Housing providers have a wide range of options available to them when considering their existing housing management system. I’ve worked for housing providers in ICT leadership roles for over 20 years and have recently joined TSG, a Microsoft partner specialising in building advanced digital solutions for housing customers.
Going alone is rarely an attractive option for most people owing to the upfront costs and the ongoing maintenance and development costs. Although, once built, you can bespoke your custom-built housing software very quickly to meet your needs, for most people the rewards are outweighed by the associated costs and risks; consequently, there are very few examples of this being done successfully.
The established vendors of housing software include Aareon, Capita, Civica, MRI Software (Orchard Systems and Castleton Technology), MIS Active Management Systems and Northgate Public Services. These companies have developed purpose-built systems specifically for housing associations to run their core processes. They are regarded as best-of-breed and have been tried and tested over many years. These vendors have also continued to invest in the development of their systems and are increasingly working to deliver pure SaaS solutions delivered via a browser on any device.
Interestingly, there is some disruption going on and some new entrants arriving in the form of Rubix and Techlabs’ iProperty Cloud.
In some circles, there is a sense of disillusionment regarding the traditional systems across the sector. This sentiment is driven by the perceived slow pace of change, a move to the cloud vs. on-premise, the demand for open systems and the cost of ownership. Housing customers are looking for innovative options to modernise their software platforms while building in the potential for faster change at a lower cost.
Generic universal appeal
So what is ‘generic’ software? I think it’s worth defining this term for complete clarity. Generic software is software that isn’t purpose-built for housing. The idea of generic software is that it’s generically applicable across multiple market sectors and industries and is not exclusively designed for one specific sector. The argument here is that all businesses have a common set of core business processes (although the terminology may vary), such as goods-in, logistics, goods-out, invoicing, HR, payroll and finance.
While there is a recognition that there are variances between organisations, the argument runs that these variances can be accommodated through configuration or through a partner-enabled integrated ecosystem that extends the core generic software, tailoring it to specific industries, sectors or vertical requirements.
Leading examples of this approach include vendors such as SAP, Oracle, Salesforce and Microsoft. SAP’s largest deployment in housing is at Sanctuary, Oracle at Home Group, Salesforce at Riverside and Microsoft Dynamics 365 at Clarion and Bromford.
Empower your people
At this point, it’s definitely worth mentioning the considerable and widespread adoption of low-code/no-code solutions. According to Gartner intelligence, leading providers offering low-code/no-code solutions are Microsoft, Outsystems, Salesforce and Mendix. Netcall is also an interesting supplier to the housing sector offering low-code capabilities within its Netcall Liberty platform.
The idea of low-code/no-code is to democratise software development by enabling empowered ‘power’ users to rapidly develop sophisticated software. This is done by dragging and dropping graphical components onto a black canvas within an integrated development environment (IDE).
Having created the core components, using drag and drop, you then simply connect those components to connectors in order to trigger actions, integrations and if/then/else conditional logic. TSG has a large number of housing customers who have worked with us (using Microsoft Power Platform) to develop modern digital solutions that extend the features in their legacy housing systems across the modern SaaS Microsoft cloud.
Whichever strategy you explore, you will sadly never avoid the need for integration and interfaces between systems. The reality in housing is that you will never get away with one system for everything. Middleware or interfaces are therefore needed to ‘glue’ it all together.
As of 2021, it’s likely that most housing providers will continue to buy or retain a traditional purpose-built HMS from one of the ‘usual suspects’ for the time being. However, this will be accompanied by a degree of soul-searching and chin-scratching.
A number of organisations are opting to work with Microsoft’s Gold partners in an attempt run their entire housing organisation on a consolidated Dynamics 365 platform. However, more often than not, these same organisations decide that Dynamics doesn’t provide the entire solution and they need to retain a traditional housing system to some extent, particularly in the areas of rents, income management and asset management.
Other organisations accept that they will need to retain a nucleus of traditional housing system functionality but ‘wrap’ generic software around it to achieve an integrated, multi-vendor, best-of-breed approach, blending their existing system(s) with new technologies.
Despite these three primary strategic options, housing providers are increasingly discovering the delights of low-code/no-code automation solutions and Microsoft’s Power Platform (comprising Power Automate, Power Apps, Power BI and Power Virtual Assistants).
AI and machine learning
TSG was one of the sponsors of the Housing Technology 2021 conference/digicast in March and our presentation at this year’s event centred on using AI and machine learning integrated with Power Platform. Our demonstrations illustrated how it’s possible to extract metadata from documents such as gas and electrical certificates using Microsoft Syntex and process that extracted data automatically using Power Automate to drive compliance with the ‘big six’ health and safety requirements.
At Housing Technology’s 2021 conference, we were also very excited to be able to talk about Microsoft Viva and Dataverse. Following the success of Dynamics 365 and Teams, Syntex, Viva and Dataverse represent the next generation of advanced technologies available within the Microsoft cloud. We have a series of webinars and ‘lunch and learn’ sessions coming up shortly to show you what these innovations can do for you, so please get in touch if you would like an invitation.
Taking a Microsoft-first approach
If you haven’t considered how a Microsoft-first approach to modernising and extending your HMS might transform your strategic choices, then you might want to take a look. Microsoft Power Platform, Syntex, Viva and Dataverse provide the tools that enable you to rapidly develop software that extends and complements your existing HMS. These will provide you with the modern cloud tools that enable you to add more value to your business by accelerating software development timescales and reducing costs.
The collaborative nature of Microsoft’s products as well as its commitment to streamlining productivity might make Microsoft an essential part of your digital strategy.
Rob Fletcher is the housing solutions lead for TSG.