There’s an old saying, attributed to Oscar Wilde, that, “we may all be lying in the gutter but some of us are gazing at the stars”.
It makes me think of the incongruity between, on the one hand, the lack of real choice and the diversity of options when it comes to the housing systems that are vital to our day-to-day operations, and on the other hand, us exercising ourselves over the latest and greatest technological trends and treats, and marvelling at how we might fully avail ourselves of the emerging 21st-century dream! Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the latter, but much for us to trouble over with the former.
Economic theory and the bitter experience of consumers over the ages tells us that limitations of consumer choice distort the relationship between supplier and consumer. The supplier can take more liberties than it would in a fiercely competitive market, devaluing the customer – ‘take it or leave it’ pricing, and the customer falling over backwards to get service, rather than the supplier having to do so in order to secure and retain vital business.
We have seen that in our own dealings; I was once told by a supplier whom I had just told that I would not be renewing with, that he “will gladly pillage your business” in levying exceptional support charges during the run-down period as punishment for the abject betrayal that, in his eyes, our exercising of consumer choice represented. That quote (the original words were actually more graphic!) has been seared into my memory; it doesn’t get much worse than that, does it?
That despicable moment sowed the seeds of a resolve that, as a consumer faced with such impositions, we had a duty to be bold and brave by creating our own opportunities rather than allowing ourselves to be led by the nose within a shrunken marketspace.
When I say “creating our own opportunities”, I mean “hang the marketplace” and write our own bespoke comprehensive housing management system from scratch. It took many years of us developing and honing our skills, building muscle, on a step-by-step fitness programme, starting with the brisk walk of creating a few data-conversion utilities a decade or so ago, right through to the 50 press-ups in five minutes league of a complete mobile repairs and contractor solution. We were then ready to make a start.
I was lucky on two counts at least; first, I had a background in this, having previously led a team who created the comprehensive range of systems that ran a small rural local authority in Shropshire and, secondly, having gained an unbelievable level of support within Wrekin Housing, who agreed to bankroll it all, indulge our fantasies and allow us to deliver on that vision. There is a third lucky charm though – a fantastic technical team, hard won and built over time, with each of them obsessed with getting it as right as possible, unsparing on themselves and unstinting in their labours. They are the most enthusiastic, generous-spirited, open-minded and creative group of people I have had the pleasure of working with. It’s them who put in the hard graft, turning the vision into reality.
I should also mention the most important ingredient of all – our front-line colleagues, who would ultimately become the users of this new-born system. They were the ones who had to find that new vision, that ‘something’ that wouldn’t lead to just another souped-up anachronism.
The challenges were plentiful. For us, as the providers of the technical and scientific expertise, it was finding, keeping and developing the talent to not only excel in the technicalities but also develop the keenest eye for understanding the purpose and functions of the business. For our users, perhaps a less obvious but no less daunting challenge – the terror of a blank sheet of paper. Imagine yourself going into a clothes shop with nothing on display, or a restaurant with no menu whatsoever, and the sales assistant or maître-d’ asks you one simple question, “what would you like us to create for you today?”.
A world of limitless possibilities but with nothing before your eyes in order to tickle your fancy. If you ask them to make one like you saw last week, then you would just be reinventing the wheel in a slightly different form, wouldn’t you? The same old tune, but with a different fiddle.
To best serve such a rare moment of opportunity, you need liberated, unchained thinking. You no longer have to have it done following the same old well-trodden path, a slave to convention, and hemmed in by committee consensus. Indeed, it might be a sin to let what you are familiar with guide you, playing safe with a little black dress, or bangers and mash; you might as well have kept the old one and saved all the hassle.
Having said that, they proved to be as excited by the challenge as us, wanting to liberate their thoughts and use newly-won ‘systems thinking’ techniques, an outlook promoted within the business to encourage the fullest understanding of demand pull and the businesses capacity to meet it effectively, shaping services against customer needs.
Together we forged a partnership and beavered away for over five years.
There were growing pains. Early on, we threw stuff away when it became clear we had lost the point and were unwittingly designing by committee and trying to please all of the people all of the time, rather than being bold with a clean and simple design firmly linked to customer demand and the nature of their service requests.
So, was five years of graft worth it? We think it was. For example, we have broken free from the fortnightly debit convention and its correlating payment plan, that famously produces the biggest failure demand of all, ‘technical arrears’ – an instalment plan that will never be adhered to because local authority benefits are paid retrospectively and debits raised in advance. That then meant expending time and resources constantly suppressing the natural instincts of the system, trying to isolate the real reds from the red-herrings.
We could only imagine this in our old system, but we are completely unfettered now, with plans aligned to practical payment dates, not only to suit benefit cycles but also in the wider sense that customers can choose payment frequencies and dates to suit their pay days. There are innumerable other examples.
I’ll leave you with a final provocative point to stir you. After eleven and a half man years and with all the staff costs taken into account, it still came in £10,000 cheaper than just the initial licensing costs of our old bought-in system! It’s not for the faint-hearted, for sure, but I heartily recommend it.
Lawrence Gardner is head of ICT at Wrekin Housing Trust.