How is digital transformation affecting housing associations?
Housing associations (HAs) may not be immediately obvious candidates for digital transformation; however, for organisations working with thousands of stakeholders and overseeing enormous quantities of real-world assets, technological innovation can have an enormous impact. It can cut costs while simultaneously improving service delivery and the management of assets – and helping the sector to tackle some of the considerable market challenges that it faces today.
A common first step on the road to transformation is simply establishing a baseline for further development, though, as Jan Burgess, Programme Manager at Sun Consultancy Ltd. who has just completed a Finance Transformation programme at a leading London Housing Association explains.
“Many HAs have legacy systems that hold years of critical social, financial and economic data – but business models, structures and KPI requirements change over time as do the staff who originally had knowledge around the systems design.”
Jan explains; “Many HAs have 'evolved' through a process of amalgamation and as a consequence there may be a series of disparate systems providing information. With old systems comes a degree of uncertainty. What information is really key? What data is valid or truly reflective of the current requirements? If there is any uncertainty around the accuracy or completeness of data, the business will understandably be cautious about change. Off system, manual reconciliations and data checks become common place, and this may actually exacerbate issues, and further entrench the business as being slow to respond to client and business needs and change.”
It's only once these challenges are dealt with that the organisation can begin to move on, cleaning datasets and comprehensively taking stock of inventory and overheads. “Digital transformation is a key component to improving the flow of data across all aspects of the business,” comments Jan. This then sets the ground for basic automation to be applied, meaning that computers can take on the rote tasks of filling in forms, duplicating information and making routine checks before issuing notifications.
Digital transformation is by no means a simple process; nor is it a stand-alone project. Instead, it's a restructure of the entire organisation. “It is absolutely key that the HA is clear about what they want, why they want it and how the information that is digitised will be used to benefit the organisation and its client base,” says Jan. “The key drivers and principles of the business have to remain core to any change, as change is never easy, especially where legacy system data is involved. For me, end user experience is always key. This may be the customer logging a repairs call or a supplier registering electronic invoices or the delivery of monthly management reports to the board. It has to be easy, intuitive, stable, efficient and time saving. The fact that it also has to be encrypted to remain confidential is also absolutely key.”
Of course, digital technology can have a huge impact on real world assets as well. Networked IoT sensors can be used to monitor air quality, carbon monoxide levels or the functioning of appliances and machinery – allowing issues to be addressed quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, predictive maintenance systems can be deployed to stop equipment before it fails, preventing further damage and minimising downtime as well as cutting the need for unnecessary maintenance checks.
SaaS platforms, meanwhile, mean that HAs are not faced with the task of building software from scratch, but can run on tried-and-tested systems that already operate at scale.
Perhaps the key measure of digital transformation is whether it enables HAs to provider a better experience for tenants. As in a wider variety of other sectors, the most engaging form of customer service is in fact often self-service. “Within the HAs that I have worked in recently, there has been a massive emphasis on customer portals,” says Jan. “There is a recognised cost saving for enabling tenants to self-serve. The reduction in the cost of manning call centres is significant.”
Access to technology
HAs must, however, take into account the access that the individuals they serve have to digital technology. “The profile of the HA tenant population has to be carefully considered as they may well represent higher than average levels of social sectors that are actually excluded through cost, education, age, or social profile from the digital marketplace,” comments Jan. “This is a really important factor that needs to be considered. Ultimately it should never prevent the digital transformation for a HA, but it does highlight the need to run multiple access options for the tenant population for some years.”
This is also a consideration that should be applied to staff. Given the specialist knowledge required by digital transformation programmes – spanning governance, monitoring, analysis and change management – organisations can get a head start by bringing in technology and transformation consultants from the planning stages, notes Jan. “We can bring in a level of expertise to aid those early stages of analysis of requirement and risk and benefits so that there are clear objectives and deliverables from the outset,” she comments.
Transformation may be a daunting task, but taking these kinds of measures can ensure that programmes are well managed and that funds are invested wisely and responsibly.
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