The technology revolution that has transformed the operating efficiency and productivity of social housing continues to make a significant difference. However, identifying which technologies will have the most positive impact is harder to predict. Nigel Rees, joint managing director of Aareon, believes that integration holds the key; here’s why…
I’m always fascinated by how new technologies morph from testing-board through to polished commercial applications that drive efficiency and value for money. With regard to social housing though, there is clearly no room for ‘maybe’; new technologies must be proven and be seen to deliver. And unsurprisingly, not all that glitters is suitable for this market and there needs to be sound processes, capable of evaluating what works and what doesn’t.
Vision, attitude & passion
The impressive vision, attitude and passion that HAs bring to the adoption of new technologies is always inspiring. There is now a real appreciation of the importance that digital transformation can play in supporting better ways of working, the importance of engagement with tenants by housing operatives and channel shift to allow tenants to self-serve.
Aimed at driving continuous improvement on all operational fronts, there are new technologies that could either transform working practices or become costly, resource-heavy ‘white elephants’. From artificial intelligence (AI) to agile apps and voice systems through to machine learning, big data analytics, frictionless computing, sensor technology and much more, there is a myriad of innovative new technologies and ideas which could play a significant role in supporting housing operations. The challenge is to discover which of these could eventually drive VFM, operational efficiency or boost customer care the most.
Well, quite apart from what these innovations offer in their own right, the key is to understand and evaluate how they could work as part of a coherent, integrated system. Thus, before one can reap the full potential on offer, all new technologies have to ‘make the grade’ in terms of demonstrably delivering real and reliable benefits as an integral part of the housing provider’s overall technology estate. In reality, their introduction has to be scheduled as part of an iterative, intelligent and cohesive change management process that is closely integrated with the other evolutionary technologies that are already in use. Not all new technologies will be able to make this leap and prove to be effective as part of a joined-up system.
Housing providers need this integrated clarity on the benefits that each technology can provide to ensure that the focus is on both service and on realising a return on investment. Collaboration between providers, to share good integration ideas, will also reduce the need for bespoke and/or customised solutions. It will also accelerate delivery and enable the faster adoption of new technologies. Trust in the ‘partnership’ between housing associations and the technology providers is essential too.
Once tried and tested, as part of a highly integrated proof of concept (PoC), the new ideas and technologies can be piloted before iteratively deploying them as a full part of the housing provider’s systems. Naturally, while cost is always a major factor, integrating incoming technologies with other evolving areas of development will prove their worth and value quickly in real terms.
So which areas of new technology are currently making the grade and driving the most effective change?
Well, end-to-end process integration with the API to allow digital applications to collaboratively share data where it’s needed most is one important area. The HA can then jointly add the latest technology to drive towards digital leadership and the further automation of streamlined processes.
Mobile and ‘mobilised’ working is another key area. While this is where social housing technology started, it is still one of the areas where new technology drives innovation. Through operatives using intelligent data in the field, through ever more capable apps, housing providers can drive even greater efficiencies. With the increasingly integrated 360-degree data on their devices, these operatives are becoming more and more productive, while being unconstrained by location or time. They will increasingly be empowered to perform numerous tasks that previously required multiple specialists. So through clever big data integration, operatives from all departments can gain a single view of a tenant’s needs and history, from responsive repairs and optimal boiler replacement times through to estate management events and broader care issues.
Self-service apps and portals are another field that is evolving rapidly. Easy-to-access and intuitive, these systems enable end-customers to communicate through the digital channels that are now part of their own landscape, alleviating the pressure on customer-facing resources. What were once simple online solutions for checking rental agreements and balances are now offering an increasingly full-featured and sophisticated range of customer services and opportunities. These range from repairs booking and advice on universal credit to moving services and content applicable to whatever stage of life customers find themselves at, be that jobs, support, care or health. By encouraging repeatable self-service solutions, the ‘cost-to-serve’ reduces significantly. This enables investment to be redirected into more accommodation while also ensuring those less fortunate and vulnerable can access greater direct contact and support.
Ultimately, the data generated from tenant self-service systems could be extended to provide updated information on asset condition and, in the not too distant future, by using internet of things (IoT) sensors this data could provide an early warning on specific assets, such as boilers. It could also flag up a change in the overall condition of the property and even the health and care needs of the tenants themselves.
A greater focus on end-to-end processes will also support the sharing of best-practices, therein delivering improved outcomes, with the full extent of digitisation reducing intervention to apply ‘single or zero touch solutions’. Intuitive user interfaces are another potentially huge step forwards, negating the need to log in and out of multiple systems, or the need for extensive training just to navigate through systems. The main consideration here is how far each organisation is prepared to go in reducing silos and choosing streamlined ‘friction-free’ working practices. However, all this supports the even wider adoption of cloud solutions and services for the fast, scalable and affordable delivery of high value, app-led technology services.
We are also seeing a growing interest in integrating voice, social media, video and other media to speed up the interaction, capture and sharing of data or expertise, thereby removing the mystique and ensuring a practical application of the widely-discussed ‘AI’ for automated housing assistance. Visualisation is another technology in play, much tipped to help locate where staff are spending their time and display information in the easily digestible and relevant form that Google has made part of our everyday consumer lives.
So by introducing and supporting new technologies that successfully integrate with and support the ongoing digital evolution and development, housing providers can continuously drive greater value for money, operational efficiency and customer care. The quality and analysis of the data gathered is raised and ongoing business intelligence improves too. Most importantly, it frees up resources that can be diverted to those in the greatest need. Any integrated technology that helps to unlock that benefit can certainly be deemed to have ‘made the grade’ in the social housing technology sector.
Nigel Rees is joint managing director of Aareon UK.