Now more than ever, the social housing sector needs to embrace innovation to tackle the challenges we all face and help shape the services of the future. The social housing sector will look very different over the next 10 years as the boundaries of what we do change. Our core offer will evolve, we will use technology differently, and we will become more digital.
Innovation has an important role in driving this change, but developing a culture of innovation is not easy. It is important to find an approach that’s right for your business, and it requires new ways of working and new skills. Then, even when you have done this, making sure this function responds to the changing needs of the business is an ever-present challenge.
Viridian established a research and innovation team just over four years ago. Initially set up to help establish our ‘social impact’ offer, the team now works with departments across the organisation. Our remit is focused on customer insight, service improvement and new product development. Wrapped around this has been a strong a focus on customers and skills development.
Although we use a variety of methods and techniques, our core approach is easy to describe:
- Identify a challenge or opportunity and take the time to understand it in more detail;
- Develop ideas in response to what we have learned, not what we think we know;
- Then test the best ideas at a small scale to see what works and what doesn’t.
- Interventions that do work are then scaled up with support from the wider business units.
We have had some considerable successes. Early projects included establishing our digital inclusion skills offer for tenants and developing an online affordability assessment tool that is now used by other housing providers. More recently, we have developed and launched the digital home-swap service MoveMaker; and we are currently developing a new affordable rent product for people under the age of 35 that includes some exciting digital opportunities.
As the scale and complexity of some of our projects has changed, so too has their focus. Increasingly, our innovation activities are helping to develop Viridian’s digital offer to tenants. This has meant that we have had to further refine our approach and ways of working.
We have had an excellent starting point. Dominic Rogers, Viridian’s head of IT, recognised the value of our approach early on, and understood that our digital platform is something that is enabled by IT, but not necessarily led by IT.
Our ‘digital first’ strategy sets out a clear vision for how digital can be used across all aspects of the business, how we will achieve this, and how our technology environment should be designed. Our approach is planned around wider interdependencies, including our expected merger with AmicusHorizon, and actively involves the wider business. After all, our businesses are always changing so this shouldn’t be used as an excuse for standing still.
Some clear principles guide our approach. Projects aren’t just about adding a digital layer to what we do and instead look at the front- and back-end of a service. Why add a digital layer on top of a process that already we know isn’t working effectively, when there is an opportunity to improve the overall solution?
The needs of the user and the quality of the user experience sit at the heart of everything we do, but this will always be balanced against the needs and demands of the business. We don’t develop solutions for the customer in isolation from the needs of the business, because to do so increases the likelihood of failure.
Finally, design is important and any digital process we roll out must be intuitive and easy to use. We believe extensive instructions to guide you through the process don’t make for a high-quality user experience.
To stand a chance of achieving this, we have had to further refine our approach to innovation and embrace more agile ways of working.
First, we have introduced defined roles that cover business, technical and management requirements at the programme and project levels. This has given the wider organisation greater visibility of high-level business planning, and empowered teams responsible for the delivery of a solution. We have found this means that the business is better placed to direct development of the solution, and is more likely to feel ownership of the solution as it evolves and transitions into live use.
We are also working hard to adopt a more iterative approach that encourages detail to emerge over time. Our approach deals with current and imminent business needs, rather than the more traditional approach that tackles all possibilities. This means detailed upfront work is avoided and teams are better placed to deal with the inevitable changes to business requirements. This also means solutions are more likely to have a better fit with business requirements, and are easier to integrate into business processes. The technology we choose has to allow for this approach.
We continue to use a variety of methods and techniques, but again this has evolved. We have bought service design skills into the team, we work much more closely with our colleagues in IT, and we have a much sharper focus on business model development and scaling strategies. We use proof of concepts to understand and refine our requirements. Success at this stage gives us the first step towards a new product and it allows us to tender more effectively.
Being experimental with technology is important. One size doesn’t fit all and solutions include our existing technology stack, other software as a service solutions, or building something new. We are also using low-code platforms to speed up prototyping work.
From a purist’s point of view, the changes we have made at Viridian don’t constitute ‘pure agile’. This is hard to do when the wider business is not set up to work that way. We already have an eye on further refinements we can make and as we approach our merger with AmicusHorizon, we know our approach will need to evolve again.
Nevertheless, this way of working has sped up our approach, reduced the risks involved in innovation, and enthused the wider business as they see their ideas take shape. Looking ahead we hope this is an approach that will continue to add value and help the new organisation achieve its ambitious longer term objectives.
Ed Wallace is research and innovation manager at Viridian Housing.