Welcome on board - Mercy Ships finds faster way for HR to onboard volunteers

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman March 17, 2015
Summary:
The operator of the world’s largest civilian hospital ship has developed a custom web app to recruit the medics, ship’s crew and others needed to deliver healthcare to patients in the developing world

Arrival of the AFM to Sierra Leone
Directors at humanitarian organisation Mercy Ships  estimate that around 75% of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a port city. So what better way to bring safe, affordable healthcare to its poorest communities than by sea?

At 16,572 tonnes, the charity’s MV Africa Mercy is the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, boasting five operating theatres, state-of-the art intensive care and recovery facilities and beds for 82 in-patients. It’s also home at any one time to a staff of 450 volunteers, among them doctors, dentists, nurses, teachers, cooks, engineers and the ship’s crew, who serve for periods ranging between two weeks and five years. Every year, some 1,200 people volunteer their time and skills on board the Africa Mercy.

Recruiting those volunteers is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Without the right medical staff, Mercy Ships would be unable to provide urgent medical care to patients with little or no access to it otherwise. Without a full crew, maritime compliance rules mean that the Africa Mercy couldn’t sail at all.

Until recently, the process of applying to volunteer with Mercy Ships was a cumbersome, time-consuming process that involved downloading a PDF-based form from the charity’s website, filling it in by hand, attaching references and other additional pages of information, and scanning or mailing the application back to the Mercy Ships HR team, based at its international operations centre in Garden Valley, Texas.

Members of that team, meanwhile, were often forced to decipher difficult handwriting, manually input data into the charity’s Vista HRMS from PDS Software  and perform numerous follow-ups with individual applicants.

It was a major headache for everyone involved, according to Cory Creamer, a business analyst at Mercy Ships:

For some of the people we try so hard to encourage to volunteer with us, what we were asking them to do, in terms of applying, took a lot of their time and energy. Just as they thought they were close to getting done, we’d hit them over the head with yet another request for information or paperwork.

Today, that headache’s been cured, thanks to a custom web recruitment app, developed in-house, from scratch, in just seven months, using a cloud-based rapid application development (RAD) platform from OutSystems [www.outsystems.com]. Says Creamer:

We started to build in March 2014 and the application went live on October 27th, with just 1.5 FTEs [full-time employees], full integration with our back-end HR system and the capability to alert HR staff when a new application is submitted.

Record time

That speed of delivery set something of a record at Mercy Ships, acknowledges CIO Chris Gregg. He heads up an IT team comprising just 25 people (six of whom are based on the Africa Mercy itself), with very little in the way of in-house development skills:

We’ve come from an old-school position of buying software and configuring it, and have only developed our own software very occasionally and mostly in the past. And, even then, our delivery as a department has tended to be [along] relatively long timescales. We recognised the need to accelerate our delivery, because we know that we had missed the boat a number of times in terms of delivering to the organisation a solution that it needed. We knew we needed to start moving at the pace of the organisation.

The beauty of using OutSystems, adds Creamer, is that relatively few development skills are required to build robust web applications:

This allowed us to not have to understand how stuff is done, because it comes with pre-built code and widgets and drag-and-drop capabilities. My background isn’t in development, and while I’ve always partnered with developers, and understand the basics of programming, I don’t necessarily know how to write the code myself.

But if we wanted to get into the detail, and customise it some, that flexibility was there, too. [OutSystems] allows you to get down to the granular level if you want or need to, right down to the level of Javascript and jQuery.

The other great thing it has - and it’s so simple - is that you just push a button to deploy your app. The platform takes care of making sure that everything’s compiled and it won’t let you deploy the app if there are broken links or things that won’t work. It notifies you even of errors you’ve made in making different modules work together, through [self-healing and validation engine] TrueChange. If you make a change, and it causes a ripple-effect problem elsewhere in the app, it will automatically correct this if it can and notify you if it can’t.

mercy ship
OutSystems also handled integration with Mercy Ships’ Vista HRMS and the underlying Microsoft SQL Server database, but most importantly of all, it delivered a final product that was slick and modern and easy-to-use. Giving volunteers who use consumer-focused web apps constantly in their day-to-day lives a great experience of applying for Mercy Ships was, says Creamer:

front of mind at all times throughout this project.

Since 27 October last year, the online recruitment app has handled 100 percent of those applications. Applying takes most volunteers between one and two hours and some get done in as little as 30 minutes. Previously, it could take days. They can fill out the application in any order they choose, saving their application as they go and coming back to it later. If they don’t come back to it later, the HR team can follow up with them and see if they need help. The volume of applications started has risen by 20 percent since the app went live.

Says CIO Chris Gregg:

What struck me when I first say OutSystems is that not only would it allow us, with our limited resources, to deliver a high-quality app, but also move at a pace we’d never been able to achieve before. In that respect, it looked pretty promising - but I wasn’t convinced at first that it would stack up as OutSystems said it would.

But it has done. Seven months from concept to delivery is a huge step forward in our world in terms of speed. Looking to the future, we’ll be looking for other ways to use OutSystems for building other web and mobile apps. We don’t have a specific plan right now - but I’m certainly sold on the concept.

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