual looks for smarter people to surround themselves with. And that's led to the development of partnerships. Another reason for partnerships is: you can grow more as an individual and an organization when you have the ability to do it with someone. Like if you ever go on any adventure, what fun is, they're just doing it completely on your own? You don't have any good stories you can share with someone. Plus you're not there, are things you can learn from one another. So partnerships for Evergreen and becoming even more strategic has been essential to this organization being around hopefully another 50-100 years.


Amber: Yeah. We hear so much right now about collaboration and partnerships, again, as you mentioned for single sites. I definitely feel in the industry that there is this sense that single sites need to come together that, they don't need to do it on their own. You know, the concept of vertical integration, combining experience to work together. What is your sense of how, you’re located in Wisconsin, what are you seeing in terms of your peers in the industry and, and types of collaborations that you've seen and what have you seen that's been most successful and maybe what are some of the things that you've seen that don't work as well with the partnership?


Ken: Alright. That is a real interesting question because part of a partnership is having a willingness to take risks and actually say you're going to do something. There's a tendency that individuals like to talk and what they want to do is they want to talk at a lower level where it's safe. It could be, or maybe we could share purchasing, maybe we could do buying together and not that those don't have value, but a true partnership needs to be something that's going to advance an organization. And for organizations, I am noticing that there is more acknowledgement of the need to do it. The challenge is figuring out how to do it and who you do it, which is one of the things I look at is almost comparable to dating. You know, it's the idea of how do you kind of figure out is this somebody I'd really like to get to know? How do you go about getting to know them? How do you build a relationship? How does it hopefully turn into something longterm and your hope and no point the other person comes in and says, you know what, when we were first together, I felt special. I just don't feel special anymore. That's the more difficult part with partnerships is making sure that all parties can continue to grow and hopefully it feel special.


Amber: I love that analogy. That's really interesting. And I know something that we've talked about at Parasol Alliance, as well as what happens when those original members retire or possibly leave the organization. How does that change the dynamic of the partnership? Maybe that's a great segue. Can you talk a little bit about the specific partnership experience you've had in bounding Parasol Alliance to give our listeners more of a a concrete concept into how a partnership actually can get started and how that process works, and then some of the benefits and maybe takeaways that you’ve learned.


Ken: Well, from a professional growth standpoint, especially being in my position now, I've had the most professional growth through actually being engaged in the development of partnerships. And especially with Parasol. The other individuals who founded parasol and having an individual like Amber, who is leading it. Truly, and it has helped me grow substantially. So, the key part was really finding individuals who were serious about let's do something. And after we found individuals who were saying, yes, we want to do something up to putting money into and taking a risk with what it meant for our individual ITs. The biggest challenge was working with a board and having them become comfortable with going into something that's not truly core because we're not providing it as a partnership like this. Our board though also has grown substantially from going through this process because now they're more comfortable and we've done additional joint ventures and partnerships as a result of it. But it came back to finding people. The other part, when you're looking at this is you also need to be looking for smart people who are really going to be running this partnership. And with, with Parasol, we are blessed. We have an entrepreneur who is leading the organization and that has been key. Again, for us as individual organizations, it's helped us grow substantially. 


Amber: Thank you. For sharing that, how did Evergreen react to the outsourcing of the technology function? Because if I recall you did not outsource a lot of services prior to this.


Ken: No. That kind of comes back to, you know, when they talk single site, you know, and one of the advantages with single site is you're comparable to all those local businesses that were founded and that the idea that we were going to outsource technology, even though we weren't doing it well, as far as the management piece, it was a heavy lift. Initially it was coming up with every reason it wasn't going to work. So, the other part in learning about when you're going to do these partnerships or you're going to be looking to outsource is coming back to what are the reasons you need to do this? Fast forward to today, our organization would never go back to the idea of a single individual that when they went on vacation, we had to lease a satellite phone because if anything here happened, technology wise, we had to be able to reach this individual.


The other part is you don't know what you don't know when you're trying to look at it internally and having those external people who do things better, and the comparable to look at is, it's not uncommon for organizations now to outsource their housekeeping, their laundry. I mean, typically you outsource your heating and cooling all of these because you want to have smarter people who are responsible for those operations. Technology was a scary thing for people, but really it was, it was one of the best decisions we made as an organization.


Amber: Do you have any specific stories maybe you can share?


Ken: Yes. Probably the one story we talk about quite a bit is especially in the age of ransomware, we had a ransomware here and Evergreen, our systems went down and it was very scary because all we saw on the news was we're going to have to pay the ransom. Thankfully, because we had partnered with Parasol, the first thing they did was come in and say, they calm the waters and said yes, we're going to be able to deal with this. And they were able to, within a number of days, have this back up and operating and we didn't have to pay the ransom. 


Another one has been, when we look at our resident population coming in today, they are very tech savvy. The idea of an older adult, not understanding technology, that is something as a society we need to get over. They are a tech-savvy group. There may be growing in how they use it, but a credibility point for an organization is their ability to respond to their customers as they come in and setting them up. Where we’ve had a number of compliments from our residents is that's an area, we do a good job and you know, if we do a good job in technology, that means we're going to be trusted with things that are super important, like care and the other services that we provide. So now we that, but the ransomware is one of my favorite stories. 


Amber: So it sounds like to me, what you're saying is, you know, the biggest value you're getting with the technology partnership is bringing in the expertise to handle things like security and infrastructure, and then taking care of situations that you know, are bound to occur sooner or later, like ransomware attack, the expertise that you bring into other aspects of technology within the community, such as resident support. Are there other key pieces or pain points that are solved and you know, for somebody who's just maybe starting out looking for a technology partnership, what would be some other key areas you would suggest to look to solve problems?


Ken: A major one is the ability to develop your technology strategic plan. If you look at major companies, I mean they have a Chief Information Officer, a number of organizations on their own don't have the ability to afford that. So I think one part is, you know, how do you have that become a part of your team that can help you plan strategically. But if you're going to be doing strategic, they need to understand the field that you're in. So this isn't, you know, where you can just go to your local tech people, they're more of a generalist. You really do need a degree of specialization. The other factor is how will this organization help you through other experiences they've had to grow and save you time.A significant value with Parasol has been, we're seeing more and more things we're thinking of has been tried in another organization that they're providing services to. That saves us a whole lot of time dealing with sales reps and other people who are saying, oh, this is the latest and the greatest you should get it. Technology can a very expensive mistake if you make the wrong decision, both financially, reputation and satisfaction. So I always encourage organizations, talk with your peers you know, find out what they're doing. What's not working. You're probably going to find you have a lot in common and then look at well, how about those organizations that seem to be, they're like us, but they're doing it different and odds are you'll find that there, they partnered with an organization like Parasol. 


Amber: One of the stories I like to tell about Evergreen specifically, as well as it seems like a minor thing that we did, but when we first started working with Evergreen, which was, almost gosh, like six years ago now is we had established a nursing or clinical user group. So we met with your clinical team every month. And this really had a very impactful experience across the organization because your clinical team was, you know, they were pretty dissatisfied with technology. And really the reason was that they just felt that they didn't really have a lot of time to, to put in tickets or requests or their requests weren't addressed or people work third shift. And we basically came up with a method where we had a clipboard and the nurses would go and write down what their issues were. And the manager would keep a log and bring it to these monthly meetings. And I think we even had the onsite technician stop by every week and go over those issues. And once we were actually able to establish this relationship with them and take care of those issues, kind of one by one, we were able to establish this partnership and this trust which is what technology should be. It should be a partnership to support the business, right? That's the purpose of it. You know, and one thing that we say is our mission or one of our visions is to transform technology culture in senior living industry. And it can start with something that small, just gaining the trust of the nursing team, you know, showing how technology can better their lives on a day-to-day basis in their job and make it more efficient. And Evergreen has been such an amazing partner in that journey and working with you, Ken specifically, because you really see that value. When we did your campus expansion, and you made the decision, you put Alexa's in all of the units, right? You know, some of the decisions you made with that project, it's just been so great working with you and having your open-mindedness and your willingness to be innovative and use technology as a business solution. And I really appreciate that about you.



Ken: That’s very kind of you, the reality though, is if an organization is not taking a hard look at areas that are strategically vital and then asking themselves, do we really have the capacity to do all of this on our own? They are going to be selling themselves short and the people they serve. Sometimes you have to figure out what you need to do what's fast or do what's right. And in a situation like this, it really was a combination of being able to do what was best, which was how are we going to provide a better service, both to our staff, residents and people. And then the right thing was finding the right organization that was Parasol to do it. So, it's fun to see our ability now to embrace technology and respond to it.


Amber: So what would your advice be then to our listeners, if they're trying to find someone that they can work with in this capacity. And I feel like this is a tricky question, right? Because we can list a whole bunch of standard questions you can ask, that you could probably go find on the internet, but how do you really know? How do you get to heart? How do you get to the heart of, can this partner support me? And can I trust them? How do you really get to that part to that matter?


Ken: Well, I think one of the ways you can get to it starting first with those internal questions. Do we seem to be having the same issue again and again, and again? It's sort of the fly against the window getting out. And if you're fine, you're continuing to have that. And you have the same conversations. It is a matter of then saying, all right, well, what is it we need to do a little different and getting comfortable. The different may entail finding somebody else to take on those functions. If you can do just those steps initially, then you can start to look at all right, who do you find that’s out there? And, you know, within this field, people are good about sharing. I've always been very proud that within this sector, this is not as sector of leaders and organizations who are boastful.


They want to be here to provide service and make lives better. So I think because we do that, and I know all those organizations are looking at ways to improve efficiency, especially with challenges with staffing. You're looking at the demands from your customers increasing that it should be natural, that whether it's your dining, your housekeeping, your maintenance, the technology should be very high on that list. Finding a partner, and the fun part with a partner is you're a good partner is one you know you can count on when the proverbial poop hits the fan. And that is something we'd look for, whether it's electricians who were here when we had major flooding, whether it's been an our plumbers that show up just numerous people, technology is key. Your technology goes down, you can be floundering in the waters. So, you know, for us, it just was the best and the right thing to do.



Great. Thank you so much for that insight. Well, it kind of has been a real pleasure to speak with you. I think you have brought a lot of value and things for our listeners to think about on this episodes. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.


On our next episode, we're going to be unpacking the technology, strategic plan and roadmap, and talking about how to build it from the infrastructure up. So please join us next month and Ken, any final words?


Ken: You know, what I hope organizations listening to this will, we'll take the opportunity to look at partnerships in areas of technology.


Amber: Alright.Thank you so much.