With digital transformation projects of all sizes, complexity and ambition being considered or undertaken by housing providers at the moment (see elsewhere in this issue), Housing Technology interviewed senior executives from Appello, Community Fibre, Comparex and Northgate Public Services around the theme of ‘digital transformation - sticking plaster or in-depth surgery?’.
Does digital transformation require a complete rethink of IT and business operations?
Comparex’s public sector director, Chris Bartlett, said, “An important barrier to overcome is ‘legacy thinking’. Too often, digital initiatives are approached without considering the needs of either tenants or staff. When this happens, grassroots ideas are often killed in the weeds and projects become misaligned or poorly-defined.
“Often, housing providers are not asking the fundamental questions at the start, such as what are we trying to achieve, what is our strategy and how does technology help us achieve it, so that projects fail to deliver tangible benefits and IT teams lose confidence in embarking on bigger transformation projects.”
Roger Birkinshaw, housing director for Northgate Public Services, said, “Rather than honing in on individual business processes that are causing pain, the focus should be on getting the overall strategy behind digital transformation right from the start. That means looking at the customer journey from start to finish, what channels should be added, how you can staff new ways of working, and which (if any) channels you can switch off once transformation has taken place.
“An umbrella digital strategy provides focus and ensures you avoid a patchwork of short-term fixes that deliver only temporary efficiency gains and result in an assortment of IT solutions that further fragment your data.”
Can a piecemeal approach work?
Community Fibre’s CEO, Jeremy Chelot, said, “There used to be a time when a digital transformation team had to search for a 'killer app' that would drive sufficient savings to justify the large investment required to improve the underlying tenant connectivity issues. The best approach now is to consider the services that generate the greatest volume of offline work and investigate how they can be made available online.
“The demand from customers for well-designed digital channels can be surprising. For example, when Westminster City Council put its parking permit application process online, 97 per cent of the applications switched immediately to the online channel.”
Comparex’s Bartlett said, “Housing providers often look at digital transformation as being overly complex and daunting when considered in its entirety. For example, investigations into potential cloud migration and how it will change a provider’s infrastructure can quickly spiral into worries about the integration of legacy IT, costs and data sovereignty, eventually leading to the project being shelved. A piecemeal approach could counteract this, as housing providers would have a clear vision of the specific benefit of each project being undertaken, instead of being bogged down by the bigger picture, with no clear start or end in sight.”
What are the ‘quick wins’?
Northgate Public Services’ Birkinshaw said, “Look at which processes eat up a lot of staff time and what take tenants a lot of time too; the temptation is to focus only on those processes that consume staff time, but if the solution is too focused on one side at the expense of the other, it won’t deliver true digital transformation.
“For instance, moving repair reporting online may make life for the housing provider, but if the online process is too laborious for the tenants, they will still contact the call centre to report a fault. A solution that delivers for both parties will encourage true channel shift to take place.”
Community Fibre’s Chelot’s said, “Improving the digital connectivity and skills of your customers not only unlocks their willingness to interact with you online, but also provides them with untold benefits and opportunities. For example, Community Fibre provides a free gigabit connection for community spaces such as public libraries and schools, so one ‘quick win’ is grant Community Fibre permission to install our fibre-optic cables within your estates.”
What’s really important?
Northgate Public Services’ Birkinshaw said, “Digital transformation needs to be realistic and achievable. It’s not just about what budgets are available, but also what return there will be for any changes made. While it might be a nice idea to move some less-used services online or offer extra contact options via Twitter and Facebook, if the cost to maintain the new options outweighs the efficiency savings or the expected improvement in KPIs, then perhaps your focus should be elsewhere.
“In terms of technology, having an open architecture is essential. It lets you add services and applications as your strategy is rolled out and still ensure that data is brought into the centre. If an enquiry is dealt with on Facebook, Twitter or a tenant app, the transaction needs to be visible in the CRM record for that tenant and that can only happen with the right IT strategy laid out from the beginning.”
Appello’s CTO, Carl Atkey, said, “The significant advantage of digital over non-digital systems is the level of data and insight that becomes available. The data we’ve been able to provide has enabled our housing customers to look at their operations with quantitative evidence and change processes to support their staff to deliver better services to residents.”
Community Fibre’s Chelot said, “Measuring the success of digital transformation can take many guises, but the best measure of success is tenant feedback and satisfaction. Having a good understanding of the experiences of your tenants is vital to address any issues that may arise in the future, and to see how your digital services are positively affecting your tenants.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Carl Atkey (Appello), Jeremy Chelot (Community Fibre), Chris Bartlett (Comparex) and Roger Birkinshaw (Northgate Public Services) for their editorial contributions to this article.