Housing Technology asked digital transformation experts from 8×8, FLS – Fast Lean Smart, NEC Software Solutions, Pay360, Plentific, Sysmax and VerseOne about their definitions of digital transformation, why housing providers should do it, the mistakes to avoid and how to get it right.
What is digital transformation?
Trevor Hampton, director of housing solutions, NEC Software Solutions, said, “Digital transformation is about using all available technologies, including IoT devices and smartphones, to change the way housing providers deliver their services. The aim is to reduce human effort by maximising automation for the benefit of both tenants and the housing provider.”
Chris Mounsey, chief product and compliance officer, VerseOne, said, “We define digital transformation as the combination of streamlined processes and integrated solutions to change the way organisations operate. It’s not just automation, although that’s a part of it. Integration is also crucial so that up-to-date and accurate information is available when needed.”
Cem Savas, founder and CEO, Plentific, said, “Digital transformation is about redefining housing providers’ existing solutions, operations and cultures to translate business processes into digital formats. The aim is to increase value by maximising operational and financial gains and minimising costs and risks.
“Transformation journeys demand an open mind, trialling and embedding new technologies across business operations to enhance residents’ experiences. The purpose is to unlock agility and value for housing providers and their residents by reimagining systems, achieving a more collaborative approach and creating more headroom within housing ecosystems.”
Why do digital transformation?
Jeremy Squire, UK managing director, FLS – Fast Lean Smart, said, “The business case for digital transformation is around sustainable benefits such as boosting productivity, with tangible reductions in associated costs which can then be redirected to frontline services.
“True digital transformation provides deeper levels of insight for housing providers than cost savings alone. Technology is embedded to achieve more accurate data and more transparent services, optimising value for the housing provider and better services for residents.”
Wayne Campbell, head of pre-sales, Pay360 (an Access Group company), said, “Behind all instances of innovation and digital transformation, you’re likely to find one, if not all, of these goals: a need to meet demand, a desire to improve customer experience, and a necessity to keep up with competitors.
“For housing providers, the most important consideration behind digital transformation is to improve customer experience. There are great opportunities to take advantage of new digital solutions support customer engagement and loyalty while freeing up valuable time and resources.”
Peter McAteer, CEO, Sysmax, said, “That’s easy; digital transformation creates efficiency, and an efficient organisation is a safe organisation because staff and residents are more actively engaged and risk is reduced. It also brings other benefits such as reduced costs, downtime and waste and fewer errors and duplicated processes. Digital transformation also affects ‘softer’ considerations such as positive cultural change, more space for thinking and improved creativity.”
What are the most important factors to consider?
Sue Michaelwaite, solutions manager, 8×8, said, “You need a clear strategy and buy-in from all stakeholders across the business, with predetermined objectives and KPIs for every stage of the journey. It’s important to realise that every action will affect other parts of your organisation; understanding these knock-on effects is essential, whether it’s the way a person’s role changes or the way information is stored and shared. Digital transformation isn’t something that can be carried out in isolation.”
FLS’s Squire said, “An over-arching strategic vision, using an outcome-focused approach and encompassing feedback from key stakeholders, is crucial for successful digital transformation. Open and honest partnerships enable genuine feedback, with insights helping to optimise your long-term approaches, alongside cultural change to ensure buy-in across all housing operations. In our experience, integrating best-of-breed applications to harness the full power of data across digital ecosystems achieves the best results.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “Data is the biggest consideration. If bad data is being automated and residents and staff are being serviced with the wrong information then outcomes won’t improve. Before starting on digital transformation, there needs to be an effective data clean-up programme to ensure all systems are unified.
“Housing providers need to consider the whole process from start to finish. As an example, for a repair this is from logging the tenant’s original request up until the post-repair inspection; automating one part of the task but leaving other parts to manual workflows will prevent housing providers from reaching their intended level of digital transformation.
“Tenants need to trust the process so it has to be fail-safe. If tenants are losing human contact then they need to be confident that a self-service portal will deal with their query just as effectively otherwise they simply won’t want to use it, so all automations and workflows need to be robustly tested across residents’ entire journeys. A seamless transition over to staff is also essential; when a self-service contact gets passed to a member of staff to deal with, they must be able to pick up from where the self-service technology left off.”
VerseOne’s Mounsey said, “The two biggest factors are ‘top-down’ and ‘outside-in’. It’s too easy to look ‘bottom-up’, solving minor problems, without looking at the bigger picture. It must be ‘digital transformation’, not ‘digital make-what-we-do-a-bit-slicker’.
“Don’t just automate what’s there now; all you’ll get is the same mess, but faster. Take the opportunity to not only improve your current processes but to think about if they’re even the right processes anymore. Thinking ‘outside-in’ is the fastest way to get to the most value by looking at transformation from the perspective of the key people in the value chain – the residents themselves.”
What goes wrong?
Sysmax’s McAteer said, “The biggest failure at the moment is housing providers avoiding taking even the first step towards digital transformation. We hear a lot about limited time, financial and staff resources preventing change but it needn’t be that hard. In a few hours, we can have an organisation on the path to full compliance with a ready-built data set covering core roles and compliance data.”
Plentific’s Savas said, “Housing providers need a clear roadmap for their digital transformation programmes; a blueprint for change, including a definition of the required outputs from their chosen digital journey. Without a clear vision, housing providers risk getting tied into lengthy contracts with solutions that won’t stand the test of time.
“Digital transformation isn’t a choice but a necessity; replacing disconnected legacy systems with integrated solutions for real-time operations gives housing providers the efficiency and flexibility they need to navigate their obligations to residents and regulators.”
Pay360’s Campbell said, “One of the easiest mistakes to make during digital transformation is to focus too much on the internal adoption of new software at the expense of its impact on tenants. It’s important to get your internal teams on-board, but new systems quickly drop in value if tenants are confused or can’t navigate them.
“For example, if a tenant is redirected to a third-party page to complete a payment, this could cause confusion or lead to drop-offs. An embedded payment system enables housing providers to create a seamless customer experience, building trust that the payment process is secure.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “Housing providers can be too ambitious and doing too much too soon can send them backwards, so start slowly and get the basics right first. Jumping into digital transformation projects before getting the data right can set projects up for failure; frustrating staff and residents with incorrect information will lead to distrust about the new processes.
“Trying to launch five or six new technologies at once is not a good idea either – pick one or two to start with. If you introduce a new digital portal for residents, see how that goes before adding AI or other technologies. Launching too early is another reason why some digital transformation projects fail. For example, if 20,000 residents need to register on a new website and it doesn’t work for the first 100, then those people are lost and others won’t be encouraged to use it.”
Are there some tactical ‘quick wins’?
VerseOne’s Mounsey said, “There are always quick wins, but the challenge is identifying the biggest pain points. It’s important to get a consensus view on what your end-state (your fully-transformed organisation) looks like; only then can you identify if the potential quick wins are worth pursuing.
“Often, a great quick win is either part of the end-state solution (so no wastage) or it can inform the path towards your end-state. Sometimes this can be a temporary or minimum viable product (MVP) solution from which you can learn, and if the business case is compelling enough, you can implement a quick fix now even if you throw it away later.
“A word of caution – don’t get addicted to the quick fixes. They’re very satisfying, and your organisation gets the instant gratification of solving a problem that’s been around for a while, but at some stage you have to reach your end-state. A clear roadmap, with a blueprint for the new organisation, milestones on the journey and KPIs to measure outcomes, is essential and needs to be communicated and understood internally so that everybody understands the role they’ll play.”
8×8’s Michaelwaite said, “There are no shortcuts to successful digital transformation but there are some quick wins. Start with small tasks that can give large returns, such as using a webchat for tenants’ FAQs. It’s important to weigh up what can be improved, what the KPIs are and the impact on the business. Always keep your end goal in mind and ensure that any investments made along the way will complement your agile environment of the future.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “Focusing on a single challenge in one part of your business is the best way to get a quick win. For example, digitising your information service with ‘how to’ guides and offering useful information online is a quick and easy place to start.”
Business aspects to consider
Plentific’s Savas said, “The business elements of digital transformation must include a cost-benefit analysis to determine which components are worth the investment and what to focus on first, comparing the costs and rewards of different scenarios to determine which are most likely to pay off.
“Quantifying your RoI from digital transformation helps to determine your value for money from new technologies. It involves comparing how much is available to spend on technology as well as processes, training and other related expenses versus how the digital platform has improved the bottom line.”
Pay360’s Campbell said, “Before embarking on digital transformation, it’s important to reflect on your current systems and practices and see what roadblocks or inefficiencies have developed over time. If certain aspects of the business are a drain on time, resources or finances, business leaders should look for digital systems that can mitigate these challenges.
“Once a suitable system has been chosen, senior management teams should map the transitions step-by-step, considering areas such as training requirements, additional staff support and any further investments in terms of cost, resources and time.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “The key business consideration is cost because digital transformation isn’t cheap. How much will it cost, how much does the organisation need to invest, is there capital funding for it, and what RoI is needed to cost-effective? You need to be able to answer all these questions (and more) and your balance sheets need to be in check.”
Sysmax’s McAteer said, “Once your digital transformation journey has stated, your direction of travel must include continuous improvement. Any new digital tools or systems must become embedded in the organisation’s processes and culture and be available to the workforce, online and offline on any device.”
Getting the technology right
VerseOne’s Mounsey said, “Remember that technology is the cause, not the effect. What’s the effect? The technology must meet the business needs, so don’t redesign your business to work the way some poorly-designed and inflexible software works. Also, don’t try to become a software development organisation by creating your own technology solution; if you take that route, you’ll end up with a technology stack that nobody understands if your developers leave.
“It’s important to work with a true software partner. With technology, it might be complicated ‘under the hood’ but it should never be complicated for the end-users; quite the opposite, it should be what we call ‘soft-key configurable’, meaning that it should allow non-technical end-users to customise and personalise their experiences themselves.”
8×8’s Michaelwaite said, “The most important rules are to only invest in technologies that will complement your end goal, and to make sure you know what your end goal is before you start. You need technologies that can support agile environments via open APIs, and they need to be intuitive to use with regular updates built-in to reduce the IT burden.”
FLS’s Squire said, “The digital aspect of transformation refers to the new technologies housing providers adopt to improve their processes. There is a focus on using data to better serve customers, using both predictive and outcome-based analytics and generative AI. Furthermore, the proliferation of data and technology in the daily lives of residents has heightened their expectations for connected experiences.”
Cultural and behavioural change
NEC’s Hampton said, “Cultural change is often where digital transformations fall down. Get your best people to lead the project; this can be difficult and expensive but there needs to be investment at the top to get a good return.
“Get buy-in from staff across your whole organisation, share the vision and get them trained properly on any new technologies. Once they know how it’s going to make their jobs better, they will support it.”
Plentific’s Savas said, “Legacy systems and disparate applications create silos within organisations, and when one element of technology is suboptimal but gets the job done, there can be resistance to change and new ways of working.
“Therefore, once you have your end goal in sight, you can communicate this to key decision-makers and get the buy-in necessary to deliver change. Leaders have an important role to play in deconstructing old practices and cultures and creating new ways of thinking.”
FLS’s Squire said, “The transformation aspect refers less to technology and more to people. True digital transformation prioritises a change in culture and collaborative working to achieve the best results, with technology playing a facilitating role.
“Incorporating the human element is key to achieving successful digital transformations, and undertaking digital transformation means taking a step back from how things have always been done and discovering how they could be optimised in the digital age.”
How do you measure success?
VerseOne’s Mounsey said, “Focus on the well-defined and measurable outcomes that you’re trying to achieve. These could include reliable data, a single source of the truth, faster complaints’ resolution, fewer contact centre calls and reductions in service costs. These outcomes need to be designed into the digital transformation programme and somebody in the project team should be on responsible and therefore accountable for the benefits’ realisation.
“Smart objectives (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) are common, and the before (‘as is’) and after (‘to be’) states should be designed-in too. Metrics should be ‘hard’ wherever possible, such as cost, throughput (e.g. transactions, tickets, repairs), revenue generation and tenant retention/churn. It’s good to have some softer benefits as well, such as productivity and customer satisfaction, particularly if these can be measured.
“Crucially, you must benchmark your current position, establish a ‘day zero’ before the transformation goes live, and measure the KPIs closely from ‘day one’ to monitor how you’ve improved against the baseline performance of the ‘old’ organisation.”
8×8’s Michaelwaite said, “To measure the success of any digital transformation project, it’s important to have clear goals and KPIs from the start. For example, if you create a web payment portal, be clear about how many payments need to be made on the portal to offset the cost of the project; if you don’t have this, you can’t accurately measure the success.”
Plentific’s Savas said, “The bottom-line for measuring the success of any digital transformation programme is enhancing the experience for residents, driving efficiencies by improving data accuracy, boosting the speed of service delivery and reducing operational costs.
“Vital metrics include the number of active users, conversion/abandon rates and measuring the percentage of users who start, complete or abandon an activity. Tracking staff productivity helps you to measure the efficiency of digital transformation; if your staff are engaged throughout the process, satisfaction levels are likely to be higher among residents and colleagues.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “Set KPIs that are both measurable and realistic. If the level of complaints is at 30 per cent and you want to get them to under 10 per cent, it would be wise to start with a target of 25 per cent. When that’s been achieved, move to a 20 per cent target – anything else is aiming too high, too fast.
“Overall, it’s important to measure success across three areas: customer satisfaction, economic results and staff morale. There’s no point getting a solid economic return if staff attrition has gone through the roof or customers aren’t happy.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Sue Michaelwaite (8×8), Jeremy Squire (FLS – Fast Lean Smart), Trevor Hampton (NEC Software Solutions), Wayne Campbell (Pay360), Cem Savas (Plentific), Peter McAteer (Sysmax) and Chris Mounsey (VerseOne) for their comments and editorial contributions to this article.