guide dogs

Mention Guide Dogs and most of us think of ever-patient labradors and golden retrievers. They’ve been creatures of fascination and affection since blind London School of Economics graduate Dr Arnold Cook returned to Perth with his black labrador, Dreena, in 1950, and launched Australia’s first state Guide Dogs association in Western Australia the next year. Today, the guide dogs comprise “probably one third of the services” of the organisation, says Dale Cleaver MAICD, CEO of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, which breeds about 200 puppies a year to meet demand. Other offerings include vision support, early detection programs, vision assessments and independent living skills.

“In some ways,” says Cleaver, “the guide dog was the technology of the day.” Now, with almost 70 years of helping people with low vision and blindness to independence and mobility, the organisation is on a path of increasing digital transformation, using assistive technologies to better serve clients whose needs and experiences cannot be generalised. It’s a process accompanied by substantial board renewal, increasing collaboration across the organisation and efforts to better meet customer needs.

As with many NFPs, technology and changing consumer preferences were catching up with the organisation, while the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has provided clients with more choice. “Guide Dogs needed to be a leader,” says Scott Grimley, access and inclusion officer at the National Museum of Australia, who sits on client advisory groups. “A group that’s providing and advocating for access for vision impairment and blindness needs to be walking the walk. If they say to a company: we need you to do accessible forms, then the organisation needs to be showing they’re doing those accessible forms as well.”

Guide Dogs Australia estimates there are more than 450,000 Australians who are blind or have low vision, and this is expected to significantly increase with an ageing population. The organisation, which the six independent state and territory organisations are members of, has been voted Australian Reader’s Digest most trusted charity brand every year for seven of the past eight years.

The COVID-19 test

The onset of COVID-19 meant 300 or so staff had to transition to remote working — even the guide dogs went to trainers or carers. Guide Dogs NSW/ACT set up a board subcommittee to work closely with management and customers to ensure an improved client experience — and sped up the adoption of digital technology across the organisation.

Not even halfway through its implementation of a client management system, it had to expedite the introduction of telepractice as an alternative to face-to-face services. Zoom meetings meant regional staff felt more connected.

“An O&M (orientation mobility instructor) was able to sit in an office in Sydney and advise someone in regional NSW how to alter their technique in using a cane,” says Grimley.

“When you talk about social distancing, our customers experience this every day, so we just stood in the customers’ shoes,” says Cleaver. “COVID-19 shifted our operational priorities and we are sold on the transformation. We know it pretty much works. This has catapulted us forward.”

“Technology is becoming increasingly integral to what we do and how we do it. The question of how we embrace and utilise it while still maintaining our traditional and personable services to clients is a challenge, but a good challenge to have.” Kieran Lane

Technology challenge

Kieran Lane, chair of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, says the iconic dog is at the heart of the organisation.

“There is unanimous agreement about directors of the importance of its history and the need to protect the brand. However, technology is becoming increasingly integral to what we do and how we do it, both for clients and staff. In the coming years, we aim to enable more clients through assistive technology and optimise our digital communication platforms. The question of how we embrace and utilise it while still maintaining our traditional and personal services to clients is a challenge, but a good challenge to have.”

When Cleaver joined Guide Dogs NSW/ACT as CEO in 2017, he became leader of a staff he calls “really engaged and enthusiastic, but not necessarily aligned with what our purpose was, what [the organisation] needed to be in the future”. The purpose was guiding, prevention and early detection and connection services. “And it was the ‘connection’ piece that particularly resonated with our client customer group, who often face isolation because of their vision loss,” he says.

Trained as a social worker, Cleaver worked as a disability support worker before completing management qualifications and moving into senior management. He is a former CEO of employment services Campbell Page and the Royal District Nursing Service, and was acting national CEO and later chief operating officer at Australian Red Cross, where he led the organisation through the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT was certainly ripe for transformation. Invoices and recruitment and approvals were being done manually — stamped and processed on paper. “Even in 2018, we were still using cheques,” says Cleaver. “We have a great organisation and great people, but we were behind the times in a number of different areas. Our client group is very tech-literate, but a lot of our services were traditional face-to-face.”

Much time was spent first clarifying its purpose — along with its organisation values — from the board through to the grassroots. Management brought in a cloud-based finance system to automate purchasing and approvals, CRM (customer relationship management) for client services and an intranet. Microsoft Teams is now used to communicate and business intelligence platforms to gather data.

Symbolic of the times, it sold its head office building in 2019. A new office in Parramatta was the first of its sites to trial the use of technology services.The organisation hired specialist staff to start digital fundraising and ensured every social media post was accessible.

“It’s quite a shift, but there was a strong support and willingness from staff,” says Cleaver. “When we presented to the board the amount of staff time it was going to save, that was a big motivator.”

“The dog was the technology of the day... We have a great organisation and great people, but we were behind the times in a number of different areas. Our client group is very tech-literate, but a lot of our services were traditional face-to-face.” Dale Cleaver MAICD

Kieran Lane on virtual boards

  • The shift to remote working and virtual meetings was a good thing, although it presents challenges for management, and for boards overseeing culture. For example, how do you continue to manage a workforce you don’t see as much of?
  • With boards meeting virtually, technology is great and we are getting more efficient, but you really do need personal interaction with your board members.
  • The question is, what’s the right level of interaction? As a chair, that’s a really big one. When business decisions are being made, you do need to have personal interaction. It’s all the sidebar conversations you miss. [With video] there’s way more chunking of issues.
  • As a chair, it’s challenging, but I found it really rewarding. It puts more pressure on the chair and it’s a bit more difficult to rein in a meeting. You have to be very focused.

Governance and board renewal

The organisation operates as a federation. Guide Dogs Australia (GDA) is a brand that represents the state-based Guide Dog organisations, which each function independently. Guide Dogs NSW/ACT has a strong relationship with Guide Dogs Victoria (GDV), led by chair Iain Edwards MAICD and CEO Karen Hayes AM FAICD. At three centres of excellence, each organisation has taken on different aspects, rather than replicate activities. There is a joint management group and an overarching governance group. For example, GDV is rolling out a community portal that NSW/ACT will adopt.

Solicitor and former KPMG partner Lane joined the Guide Dogs NSW/ACT board in 2012, becoming president in 2016. He took on the task of board renewal and appointing the new CEO. The board put in place a new constitution with best-practice standards around rotation of members, length of tenure and skills. “That resulted in the board looking at its skill matrix against the strategy — asking, what are the attributes we need?” says Cleaver.

It also substantially improved its board reporting technology, switching to the Diligent board portal. While Lane was one of the later adopters to video technology, he saw the need. “He was an absolute champion for it in terms of our technology strategy,” says Cleaver.

Lane says he’s becoming familiar with how different platforms such as Diligent and Microsoft interact, and is across communication technologies such as Zoom. “I wouldn’t say I’ve come out the other side as a guru, but I’m much better informed.”

In the past 18 months, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT has brought on four new directors, farewelling a number of long-serving directors with up to 20 years of service. New to the board of nine were, Robin Low GAICD, now chair of the finance and risk committee, and also a director of IT company Appen and food services startup Marley Spoon; Darryl Newton GAICD, chair of the Centre for Eye Health, a subsidiary of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT; and Jacqui Jones, a former CEO of the Australian Business and Community Network. Late last year, it added Preeti Bajaj, CEO of startup Clipsal Solar, who has led enterprise model transformations.

Bajaj says when first approached by the recruiter, she said she had grown up in India and had no dogs. “He said, ‘You teach us about technology and we’ll teach you about dogs’.”

While Bajaj is the director charged with looking at the organisation’s digital transformation, Jones will be charged with coordinating input from the regional advisory committees.

Lane says including client perspectives via the regional advisory committees (RAC) had been tried before. “The RACs are only as good as the resources we devote to them,” he says. “They need a place at the table... the committee needs to report back into the board. It’s a big governance issue. You can’t just have people talking into the wind — if people are talking, they need to know someone is listening.”

Bajaj gives the board 110 per cent for its efforts so far. She has been drawing on insights from the user experience design approaches the Clipsal Solar team learned in Silicon Valley to help Guide Dogs improve its client experience. “We have a client advisory group, community hub, working out what digital assistance we can give and what our technology investment ratios are,” says Bajaj.

She is keen to ultimately see board reports via audio. She notes that competing for a set pool of capital to deliver services, and with the NDIS and other options, there is increasing choice available to clients. “Clients have a choice and they listen to whoever best listens to their needs,” she says.

Tech assist

In 2018-19, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT piloted two regional advisory committees for clients to raise ideas and provide feedback. In June, following advice from these groups, the organisation launched an adaptive technology assistance desk so people could call for help with assistive software. The help desk, says Scott Grimley, access and inclusion officer at the National Museum of Australia and a member of the Guide Dogs advisory committee, now answers industry questions about how to use JAWS (job access with speech) and NVDA (non-visual desktop access).

Grimley says there’s a joke among the blind and vision-impaired: “Now you’re blind, you have to pay the Apple tax.” He is referring to Apple’s inclusion of accessibility features into mass-market products. “Since the iPhone 3, you take it out of the box and a blind person can use it.”

Other companies have improved assistive technology. Android phones have TalkBack, Cobolt makes talking ovens and the University of Dresden has developed a screen reader that presents tactile graphics.

Grimley, declared legally blind at 27, is looking forward to two new bits of technology. One is the iOS 14, in which AI provides information missing from the coding of sites and apps — so a button won’t only read as “button” but “go back” or “add to cart”. The second is the hope that the Guide Dogs NSW/ACT GPS app could be incorporated in the Apple watch, so the hand that holds his phone would be free, while the other holds his black labrador guide dog, Dudley.

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT CEO Dale Cleaver MAICD anticipates more technological upheaval — dog health tracking, objective measures of gait and pace, virtual reality (to simulate shopping centres, train stations and the like) as part of the future training of both clients and guide dogs. The organisation even foresees robotic sighted guides.

“Universal design needs to be brought into technology so that it’s usable by everybody,” says Grimley.