Housing Technology interviewed senior executives from Aareon UK, Fast Lean Smart, Illumar and IntoZetta about the respective advantages and disadvantages of housing-specific software (best-of-breed) and generic software, encompassing all facets of decision-making, from procurement, implementation and integration, through cost and functionality comparisons, and ongoing support, management and maintenance.
Do you need housing-specific software?
Aareon UK’s senior business development manager, Ian Lockwood, said, “Housing providers need to deliver a very wide range of disparate but linked services in an environment that is heavily legislated and subject to frequent change. The software they use therefore needs to keep up with those changes and, even when deployed within a given service area, needs to be cognisant of the wider picture.
“In contrast, where generic software is used, the housing provider often has to have in-house development resources to tailor it to their particular requirements and keep pace with change. While there are examples of this working well for reasonable periods of time, there are many cases where this in-house know-how exits the business and the housing provider is then left with an unsupported solution.”
Illumar’s commercial director, Peter Luke, said, “Housing providers don’t necessarily need housing-specific software but if they do opt for a generic solution, it should come with domain knowledge and housing expertise. Tenants’ expectations will be driven by service standards in other areas (c.f. Amazon or Uber), and the software, whether specific or generic, used by housing providers needs to match best practice elsewhere in tenants’ lives.
“While the balance between generic and best-of-breed software might change, in the medium term a mix of software types will remain so we need an approach to housing-specific enterprise master data management or middleware to enable the benefits of both approaches to be harnessed.”
IntoZetta’s co-founder and director, Graeme Cox, said, “Housing providers carry out very particular activities that are common in housing but are very different from almost every other sector. It therefore makes sense for the sector to gravitate around a small number of software solutions to address these particular operational requirements. With housing-specific solutions, there is also the added advantage of sharing knowledge and experiences through the various user groups and communities.”
Horses for courses…
Aareon’s Lockwood said, “Some requirements are well met by generic applications; no one would suggest that housing providers need housing-specific email solutions, desktop software or HR applications. Equally, other housing-centric requirements are better met from an IT provider that genuinely understands the services to be delivered and can focus wholly on keeping the solution in line with customers’ needs and relevant housing legislation. There are also the benefits of working with like-minded customers alongside user groups and development roadmaps that are wholly focused on the needs of the housing sector.”
Fast Lean Smart’s managing director, Jeremy Squire, said, “Consider best-of-breed scheduling solutions – these benefit all field-based operations, including repairs and maintenance teams, neighbourhood housing officers, surveyors and asset management teams, as well as health and care workers, whereas back-office finance and HR teams could use more generic software.”
IntoZetta’s Cox said, “In areas such as housing, tenant and repairs management, most housing providers have similar business models, operational processes and ongoing challenges. It therefore makes sense that software which has been specifically designed or configured to meet those challenges will be more effective ‘out of the box’ than a generic solution designed for all sectors.
“This logic can also be applied to areas that might at first sight seem good candidates for generic software, such as data management. There are generic data management products that allow a housing provider to manage its data assets in ways that are consistent with best practice across all industry sectors, but there are also solutions that are pre-configured with data structures and data-quality rules specifically for housing, so needing less configuration and investment to provide a tailored solution.
“Where generic software is almost always the right answer is in the indisputably horizontal functions within an organisation where there is little or no difference between the needs of a housing provider and the needs of, say, a retailer or manufacturer. Email and collaboration tools fit into this bucket, as do HR software and general office applications.”
IntoZetta’s Cox said, “Procuring a generic solution for a particular requirement creates a number of challenges. The software will probably ‘do what it says on the tin’ but is that what the organisation specifically requires? This path can lead to a heavily configured bespoke solution that can prove more expensive and difficult to support in the long term. Procuring a housing-specific solution might mean that the requirements can be more exacting but it’s also likely to mean that there are fewer vendors able to provide a fully-supported, sector-specific solution.”
FLS’s Squire said, “Generic software could be applied across broad procurement tenders, such as for finance solutions, but it’s the nuances that are applicable to housing which set best-of-breed solutions apart. Housing solutions have been developed with housing in mind, working harmoniously together, specialising in areas such as job costings for repairs, route optimisation and scheduling, across different aspects and integrating easily with other solutions, to provide the best possible and most cost-effective and complete technology solutions.”
Implementation and integration
Illumar’s Luke said, “If the procurement exercise has been done diligently then it’s unlikely to be the technology or effort required that’s a barrier to implementation for either best-of-breed or generic solutions. Governance and the bringing together of people, systems and controls at critical junctures are the common challenges.
“Having people with housing experience will help solve this, pulling disparate parts of the organisation together to anticipate and plan the implementation. It’s undoubtedly helpful to have been through the cycle before, as anyone who has built an Ikea wardrobe will testify!”
IntoZetta’s Cox said, “Implementing and integrating a generic ‘vanilla’ solution is likely to mean that the skills and experience are readily available to achieve success. However, the further the solution is configured and adapted away from the ‘vanilla’ version, the more complexity will be added and some of the original benefits lost.
“Many housing-specific solutions are conceived around their implementation and integration with other popular housing solutions in mind, with the common operational requirements pre-configured. For this reason, buying one of these may be easier to implement and integrate, and cheaper and easier to support in the long term because there should be very little need to create a bespoke solution.”
Illumar’s Luke said, “Functionality is the key question to ask and document ahead of any procurement exercise. It’s important to know what business problems you currently have, those you predict in the future and why you want to do something about those problems. This should be documented in any contract so you don’t end up with a long-term ‘temporary minimum viable product’.
“There is an advantage to housing-specific software because you benefit from the accumulated knowledge of other users, although this shouldn’t be used to lock you into a particular architecture. However, there might be more innovation from generic suppliers with a wider accrued knowledge of users undertaking similar processes in other sectors. It’s also worthwhile thinking through the consequences of what happens when your needs change, and whether you can manage the changes in-house or if not, where and at what cost those change can be supported.”
FLS’s Squire said, “Housing-specific software goes further than generic software, enabling much more functionality, such as self-service. Typically, best-of-breed is geared towards one particular purpose and is much easier to update, with upgrades rolled out without affecting other systems. Generic software tends to have less ‘usable’ functionality because it has been designed with broader purposes in mind, only some of which are applicable to housing.”
Illumar’s Luke said, “Generic solutions look like they square the circle of offering exactly what you want at a mass market price or at least a price that meets the financial case for making a change.
“However, to make like-for-like comparisons, you would need to consider the basis of the pricing at, for example, an enterprise level, property level and user level, and any such pricing would need to be risk-adjusted for the time to value, the cost of future changes and the accrued ‘technical debt’ embedded in such systems when the suppliers and internal champions have moved on. That said, because the underlying assets are likely to outlive the systems, the data about those assets is also likely to outlive those systems and the value to the organisation of accessing and interrogating that data may outweigh any concerns over the whole-life costs.”
Ongoing support, management & maintenance
FLS’s Squire said, “Best-of-breed software can often be deployed within days because it will have been configured exactly for a specific business or software challenge, whereas the roll-out of generic software is usually slower and more expensive. Furthermore, best-of-breed solutions don’t tend to require large upfront investments, whereas generic software can have large upfront license costs and then ongoing support and maintenance costs, with less flexibility for any upgrades to the system.”
Illumar’s Luke said, “Support and maintenance is one of those things that everybody wants but no one likes to pay for. The promptness and expertise of the response will, to some extent, shape perceptions of the system and here there should be an advantage with housing-specific systems.
“However, if this is the point at which you learn what the system actually does versus what you expected it to do, it can be a painful reality check, especially if resolving that necessitates paying for a consultant to diagnose the problem and then paying again to derive a solution. The advantage of a best-of-breed solution is that it should anticipate certain changes whereas a generic system will require the housing organisation to specify what is needed.”
Dictating future technology plans
FLS’s Squire said, “Focusing on best-of-breed solutions over generic software has a significant impact on housing providers’ future plans; many are looking at cloud-based applications as a result of the pandemic and the need to work from home and/or remotely.
“The flexibility and huge array of configurable parameters within housing-specific software should be able to meet each customer’s particular objectives and deliver cost efficiency, tenant satisfaction and employee wellbeing without affecting speed or performance. By contrast, generic software tends to work from a limited number of parameters or overlays them in way that give suboptimal results.”
IntoZetta’s Cox said, “Housing providers ultimately want software that can support their operational requirements without needing to be heavily configured, built on a technology stack that is broadly accepted, and which has a long-term development roadmap.
“Many providers of housing-specific software develop their software using widely available technologies underpinned by the likes of Microsoft and Google. It is important to understand the underlying technology stack and development roadmap of any software to ensure that it complements the long-term technology strategy of the housing provider, regardless of whether the solution is generic or housing-specific.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Ian Lockwood (Aareon UK), Jeremy Squire (Fast Lean Smart), Peter Luke (Illumar) and Graeme Cox (IntoZetta) for their comments and editorial contributions to this article.