As I write this article, I am reminded of Bill Clinton’s election speech for the 1992 US presidential election, “It’s about the economy, stupid”, which during his campaign, Clinton’s strategist, James Carville, posted this slogan on his office door as a way of motivating staff and politicians to stick to one of the key messages, the economy. A national newspaper picked up the slogan and suddenly the simple statement started to resonate with the US people. Hence, the speech and slogan to reinforce the need to fix the economy. This was a particularly important moment and timing is everything. The year before, George Bush had been significantly ahead in polls. A dramatic turn-around to Clinton’s favour ensued, partly as a result of the tag “it’s about the economy, stupid”.
Digital is a little like Clinton’s simple and effective campaign, which is captivating imaginations to get behind a better way of providing services to tenants as well as changing from traditional approaches to electronic and data-driven transactions.
So, what is digital about? Of course, in IT we translate things slightly differently and we focus on the detail; for example, we know the following:
- The ‘why?’ – It’s about a new approach, to do things more efficiently and flexibly, create cost reductions and move housing providers into a modern digital world. Above all, it’s about the tenants, improving the service and providing choice.
- The ‘what?’ – It’s about digital, right? So it must be about IT systems.
- The ‘how?’ – What about the how?
The ‘how?’ is a big question. We have IT systems and we know some of them need to be better and are disconnected from each other with disparate and often sparse data sets. We need to create near real-time transactions for our tenants to enable digital, meaning we need to integrate them together. We also have a massive amount of intelligence inside housing providers and in the world at large, with some of it good data and some of it bad data. We also have the new emergence of the internet of things and smart devices which could provide truly cutting-edge service from smart homes right across to care services. The one thing which links them all is data.
Data is key and learning how best to use it (in all forms) through people, processes and systems will support digitally-focused services. In fact, as we approach a competitive world, the winners are the ones who can use data to their advantage. The debate regarding ERP systems and single sources of the truth has moved on. It’s not about the mega monolithic system which forces organisations down a strict process-driven exercise based on a manufacturing-style six sigma approach. This has created inflexibility and eventually stifles growth or even worse.
There are many examples in recent history where organisations (some of whom are no longer in business) were unable to recognise what was happening in a changing world because they focused too much on processes and cost efficiency. They didn’t understand what the market was telling them and they didn’t understanding what customers really wanted. In other words, they didn’t understand the data. A bit like the US election in 1992, Bush missed the main point that was affecting people (jobs and the economy) and was perceived to be not listening. As a result, he lost the election. He didn’t understand the data.
A digital world means more change. It means we need to provide services quickly and interpret the information in real time to make quick decisions. It also means that today’s exciting technology is tomorrow’s washed-up mobile phone or ex-US president.
So, what is important for digital? Data, information, people and processes. Knowing and understanding our customers (listening to them) and potential customers means we need data from any source in the world in real time. Knowing and understanding how we provide services, whether these are smart services or not, means we need data and to learn how to transact them in real time.
The following pillars are necessary for a digital future:
- Real-time messaging: systems need to be linked at the data level across multiple services for real-time transactions. Some systems will become disconnected across cloud services as we move to hybrid in-house and cloud-based IT services.
- Data quality: data needs to be of high quality for improved customer intelligence and automatic transactions. Data-cleansing rules which focus attention on simple processes and transactions enable real-time decisions about the data, either to correct a process at the front end or for batch updates at the back end.
- Information security: data in systems about our customers and services needs to be protected and secured.
- Intelligence: we need to understand our customers and our future customers across all of our data, including big data in the world at large. Business intelligence, predictive analytics and even artificial intelligence are all possibilities and are important.
A simple digital approach therefore focuses on the data, with a central hub managing information across the estate for real-time transactions with plug-in components in a secure and intelligent way.
The system architecture has internal systems, with data and processes for the supporting services (in green) and external systems supporting portals, smart things (IoT) and partners (in orange).
Data is cleansed and passed through the centralised hub with near real-time transactions for systems holding tenant, housing, asset and back-office data across the estate. The information is secured through hybrid cloud offerings providing services which monitor threat events.
Business Intelligence, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence are possible by allowing systems to connect to information across the world. This will introduce in-memory processing to provide real-time intelligence on data. There are already systems being created with this in mind, mainly to allow smart devices to run BI rule sets for instant decisions or even a smart digital ‘friend’ using information to provide the preferred option for social housing services.
The systems at the data level can be plugged in allowing for the easy implementation of any smart thing. This is our starting point for enabling a plug-and-play, IoT digital future. We can plug them in and when today’s technologies become defunct, well, we can unplug them and plug in the next new smart things.
To return to the 1992 US election campaign, I can’t help thinking what would happen now if Clinton and Bush went head to head today? I doubt the result would change, but how would they understand and interpret the information on the US electorate. Probably through a smartphone with an automatic text message generated from real-time BI delivered from a recent poll. It’s all about the data (and probably always has been) and the winners, like Clinton’s election campaign, are the ones who know how to use it and understand what customers really want, before anyone else.
Richard Holland is head of business solutions at Genesis Housing Association.