Social housing is always changing and adapting to meet the needs of a growing population, not to mention adhering to standards issued by the government. But no matter how fast social housing changes, technology invariably changes faster. New technology and software is often exciting, groundbreaking and can promise a new era of productivity and efficiency. Yet housing providers are often unable to keep up, and can find themselves restricted by budgets, support agreements, and the fear inherent in any large-scale change. Very often the IT department’s skill-set is not kept up-to-date, and staff can find themselves out of their depth.
Many housing providers find themselves committed to keeping outdated software, such as IE6, simply so that they do not break their support agreements with Microsoft. Unable to upgrade without moving to Windows Vista, they are caught between a desire to update, and a resistance to the investment and training/support requirements of Vista in order to do so. However, there are now viable alternatives to Internet Explorer, such as Safari, Firefox and Google Chrome. These standards-compliant browsers are probably a real alternative for organisations wanting to take advantage of the capabilities of cloud computing.
Of course, it’s not just the operating system and browser that can hold back innovation. Often, the existing business-critical systems are to blame, with the culprits usually old technology and difficulties in managing connections to other systems. The Housing Technology Standards are perhaps a step in the right direction, especially if they successfully identify common formats for data exchange. However, they are not a panacea that will magically connect every piece of software complying with the standards.
IT departments are typically not software developers and often don’t understand the complexity of interfacing two disparate pieces of software. What works for one implementation may need to be re-worked for another installation that has a different configuration. End-users often think that an interface which does all the work for them automatically is the best solution. They may be right, but the cost and time of implementing these interfaces is often greater than the benefit of the interface itself.
Nearly all of the major housing management systems offer their users great flexibility in how they are configured. Yet this flexibility is often the greatest stumbling block when it comes to effective integration. The desire for interfaces is often used to disguise the fact that the existing processes haven’t been thought through in the first place. Perhaps more time should be spent fine-tuning the process before trying to fix it with another addition to the software?
The financial outlook for housing providers will be lean for at least a couple of years and there will not be large budgets available for software adaptations. The TSA is committed to ensuring that tenants get the best possible service from their housing provider, and this is likely to get the majority of any investment money as the providers work to give their tenants a modern and effective service.
The future of software will be cloud computing, with new technologies such as Google Wave making genuine improvements to the web experience. However, in the short to medium term, organisations would be better advised to analyse the processes they already have to see if people can be helped to do their job better. After all, it worked for Toyota.
Phil Shelton is CEO of Shelton Development Services.