Aspirations and expectations of delivering exemplary customer service and an engaging community strategy have never been greater within the housing sector. Business executives and stakeholders continue to place ever-increasing importance on these values and are always looking for solutions to help raise standards and improve tenant satisfaction.
My experience is that the key to achieving these goals lies in three key principles: taking an operational-centric view of the world; treating the information in your business as a strategic asset; and having tightly-integrated processes and systems.
Operational excellence drives customer excellence
Let’s start with the operational-centric view. The ‘discipline driver model’ developed by Treacy and Wiersema allows companies to understand the type of strategy they should pursue. The model states that there are three key drivers for any organisation:
- Operational excellence, with a focus on repeatable business processes delivering high quality products or services at low cost.
- Customer intimacy, with a focus on tailored products and services that are very specific to customer requirements.
- Product leadership, with a focus on continuous evolution of the end product – products will have a short shelf life and constant R&D is critical.
Most organisations have elements of all three, but one will be dominant. Social housing providers are, fundamentally, operationally excellent, with a primary driver of delivering high-quality services to tenants. There exists elements of the two other drivers (for example, customer intimacy for dealing with individual tenant needs), but placing operational excellence at the heart of the business goals ensures the organisation strives towards well-defined, integrated and measurable processes. Furthermore, this view drives the need to unify data across the organisation and ensure that information is accurate, visible and easily accessible.
Information as an asset with a strategic focus
For nearly 100 years, the manufacturing industry has emphasised the importance of information as an asset. As digital technology emerged, the ability to join up data and processes, measure results quickly and make accurate decisions has driven substantial improvements and helped push down the cost of consumables, raising living standards for all of us.
This philosophy is directly in line with the social housing agenda, where the focus should be on process improvement, with information at the core. Cost savings, service improvements and increased tenant satisfaction will contribute to the generation of a healthy surplus that can be re-invested to help raise the living standards of the wider community.
There are important lessons that can be learned from other operationally excellent organisations and by asking a few simple questions, you can very quickly understand how serious you are about pursuing this agenda:
- Do we understand our processes, and are they documented with inputs and outputs?
- How fragmented are the processes, and are they cross-functional or are there silos within each department?
- Do we have robust KPIs, and can we measure our progress against these and do we hold the relevant information?
- Do we know where the weaknesses are in our processes, is there a continuous programme to fix them, and can we quantify the cost of any weakness?
- How good is the information we hold? Is it digital/paper based, how much duplication is there, and what manual processes exist to move along our processes?
Technology for unification and visibility
The final step is to unify the data in your business by the appropriate use of technology. Unfortunately the information systems market in social housing is still maturing, and single point solutions are only now starting to emerge. Traditionally, investments have been made in multiple ‘best of breed’ systems addressing specific functional requirements for each department (e.g. housing management, contact management, anti-social behaviour, etc.). This approach supports best practice at a tactical level but it leads to silos of information and hampers strategic visibility.
So, the big question is how can we leverage value for money from existing software investments and integrate processes and information? The answer lies in service-oriented architectures (SOA); the principle of exposing data and activities as services and dynamically orchestrating these elements using workflow-based technology.
SOA provides a series of layers that sit on top of the existing business systems. It ‘glues’ together all the information and presents it back to the users at a single entry point via a collaboration portal or web-based interface. This offers greater agility and allows process owners to contribute proactively when driving change, and the workflow can even be viewed and modified without the need for writing software code. The business can have the best of both worlds – retaining best of breed applications for capturing and controlling the data and using SOA to integrate the information and present it to users.
A typical SOA solution would have the following key components:
- A data orchestration engine that passes messages between systems and exposes data as a series of consumable services.
- A workflow and forms engine to execute models of defined business processes using the data services.
- A portal and web platform to group all types of information logically and present it along the process.
- Data warehouse and management information tools to provide information visibility and measurement of KPIs.
While it is easy to talk broadly about these challenges, the reality is that change is much more difficult to achieve. The process needs to begin with the primary focus of the organisation, leading us back to the discipline drivers. Operationally-excellent organisations need to pursue a strategy that unifies processes and information and uses the appropriate technology in order to accelerate this. If stakeholders buy into these fundamental principles, then change can begin through a process of continuous improvement and the adoption of the relevant technology.
Alistair McLeod is business development director at Waterstons.