Application strategy: the most exciting #ukhousing topic? Maybe not, but it’s key to aligning your IT tools with business objectives and improved data intel.
Who needs an application strategy, anyway?
The case for an application strategy starts at executive level. Social housing professionals often ask how technology can help them achieve their business objectives. You might want to:
- Better mitigate risk
- Expand your digital offer to customers
- Be more proactive with reporting and governance
- Improve value for money.
Many housing associations aspire to achieve an omnichannel service delivery model. This is where customers get consistent service, no matter which channel they use. Someone might apply on a website, then switch seamlessly to an app. But if a problem occurs, they can also phone the housing provider and speak to a person who can chat about their contact history.
These aspirations are not easy to achieve for many housing organisations. For example, if you previously procured a payments portal, then developed separate repairs web functionality later, the two systems may not talk to each other or share data. This can lead to a disjointed customer experience. The more standalone bolt-ons you implement to satisfy immediate needs, the harder it gets to create seamless services.
Clues to look for
Many housing providers have developed a sprawl of applications over time. That’s not surprising. When you’re running services day-to-day and fixing problems, it’s not easy to stick to a long-term plan; service delivery often takes top priority. Adding in the cultural challenge of trying to change systems that colleagues know (and even sometimes love!) can be tricky.
Sometimes you need an external trigger – perhaps a contract ending, or advance warning that software will not be supported in future, will prompt change. These events focus activity on selecting replacement options.
So what clues can help you spot possible challenges? The spreadsheet trail is a good place to start. It’s almost a ‘given’ when I start any review, that I’ll find teams who have lots of spreadsheets that supplement other systems (asbestos, gas certificates and anti-social behaviour are common).
Another clue involves understanding whether your data can help you achieve your long-term vision. One recent housing client wanted to remove barriers which were preventing their team delivering great services at first point of contact. They found that data conflicts between applications in their service centre, and staff having to jump between various applications, was causing bottlenecks.
In a time-limited, resource-constrained world, many housing professionals still work on a tactical basis. With reporting, monthly traffic light systems are good to track ongoing performance, but they don’t help with the bigger question of how services could be delivered more efficiently. And they don’t help you predict how doing X instead of Y might affect your business, or its customers. That’s where an application strategy can make a big difference.
Two key elements
There are two key elements you need to focus on to have an effective plan for your applications:
The process starts with your business plan and organisation values. It’s your ‘why’ and sets guiding principles to follow. Like any strategy, you need a clear vision and a clear picture of what a good result looks like. Think strengths, opportunities, aspirations and desired results.
By the end of this step, you’ve mapped all your current applications. We call this the ‘as is’ map. Now you can see where systems overlap or conflict and spot gaps to address.
You might have aspirations to use predictive analytics and modelling. If 50 per cent of your customers pick up the phone, but you could encourage half of them to self-serve, how much could you reinvest in other services? Or, if you have data system and service silos, how can you change that and explore how cross-service links affect complaints?
Now it’s time to create a future state diagram; the ‘to be’ model. This should be more streamlined than the first example. It’s where you’ve removed overlaps, improved integrations, retired unnecessary applications and so on. It might also introduce new layers, such as customer relationship systems, a knowledge base or improved reporting functionality.
Armed with a clear strategic direction, it’s time to look at your planned journey and build the roadmap. This builds a series of steps and a timeline, with costs to show how you’ll get from A to B.
Your choices will depend on past decisions, application availability and available resources. If you’ve recently implemented a new housing management system, you probably don’t want to rip it up and start again. But any systems due for replacement will be high on your list of priorities. The same goes for any systems that won’t be supported in future.
An application roadmap takes time to deliver. Two or three years is common for many housing organisations. The trick is to stay focused on your overall business objectives and keep track of progress. As each system comes up for replacement, you can then change things with your ultimate goal in mind. And if the unexpected happens (in other words, always!), you can adjust your strategy to reflect changing business and customer priorities.
Application strategy: in-house, or consultancy support?
Many housing associations and local authority housing teams already have their own IT specialists. You may wonder, do you really need external support for this task?
The answer is (drumroll…) it depends!
With a large technical team, you may have scope to reallocate resource away from day-to-day work – assigning dedicated IT professionals to conduct a market assessment and build the strategy and roadmap.
But few housing providers have this luxury, and that’s typically when people turn to housing technology consultants like DTL Creative. Consultancy support can bring in much-needed market knowledge. And that’s critical if you want to understand:
- What is considered best practice in the housing sector
- Which applications the leading IT providers are working on
- What emerging technologies are on the horizon, but not yet implemented
- How other providers with similar challenges are facing application challenges.
Bringing consultancy experts in can ‘extend your workbench’. This complements in-house skills and provides more hands on deck.
Building an application strategy is not about technology in isolation. It’s about how IT supports your business plan and business objectives. Like any strategy, a big part of this process involves consulting with service managers, to make sure people are on board and clear about future direction.
It’s also a great catalyst to explore what value systems are bringing to your organisation. For example, if you’re only using 10 per cent of a system but paying for 100 per cent, does this suggest an opportunity to get better value for money? And what potential is there to use emerging technologies to improve customer service?
Mapping this route takes time, but it’s worth the investment if you want to bring about lasting change in your business.
Fancy a chat?
If you’d like to know more about application strategy support, please contact our consultancy team for an informal conversation.