At the Housing Technology 2020 conference in March (just before the lockdown began), Adra’s Alun Hughes and Geraint Vernon described their journey to a successful in-house business application development, in the belief that sharing their experience would be of benefit to other housing providers.
Adra is a social housing provider in North Wales. We were previously known as Cartrefi Cymunedol Gwynedd until a rebranding in October 2019. Our company looks after 6,300 homes and provides services to over 14,000 local customers.
In 2017, having just completed a staff ‘agile working’ transformation project which included a massive move away from paper to electronic forms, we embarked on several ambitious IT projects including replacing our housing and repairs management systems with a new core business system (ActiveH by MIS). We also began rolling out Office365 using a Microsoft Teams-first approach with TSG.
We were aware that many corporate paper-based processes still existed and would not be digitised within the core business system implementation. These were mainly centred around corporate HR and finance processes, and we were keen to offer these to staff digitally through a self-service portal. While we wanted to be self-sufficient in developing our own solution, we didn’t want to become bogged down as a software house. Low-code development was therefore very attractive to us in terms of the ratio of resource investment vs. time to develop.
To minimise costs, we decided that we would source a bolt-on business process management (BPM) solution for SharePoint Online (SPO), a technology we had little experience of at the time. By mid-2018, we had identified many potential candidates, installed demo versions and visited current users. FlowForma, Nintex and Microsoft Power Platform were the frontrunners, with FlowForma becoming our final choice due to the excellent relationship we quickly established with them, and the fact that it offered the best value for money and most closely matched our requirements at that time. It’s worth noting that back then, the emerging Power Platform was not the polished and powerful product it is today.
Towards the end of 2018, we had identified our leave of absence (eight separate paper processes) and expense request processes as the top candidates for digitisation using FlowForma and the SPO development environment. We have a background in agile development methodologies and lean business transformations so we quickly agreed on new, more efficient business processes with all stakeholders. Each of the new process requirements was collected and shared for sign-off as agile user-stories.
We explained to the business that we would develop in ‘sprints’, with the initial goal being a minimum viable product (MVP) tested and released (i.e. an application with the minimum functionality required to fulfil the new business process). From experience, it is invaluable to engage with the stakeholders and end-users continually during the development process and to collect their thoughts (and criticisms!) into the product backlog. The MVP would be followed by regular iterative updates, where product backlog items would be implemented (with these being a mixture of already planned improvements, new user requirements and bugfixes).
By the way, don’t develop anything that doesn’t improve process efficiency and push back on any scope creep; if you don’t, you will find yourself developing the software equivalent of the Death Star (and we all know what happened to that).
By spring 2019, and several sprints later, we had both a leave of absence and expenses claim with approval processes live for staff at Adra. These were made available to staff via a SPO modern site experience and the entire process was presented bilingually (Welsh and English).
Developing within FlowForma was easy and efficient. The product was clean and logical for users, with the user experience being mostly pre-set within the forms. As we gained experience in the FlowForma environment, we became aware of security issues inherent to using SPO as the database backend. This took a lot of effort to lock down effectively. This was necessary because many of the leave of absence forms could contain very sensitive information (hospital leave, maternity leave and so on). Unfortunately, we found that within our infrastructure, as we improved security, we also severely degraded application performance. So much so that we decided to re-evaluate the marketplace armed with a greater understanding of our requirements.
Towards the end of summer 2019, we had completed yet another review of the rapidly evolving BPM market. Many of our original conclusions were still valid and we also considered some new additions to the field. Our overwhelming conclusion was that the now highly-evolved and powerful Microsoft Power Apps and Flow (now Power Automate) were the obvious choices to meet our needs. Another sweetener to this was that these were included in our E3 tenancy costs. The decision was thus made to shift development of all subsequent versions of our leave of absence and expenses applications to Power Platform.
We agreed that we didn’t want to just develop like-for-like functionality in these apps, but that we would release greatly improved versions with many enhancements from their corresponding product backlogs and from what was now possible within this new development environment. Autumn 2019 saw us plan and start our new development sprints with only three months to complete, test and launch. One major casualty of this restrictive timetable was our ‘full’ agile development regime, namely full documentation on what and how we were developing the software (we don’t recommend this, but sometimes needs must).
We decided to use Azure SQL as a service (SQLaaS) as the secure database backend for the new leave of absence Power App. We modelled our predicted costs and were happy with these due to the enhanced security it would provide. By using Azure’s SQLaaS for the leave of absence Power App, we were able to deploy the database within a matter of minutes. The most difficult thing about the whole task was getting our heads around Microsoft’s pricing models.
The Power App SQL Connector does all the heavy lifting for you (you don’t have to write a single SQL query to interface with it). It’s worth noting that in October 2019, our decision to move to the Power Platform was hit hard when Microsoft decided to make this Power Platform SQL connector a premium item (with additional licensing costs). We did re-consider our options again as it wasn’t the ‘no brainer’ decision it had been a few weeks earlier. Microsoft agreed to an extension of the connector within our standard licensing costs and we therefore stuck to our decision. Was it Voltaire or Spiderman’s Uncle Ben who once said, “With great power comes great responsibility?” A modern IT version of such a statement would conclude that, “With great power comes additional costs.”
By December 2019, we had completed, tested and launched two completely new PowerApps. While BPM software that offers low or no-code development environments, such as FlowForma, gives you the ability to develop automated processes very quickly, Power Apps gives you a blank canvas to develop anything from the ground up. We would really refer to this as a ‘low to medium code’ solution, with a much steeper learning curve than other BPM software. However, we both find it a positive and enjoyable creative process. There are several large Power Platform user groups with online forums that provide quick and invaluable help with any problems (often with enthusiastic help being offered by friendly like-minded developers).
This has been an extremely eventful yet rewarding journey for us. We now aim to iteratively develop and improve these fantastic apps as well as developing new Power Apps for Adra (e.g. overtime and hire-car request apps). We also plan to develop our reporting on these apps using Power BI; after all, a powerful additional ‘win’ of digitising such processes is the ability to easily ‘live’ and historically report on them.
For all of you out there considering such a move, do it, just don’t expect plain sailing, but when in IT do we ever get a calm sea?
Geraint Vernon is a business systems support manager and Alun Hughes is a business systems developer at Adra.