“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
As we all grapple with the impact of coronavirus, it’s obvious that we are ‘stronger together’. The crisis has illustrated that the housing sector and its various ecosystems are mutually interdependent and must collaborate. The absolute need for this is being driven home in ways that only adversity can expose, with much of that mutual interdependence normally taken for granted in our busy lives.
The crisis has exposed that as individuals, organisations and countries alike, we were ill-prepared in one way or another. To paraphrase Drucker’s adage, the greatest risk in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, the risk is to continue to act using yesterday’s thinking. I’m sure we have all witnessed how our thinking and actions have had to change in response to the scale and speed of recent events. We should take comfort that we all address change successfully in our everyday lives, so that means we are good at it even though we may not recognise it.
In an article in the September 2019 edition of Housing Technology, Itica explored the structures and mechanisms for sector collaboration. Our recent survey, ‘The Future of ICT in Social Housing’ (to be published in full once we are in calmer waters), identified collaboration as a major theme for many housing providers. One survey respondent expressed it perfectly, stating, “There needs to be a fundamental step-change in how housing providers engage with prospective IT suppliers. As a housing provider, we should be standardising the delivery of systems (and change in general) across the whole sector. There needs to be greater collaboration and economies of scale.”
The above quote refers to IT, but why stop there? Coronavirus has raised many questions across all aspects of business operations and forced many people to work in unfamiliar ways and gain benefit from their investments in previously little-used technologies.
Here and now
The question is whether these tactical actions can be made part of housing providers’ strategic operational fabric. Mark Henderson, CEO of Home Group, told us, “We mustn’t be like the average conference goer who sits in exactly the same seat on consecutive days. If we don’t plan to go back to a different way of working then we will revert to tradition very quickly. Learning what went really well and which technologies really worked during lockdown and then making sure those good practices continue on day one of any phased return to work is the ‘right now’ essential planning.”
How many of you have been logging those issues and successes for later review or inclusion in your planning processes to define and implement the ‘new normal’? If not, why not start it today while it is still fresh in your mind; be totally honest in reviewing it because the opportunity is there to learn and make lasting changes. Consider using your IT team’s own incident-logging system if you have one – it’s far better than a spreadsheet for tracking owners and progress!
The first area for review, and the most relevant for this magazine, is technology. Myriad stories exist of Herculean efforts to get laptops and collaboration tools rolled out to hundreds of staff within a few days and operational teams finding new and creative ways to use those tools, including real-time status updates of coronavirus response plans.
Home Group’s Henderson said, “I think the most interesting feature hasn’t been the ‘fancy-dan’ technology stuff, but more it’s a far better understanding and use of what we already have. For example, when we are forced to use videoconferencing, it suddenly becomes easy and normal instead of an irritant that nobody can use properly.”
A private WhatsApp group was set up for housing CEOs by Campbell Tickell to share ideas and good practice. Many housing providers are also using technology for holding meetings and to speed up approvals, such as the immediate release of funds to accelerate the implementation of the required technologies for mass remote working and collaboration.
There are lots of positives to come from the sector’s response, but how many of you also found that your previous technology choices hindered a rapid change to your operational models? Are there examples of where staff intervention or local knowledge was needed to provide data and process integrity across best-of-breed systems from different vendors? Will that lack of integration help or hinder general plans for automation? Also, what automation could help to provide a more efficient response to disruptive events in the future?
Our survey found that housing providers and technology suppliers are aligned in the view that current core systems won’t meet providers’ business needs over the next three years. Many will have found that coronavirus has thrown the consequences of those gaps and inefficiencies into sharper relief which makes solving them a higher priority.
The survey also revealed that some of the newer entrants to the market are now seen as viable alternatives to existing housing management systems. MRI Software’s recent acquisition of both Orchard and Castleton Technology illustrates the potential level of change in the sector. If there is going to be further disruption in the IT supplier base, how does the sector have its say on the direction of product roadmaps and the choice of underlying technologies?
For those with cloud-based solutions, outsourced infrastructure or managed services partners, was operational performance maintained and how well did they respond to additional requests, given that there would have been competing demands for their resources? How did the suppliers of your critical applications respond? How did these responses impact your business? Similarly, consider what positive and negative impacts resulted from operating on-premise systems and in-house IT teams.
Processes and technology are tightly bound in many operational areas. A robust and thorough review of these will establish how well they worked in maintaining your services. For example, how many of you needed your staff to react urgently to a repair or circumvent a badly designed or broken process? Did workflows and interfaces across functions, whether internal or external, form part of your existing business continuity plans? Also, are all services defined, understood and documented so that they continue to work when relationships and specialist staff aren’t available?
Dick Elsy, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about the UK’s ‘super-scaling’ of ventilator production. Under his leadership, the objectives were to increase production from 50 to 1,500 per week, build seven new production facilities and source 11 million components. To paraphrase Elsy, “Get the experts together, create a collaborative ‘can-do’ environment, put total focus on the mission and strip out all the ‘noise’.”
Meetings were limited to 15 minutes and decisions were made quickly by those with the expertise to make them, with minimal red tape and bureaucracy. Another example of that can-do attitude rippling out to other functions was complex legal agreements taking just hours to complete.
On the question of organisational structures, Elsy’s view was that the teams worked best when they were trusted and empowered to be self-organised based on their capabilities, rather than traditional command and control structures.
Coronavirus has highlighted mismatches between operational delivery and functional accountabilities. Remote team working has become and will continue to be the norm, so a culture of trust will be needed, as will finding and fixing those gaps in capability and organisational design.
Another area for review now is information. When moving to remote working or changing circumstances, did everyone have access to the information they needed to do what was required? Information isn’t just data or management reports, it’s also access to vital knowledge, whether that is documented or in someone’s head. And, how much of that information and knowledge is still paper-based and thus unavailable? Furthermore, how will you capture and share the vital knowledge within your organisation to lessen the impact of people or buildings being out of action in future?
Business continuity planning
The response needed to deal with coronavirus will have asked many questions of existing business continuity plans. What was the balance between well-understood and practised arrangements versus defining and testing in the heat of the moment?
The aforementioned WhatsApp CEO group issued a digest of critical areas at the end of March and suggested that it should form part of a review of BCP. The knock-on effects of coronavirus and the lockdown have affected the full span of normal operations as well as areas such as PPE, mental health and the need to collaborate simultaneously with multiple external agencies.
Many of those impacts will shape future thinking on how technology can help, as well as process, organisation and information improvements.
On the theme of ‘stronger together’, perhaps a sector-wide BCP with shared common elements can be developed because most, if not all, housing providers would have experienced the same issues and required the same response?
The strategic imperative…
Responding in the ‘here and now’ rightly addresses the many issues raised by coronavirus, and individual responses are fine. However, there is a bigger, more strategic question: will the sector allow itself to stand back and lift its collective eyes above the horizon?
To return to the opening paragraph, the current crisis has illustrated that the sector and its various ecosystems are mutually interdependent and must collaborate.
Collaboration can take many forms; the premise of this section is that even without the impetus of coronavirus, and cognisant of existing efforts, the sector could and should be exploring and benefiting from deeper and wider collaboration.
On technology, one of the respondents to our survey said, “We need to be more collaborative in our thinking – after all, between us we control very substantial budgets. Why is that not all used as leverage with our IT suppliers to generate a working solution? We all have the same needs, we’re all on the same journey, so why aren’t we working together?”
Add to this that over 80 per cent of respondents to our survey believe that significant change to the sector’s technology will happen within the next 3-5 years. That’s an enormous burden on every part of the sector as technological change isn’t just an IT issue. The question is whether that level of change can be facilitated and better managed through collaboration with each other and with our suppliers?
Can we envisage a time when technology providers work together? This will be needed to address the well-understood issues such as process integration and workflows across multi-vendor architectures, standardisation of data taxonomies and the adoption of emerging technologies, to mention just a few examples. In any market, a divided customer base will never have enough leverage to ‘encourage’ suppliers to do this.
This thinking isn’t restricted to IT. Home Group’s Henderson recently said, “If there’s one lesson the sector must take from the coronavirus crisis, it’s that the collaborative approach needs to continue beyond the duration of the pandemic.”
For IT and the wider business, sector-wide collaboration will involve creating an arrangement that enables the sharing of risk and reward, with power residing equally across all parties. True partnerships could deliver economies of scale, new engagement models, interoperability and standardisation. It is also about everyone doing the right thing for those that matter most.
Today’s collaboration technologies are sufficiently mature to facilitate information sharing, discussions and agreements without the need for onerous bureaucracy. Remember that in IT and other functional areas, ‘communities of interest’ already exist and taking those to the next stage will require little effort. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to success will be hanging on to a misplaced ‘masters of our own destiny’ mentality; after all, coronavirus has already shown us that this isn’t sustainable.
We have a common cause and we aren’t competitors, so why wouldn’t we do this as a matter of course, with IT leading the way?
If you feel inspired and want to help transform housing, please contact me (email@example.com) with your thoughts.
What is IT’s appetite for this brave new world – do you want to go fast or do you want to go far?
Neville Brown is the managing director of Itica.