I recently attended the Housing Technology 2011 conference in Nottingham, which opened with Professor Morris Pentel from the Customer Experience Foundation talking about the future of technology in housing. He was followed by excellent breakout sessions from both IT suppliers and housing providers where, not surprisingly, a common theme was innovative ways of delivering better value.
Listening to the various presentations and talking to delegates during the day, what struck me was the widespread desire to deliver excellent services to internal staff and to tenants at the same time as developing complex technology infrastructures and managing a variety of service providers, all within fixed annual budgets which are now being squeezed further. Overall, there was a clear willingness to embrace new technologies to support the changing demographics of the tenant community and changes in the UK economy, while meeting staff expectations and board-level business objectives.
Unified communications empower a more efficient workforce
The importance of using technology effectively in this sector cannot be underestimated. I heard examples of pressured and stressful environments in which staff could not properly deal with tenant questions, resulting in inefficiencies and poor service to those tenants. In contrast, there were also great examples of where the latest unified communications technologies had empowered staff at the sharp end to excel and deliver efficient and personalised service by easily collaborating with back-office and field-based staff through automatic access to supporting information and systems, to provide a ‘right first time, every time’ culture.
Without question, the housing sector has undergone many changes over recent years following the large scale transfer of stock from the government to new and emerging housing providers. There has been a great deal of change and consolidation recently through the process of mergers, which have resulted in some ‘super powers’ in the housing sector.
We now embark on the next phase of change and development. The UK economy is experiencing high rates of inflation – double the government targets – and this follows one of the deepest recessions of recent times. The government has set its targets to eliminate the deficit and consequently a new period of austerity has emerged, and the housing sector is not escaping. Housing grants and subsidies have been cut and housing providers are looking for ways to reduce their expenditure wherever possible, with a target of 25 per cent being cited. The government has also unveiled plans to introduce a single ‘universal’ payment as part of the shake up within the benefits system. Consequently, the risk of debt increases and so too the demands to manage rent collections and arrears more effectively.
We have also seen the emergence of the shared services delivery model in areas such as 24/7 support, outsourcing of repairs and care for the vulnerable. This will undoubtedly increase in an attempt to achieve greater cost savings and economies of scale. This, combined with the prospect of many front-line services being reduced or eliminated by the government, leaves housing providers questioning who is going to deliver which services to citizens within the new ‘Big Society’? Will this create an additional burden for housing providers, or is it an opportunity to meet the demand for new services such as benefits advice?
These changing conditions and budgetary constraints create a paradox for the sector; how can housing providers still deliver high standards of accessible and personalised services while still cutting costs? The easy answer is they need to do more with less. But how can this be achieved without causing a detrimental effect?
New agile technologies
There are new technologies and models available which support this new agile, collaborative, cost conscious and service-driven economy. Cloud computing, virtualisation (voice and data), SIP trunking and unified communications have all emerged to provide cost savings, improved management, greater flexibility, 100 per cent availability, personalised service and much more.
Delivering better value
In summary, one of the questions which resonated with me from the Housing Technology 2011 conference was ‘what can IT suppliers to the housing sector do to deliver better value?’ In my experience, vision, sector understanding and partnerships between suppliers and housing providers are critical to achieving greater value.
Jonathan Sharp is sales and marketing director for Britannic Technologies.