The premise of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems is simple; by integrating all of an organisation’s processes and data into a single platform, efficiency, effectiveness and security can all be increased while lowering the total cost of ownership (TCO). To further ‘acronymise’, in housing providers’ IT departments this is often conflated with achieving a single version of the truth (SVoT) in which each business datum has a consistent definition and value, no matter where you look for it.
Anyone who has tried this will know that it’s a never-ending endeavour, with goalposts moving and parts of the organism constantly decaying. Nevertheless, it’s attractive to frustrated C-suites seeking to emulate the success of household names. Alas, their staff usually hate ERP systems because they’re designed with compliance and consistency in mind, with the user experience (UX) tending to be a lower priority.
Contrast this with best-of-breed (BoB) solutions, which are designed to solve a specific problem as well as possible. Whether it’s workforce scheduling, mobile repairs, rent-arrears forecasting or asset inspections, someone has expended a lot of effort to refine a solution until it’s about as good as it can be. Decision-makers in departmental silos buy these to solve their tactical problems, and their staff buy-in because it makes their jobs easier. Meanwhile, the IT director is being hauled up by the executive team because, despite the promises made in the vendor’s winning bid, nothing integrates to anything and they still can’t get any useful business intelligence.
Having used an ERP system prevalent in the consultancy market for a year, I can confirm that the same problems surface every time. For example, I’m currently trying to find a decent way to schedule people on projects to overcome the awful UX of the ERP’s own tool, but I’m about to give up due to the difficulty of integration.
The HMS suppliers fight this battle every day. They try to maintain recurring revenues by offering integrated modules, selling the importance of integrated data. However, I know from personal experience that this can be very difficult when your competitor has very shiny bells and whistles festooning their product, blinding the buyer to the problems they will encounter by implementing yet another silo system. Some of the HMS vendors (mainly the ones that have to report quarterly to shareholders…) try to lock in their customers, whereas others have taken a longer-term view and invested in opening up their systems via APIs.
Yet neither approach offers the buyer both the strategic necessity of integrated data as well as the tactical advantage of great UX which engages and motivates their users. HMS vendors labour to create mobile apps and the like, but it’s not really in their DNA and they can’t hope to emulate the fast-moving tactical solutions demanded by an agile business environment.
It’s important to recognise that these problems are very different in scope, and that it’s not viable for any single vendor to excel at both. The major ERP vendors have recognised this and acquired or partnered with a plethora of specialist solution providers. They’re not directly dependent on these suppliers for their revenue; instead their ‘edge’ solutions satisfy market demand for excellent UX in specialised domains and at the same time consolidate the position of the central ERP platform.
Inspired by the concept of edge computing, one might term this ‘edge value’ – significant operational benefits are derived from peripheral (and sometimes disposable) BoB apps, but the centralised SVoT is preserved at all times. As long as this strategic benefit is assured, then it becomes a relatively straightforward calculation to assess the return on investment of, say, building native apps which you know will probably be obsolete within a few years due to the pace of change in the consumer tech arena.
Software architects in the established HMS vendors agonise over and can be paralysed by contemplation of the long-term consequences of their decisions, but if you don’t deliver value fast enough you might not have a long term. In the agile digital technology world, the focus is on time-to-market, and as long as you solve today’s problems while at the same time providing a good return on investment, why does it matter if a piece of software doesn’t last ten years? After all, who wants to use ten-year-old software?
So my exhortation to the housing sector would be: abandon the mind-set of buying ‘one system to rule them all’ every seven years. Acknowledge the value that your HMS probably gives you in a boring but business-critical way, but move fast to build, launch, revise and re-build UX for your users, whether they are your staff, tenants, partners or executives. See your ‘edge value’ as your product, and manage it using a quarterly roadmap, accepting that this means you might have to pivot and change how you do things, repeatedly. Be bold: excellence is a state of mind, and isn’t so hard to achieve for your users if you really want to!
Aidan Dunphy is chief product officer at Hedgehog Lab.