If you’re reading this, you’ll already be well aware of the issues facing our sector right now; there’s no need to re-hash the causes and current symptoms. The focus now is on how we, as a sector, can adapt to survive the massively-shifting landscape.
Everyone in the sector right now is talking about creating efficiencies and introducing more lean processes in order to weather the storm, but how do we know which business areas to target? When we make changes, how do we know if they’ve been effective and improved our situation? Historically, a lot of those questions have been answered using instinct and intuition – if, indeed, they’ve been asked at all – but there’s no longer room for the margin of error that entails. The reality is that many organisations are data-rich but insight-poor so how do we unlock the wealth of data we all hold?
There are three key factors that could make or break whether housing providers can successfully harness the data they hold.
1. Data warehousing and automation
We often have a vast array of data that is all related and yet sits in different systems and databases. To get a true picture of what our world looks like, we need to be able to pull the data from all of these databases together as much as possible. We may have information about our properties in our housing management systems, an asset management system and a finance system but that only allows us glimpses into genuine insights around those properties. The only way to see the whole picture is to pull all of that data together.
Data warehousing and staging is becoming more and more popular and it’s easy to see why. By farming data out of source systems and organising it into a number of broad datasets, you can have a robust, validated way for staff to access a vast amount of data without asking them to constantly analyse or make links across systems themselves. Among the benefits on offer here are a reduction in the time managers spend handling data and producing reports, a massive increase in change control and quality assurance around the data that managers do see and use for decision-making, and the opportunity to incorporate external data as well as just data from your own systems which can lead to a level of insight that internal data alone can rarely give.
2. Data visualisation tools
A data warehouse is all well and good but you can only really get the rewards from the hard work it will take to implement and maintain if you can offer managers and decision-makers user-friendly tools that they can use to access it. Better yet, you ideally want people to be served with the information they need rather than having to go looking for it or, worse still, spending hours turning big lists of data they’ve extracted into something meaningful.
That’s where data visualisation comes in. Data visualisation isn’t a new thing; I still remember the first time I turned some Excel data into a graph at secondary school twenty-something years ago, but the tools to make it happen have seen an incredible evolution over the last couple of years. Tools such as Microsoft Power BI offer excellent access directly into databases and other sources, coupled with excellent user interfaces for creating really striking, detailed dashboards and reports in no time at all. What sets these tools apart is the ability to drill through data from a simple visualisation all the way back to the source which means staff at all different levels of an organisation can be accessing fundamentally the same data. Again, this increases quality assurance hugely and opens up options around automation that just haven’t been there previously.
Visualised data is so powerful for quickly getting to the heart of a problem, identifying exceptions and outliers and generally engaging people more with business intelligence than a traditional report does. Here at GreenSquare, using Power BI dashboards for our IT helpdesk has already helped us identify and resolve problems that we hadn’t even really realised were hurting us until the visualisations put it right there in front of us in a way where the trend couldn’t be ignored. The ability to then drill contextually into the data around the problem made root-cause analysis quicker and easier than ever before, meaning we managed to put a proper solution in place within a day for something we’d been tackling piecemeal one case at a time for months.
I’ve painted a fairly simple, almost idyllic picture so far but we all know it’s never quite that easy. Automation is a wonderful thing and using it to deliver visual dashboards is equally joyous, but there’s always a catch, right?
3. Data culture
The first time I produced an automated Power BI report for a colleague, the first thing they said was, “that’s amazing, but I can still change the numbers, right?”. At the heart of this question was a knowledge that the data being put into the source system just wasn’t accurate or reliable enough to be used to automate submissions, and that’s where our data dream has the chance to turn into a nightmare.
Building a data warehouse or embedding a modern data visualisation and reporting tool are two fairly straightforward things; they take time, but they’re tangible deliverables. Changing the culture of staff to understand the importance of accurate, high-quality data is a different beast entirely. However, of the three key points laid out here, this is the one that will ultimately make or break your plans for an effective insight-driven business.
If you want to automate the production of business intelligence, you need a really high level of assurance that the source data you’re going to draw from is correct. That means facing the challenge of educating staff that they have to enter data in an accurate and timely way and that can mean having to make changes to business processes along the way. There can be no more signing up new tenancies but not processing the paperwork for a few days after the event, there can be no more adding the same actual person to a database several times over because someone didn’t bother to check if they already existed as an entity. Staff across the whole organisation have to understand that there is a direct relationship between the data they input into a system about a single case, property or other entity, and the data that is populating a report on the CEO’s desk that will guide them in their strategic decision-making.
The tools all exist to provide your business with exciting, intuitive insights. These tools can give your business the chance to make the right choices to weather the current social housing storm but we all need to act fast to make sure we have a culture where quality data, genuine insight and evidence-based decision-making are at the root of all our actions.
David Berrill is the business systems manager at GreenSquare.