Mark Palmer, director of products and marketing at Invu, explores the prerequisites for the successful deployment of a document management system and guides housing providers on how to deliver a highly-effective business operation that results in increased efficiency and service levels, reduced costs and compliance risks, and as a result higher Audit Commission ratings.
One year on from the full arrival of the Housing and Regeneration Act, the Tenant Services Authority’s formidable influence within the industry is now being seen. Inspections, audits and penalties bring more stress to an already pressured sector.
The TSA aims to create a virtuous circle of feedback and improvement, to be reflected in enhanced ‘star’ ratings from Audit Commission inspections. But this relies not only on efficient functions and processes within the housing provider, but also requires a reliable and easy way to demonstrate such excellence to both the internal tenant review and the external TSA audit.
But a cultural reliance on poor manual, paper-based processes that slow down customer service and procurement or obstruct the demonstration of excellence will result in equally poor star ratings. One obvious solution is to use document management systems to remove the reliance on paper, streamline processes and transform the timeliness of information access. But as many housing providers have discovered, ensuring an efficient investment is not automatic – there are a number of common errors made that can undermine any potential returns.
A common picture
Increasingly, housing providers that fail to meet high standards of administrative efficiency will be penalised by poor ratings – in a world where streamlined, connected and secure processes are de rigueur, it is essential for any business in any industry to follow suit in order to achieve wider performance goals and compete effectively.
For the housing provider already struggling with escalating prices and increasing regulation, this is a tough blow. But, to be fair, most CEOs and CFOs are already well aware of the business cost associated with retaining paper processes. Sophisticated industry-specific contact management systems, ERP software and finance systems are widely available incorporating automated purchase order production, email invoicing and remittance advice. However, costs and resistance to change mean that many housing providers remain reliant on slow and even paper-based order and invoice processing. The result: dangerously inefficient processes for tracking and storing ad-hoc documents.
Housing providers cannot afford to throw resources at this problem – although many do end up with administrative staff purely dedicated to reconciling repairs and maintenance invoices. There has to be a better way of operating.
Focus on the business need
How can housing providers finally limit the reliance on paper within these critical auditable processes and impose real control?
The need to be able to access information, have confidence in records and be able to deliver rapid customer service are prerequisites for any housing provider – but how can this be delivered in a single investment? One obvious answer is to adopt a document management system to automate, link and centralise processes, slash paper dependence and achieve control over the document trails. Such control inherently results in greater visibility across departments, allowing for a more holistic service to tenants, which in turn results in higher star ratings.
But simply making a document management decision is not enough. A document management system is a highly-functional product set that can be deployed in many ways and across many departments to meet numerous business requirements.
It is therefore essential to clearly understand and define the precise, immediate business need and then map that requirement to the technology offering. Housing providers must also be pragmatic; if the organisation has a problem that needs to be resolved, define it, design a solution and implement it, fast.
The emphasis right now is to get rid of the paper-based, disjointed or disparate processes that are compromising services to tenants. Don’t get distracted by additional features, however appealing, simply because they are available. Don’t encourage scope creep and stagnation by a long and heavyweight requirements process. This whole process should take around one month, and certainly no more than three.
Housing providers, and even departments within them, need to clearly define their own specific requirements, such as cutting down payments to only 30 days or guaranteeing resolution of tenant complaints on the first call. But they also need to understand the exact implications of that objective – for example, will it require in-depth integration with the legacy finance system? The key is to define statements of work, undertake pre-implementation review sessions and work closely with a supplier. Use proof of concept trials followed by staged implementations to create manageable projects that deliver incremental business value.
It is also essential to avoid over-elaboration, a classic error with any functionally-rich technology. For example, a document management system uses configurable structures and meta-data, and most also enable content searching. Defining a complex taxonomy may appear to be the best route towards a flexible and future-proof solution but, as one housing provider discovered, in areas where the filing is not automated, the overhead of working to the structure and meta-data requirements resulted in slow operational processing, end-user frustration and a reduction in return on investment. A simple taxonomy, with limited mandatory meta-data, is actually a far more sustainable and usable model.
In addition to clarity and simplicity, housing providers should try to find every automation opportunity for fundamental efficiency improvements, from the extraction of content from paper documentation to implementing workflows and invoice approvals. Effective automation will deliver a quicker turn around for order processing or enable the business to deal with queries faster, and hence meet target service levels.
It is easy to get derailed by the deployment of a document management system. The challenge is to define the needs and design a pragmatic solution that can be deployed quickly to meet those requirements. With the right approach, housing providers can transform operational efficiency, achieve clarity of communication and meet supplier service levels. Critically, the overall business operation can be enhanced, strengthening any claim to those valuable three stars.
Mark Palmer is director of products and marketing for Invu.