Application strategy roadmaps plot your business journey

Application strategy: what #ukhousing leaders need to know

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:

Application strategy

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.

Application roadmap

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Further reading

Management consultancy services

Recent case studies

Complacence in Compliance

Not too long ago I attended and spoke at a small seminar on Gas Compliance and was staggered at some of the safety issues that exist in general, but also in relation to the social housing sector specifically and the challenges imposed on landlords.

This then got me thinking about compliance in general and how the sector looks at this. The statistics are staggering and the risks high, yet some landlords aren’t looking at it seriously enough. This isn’t borne just out of what people were saying at the event but also my own experience in talking to and working with landlords themselves.

I’ll begin with the issues facing landlords and then take a look from the other side of the fence at those tasked with providing solutions to help landlords.

Issues landlords face

Legislation: Ever changing and complicated, it’s not only hard to navigate but incredibly important this is dealt with properly. The accountability of a landlord to deliver processes and solutions in compliance is high and the legislation is there for a reason: to keep your tenants safe and you as a landlord covered!

Evidence: How does a landlord evidence what’s being done in the area of compliance? To evidence activity, it needs to be simple and cost effective but also needs to be watertight (no pun intended). When looking at control and ensuring you can evidence what’s been done, there are a few critical areas to be considered: data, and the need to have the highest possible quality of data; and to make sure it’s secure and follows legislation is critical these days. Ignore it at your peril. Process mapping and understanding who does what is another.

Change: Change is never easy. One fact of business is that a great deal of folks don’t like change. So, change needs to be controlled and documented. It can be a powerful area if you get it right. But it can also be the main difference to winning hearts and minds. Use change management sensibly.

Cost: It had to be mentioned, didn’t it! We don’t have bottomless pockets, so the need to be ever cost effective is obvious, but evidence the spend. We are big fans of looking at return on investment, and in many solutions the investment can be very much worth it, bringing cost savings.

Systems integration and architecture: From a systems perspective it’s so important to ensure that the systems you use work seamlessly together. This isn’t just important from the perspective of data as we mentioned earlier, but also to ensure that you can have a productive set of processes that are implemented thought your software. If you have separated/siloed systems, you’ll suffer and so will your tenants.

Blockers

Now that we’ve identified the issues landlords face, it’s worth looking at some traditional blockers that exist.

On occasion we come across what we refer to as legacy and the many attempts to hold on to it. How many times have you heard folks say, ‘We have always done it that way’?

When you look at this in a little more detail, we simplify it into:

People and behaviour: Going back to that ‘We have always done it that way’ and people don’t like change comment, it starts to make sense. People and their nature like comfort, and when you take them out of that comfort zone it’s, well, uncomfortable. So, the trick is to make it as comfortable as possible. That’s another article altogether, but you get the point: it doesn’t need to be awkward.

Ownership: Sometimes it seems near impossible to work out who’s in charge. Who’s responsible for delivering compliance within a housing provider? It’s not the easiest thing to identify. And herein lies a common issue. You need accountability.

Resource: Accountability is key, and who does what is another. But if you’re to look at how you carry out compliance improvements, or general day-to-day management of compliance, who does it? Can you seriously do it with who you have, or if you are to up your level of compliance management, do you need to recruit or reorganise?

What tends to happen?

Spreadsheets: We simply can’t escape them. We know they exist. We have seen asbestos managed purely on spreadsheets. Legionella as well. I can’t imagine there’d be many hands raised if we asked who thought this was a good idea.

Responsive/Reactive in nature: When it comes to process, there are many landlords we come across who tend to wait for something to break before fixing it. Imagine if you could predict and get to the issue before it happens. It makes sense, cost is reduced, efficiency is increased, and dare we say dangers reduced and safety increased. Software and technology can help, yet the take up is not as high as it should be.

Not enough questions: When we look at software and process-driven solutions in relation to compliance, sometimes the needed questions are missed or simply avoided. Some key questions to ask are:

Do we feel we are we on top of this? Do we ensure evidence through proper data management and systems control? Are we allowing transparency in the use of systems?

These are only a few necessary questions, but the point is that questions should be asked. Just because you always did it that way, does not mean it’s the best way to continue.

The way forward

Technology is key. In every other aspect of business, in every other sector, we’d see software services deliver solutions in such areas. There are many solutions available to social housing, so if we address some of the basics above, and we look at the solutions available, perhaps complacencies in compliance can be reduced. We can, rather simply, if effort is made:

Housing Management Systems: 5 lessons from experience

“Why did we ever buy this @^&@ system?”

You’ve bought a new, shiny, all encompassing, truly amazing best of all housing management systems. Or at least that is what the supplier said at the conference. It can do this and that, it can change your life forever, it can transform the way you do things for the better. However, can it?

First up, of course it can. The above is not necessarily a dig at the suppliers. We believe ‘most’ of the housing management systems out there are very good systems, and ‘can’ potentially deliver some improvements in your operations, improve your customer satisfaction, and give you more insight into your data, your performance, your service delivery. 

We say ‘can’. There is that word again. Can.

We are saying that it ‘can’ do a good job, but only if it is implemented well. And that is the hard part, implementing well.

I have been involved in many housing management systems implementations and I could write a book on the subject (now there’s an idea). We have been doing it for a while now, and although systems have evolved, and are technically more advanced, the same old issues of systems transformation rear their very ugly head again and again.

As a consultancy, we find ourselves in the main getting involved in two lines of work with housing systems.

1.     We get involved from the start.

2.     We are brought in to rescue a failing project.

The second is usually needed after some or all of the areas below have occurred.

5 Lessons to avoid classic procurement mistakes

So, we have, hoping some will take heed, set out five lessons in avoiding the classic mistake of ‘forgetting why you bought it in the first place’. 

1. The Need

There has to be a need. Someone somewhere in your organisation has stood up and said we ‘need’ a new system because of, well, something.

We don’t want to focus on specific needs, but what we do want to say is that it never surprises us that landlords seem to lose sight of these as the project goes on.

They should be omni-present, and they should be agreed, documented, reported on, all staff/users made aware of, communicated to the supplier, communicated to a consultancy, third parties and so on.

Develop a reporting mechanism in your project that says, ‘Hey, we are implementing this system because……and we are going to make sure we deliver to this’.

2. Training

Training is one area that surprises us. Why on earth do some of the suppliers carry out classroom training or train the trainer before the system is ready for it. They do it way too early in the project. It’s fine to train those involved as part of the project team, and its fine to give an initial system overview, but please do not attempt to carry out anything more than this until the very later stages of the project, and only do it on the actual final data set. It is then, and only then that it makes sense to the many who will use the system/s.

Finally, people forget. So, leave the training to as late as possible.

3. Teamwork and Roles

Our experience has shown us a few classic traits in systems projects relating to team working. They are:

·     Landlords under staff their projects. Too often, there is not enough involvement from a project management perspective. IT, operational departments, and yes, you! the senior folks, the sponsors. Resource your project responsibly with the due care and attention something of this scale requires.

·     Landlords lump it all on one person. Don’t fall under the trap of saying, “Pete, you can do it, right? You once used a ZX Spectrum, so you know about these things”.

·     There is no liaison. Make sure someone is available to be the main conduit to the supplier and that they talk to them. This should really be your PM. Make sure this person controls the communication and is the main conduit. Avoid multi-channel chat between the supplier and all your different staff as there needs to be control, otherwise it will all go haywire.

·     Understand the roles. Don’t just rely on the supplier to create the project governance. Write your own PID, and get the Roles and Responsibilities detailed out. It will make a big difference.

4. Architecture

Systems architecture is the key to making the system shine. Any housing management system out there really only comes to life when it works well with your other systems. You’ll hear about things such as the finance system integration/interface and so on. You will hear about magical technologies such as web services. You will hear about flat file methods of getting data across, or real time interfaces. 

Ignore all of that! Until it is time. Start off thinking about how you work, and what information you need to pass or be visible between different departments, then you can rely on the technical architects to make it happen.

Draw your intentions in a diagram and include it in the project documentation.  It will make a difference when consultants and staff want to understand what is in scope, what will work what, and what the intentions of particular interfaces are. As a minimum we would want to see a solution design document that encompasses the details. 

5. What did we buy again?

Some of you reading this will know what we are talking about here. 

You would think that between the supplier and the buyer it is known what was purchased. But we have seen countless times where it is not clear. 

Most systems out there are based around modules such as repairs, rents, ASB, CRM and so on. Make sure you have these referenced back to the contract/agreement you had following your tender.

The same goes for areas such as consultancy days, expenses, and so on. 

Simply put, the flow of Tender >  Contract > Delivery is critical, and someone needs to know and own the overall commercial and contractual delivery and how this relates to your project delivery. When you said you wanted ‘this and that’ in your tender and then supplier X won, based on those requirements, it ends up in a contract cementing these requirements. There is now a commitment to deliver. Then, comes the part of making it happen, and ensuring what you bought and what is being delivered is one and the same.

Project Control is Key

We have seen a real disconnect in some projects where the direction the project was taking was nothing like what was contracted to be delivered. This is where the project control is so important. And if you go back my first point about the ‘need’, it may just all start to make more sense. 

There is an old saying, “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. It’s also true in systems transformation projects.

If you need some help with getting it right, we have loads of experience with most housing management systems; get in touch!