The relationship between a housing provider and a software provider should never be an arms-length one, explains Gavin Hitchcock, head of ICT at Futures Housing Group.
At Futures Housing Group, we have reaped the benefits of an increasingly close working relationship with our software provider Orchard Information Systems. From this has come a suite of integrated solutions which meet our needs by increasing our efficiency and, ultimately, the quality of the services we offer to our tenants.
But it wasn’t always this way.
So what’s the secret? How can housing providers ensure that software solutions meet their needs? Here are five tips on how to make the most of the relationship you have with your software solutions provider.
1. Don’t just be a client
Developing software, or any product for that matter, is a process. It starts with a need and it ends, hopefully, with a solution.
When we first started to work with Orchard, we had a straightforward client-supplier relationship. We purchased services and then put them into practice.
The problem with that approach was that the software, though high-quality, did not always meet the need for which it was intended. It quickly became apparent that a passive, arms-length client approach was a recipe for high-end software which missed the mark.
Herein lies the flaw with simply paying for software and having little input in the development process and no working relationship beyond a basic transaction.
For us, this changed last year following the decision we made to switch to text-messaging software as a means of communicating with our tenants. We wanted to use a system to send alerts regarding repair times, rent reminders and various other communications to increase our efficiency. Given the importance of this to the organisation, the ICT team was given a significant budget to purchase an off-the-shelf solution.
Instead we chose to develop a product in partnership with Orchard from the start. The resulting software has significantly changed the way we communicate with tenants and by extension made our operations slicker.
This initial project paved the way for what has become an immensely profitable relationship.
Collaborating closely with your software provider will ultimately allow you to innovate instead of simply receiving a service. You will be able to have a real influence on the product you receive and tailor it to your needs; try to see yourself as co-developer.
2. Think long-term
IT professionals in housing operate in a very difficult environment. Technological capabilities continue to develop rapidly and the housing landscape is always changing. The real challenge is to somehow marry these two worlds and create IT systems which meet these ever-changing needs in an efficient and intuitive manner.
Any work with a software provider must be seen in the wider context of what you are trying to achieve. A low-cost decision might look good on a balance sheet in the short-term, but if the end product isn’t fit for purpose then you will lose out in the end.
An off-the-shelf solution can ultimately cause you more problems than it solves. To this end, we had the vision to put a great deal of energy into our work with Orchard. It is an approach which has paid significant dividends for our IT operation and the wider organisation.
In the case of the text messaging software we worked with Orchard on, we rejected an off-the-shelf solution on the basis that we felt it was a good use of time and resources to develop something that matched the intended purpose. The result is an intuitive product which has significantly reduced problems like no-shows at repairs and improved our arrears figures.
Challenge each another: Orchard has benefited from our advice on software and we have reaped significant benefits in terms of understanding what is and isn’t technologically feasible. Share your respective expertise by recognising that you will both have a different outlook and that there are significant benefits to this.
Our close working with Orchard means software like this has the capacity to continue to evolve over time.
3. Invest your time and energy
Investing time, money and resources into a relationship with a software provider is crucial. As part of our increasingly collaborative approach, members of both the ICT team and our wider service delivery team play a major part in Orchard’s independent user groups and feed into the development process at various stages. This guides the development of its major products.
This involves a considerable investment of time and energy, such as travelling to regular meetings around the UK, but for us the ends have more than justified the means. Support your team’s involvement in the development process and you will reap rewards.
A simple principle underlies the effectiveness of working together. Your software solutions provider has the detailed technological insight, but as IT professionals at housing providers, we and our housing colleagues have the up-to-date knowledge of the sector and the everyday implementation of the products to help shape this.
We can and should play an active role in the development process.
In our case, we have seen significant changes and adaptations to products we use which we, along with representatives from other housing providers and the wider user community, have helped to shape and influence. We have also been able to influence the priority afforded to certain projects based on trends in the sector and our own needs.
This influence has been felt particularly keenly in the work of the dashboard user group, on which we are represented. The work of the group resulted in very real changes to the software based on the group’s collective feedback.
When it comes to briefing a software provider on a product, there is a very simple principle: nothing in, nothing out.
With a heavy workload, it is tempting to think because you are paying for a service that means it should be delivered with little input. In reality, it is precisely because you are paying for the service that you should put the time and energy into the relationship. It is the only effective way of getting out what you want.
4. Be patient and don’t expect miracles
There is no magic formula; getting software that matches what you need is not easy, regardless of how close you are to the process, particularly in the ever-changing world of housing.
Be patient when you embark on a project and know that any product will evolve over time. Your relationship with a software provider is crucial in this sense, in terms of managing that process and keeping on top of the delivery of what you receive.
Make the effort to maintain that relationship, meet regularly and have open and honest discussions with one another. At the same time, appreciate that it won’t always be a smooth process because finding software that meets the purpose is never easy.
5. Know the importance of your role to your organisation
This seems an obvious point but it is still worth making. It is a cliché IT professionals the world over find themselves repeating, but it’s true – an effective IT operation is absolutely essential to the running of any organisation.
At Futures Housing Group, we manage over 9,000 homes. Without an effective system in place to effectively log and manage every aspect of those tenancies and to support the huge amounts of associated work, the operation would come to a standstill.
A long-term, partnership approach to working with software providers is the only effective way to ensure you end up with the solutions you need. In short, you have to collaborate in order to innovate.
Gavin Hitchcock is head of ICT at Futures Housing Group.