Is having one system that meets all the demands of different parts of your housing business a realistic goal or the right aspiration? Isn’t that what the integrated housing system, a cornerstone of your ICT strategy for the last 10 or more years, was meant to be? You can answer ‘yes’ and carry on as usual but the reality of current technology and the demands of the business mean that the answer is more complex.
Let’s start by examining the idea that one system might meet all the demands of housing management. Housing providers vary in size from small organisations to fairly significant enterprises employing thousands of people. But regardless of size, there is a common set of activities that each needs to perform and each requires an IT system to support it. The main areas for housing management are:
- A financial and accounting system covering areas such as budget management, income (rents and service charges), payments and reporting;
- An asset management system for both stock condition purposes as well as day-to-day repairs;
- A customer management system for managing all the tenant information such as rents, arrears, contacts, complaints, profiling, communications and segmentation.
Some traditional housing management functions like voids cut across these areas, supporting the case for a single system covering finance, asset management and customer management. But things can start to get complicated when parts of the business are performed externally or outsourced, such as maintenance and support contracts. In this scenario, the total enterprise includes those external parts which may be run by other companies using their own systems. There will therefore be a need to exchange data in order to manage end-to-end processes and maintain within the business a clear picture of activity, customer status and asset information.
For the push towards separate systems for individual functions, an important consideration is that a specialist supplier in one function is likely to deliver more comprehensive functionality than a supplier of a broader and more integrated system. Three areas where this is most prevalent are in finance, assets and customer management.
Looking at the leading housing management systems, there are two groups: those that have chosen to integrate and interface with leading third-party solutions; and those which provide an integrated solution. While this is established for finance and assets, it is less so for customer management where functionality around true CRM capability is still emerging through both third-party products and housing system development. With CRM the potential for adding, say, Microsoft Dynamics would result in a much more capable solution (as you can potentially build your own modules) than something a HMS supplier could develop. However, this sort of CRM would come with a significant integration challenge. To a large degree, your choices around integration are dependent on the choices your HMS supplier has made in these areas. Unless you’re keen on switching your HMS altogether, a single integrated solution may not be a realistic option.
Single system, single database
Turning now to the technical desirability of integrated systems, the obvious benefit of a single integrated system, with a single database and all functions accessible via a single desktop application, is less technology to support. This will mainly mean fewer servers, databases, desktop software and interfaces (data exchanges). Those first three items are overheads that can be kept to a minimum unless they involve some old or exotic technologies. However, interfaces and data exchanges are where the extra expense and functional drawbacks arise. Interfaces are a mixed bag; I’ve installed some that worked straight away with little technical know-how while others needed considerable reworking by the supplier and required a scaffold of in-house programming to make them effective. There will always be a limit to the amount of data exchanged unless the systems can see each others’ databases.
The one big downside to single integrated systems is lock-in. The bigger the system, the harder it will be to replace it when, for technical or business reasons, a new system is needed. Replacing the entire business systems architecture in one go for a housing provider is expensive, disruptive and will mean a lot of other work will have to be put on hold. There is therefore an argument in favour of having a small set of systems where change can be managed at a component level.
The size of your organisation is another factor in whether you want a single system or not. A large housing group may have the resources and budget to swallow the interface and integration pill whereas a smaller provider will be better served with a simpler architecture. Though many housing providers, regardless of their size, will already have finance and asset systems interfaced so the debate for most is not really about having one system but what the set of systems looks like.
So could the holy grail of a single integrated HMS be replaced by a combination of asset management, finance and extended CRM systems? The answer depends on your willingness to meet the challenges of each area. The issues will be:
- An extendable CRM product could theoretically deliver a huge chunk of the HMS functionality, but this is yet to be fully proven;
- Asset management systems would need to extend into day-to-day repairs and estate sustainability;
- The quality of interfacing between systems will need to improve with more integration and fewer simplistic flat-file exchanges;
- The core financial transactions associated with rents and service charges would need to re-engineered as an extension of the finance system.
This last issue would be a significant challenge as this is the oldest part of some housing systems but maybe it’s time for a refresh that will clear away some of the cumbersome overnight batch processing and inflexibility that is characteristic of older technology.
On top of this, there will also be layers of technology to manage access by staff and customers via the internet and mobile devices as well as to guide performance through reporting and data warehousing tools. Solutions for mobile devices need to be at an enterprise level to capitalise on device independence (including the BYOD trend) and management of security concerns.
In summary, the future architecture of your information systems will be dependent on your organisation’s scale and resources, what systems you already have (including any outsourced functions) and your appetite for change and innovation, with bigger housing providers probably more likely to move in increments from the traditional HMS model to one based on systems supporting the three main components of finance, assets and customers.
Peter Hall is the founder of IT consultancy Cobalt Curve.